Part 1: Definitional Issues  Dispositions: Definitions and Implications for Early Childhood Practice

Approaches to learning

In the Technical Subgroup's report to the National Educational Goals Panel, the terms inclinations, dispositions, and styles are used as subcategories of the variable "approaches to learning." Examples of traits referred to by the three terms given in the report are "curiosity, creativity, independence, cooperativeness, and persistence." Though all three terms—inclinations, dispositions, and learning styles—may amplify our understanding of school readiness, they are imprecise. None of these three terms appears in the indexes of major comprehensive child development texts. (See, for example, Mussen, 1983; Sroufe, Cooper, and DeHart, 1992; Rathus, 1988; Yussen and Santrock, 1982; Bee, 1985; Scarr, Weinberg, and Levine, 1986.) How then are these terms to be defined?


Webster's Dictionary defines inclination as a particular disposition of mind or character, liking or preference (Webster's, 1987). Listed as synonyms are: tendency, propensity, proclivity, and predilection (The American College Dictionary, 1948). Since inclination does not appear in the child development literature and its implications can be subsumed under the term disposition, it does not appear to be a useful term in considering curriculum and pedagogical issues.

Cognitive style

The term cognitive style, frequently used in research on adults and children, has been defined as "ways that individuals perceive, think, understand, remember, judge, and solve problems" (Saracho, 1991, p. 22), leaving no clear picture of what is not included in the definition. The research on cognitive styles typically assesses children's ways of thinking on a bipolar dimension of Field Dependence-Field Independence when approaching a variety of social and cognitive tasks and situations. Shipman (1989) summarizes research on the cognitive style construct as follows:

Although cognitive styles represent important understandings of how learners respond to materials and communications, I believe that our understanding of the development, operation and malleability of cognitive styles is insufficient for justifying certain educational decisions (p. 3).

Learning style

The term learning style is increasingly linked to Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1985), in which distinctive strength or weakness in one or another of seven hypothesized types of intelligence is associated with a corresponding learning style. Many educators are attempting to apply this formulation of learning styles in curriculum and teaching practices. Assessment of the usefulness of learning styles associated with the theory of multiple intelligences seems premature at this time. However, while learning styles and cognitive styles are being considered by educators, I suggest that they may serve as subcategories of the larger construct of dispositions.


Formal definitions of disposition

Though the term disposition is used in some of the psychology literature, definitions of it are rarely offered. To begin with formal definitions, the Comprehensive Dictionary of Psychological and Psychoanalytical Terms (English and English, 1958), offers the following definition of the term disposition:

2. a general term for any (hypothesized) organized and enduring part of the total psychological or psychophysiological organization in virtue of which a person is likely to respond to certain statable conditions with a certain kind of behavior: his disposition is to think before acting;... 4. a relatively lasting emotional attitude; or the relative predominance in the total personality of a certain emotional attitude; a stubborn disposition... 5. the sum of all innate tendencies or propensities... (p. 158; italics in the original).

In this part of the definition, the dictionary suggests that a disposition is a stable habit of mind and something called an "emotional attitude" with "stubbornness" as an example. The entry continues:

Although all behavior depends upon a certain dynamic or propulsive readiness of the organism, as well as upon the stimulating conditions, disposition gives sharp emphasis to the former. The resulting behavior may then be described, to adapt a distinction made by B. F. Skinner, as emitted by the organism rather than elicited by the stimulus (p. 158; bold in the original).

This part of the definition suggests that a disposition is internal to the actor, and little influenced by the situation or stimuli to which the actor is subjected. The dictionary goes on to amplify the definition as follows:

The construct of a something to account for sameness of behavior despite variation in the environing situation is a formal necessity. Thus it is necessarily and formally true that to enjoy a swim whether the water be hot or cold requires that the person have a certain disposition. But it need not be a specific enjoyment of swimming disposition. It may be a more general athleticism, or a relative indifference to temperature, or a combination of personal qualities each of which also plays its part in other situations. We cannot usually go directly from observed fact to a specific disposition to account for the fact. To constitute a useful construct, a disposition must be more general than the fact that led to its being inferred. The logical requirements for inference are not easily met (p. 158; italics in the original).

