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Teacher Development

#TCHT: Teachers Changing Habits Together

June 29, 2015 Updated June 28, 2015
"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." - Aristotle

Today's post should be different from the previous posts as I feel that I've found gold. It certainly is gold to me! As you may have sensed from my other posts, I am trying to transform my teaching, develop innovative approaches, and integrate technology in a meaningful way. Even more so, I want to make a difference - the one that will result in student engagement in every classroom and with every subject they are exposed to. The one that will make every minute students spend in class memorable and valuable. The way I see it, it's not the case, yet. So, in this post, I'd like to look at teaching and learning from a different perspective: a perspective of  habit.

The idea came to me while reading an absolutely fascinating book by Charles Duhigg called The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. So, the scope of this post will be: the power of habit - why schools are what they are, why we teach the way we teach, and why students feel the way they feel. At the end of the post, I will invite you to join a # TCHT project: Teachers Changing Habits Together.

Why to Change Habits?

Terms and expressions such as "21st-century teaching and learning", "personalized learning", "individualized learning", or "student-centered classroom" to name just a few have been portrayed as positive and desirable educational attributes in so many blog posts, articles, books, videos, etc. They sound great, and they aim at making changes in the current system; the changes that will address technological advances and individual students' needs and goals. Yet, it's all much easier said than done. I confess that, to me personally, it is not that easy to break the routine and change the way I have always taught and the way I have gotten used to. As I am writing this paragraph, I feel very excited about discussing the changes I am going to make. But, it's not about talking the talk, right? It's about walking the walk that matters. I hope the ideas from the book I am about to share with you will enable us to take real steps and make that difference.

What Are Habits?

As the book states, "All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits" and "The way we organize our thoughts and work routines.... has enormous impact on our productivity." The book explains the neurology of habit formation, how to build new habits, and how to change old ones. Briefly, the book progresses from individual habits to the ones of companies and organizations and, finally, to habits of societies. It is a powerful read, and I would advise everyone to read this book, but, again, in the scope of this post I will focus on individual habits, particularly those related to teaching and learning.

According to the book, at one point we all consciously decide "how much to eat or what to focus on when we get to the office" (or classroom) and "then we stop making a choice, and the behavior becomes automatic. It's a natural consequence of our neurology. And by understanding how it happens, you can rebuild those patterns in whichever way you choose."

That made me think that the way we learn and the way we teach eventually also turn into habits, and, therefore, become automatic actions. Of course teaching habits are different from habits such as smoking or exercising, as teaching habits mostly originate in an academic setting and are based on research and learning theories. Yet, this is not the point of the post - the point is that those are still habits, thus, once formed, they are difficult to change even when we, teachers, believe they should be changed.

Also, what about the way we, as well as our students, learn? Having spent year after year in school, wouldn't we develop habits to get us through most efficiently from the "brains" point of view, i.e., with less effort and time involved? Year after year, we walk into a classroom, sit down, and are ready to be told what to do. Our teachers know what we need, when we need it, why we need it, how much and how often... All we are expected to do is just follow. Of course, after school, in our free time, we can explore our own interests and passions, we can try things, make mistakes (there are no grades!), fail, try again, but at school, just go with the flow, and you'll be fine.

Cue-Routine-Reward Sequence

The author describes the process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells the brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps the brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future:

With time, this loop— cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward— becomes more and more automatic.

Again, how does this model work with regards to learning and teaching? What are teachers cues-routines-rewards? What are students cues-routines-rewards? What actions do we repeat over and over so that they become automatic?

Cues

How would you define teachers' cues? What about those of our students? Maybe, just maybe, walking into the classroom and seeing one's students is a cue to "start teaching", transferring the knowledge to the students and, by doing so, keeping the class well managed, quiet, and under control? Or, maybe our habits are to make it "fun", loud, and active, even if it is, let's say, a reading and writing class? (I once caught myself feeling very uncomfortable because the classroom was too quiet as my students were focusing on writing their paragraphs. I remember I kept telling them to talk to a partner and discuss their thoughts until I suddenly realized the obvious - writing is performed better in a quiet environment.) 

As far as students, seeing the teacher walking into the classroom might also be a cue to "start listening", making it look like they are paying attention to every word, while still trying to use their phones and check that clock. How would you define teachers' and students' cues that trigger the routine part?

