Making and Sustaining Habit Changes in Education

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As a teacher I am always looking to take on the Sisyphean task of changing the habits of my students to make them better learners. What I have also realised as a subject leader, and as a reflective teacher, is that I am also looking to improve and change my own habits, my practice, and to support my colleagues to improve their practice still further too. Better teaching requires sustained changes in our habits – a very difficult process! Now, I am a great believer in deliberate practice as a path to mastery. I also whole-heartedly prescribe to Carole Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’ approach – and the view that grit and effort, and not some divine talent or inspiration, is where most creativity and innovation is to be found. All that being said, I also think that our core habits are rooted deeply within our egos and our motivations are predominantly emotional rather than logical. I was therefore struck by the outstanding book which articulated many of these issues, ‘Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard’, about how to make changes to habitual patterns, for individuals, or groups and organisations through connecting with our emotions and tweaking the environment. Although not a book about school organisations as such, the book speaks directly to schools, and leaders at all levels of schools and education; and teachers, looking to make those habitual positive changes with their classes.

What the book does so successfully is to give a simple pattern to initiating change and sustaining change – particularly changing the habits of individuals and organisations (with lots of excellent examples). I have always thought that teachers are a particularly habitual bunch! Dismiss it as cod psychology, but we have returned to settings which replicate much of our childhood, so there must be a psychological pleasure we get from the school environment, something that runs deep within us emotionally (I won’t even mention the emotion invested in coffee cups or seats in the staff room, or our class room spaces!). Perhaps this is why we can be so resistant to change? Or maybe we just like to be in ultimate control – we are commanders of our classroom ship so often that perhaps we just fail to allow anyone else to steer and guide our ship to fresh waters!

The pattern for change derived from Chip and Dan Heath (yes, they are American, how did you guess?) is described below. Obviously, I am most interesting in the applicability of this pattern to educational contexts. Forgive some of the jargon, I can’t explain it all; however, a simple explanation of the ‘Rider‘ and ‘Elephant‘ analogy is required. They actually borrowed the analogy from Jonathan Haidt’s book, ‘The Happiness Hypothesis‘. Put simply, the ‘Rider‘ is our logical, organised and rational self – steering us appropriately; whereas the ‘Elephant‘ is our powerful emotional self, ready to unleash terrific power at any moment! The tensions between the two are obvious. As the Heath brothers describe, the two both need to be influenced for sustained, habitual change to occur.

1. ‘Direct the Rider':
– Find the Bright Spots: investigate what is working and clone it;
– Script the Critical Moves: think in terms of specific goals, not a big picture (too vague);
– Point to the Destination: change is easier when you know where you are going.

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2. ‘Motivate the Elephant':
– Find the Feeling: knowing/thinking something isn’t enough to change it, make people feel something;
– Shrink the Change: break down the change so it isn’t too daunting;
– Grow Your People: cultivate a strong sense of identity and instil a growth mindset.

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3. ‘Shape the Path':
– Tweak the Environment: when the situation & the environment changes, so does the behaviour;
– Build Habits: when behaviour is habitual it doesn’t tax the ‘rider’ as much – encourage new habits;
– Rally the Herd: behaviour is contagious – help spread it.

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For me, starting with ‘finding the bright spots‘ is key. Too often we aim to get people to change by focusing on what is ‘broken’, or bringing in the ‘expert’, having a whirlwind training session and then expecting long-held habits to simply fall away. It just doesn’t work. Change needs to emerge from the ground up, otherwise we just don’t have the emotional investment required to really change our habits. As a subject leader, I have realised that when people have tried something themselves and seen it work it has many more times the impact than watching some ‘outstanding’ lesson by another teacher in another part of the school, no matter how good and illuminating that lesson may be. Such is the power of the ‘elephant‘ our emotional selves simply switch off to such external stimuli is presented to us – no matter how valid or persuasive. I see so many teachers readily dismiss success from another school with a cynical jibe at the catchment area or the selective nature of another school, rightly or wrongly. People need to feel the change and see it working around them to believe it (sometimes people need to know and feel the problems with not changing). Colleagues in a department observing one another and coaching one another, with close specific focus on a manageable area of pedagogy, can be so powerful because the ‘elephant‘ essentially feels safer and more receptive to new information and advice; more so than being given expert advice by any external party, be it the subject leader, or leaders from the SLT. A learning walk is looked on with cynicism by many, we must provide the conditions for genuine sharing of new habits, such as new pedagogy. There is definitely a place for external experts too – I am a firm believer that we should all undertake educational research, as we would expect of our best students, but we must put them into practice in our context, with our colleagues, in a habitual, supportive fashion. Put simply, imported solutions most typically fail – change is organic and must be cultivated from the soil up.