This last part of the formal definition suggests that the disposition construct is used to identify broad rather than specific categories of behavior, or characteristic ways of responding to a variety of situations.

Buss and Craik (1983, p. 105) propose a formal definition of dispositions as "summaries of act frequencies" that represent trends or frequencies of acts. According to this definition, a person exhibiting a relatively high frequency of behavior such as making donations to charity, giving gifts to family members, and offering loans to needy friends, could be said to have the disposition to be generous. Similarly, children who frequently ask questions, often snoop and pry, and generally poke around their environment can be said to have a robust disposition to be curious. However, Buss and Craik do not address the role of motivation or intentions associated with the act frequencies of which dispositions are constituted.

Katz and Raths (1985) applied the disposition construct to teacher education using the definition proposed by Buss and Craik, namely, as acts that may be conscious and deliberate or so habitual and "automatic" that they seem intuitive or spontaneous. Thus the disposition to be generous, illustrated in the previous paragraph, though consisting of intentional acts, is present when it is manifested with relatively little analysis or premeditation; if extensive analysis, premeditation, and reflection preceded each generous act, the disposition to be generous could not be inferred; rather the person might be described as having the disposition to be a cautious, deliberate, and perhaps grudging or reluctant donor.

Dispositions and other personal characteristics

The term disposition appears with increasing frequency in literature related to children's learning (e. g., Katz, 1985; Ennis, 1987; Resnick, 1987; Katz and Chard, 1989; Katz, 1990; Perkins, Jay, and Tishman, 1993; Langer, 1993). Katz and Raths (1985) attempt to clarify the disposition construct by distinguishing it from constructs of other personal characteristics such as traits, skills, attitudes, and habits. Further clarification may also be obtained by attempting to distinguish dispositions from other related constructs such as thought processes, motives, and work inhibition.

A) Traits and dispositions

The term dispositions appears in the literature on personality (e.g., Buss and Craik, 1983; Cantor, 1990; Hoffman and Tchir, 1990). In discussions of personality and its development, disposition is frequently used interchangeably with the term trait. For example, Maccoby (1987) uses the term disposition when she points out that most of us believe that other people are characterized by broad personality dispositions, such as aggressiveness, or conscientiousness, or sensitivity to the moods and needs of others—dispositions that manifest themselves in a variety of situations and with a variety of social partners (p. 5).

Later in the same text Maccoby speaks of behavioral dispositions, and still later, discussing the stability of behavior patterns, uses the term dispositions without a qualifier. No definitions of disposition are offered in the text; it appears to be employed as a synonym for trait and for stable and general characteristics usually associated with aspects of personality.

Wakefield (1988), combining the concepts of habit and motivation, and emphasizing intentionality, uses the term disposition in his definition of traits as:

stable dispositions to have certain kinds of beliefs, desires, and so on... (pp. 336-337)

traits are dispositions specifically of the intentional system... (p. 337)

The trait explains specific motives in terms of a persistent and more general disposition of the intentional system to generate motives... (p. 338)

A trait is a disposition to have a certain kind of intentional state, and the existence of such a disposition calls out for explanation in terms of underlying structures that account for this property of the intentional system (p. 338).

Wakefield asserts that "a proper explanation of behavior must make some reference to the specific meanings and experiences in the form of mental representations—generally known as intentionality—that cause an individual's behavior" (p. 333). In this way Wakefield uses the terms trait and disposition interchangeably and adds motivational and intentional components to their meaning. According to Wakefield's definition, curiosity, generosity, and stubbornness could be classified as dispositions, and would not include capabilities like mastery of reading, arithmetic, or handwriting skills.

Katz and Raths (1985) suggest that the terms trait and disposition differ in at least two major ways. The first is that a disposition implies a trend in a person's actions rather than his or her emotional state. Thus terms like honesty, ambition, and courage do not fit a definition of a disposition, but describe aspects of a person's character and the management of his or her emotions. Disposition, on the other hand, can be used to designate actions and characterize their frequency. An individual's dispositions can be implied by terms such as explorer, problem solver, bully, whiner, and so forth, which may however, be accompanied by emotional states.

