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.
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.
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.
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!
“A teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on a cold iron.” Horace Mann
Recently I came across a beautifully written ode to creativity written by @RealDavidCameron – see here. Please read it in all of its resplendent glory. The article, appropriate for our austere times, and rather bankrupt political leadership, is not all sweetness and light. Birth weight and poverty are recognized as near intractable factors that inhibit learning, but the driving force of the article resides in the transformative power of education. This was connected to another article by an inspiring school leader, Tom Sherrington – the @headguruteacher – with this article on creativity here: Teaching for Creativity and Innovation. Now, let me admit, when I sometimes hear the term ‘creativity’ used regarding education I wince slightly. ‘Passion’ and ‘creativity’ have become easy labels used across public and private sectors, becoming appropriated by advertisers, regardless of whether those qualities are exhibited or not, like some empty corporate mantra. When people laud Sir Ken Robinson I cannot but agree with his inspired speeches, but without action those words ring hollow. What leaders like Tom Sherrington and people like David Cameron do is put meat onto the bones of the creativity mantra in a real and valuable. They shine a light on creativity in practice and thereby encourage us to bask in the glow and feed the flame.
What is being proposed in the Ebacc is a reactionary and regressive response to the dynamic needs of our students, our communities and our wider economy. A ‘traditional’ curriculum, with a finishing post solely marked by a terminal three hour exam, is being lauded at a time when we must shape our society into a dynamo of creativity. I am not proposing we shun Modern Foreign Languages, Mathematics, Science and English for a playful curriculum of Dance, Drama and computer play (valuable though each can be in their own right); but if we are to once again devalue the Arts and the vocational aspects of our curriculum we are immediately performing a creativity and innovation lobotomy! As identified by the aforementioned David Cameron, much innovation and creativity derives from the dynamic conflation of different disciplines – such as a fruitful combination of science and literature for example – see here. To deliberately laud one discipline over another simply shows a lack of understanding about how creativity comes to life. We are not all a budding Leonardo da Vinci, but our curriculum should provide a breeding ground for such genius to exist and flourish – why aim for less? Gove lauds the supposed ‘freedoms’ of his systematic shift of our state school system from LEAs to Academies and Free Schools; yet, at the same time, by retaining reductive league tables with narrow measures of success, he distorts those freedoms of curriculum and school structures by narrowing the goal posts for what is deemed acceptable success. The current league table measures of success are widely deemed as insufficient, even by Gove himself (sagely expressed in this article by Chris Husbands) so we must make a thorough job of changing accountability systems for the better. What we have at present is a centralized system that serves the needs of absolutely no-one, perhaps except those Academy chains who stand to benefit from the ‘saving’ of schools being stuffed below floor standards. Creativity becomes dulled by expediency, central diktats and a repressive inspection regime. Innovative curriculum models will be circumscribed, particularly for the students in our society most in need of skills that will help them rise from their limited social circumstances. Many schools under pressure will regress into a conservative safe zone of exam driven teaching that is demotivating for students and teachers alike.
Where courageous leadership starts is a turning away from the threatening drum pounding of the DfE and turning towards our own students. We need a shining of a light upon what many of our schools are doing brilliantly and we need to spread that light. For me, our curriculum is the kindle for that flame. The very best teachers will be dulled and stunted by a limiting curriculum, no matter who we attract into our profession. We must scale up our creative endeavors if we are to inspire our students with a desire to learn. Our creativity will be found when we shine a light existing in our own schools (we will find the feeling needed for change all around us if we look properly), but we should also seek inspiration from elsewhere. Therefore I have compiled the following list of inspiring websites and blog posts that shine a light on the great creativity existing in schools all around us (in no particular order):
A movement to stimulate enquiry based learning over our content driven exam fuelled culture. Examples include schools schools taking leave of six hours per week of English, Humanities, Science and Technology lessons at KS3 to undertake enquiry based learning. A clear manifesto for the approach can be found in this document: Learning Futures
A national campaign by SSAT to coral leading thinkers and practitioners to define the core purpose of education and to synthesise the needs of our learners, now and in the future, with a curriculum which is fit for purpose. Hopefully this programme can synthesise and define many of the projects and thinking I go on to identify.
An excellent idea for project based learning from an English curricular perspective that draws in the Arts and the Humanities, transforming the whole school to energise interest and bring the war to life for students.
An outstanding use of Web 2.0 resources. Edutronic is brilliant platform to share communication and resources between teachers and students; for students to blog themselves and to record learning with a global audience. This open source approach is clearly going to supplant VLEs as the future method for communicating and learning online.
More project based learning, this time originating in Science, inspiring learners with a range of real word problems and projects and including blogged learning to help ongoing progress and reflection.
A project based learning approach with an Art focus – with a great example of a public critique involving the local community.