Scripting the Critical Moves‘ is a key early step to initiating change. Leaders need to lead and people will follow when the goals are explicit and ambiguity is removed. Given a great deal of choice we simply become paralysed! When we have an excess of choice that paralysis leads us to simply fall back into our own habits. It is why students in class love explicit parameters of timings, behaviour and methodology. It gives us comfort too and we safely fall in line and ‘follow the herd’. Given common sense advice, like asking teachers to ‘work towards outstanding teaching and learning’, simply fails because it is simply too ambiguous and frightening (and hard work!) – our ‘elephants’ have too much wiggle room, so we never make the difficult move towards forming a new habit – we avoid the challenge in an act of self-preservation. Too often people fail to change, not out of resistance, but out of sheer miscomprehension. If we want teachers to become outstanding practitioners, and sustain it, we must provide marginal gains on the path towards that mastery – these need to be scripted with utter clarity – right down the the steps of core pedagogy. Then the marginal pedagogy needs to be practised and honed. The critical moves must also involve a clear destination. If you are wanting yourself or your department to move towards becoming outstanding, define the goal with absolute clarity. Make the outcome something like: ‘by the Summer of 2014, 70% of all lessons will be observed as outstanding and 30% as good’. Put like that, the idea doesn’t seem so outlandish! If you begin to ‘shrink the change‘ down to coaching targets for the department and a focus upon ‘marginal gains’ regarding key pedagogy, like questioning and oral feedback, then the change becomes emotionally accessible and even less frightening for the ‘elephant‘ – even to teachers with the most pronounced ‘elephant syndrome’! Once the pathway is established strip away everything that is extraneous to the desired outcome, make the time, hone in on the ‘marginal gains’ with utter clarity. Celebrate each step of the way – every success and even every failure – if we learn from failure we can get further down our desired path.

Emotional motivation is perhaps the most essential aspect of making and sustaining change. I have written before about habits and about confidence. The more I lead my brilliant team of teachers the more I realise that the key part of my job is emotional support (forgive me if I am stating the obvious!). ‘Finding the feeling‘ is the key to all change. Now, you could put the fear of god into teachers to motivate them to change – OFSTED inspections are often the stick with which to beat – however, to really sustain change, positive emotion must be instigated and this positive emotion sustains and helps build persistence in the face of challenges (take note Mr Gove!). Perhaps, instead, you insulate your team and support them with every confidence, encourage their risks and guide them with as much capacity building as you can muster to attempt to achieve your collective goal. What people like Gove ignore is that real change, that makes for real greatness, is powered by positive emotions: by confidence, trust, respect and self-belief. It may sound mawkish but it is true. Change founded on fear and coercion is brittle and short-lived.

At the recent SSAT conference I listened to the brilliant Emily Cummins – a young woman appealing for more real world challenges and projects in our school curriculum to really motivate students. Seeing her impassioned story of working with her grandfather as a child, to becoming an inventor of global repute, often despite her schooling, struck a chord. Working with my Y11 students writing a real letter for local and national newspapers (which was drafted over and over), I saw a new spark in some students, provoked by the potential of the real audience. Seeing the pride some students had in their work reminded me of Emily Cummins. I began to feel the need for curriculum change to something that had more real world applications, to a project based learning approach that involved choice and creativity, that involved technology and a global audience. I encountered a feeling with more purpose than I had felt before. It is something I have kept burning and it will inform the changes I lead as a subject leader and in any future educational pursuits. Too easily we can simply fall back into our habits in education – genuine creativity, really open briefs, co-construction with students – are all laudable pursuits we agree, but we pay them lip service and then return to our default position of our safe habits. Often teaching as we were taught in our turn – an emotional withdrawal to our past. Ultimately, we must experience a real emotional shift if we are to undertake a habitual shift. People need help and sustained emotional, and sometimes physical, support to change. For my mother to quit smoking she aimed to wean herself off the habit by using nicotine patches, although ultimately, it was her love for my father, and making sure he quit too, which is what made the habit stick – she certainly ‘found the feeling‘.

We can help by ‘shrinking the change‘, making those crucial ‘marginal gains’ which are much easier to tackle than hulking great challenges; supported by ‘tweaking the environment‘. Since I have been subject leader we have made little but significant tweaks to our classroom environment with pedagogical intent. A couple of years ago, we moved from an array of seating arrangements, most typically rows, to a common arrangement of group tables in every room. That one small shift initiated a sequence of changes to our pedagogy that made us all ensure that our group work and peer interaction was more thought through. Our seating plans became more nuanced to suit the group dynamics. In short, we shared ideas to deal with the tweak and we subsequently planned better lessons. Buoyed by that change to the environment, we added further tweaks, such as multiple whiteboards on the walls, to create more flexibility in the room and more opportunities for ‘visible learning‘. We initiated an iPad pilot for more enriched, multi-modal group collaborative work. Such technological innovation was quite frankly alien to some of our department, but the tweak to the environment meant people were trying new innovations in their pedagogy, and they were being forced to shift to new patterns of pedagogy the quickly became a new normal. The ‘herd mentality‘ was also a powerful force. We shared training time to build confidence and becalmed the ‘elephant’. Some colleagues unexpectedly attempted the changes with gusto and the positive response carried people along for the ride – habits were changing, not by force, but incrementally and by choice, from the soil up. Tweaking the environment works!

By following these steps and planning with precision, we can make positive changes to teaching groups, to our practice, to leading departments and indeed schools – making our job as teachers in the heady future of 2013 a little less Sisyphean a task!

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About huntingenglish

I am an Assistant Headteacher and English Subject Leader at Huntington Secondary School, York. I like to read, write and talk about teaching and learning. I blog regularly about my main interests: successful teaching strategies, coaching, teacher improvement, with some political arguments and miscellany along the way. I am currently writing a book for new English teachers, to be published next year.

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