The second way dispositions can be distinguished from traits is that of intensity. Katz and Raths explain this distinction as follows:

When a man is asked, "Which way to the store?" and he responds with an accurate direction, few observers would attribute the trait of honesty to him on that basis alone. To merit the attribution of honesty as a trait, a person would have to be observed in the face of the temptation to lie, having to overcome some adversity and to behave with the level of intensity necessary to overcome it (Katz and Raths, 1985, p. 303).

B) Thought processes and dispositions

Resnick (1987) uses the term disposition in a discussion of "cultivating the disposition to higher order thinking" (p. 40) with the following definition:

The term disposition should not be taken to imply a biological or inherited trait. As used here, it is more akin to a habit of thought, one that can be learned and, therefore, taught (p. 4; italics hers).

A related discussion is found in a text by Resnick and Klopfer (1989) in the chapter, "Shaping Dispositions for Thinking: The Role of Social Communities." In this discussion, the authors use the term disposition almost interchangeably with the word trait as illustrated in the following segment of their discussion:

...the social setting may help to shape a disposition to engage in thinking. There is not much research on how intellectual dispositions are socialized, but we do know how other traits such as aggressiveness, independence or gender identification develop. By analogy with these traits, we can expect intellectual dispositions to arise from long-term participation in social communities that establish expectations for certain kinds of behavior (Resnick and Klopfer, 1989, p. 9).

Perkins, Jay, and Tishman (1993), discussing new conceptions of thinking, define dispositions as "people's tendencies to put their capabilities into action" (p. 75). They offer as an example, research showing that "people can easily generate reasons on the side of an issue opposite their own when prompted to do so (they have the capability) yet generally tend not to do so (they lack the disposition)" (p. 75).

In a related discussion, Langer (1993) introduces the concept of mindfulness as distinctly different from attention and vigilance, and defines it as

...a state of mind that results from drawing novel distinctions, examining information from new perspectives, and being sensitive to context. It is an open, creative, probabilistic state of mind in which the individual might be led to finding differences among things thought similar, and similarities among things thought different. To be vigilant, in contrast, one has to have a particular stimulus in mind, and an expectation of what the stimulus is rather than what it could be. To pay attention is to pay attention to something; at the same time something else may go unnoticed (p. 44).

Langer suggests that activity that does not invoke active examination of information and sensitivity to context and so forth, is mindless, and she attributes the lack of such active examination to conventional formal instruction which emphasizes repetitive study and memorization.

Using Langer's definition of mindfulness, Perkins, Jay, and Tishman (1993) assert that

Mindfulness can be considered a disposition because it has to do with how disposed people are to process information in an alert, flexible way (p. 75).

The applications of the construct of disposition cited above suggest that, though it is very difficult to define precisely, it offers a way of distinguishing capabilities and capacities from their manifestation.

C) Skills and dispositions

Katz and Raths (1985) suggest that one might have the various skills involved in being able to read, but be without the disposition to use them, i. e., without the disposition to be a reader. To state that a child can read is to imply that the child has achieved a certain level of mastery of the complex skills involved in reading. However, the term disposition, as implied by the Buss and Craik definition cited above, refers to the frequency with which the act of reading is manifested, in the absence of coercion or extrinsic rewards. When the act of reading is manifested frequently and voluntarily, it can be assumed that the child has in mind, at some level, an intention or goal that can be served by reading (given that the child has the requisite skills that make the manifestation possible). When the acts of reading are manifested frequently, it can be said that the child has a robust disposition to be a reader; when the acts are rarely or never observed, then it can be said that the child has a disposition which is weak, has been damaged, or has not been acquired.

D) Attitudes and dispositions

The term attitude has a long history of use among educators. In recent years, however, the meaning of the attitude construct has been the subject of substantial controversy (Fishbein, 1980; Eagly, 1992). It is usually defined as "a relatively enduring organization of beliefs around an object or situation predisposing one to respond in some preferential manner" (Rokeach, 1968, p. 112) to a given phenomenon, or as "an evaluative tendency that is expressed by evaluating a particular entity with some degree of favor or disfavor" (Eagly, 1992, p. 693). In this sense, attitudes can be thought of as pre-dispositions to act positively or negatively with respect to a particular phenomenon. According to this definition, it is possible to have an attitude toward something without accompanying behavior. However, the term disposition, according to Buss and Craik (1983), refers to frequently exhibited trends in actions. Thus one could have an attitude toward something in the absence of manifestations of related behavior. It is possible, for example, to have a negative attitude toward a race or nation without having opportunity or occasion to manifest it in actual behavior. In contrast to attitude, a disposition always implies trends in behavior and not merely an evaluation or cluster of beliefs about something.

