In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Young Children's Learning Dispositions

  • Introduction
  • What Are Dispositions?
  • Learning Dispositions
  • Learning Dispositions Linked with Learning Environment and Transitions
  • The OECD’s Key Competencies and Their Relationship with Learning Dispositions
  • Aotearoa New Zealand’s Engagement with Learning Dispositions and Key Competencies
  • Using Learning Dispositions to Support Teaching, Assessment, and Educational Design

Education Young Children's Learning Dispositions
Alexandra C. Gunn
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0290


Since the end of the 20th century, learning dispositions have become a phenomenon of increasing interest within many world education systems. A category of dispositions associated specifically with learning-to-learn, learning dispositions are regularly construed as so-called soft skills within education. Yet they are also increasingly recognized as situational capabilities that support lifelong learning. Learning dispositions reflect certain processes and abilities within learning, such as being interested or being involved, that are important for the acquisition of knowledge or particular skills, such as reading or kicking a ball accurately—neither would be possible if a learner had no interest in reading or ball-play nor any capacity to pick a book up to read or inclination to find ball to kick. Furthermore, as process elements of learning, learning dispositions may be thought of as situated capabilities that a learner can draw upon and act on within different settings and novel situations, provided that the setting or situation afforded such agencies at that time. Therefore, learning dispositions condition and arise from interactions between the learning environment and the individual—they are both situated and transferrable. As part of the individual and the social structure concurrently, learning dispositions provide avenues for the careful design of learning environments by teachers whose efforts are focused on supporting children learning to learn.

What Are Dispositions?

The phenomenon of dispositions is expanded and explained within disciplines of philosophy, psychology, and education. A wide range of philosophical questions pertaining to dispositions, how to understand them, their origins and functions, and whether they may be considered to have causal effects are addressed in McKitrick 2011, an Oxford Bibliographies entry. Psychologists’ concerns with dispositions have tended to emphasize them as the manifestation of enduring characteristics within individuals; see, for example, the dictionary definition of personal disposition provided by the American Psychological Association, as well as Gonczi 2003, which provides a description of disposition as an attribute of an individual connected with demanding tasks and activities, a desirable albeit elusive element of learning. Reflecting their cognitive origins, dispositions were described in Vygotsky 1978 as habits of mind; this is a description still frequently invoked. Vygotsky’s influential research into the cultural nature of learning shaped education paradigm thinking and scholarship toward the consideration of dispositions in the latter years of the 20th century, as is evident in, for example, Katz 1993, which describes dispositions as “habits of mind, tendencies to respond to situations in certain ways” (p. 30), and in Costa and Kallick 2008, which provides an account of habits of mind as possessing a disposition toward intelligent behavior when problems arise. Carr 2001, in its description of disposition, positioned it as analogous with temperament—a quality of an individual. Dispositions as an aspect of the mind more so than environment are referred to variously as intellectual habits, mindsets, habits of mind, thinking dispositions, learning dispositions, ways of knowing, key competencies, and learning power, according to Carr, et al. 2009. Although to be useful for learning, dispositions must be acted on within a context and for a purpose if they are to serve it. Therefore, with respect to the phenomenon of learning dispositions, the situational and environmental conditions are as important a consideration as the cognitive tendencies of an individual when inquiring into learning and learning processes. In fact, without these and an understanding of learning goals, Sadler 2002 explains, developing an appreciation of what may be motivating learning, and how, is difficult.

  • American Psychological Association. n.d. Personal disposition. In APA Dictionary of Psychology.

    Psychological dictionary definition of “personal disposition.”

  • Carr, M. 2001. Assessment in early childhood settings: Learning stories. London: Paul Chapman.

    Introduces and reports on the assessment of learning dispositions within the context of Aotearoa New Zealand’s early learning curriculum Te Whāriki, exemplifying how the learning stories framework may be used to track and report on children’s learning over time to support the development of strong learner identities.

  • Carr, M., A. B. Smith, J. Duncan, C. Jones, W. Lee, and K. Marshall. 2009. Learning in the making: Disposition and design in early education. Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers.

    Reports on a study of children’s learning dispositions across the transition from early childhood education into school, focusing on learning dispositions of reciprocity, resilience, and imagination; the activities that children engage in to activate these dispositions; and transactional processes at work in the relation between the development of dispositions and learning environment design.

  • Costa, A. L., and B. Kallick. 2008. Learning and leading with habits of mind: 16 essential characteristics for success. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

    Book reporting on why and how schools, students, and teachers may draw on sixteen habits of mind in order to successfully respond to learning and life challenges. Explores and gives examples of sixteen dispositions (habits of mind), and how these may be supported within and used in learning contexts, including providing scaffolds for teachers’ efforts in equipping students with tools for intelligent decision-making as they learn to learn.

  • Gonczi, A. 2003. Teaching and learning of the key competencies. In Definition and selection of key competencies: Contributions to the second DeSeCo Symposium. Edited by D. S. Rychen, L. H. Salganik, and M. E. McLaughlin, 119–131. Neuchâtel: Swiss Federal Statistics Office.

    Contribution to the second DeSoCo forum of the OECD, where questions of key competencies, akin to learning dispositions, to be designed into member country education systems, were considered. Addresses implications of whether and, if so, how to support engagement with competencies and so-called key competencies within different social spheres and societies. The role of education in pursuing specific kinds of outcomes that lead to lifelong learning is also considered.

  • Katz, L. 1993. Dispositions: Definitions and implications for early childhood practices. Perspectives from ERIC/EECE: A Monograph Series No.4. Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education.

    A monograph examining the construct of disposition and its relevance for learning and teaching in early childhood education. Provides definitions of disposition and related constructs, and argues for why dispositions should be considered an appropriate focus of learning institutions and teachers’ practices in the early years.

  • McKitrick, J. 2011. Dispositions. In Oxford Bibliographies in Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0136

    Philosophical considerations of dispositions in terms of analysis and understanding.

  • Sadler, R. 2002. Learning dispositions: Can we really assess them? Assessment in Education 9.1: 45–51.

    Provides a critique of the idea of learning dispositions as principally psychological and individual, arguing instead that they are fostered through environmental affordances and related with learner goals and learning motivation. Argues there is a danger in teachers focusing principally on teaching to and assessing learning dispositions without a corresponding emphasis on the motivating goal or achievement.

  • Vygotsky, L. 1978. Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Edited by M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, and E. Souberman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Examination of cognition as distributed in activity between individuals and the societies in which they live. Provides a theoretical framework for understanding learning and development as sociocultural, and dispositions as afforded by context to shape habits of mind.

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