‘The Power of Habit’ – Helping Students Master their Habits

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: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/05/18/090518fa_fact_lehrer. 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.

“I must fully engage in self-mastery here”

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:

The Habit Loop

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:

http://www2.futurelab.org.uk/projects/teachers-as-innovators/stories-of-practice/grangeton .

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!

Mmmm 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!


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About huntingenglish

I am Director of Learning and Research at Huntington Secondary School, York. I have taught English (including a bit of Media Studies) for over a decade. If it is tragic and gothic, laced with humour and bitter truths then I'll teach it! I have had the great privilege to have written a book, 'Teach Now! Becoming a Great English Teacher', edited by the brilliant Geoff Barton, and I am writing another for Routledge, entitled, 'The Confident Teacher'. I am Project Lead of the RISE (Research-leads Improving Students' Education) Project. An EEF funded randomized controlled trial to evaluate if and how a Research-lead can improve outcomes for students. I am a proud member of the Institute for Effective Education (IEE) Executive Board at York University. I am also a proud member of the ResearchEd Advisory Panel. I write regularly for the TES and Teach Secondary magazine. My first book, 'Teach Now! Becoming A Great English Teacher' was released by Routledge in 2014 and my next book, entitled 'The Confident Teacher' will be out at the end of 2015.

7 responses to “‘The Power of Habit’ – Helping Students Master their Habits”

  1. ck says :

    Greetings. Training students to tolerate boredom is like asking them to stop listening to their hearts. People like Micheal Phelps probably couldn’t tolerate the boredom in some homework tasks and prefered to spend their time doing what gives them most enjoyment. They followed their hearts and the chances are higher that they converge towards their destinies.

    Sure persistence and self-control is essential towards mastery. But it is not for educators to decide for the students areas in which they should persist and build self-control. Therefore, I think that positive reinforment to build or change habits should not be used as a tool in learning, because chances are we are training them to learn things that are not important to them. Imagine when the habit is formed, they probably can endure learning what they dont like, and then move on to work in jobs they don’t like, just because they are attached to getting rewards. I believe that the by product of this is evident when we see the self-help industry flourishing, because people are looking for ways to handle this internal conflict that was formed all the way when they are learning in school.

    Positive reinforcement should only be used to encourage coorperative social behaviour in classes.

    • huntingenglish says :

      I want students to follow their hearts and find their dreams and I am fully aware that if students find their ‘passion’ then they will most likely flourish like in no other situation. That being said, it is the place of teachers to help build self-mastery in all areas, in my opinion, otherwise we are implicitly encouraging students to build behaviours that will see them struggle in later life. In my career as a teacher I have without doubt found my passion; however, even though my job is interesting, varied and fulfilling in the most part, aspects of my job are wholly boring and I have to persist through the drudgery! Completing students reports, attending certain meetings, or marking my thirtieth essay test in the same topic test my threshold of boredom, which is when my capacity to persist and tolerate boredom helps me to succeed.

      Writers like Ken Robinson present us with an ideal for creating an education system that is wholly suited to the passions and needs of our students. The reality is that we do not exist in an ideal system: we have aspects like examinations, homework, a broad curriculum that is created to suit a broad range of students, not each individual. As imperfect as our education systems are (and I would wish them to be better and more personalised to the individual), they in turn reflect the the harsher realities of our working world.

      I admire your student centred view, but the crux of my post is a much more pragmatic position – many students will not spend their lives engaging every day in doing what they most enjoy. Too many of our students lack the very resilience I speak of because there is a cultural pandering to instant gratification, which is particularly pervasive in a consumer capitalist media that attempts to persuade students that every dream is possible, with little effort or application to get there. Our students very thinking is becoming hardwired to avoid the efforts of deeper thinking (our brain is always seeking to save energy to function best). Observe a student writing like I do each day in school. The flood of initial ideas presents students with an onset of interest, often followed by, if we are lucky, a sense of ‘flow’ and a subtle rush of dopamine as they write their piece. Crucially, however, this is then followed by a spell of drafting and proof reading, which is when students typically lose that flow, as the pleasure in the task is ‘finished’ for them. Not every student is passionate about the writing process – again, their world is about instant messaging, but this will not allow them to succeed in most working environments. They must then be disciplined and controlled in their methods in any given activity to succeed, both their thinking and their behaviour (I would recommend Kahneman and his writing about ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ thinking). Every task, every subject, every career, has elements of boredom that are crucial to ultimate success – to say otherwise is false and sets students up for failure.

      I believe finding intrinsic rewards in learning is our optimum position, but once again, our brains our wired to respond to external rewards too. I am not proposing we treat students like Pavlovian dogs, but they need to have a sense of reward for learning, particularly the deferred reward of future success. The real truth is that many students won’t find their passion in life immediately. They will need to persist and succeed in a host of different social contexts – if they have the resilience and self-control I focus upon then I would hope that they would forge a success to the point where they become free to pursue their passion.

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