Although the shaping of attitudes is often listed among the goals of educational programs (e. g., acquiring a positive attitude toward learning), the term attitude is not usually applied to preschool children, perhaps because they are assumed not to engage in evaluative thinking, but to respond momentarily in terms of largely spontaneous likes and dislikes, or to be somewhat tabulae rasae with respect to their larger environment.

E) Habits and dispositions

To describe a pattern of behavior as a habit is to assume that it is performed without conscious attention (Passmore, 1972). However, Katz and Raths (1985) suggest that dispositions are patterns of actions that require some attention to what is occurring in the context of the action, "although with practice and experience the acts may appear to be spontaneous, habitual, or even unconscious" (p. 303). The term habit should be used to refer to acts that are neither intentional nor the consequence of thought, reflection, and analysis. Disposition, on the other hand, is a term to be used to refer to trends in actions that are intentional on the part of the actor in a particular context and at particular times. Katz and Raths contrast habits and dispositions by suggesting that

Inasmuch as intentionality is a mental process, we see dispositions as "habits of mind"—not as mindless habits. They are classes of intentional actions in categories of situations, and they can be thought of as "habits of mind" that give rise to the employment of skills and are manifested (ideally) by skillful behavior (p. 303).

F) Work inhibition and dispositions.

Bruns (1992) introduces the concept of work inhibition to address observations of very able children who do not do the work required of them in school, who "do not stay on task, do not complete class assignments, do not finish their homework on their own" (p. 38) even though they clearly have the requisite capacities. Bruns explains work inhibition in terms of three personality characteristics: dependency, self-esteem, and passive aggression. Dependency is shown in those children who sometimes exhibit work inhibition but who work very well "if their teacher is standing or sitting right next to them" (p. 40). Some express their poor self-esteem, sometimes through preoccupation with self-doubts, and sometimes with a kind of bravado in which they "declare that much of their school work is beneath them" (p. 41). As to the passive-aggression component of work inhibition, Bruns describes it as children's "subtle, indirect expressions of anger" (p. 41) accompanied by forgetting, arguing, and often taking a long time to complete their work.

According to Bruns, case histories of work-inhibited children reveal that work inhibition begins early and

Although the manifestations of work inhibitions are not always apparent until the third or fourth grade (the time when the demand for independent academic work becomes substantial), the origins begin during infancy (p. 42).

However, Bruns does not report whether work-inhibited children overcome the inhibition when the tasks required of them appeal to their interests or challenge them more than most school tasks. Bruns' choice of the term inhibition may be interpreted to imply that if dependency and passive-aggression were removed and self-esteem raised, these children would exhibit effort and persistence.

I suggest that Bruns' concept of work inhibition may be more usefully categorized as a dispositional issue. By the time children reach the elementary school grades, reluctance to engage in assigned tasks may constitute instances of damaged or very much weakened dispositions to learn, including the elements involved in persistence, effort, and mastery goals as discussed in the next section.

G) Motives and dispositions

McAdams (1989), citing Murray, suggests that human motivation can be understood in terms of

a collection of psychogenic needs, each of which was viewed as an enduring underlying disposition which energizes, directs, and selects behavior, though always within an environmental context.

Emmons (1989) contrasts traits and motives suggesting that

traits [are] broadly defined as stylistic and habitual patterns of cognition, affect, and behavior. Motives can be defined as a disposition to be concerned with and to strive for a certain class of incentives or goals (p. 32).

In these examples, motivation is defined in terms of underlying dispositions; in this way, motives are thought to be more general than dispositions and are defined at higher levels of abstraction than dispositions.

School-age children. In a discussion entitled "Motivation to Learn and Understand: On Taking Charge of One's Own Learning," Anne Brown (1988) asks: "What is the relation between attitude and study? How stable are those dispositions?" (p. 312). Brown goes on to refer to effort in elementary and secondary school-age children as "motivational dispositions that influence learning" (p. 313) and to assert "that we will be hampered in our attempts to devise effective intervention programs unless we consider these dispositions" (p. 313).

