Perkins, Jay & Tishman on Dispositions

This article proposes a theory of thinking based on dispositions, rather than ability. The authors suggest that dispositions are composed of three elements:

  1. inclinations (motivation, habit, policy): “the person’s felt tendency toward behavior X” (p. 4).
  2. sensitivity to occasion: “the person’s alertness to X occasions” (p. 4); “a distinct perceptual or perception-like mechanism for detecting occasions in the absence of explicit prompts” (p. 5).
  3. abilities themselves: “the actual ability to follow through with X behavior” (p. 4).

As I read, I wondered to what degree they might see inclinations and sensitivities in particular as teachable, able to be developed.  Can dispositions be learned, so that one becomes by learning?  In the latter part of the article they do approach this issue.  They argue that dispositions develop both through cognitive factors and cultural influence.  Cognitively, they see a “role of evolving conceptual frameworks in cognitive change” (p. 14-15), at least in the development of “thinking dispositions,” or dispositions for “good thinking” (what we might call critical thinking).  As a learner develops an increasingly sophisticated “theory of mind,” she develops the “conceptual developmental capacity to conceive of the mind as actively interacting with information” (p. 15). “This move toward an active understanding of mind is crucial to the development of virtually all the thinking dispositions” (p. 15). This is focused especially on intellectual dispositions, so it does not explain as well the development of other kinds of dispositions.  Indeed, in developing a “theory of thinking,” the article lists seven key dispositions for “good thinking” — so clearly the emphasis is intellectual.  Are there shortcomings to this? How does it apply to developing a theory of learning, not thinking?

The authors also see a cultural element to the development of dispositions. “Because dispositions are grounded in belief systems, values, and attitudes as much as in cognitive structures, we need a culturally based account of their development (p. 16). They cite Vygotsky’s claim that thinking is a social activity, and Brown, Collins, & Duguid’s (1989) view of learning as enculturation.  Thus “…dispositions are acquired in precisely the same way that learning is enculturated: through institutional and interpersonal levels of social contact” (p. 17). This emphasis on social contact is something we have been trying to think about in our development of a theory of blended learning.


Perkins, D.N., Jay, E., & Tishman, S.  (1993). Beyond abilities: A dispositional theory of thinking. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly: Journal of Developmental Psychology, 39(1): 1-21.


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