Routines

The author informs that our routines are the actions that we take in order to complete the loop and receive the reward. The way I interpret it, the routine part is the action that we often perform automatically. This routine part is the one that we can control. The one that we can learn and unlearn (this is the good news, which will be discussed a bit later).

So, what would be a typical teacher's routine? What about the learner's? Is there such a thing as a "typical" teacher's or learner's routine? What is that that we do automatically, without thinking, because we have done it so many times for so long? The way we plan our lessons? The activities we used the most? Our curriculum?  The way we think about school and our students? The way we view them? The way we think we should be teaching? Or, from the learner's perspectives, the way we think our teachers expect us to perform? The way we are used to comply and obey? The way most efficient to get good grades?

The more I try to look at everything I do, the more I feel fascinated with the book, and the more I realize how powerful our habits are. As I think of my best teaching routines, I think of those classes where I approached developing the lesson based on the students specific needs (the needs of the specific group, to be exact), tailoring the content and the activities based on their interests and passions. Typically, these lessons are designed and developed from scratch, based on web-based content.

On the other hand, the habit that I view as traps are those based on following textbooks. The more I use them, the more I feel that they are designed for very general audience, and using them with my students are usually hit and miss. Another habit would be feeling that, once started, I have to cover everything in the chapter (as being consistent is my other very strong habit, and I don't like jumping all over the place). I feel that the habit of following textbooks often results in negative experiences for both me and my students.

Rewards

Finally, the reward part. What do we, teachers, find rewarding? Would it be the students' attention, engagement, interest, or passion? Or, would it be a well-managed and well-behaved class?  Would it be a quiet class, loud class, students having fun or producing quietly, projects, papers, or immediately visible skills? Or could it be an e-mail that we receive unexpectedly months or years later, saying "thank you" for what we had taught? And what would our students consider the best reward from their class experience? Their degree? The diploma or certificate? The knowledge? The new skill that they can apply and benefit from immediately? Positive feelings and emotions? Or the grade?

The Good News: We Have the Power to Change Habits

So, luckily, habits aren’t destiny, and once we understand how they work— learning the structure of the habit loop—we can control them! As the book demonstrated, "once you break a habit into its components, you can fiddle with the gears."

So, as the diagram shows, we can keep the same cues and rewards, but we have the power and control to change the routines.

Back to the goals we want to achieve, such as creating student-centered classrooms, engaging students, giving students their own power and ownership of their learning, helping them develop the 21st century skills - all that good stuff - which exact part of what we routinely perform should we start with?

The way I visualize it, eliminating or changing any of the following routines (I am thinking of my own here) can be a start:

  • letting textbooks (chapters or units) guide what we teach
  • lecturing
  • controlling the classroom by keeping it quiet
  • teaching one size fits all content to everyone at the same time at the same place
  • teaching something that students can easily Google and find on their own in seconds
  • teaching something that we know they will need in their distant future (certainly not now)
  • teaching something they have no idea how it can be applied in the real world
  • teaching even when seeing everyone is bored to death and cannot wait to be free
  • not allowing using their devices and, by doing so, being in charge of their learning
  • not utilizing the power of social media to support learning and build communities of learners
  • viewing teacher's use of technology as tech integration, while students have not hands-on experience or voice

Call to Action

According to the book, "If you focus on changing or cultivating keystone habits, you can cause widespread shifts. However, identifying keystone habits is tricky. To find them, you have to know where to look. Detecting keystone habits means searching out certain characteristics. Keystone habits offer what is known within academic literature as “small wins. They help other habits to flourish by creating new structures, and they establish cultures where change becomes contagious."

So, it might not be easy, but it is doable! Very doable, indeed! All we need to do is just to start changing our old habits; the habits that no longer work in our new realities. All we need to do is just to make those "small wins", one at a time.

And here comes the invitation to join the #TCHT (Teachers Changing Habits Together) project!

I'd like to propose the first 5 small wins:

1. Identify a group of interested educators (10 for a start?)

2. Brainstorm first routine to be changed.

3. Brainstorm the strategies for a successful implementation.

4. Share!

5. Move on to the next 5 small wins.

Thoughts? Comments? Suggestions? Concerns? Please share in the comment area!

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we've preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer's own.

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