Research on motivation related to dispositions comes under the rubric of mastery motivation (see, for example, Ames, 1992; Dweck, 1991; Dweck and Leggett, 1988; Corno, 1992). Several contrasts are offered by scholars studying this aspect of children's learning. For example, Dweck and Elliott distinguish between mastery motivation and helplessness to indicate that children of equal ability, when given feedback on their work on a task may respond in one of two ways: "mastery-oriented children react as though they have been given useful feedback about learning and mastery," whereas the "helpless" children "react as though they have received an indictment of their ability" (Elliott and Dweck, 1988, p. 5).

Dweck (1989) also distinguishes between motivation toward learning goals (like mastery motivation) and performance goals that are governed by different sets of underlying concerns. Children oriented toward learning goals are interested in their own mastery for its own sake and those oriented toward performance goals are more concerned about others' judgments of their abilities. Learning-oriented children are more likely than performance-oriented children to believe that effort is effective, to vary their strategies in the face of difficulties, and to assist peers having difficulties.

In a similar way, Nicholls (1984) makes a distinction between task-involvement and ego-involvement in children's approaches to their work. Task-involvement, similar to mastery motivation and the learning goal orientation, is characterized by effort directed toward the task and the learning it provides. Ego-involvement resembles the performance goal orientation in that it is associated with more concern for the judgments of others than for the task and the learning to be acquired by performing the task.

Ames, adopting the labels mastery and performance goals, integrates the research just described by distinguishing between achievement and mastery goals, suggesting that

An achievement goal concerns the purposes of achievement behavior. It defines an integrated pattern of beliefs, attributions, and affect that produces the intentions of behavior and that is represented by different ways of approaching, engaging in, and responding to achievement activities (Ames, 1992, p. 261; italics hers).

With a mastery goal, individuals are oriented toward developing new skills, trying to understand their work, improving their level of competence, or achieving a sense of mastery based on self-referenced standards. Compatible with this goal construct is...a "motivation to learn" whereby individuals are focused on mastering and understanding content and demonstrating a willingness to engage in the process of learning (Ames, 1992, p. 262.)

Ames states that a performance goal is a focus on one's ability and self-esteem based on comparing one's performance with others', "by surpassing normative-based standards, or by achieving success with little effort" (p. 262). Ames describes these contrasting motives as two forms of approach tendencies that are elicited by different environmental or instructional demands, and result in qualitatively different motivational patterns that can be called dispositions toward learning.

In a discussion of issues in the assessment of mastery motivation Linder (1990) points out that

The examination of mastery motivation provides insight into the developmental domains upon which the child is focusing energy. The degree of persistence, approach to problem solving, and effectiveness of efforts in each developmental area can be determined... A reciprocal relationship...appears to exist between persistence and competence (Linder, 1990, p. 116).

While these motivational tendencies are evoked by the way tasks are presented to children, it seems reasonable to assume that a cumulative effect of repeated exposure to mastery-oriented teaching practices would be the development of a disposition toward mastery and to persevere that could also be called a disposition to learn.

Corno (1992) summarizes this body of research and its significance for successful participation in schooling as follows:

Students who are generally inclined to approach school work from the point of learning and mastering the material (so-called learning/mastery orientations) tend to differ in work styles from students whose goals or intentions generally lead from the other point, that is, to obtain grades or display competence. Specifically, "learning-oriented" students (a) engage in more attentive behavior, (b) use deeper learning and studying strategies (put in more quantity and quality of effort), and (c) feel better about themselves as learners. A "performance/ego orientation" has been linked to less elaborate efforts to learn the material and feelings of inadequacy about learning (p. 71).

Preschool children. The development and nature of motives in preschool children is highly problematic and cannot be fully addressed in this paper. The references to motivation in very young children in the Handbook of Child Psychology (Mussen, 1983) are related to the internalization of extrinsic rewards (see Harter, 1983) and the young child's "motivation to control his or her own behavior in order to please the significant others in his or her life, to garner their approval and avoid their disapproval" (Harter, 1983, p. 364). While observers of young children readily agree that young children are invariably curious and eager to learn, they do not speak of children's curiosity and eagerness to learn as motives in the same way as when speaking of achievement motives in older children.