An inspired approach to expeditionary learning and a student centred approach to learning. Tait’s ‘Punk Learning Manifesto’ is a brilliant synthesis of ideas to convey an original and exciting approach to Science teaching and learning.
A brilliant national collective of expert teachers sharing pedagogy to keep getting better. A brilliantly simple alternative to national initiatives like the long-since defunct National Strategies approach in England. Now reading beyond its Scottish origins, I can see this collective and cooperative approach being the future for innovation in pedagogy, alongside Teachmeets and other such ground-swell approach.
A brilliant school that embraces project based learning at the core of its entire curriculum. Using the principals of Ron Berger’s inspired vision of excellence in education, this school is a gold one of highly skilled and engaging pedagogy.
This brilliant Physical Education project based learning approach brings together inspiration from British cycling together with sessions with local journalists to make literacy and the project real. The prospective public critique looks like another fantastic opportunity for students to share their brilliant learning with a real audience.
Surely these engaging and innovative approaches to pedagogy can be combined with a traditional focus upon core literacy and numeracy, and Gove’s beloved rigour, that would be more fitting for our complex and inter-connected futures. The selections I have made combine project based learning; a turning away from an obsession with terminal assessments; a skilled use of technology to leverage pedagogy; real audiences and so much more. We would do well to synthesise these principals of great learning. We must stick to our task – as the ‘real‘ David Cameron stated in his article:
“That reminded me that our task is to give our young people 1000 futures regardless of their past or their present.” David Cameron
“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits,” William James
Over the summer I read the excellent book, ‘The Power of Habit‘, by Charles Duhigg – It is a great popular science read, with an interesting array of anecdotes balanced with some interesting neuroscience. As the summer is a time for a well needed wealth of reading to nourish the mind and soul again, I happily moved onto the next book and placed it to the bottom of my virtual bookshelf. Now, Year 11 mocks have just been undertaken, 6th form groups are in the midst of the winter working lull, and the powerful message of the book came rushing back to my mind. The message of the book is ultimately empowering – put very simply, our brains work by forming habits to save energy and be able to learn new things. We can master those habits, if we understand how habit forming works. Self-control, resilience, grit – whatever you want to call it – we can master it. What students need is teaching how to go about controlling their habits and developing greater self-control.
How many people reading this blog post would say that you have a strong degree of self-control and mastery over your working habits? Once you have rated yourself, ask yourself: can you resist the ping of your phone, iPad or laptop when you receive an email or a tweet? Does that subtle daily urge sound familiar? When I spoke to my 6th form A Level Language class last week about their working habits, they universally agreed that they were always engaging with some media based communication – texting, their phone, or Facebook chat etc.; as well as listening to music, and/or television, whilst they attempted to complete their homework. The main reason they worked in their room was to be able to procrastinate in peace, rather than creative a productive cue for a good working habit! I too know that plight – I struggle with extended periods of marking – but my experience (both emotionally and neurologically) has given me a sense of mastery over my habits. My rewards are tangible and pretty much immediate – from seeing my work impact upon students, to my wage rewarding me roughly when I like (that sounds ridiculously luxurious, but it is roughly true – within reason!). Still, many aspects of our careers don’t provide immediate gratification, yet we learn to accept that as part of our maturation. Too often, our students fail to visualise the rewards needed to motivate them if their rewards are deferred to any degree. If their future career, wealth and happiness only feels tenuously linked to their daily working habits at school, they will always struggle to visualise the reward provided by good working habits at school.
One example from the book that focuses very well upon the habits and lack of self-control exhibited by our students is also well articulated in this New Yorker article:
. Essentially, the example provided reveals explicit evidence of the force of rewards in habit forming, as well as the challenge of developing self-control. Interestingly, many KIPP schools in America have undertaken a programme entitled: “Don’t eat the marshmallow!” directly inspired by this very experiment as outlined in the article and in Duhigg’s book. These programmes explicitly teach persistence and habits related to work, including the crucial skill of mastering boredom (a hidden truth of ll up education and our working lives). These skills become integral to the processes of these schools, such is the crucial importance of self-mastery for their students. Yet, productive habit forming, resilience and self-control should be at the core of every school, rooted in what we teach and how students learn.
Whilst not offering some pat life solutions to all our ills, the book unveils some of the processes behind habits the can make habit forming something we can act upon, helping in the attempt to change bad habits where necessary. This diagram is a simple version of the key process of habit forming:
This relatively simple process is something we should explicitly teach and students, and even their parents, if we are going to maximise learning opportunities like homework. With my A Level students I discussed how they must start treating 6th form like work, like a job. I know this flies in the face of some current thinking about learning powered schools (I was once seduced by the idea that labelling homework ‘home learning’ would transform the nature of the task – engage students more…it didn’t!), but it is a practical, honest approach. Not all reception of knowledge is interesting, spell binging or emotionally significant – some of it is terribly dull…but we must help them master this need for instant gratification. Maybe the instant feedback provided by levels on a computer game, or playing a football match, is tough competition, but we must wage the good fight. Having talked to the aforementioned A Level group, it came to light many had part time jobs, from painting to working in McDonalds. Some of those very students who admitted regularly being late to 6th form in the morning, but they had never been late for work! They explained how they worked solidly in their part-time job, such as painting for an our or two, with little thought to doing otherwise, but then they couldn’t work for a fifteen minute stretch on their homework. They just couldn’t see the value in doing it – tasks that required extra effort, like the effort needed to proof read their writing gave them no reward – it bore no relation to future success for them. This perennial problem of self-mastery, particularly over the ever-changing fertile teenage neurological system, is nothing new, but we must explicitly do our best to teach habits of mind. I explained my ‘cue’ habit at home of making some coffee before I began my school work; my subsequent reward of a second cup and a biscuit after forty five minutes. I admitted I sometimes failed to leave my phone and iPad from distracting me, but that I was intent on changing that habit…we are always a work in progress!
One important point from the book was this about how to shift a habit:
“Rather, to change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.”
(Excerpt From: Duhigg, Charles. “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.” Random House Digital.)
Now, this really is crucial in persisting with changing the working habits of students. We must first work upon old cues (like a cigarettes smoker would use nicotine patches). Perhaps the old cue is to go to their room; the old reward is some time on Facebook or FIFA – but the new routine would include switching off their computer and phone, perhaps instead playing some music (they could play different genres or bands for their different subject work to add a further memory cue), before creating a new reward themselves – such as after half and hour, giving themselves a small treat and a technological interlude for five mins (risky I know!). After a further hour they then reward themselves with a ten minute break and another small reward. Repeat…repeat….repeat. Build their resilience – develop the muscle that is their brain – resist eating the symbolic marshmallow!
Another key aspect to changing habits is for students to have a strong sense of long term rewards and, crucially, to be able to visualise those rewards and make them feel almost real on a daily basis. One great anecdote from the book is how the greatest ever swimmer, Michael Phelps, went from a impulsive and compulsive teen to a driven, focused athlete. His coach taught Michael to visualise the perfect race (typical in sporting psychology), which he termed mentally ‘putting in the video’ [the video of the perfect race]. Every morning and night he would be encouraged to visualise the perfect race, imitating this process when he competed in the pool. His near-absolute focus on success made him drive towards that ultimate goal of perfection – other factors no doubt helped, but forming strong working habits were key. So many students who under-perform in school simply don’t have any career aspirations – this happens year on year. Too often, if they do not have aspirations, no school work will feel like it offers a real reward to them and they cannot get an intrinsic reward from the effort either. Some don’t have parental role models that can articulate the link between academic and career success. We must endeavour to make these long term rewards feel real by ensuring they have a vision for their own future success.
Making their future career feel real can encompass many things. It could mean creating a curriculum that embraces project based learning, with a real audience – audiences which often touch their real career aspirations. It may involve having an ‘enterprise’ programme that is driven thought the core of the school, across and through the curriculum, not as some token tick box. It may involve maintaining a brilliant Careers department (at a time when such support is being stupidly and ruthlessly cut). This aspiration must start considerably earlier than when we typically intervene – ‘careers‘ should not be something we leave until GCSE – it should be embedded deeply from Primary school. I am not proposing some utilitarian nightmare of fake form filling and imitative role-play from Year Three, but we must change the curriculum in a way that reaches out to parents to raise aspiration; that creates a school that is masterfully enterprising – that forms working habits for learning and life. Richard Gerver is rightly heralded for creating such a school, where enterprise is real and meaningful, here at Grange Primary School:
In every job there is an element of fun (so says Mary Poppins), but there is also an element of boredom. As much as we should help students engage in compelling real life learning, akin to the evidence form Richard Gerver’s school, we must also educate children that self-mastery includes living and working in a state of boredom. Successful people manage to not eat the marshmallow – they manage to maintain their efforts through the tedium and the drudgery. They must embrace the boredom on the path to future success – they must constantly be encouraged to keep their eye on their deferred rewards, however far away they might appear to be. I spoke to my A Level students about the fact that they may be being paid for their painting and decorating at the end of the month, or even cash in hand; but with success in 6th form, they are dictating how much they are likely to be paid for the rest of their lives! Yes, they gain many more intrinsic value from learning that cannot and should not be measured monetarily, but we should not divorce the two.They must start the difficult process of habit changing by being given knowledge about the process of habit forming. That is the first step on the path to self-mastery – put simply, don’t eat the marshmallow!
NOTE: if you are now off to go to the cupboard for chocolate, or even some marshmallows, you have completely failed the hidden challenge I have set questioning the power of your self-mastery!