Dweck (1991) reports research on four- and five-year-old children on variables such as task persistence-nonpersistence and demonstrates that the mastery and helpless orientations that are significantly related to school achievement can be observed in preschoolers. She points out that appears that the helpless pattern occurs point for point in an appreciable proportion of young children. These children show a marked lack of persistence in the face of failure, as well as a strong tendency (a) to express spontaneous negative thoughts and affect when they encounter obstacles, (b) to see difficulty as meaning they are incapable of performing a task (as opposed to seeing difficulty as surmountable through effort), and (c) to exhibit low expectancies of success on similar future tasks. (Dweck, 1991, pp. 219-220).

Based on the research on motivation currently available, it is difficult to formulate a clear distinction between motives and dispositions. (See also Appley, 1991.) It seems useful for educators to assume that mastery motivation, which could be called a general disposition to learn, is most likely present in some form at birth in all normal infants. Its manifestation is likely to change with development, to be related to the child's experience, and to be increasingly varied and differentiated with increasing age and experience. It may be manifested (a) in the newborn as an "orienting response," (b) in the toddler as various types of exploration, play, and experimentation, (c) in the preschooler as a disposition to make sense of experience, and (d) at school age in ways such as those described in the accounts by Dweck and Corno cited above.

Summary and tentative definition

In sum, usage of the term disposition is ambiguous and inconsistent. Only one attempt to define the construct psychologically has been found, namely that by Buss and Craik (1983) as act frequencies constituting trends in behavior. Nevertheless, educators and most likely other observers as well, recognize that it is possible to have skills and lack a taste for, wish to, or habit of using them. To speak of using and applying knowledge, however, is more problematic. We do not usually speak of using or applying knowledge in the same way as we speak of associating reading skills with the disposition to read, or listening skills with the disposition to listen. Elements of knowledge are usually associated with mental processes such as inference, recall, memory, classification, and construction, though there is a sense in which we describe people as analytical to mean that they have the disposition to process information analytically rather than holistically or impulsively.

A variety of personal attributes including traits, attitudes, habits, work inhibition, and motives, are used to describe trends in behavior across situations, in an attempt to distinguish these from knowledge, abilities, capabilities, and skills.

As far as can be determined, the term disposition and its relevance to the education of young children were first introduced by Katz (1985) in "Dispositions in Early Childhood Education," in which dispositions were defined—as proposed above—to be "relatively enduring habits of mind or characteristic ways of responding to experience across types of situations" (p. 1). Examples of such habits or characteristics are curiosity, humor, creativity, affability, and quarrelsomeness.

On the basis of an examination of the uses of the term in recent psychological and educational literature, I propose that the term disposition can be used to distinguish trends in behavior from skills, attitudes, traits, and mindless habits (e.g., fastening one's seat belt), and that these distinctions have useful practical implications even in the absence of desirable precision. For the purposes of exploring these implications, the following tentative definition is proposed:

A disposition is a pattern of behavior exhibited frequently and in the absence of coercion, and constituting a habit of mind under some conscious and voluntary control, and that is intentional and oriented to broad goals.

The term "habit of mind" is used to distinguish dispositions from mindless and unpremeditated habitual behavior like obeying traffic lights and fastening seat belts. Both such habits can be thought to have some motivational and intentional dimensions in an ultimate sense. However, they are such strong and frequent habits of action that they are typically enacted with little or no conscious engagement of motives or intentions. These habits, however, may be relatively trivial and commonplace acts that are part of a general disposition to be obedient, law-abiding, or cautious.

In the case of curiosity, for example, a child can be said to have the disposition to be curious if he or she typically and frequently responds to the environment by exploring, examining, and asking questions about it. Similarly, the disposition to complain or whine would be robust if exhibited frequently, and weak if rarely. Both are examples of dispositions in that they can be assumed to be intentional and mindfully directed toward particular objects and situations in order to achieve goals. It should be emphasized that not all dispositions are desirable, and curriculum and teaching practices must address how undesirable ones can be weakened.

Continue to Part 2: The Implications of Dispositions for Early Childhood Education Practices

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