Starting the Year with Great Habits
A little over two years ago I sat down with two primary (elementary) school teachers to have a conversation with them to discover what had them be so successful with developing their students to learn. It was one of those conversations that connected certain "dots" for me about what I had been reading about the findings of neuroscience and setting up powerful learning environments.
Habits Are the Key
One of the critical keys to their success that made such a difference to setting up a powerful learning environment for their students was that the two teachers, both of them relatively recent graduates, were the habitual practices they had unconsciously embedded at the start of the year. Over the previous 2–3 years that these two teachers had worked together—occasionally team teaching, but mostly teaching independently—they had tried and tested a range of structures, routines, and procedures that they found made a difference for their students to become independent learners. A learning coach had suggested some additional new structures and these built upon the foundation that these two had laid earlier in the year. What the two teachers discovered was that by the middle of the year (Term 3) the students started to take learning into their own hands and be much more self-sufficient and self-guided. This allowed the teachers to then focus on being learning partners to the students rather than always driving the learning.
A mathematics and science teacher in a secondary school in Queensland, Australia, discovered the exact same shift in learning culture when he implemented a range of structures and habits that allowed his students to develop their capacity to be independent learners. He found that rather than spending all of his time teaching and managing behavior in his classes, the students knew what there was to do, how to support one another, and he had the opportunity to work with students who were struggling with particular concepts.
What Do They Build?
None of this should come as a surprise because teachers always begin their school year with routines and procedures. But are they well thought out and intentional?
This is a conversation I often have with teachers in my workshops. What are your habitual practices and what do they build? Unless you are conscious about the habits you have then you can't give them away nor can you test whether or not they are working or can be refined. As an occasional field coach for little athletics I am continually thinking about habits and how to give them away. What are the habitual actions a high performing discus thrower does to throw further? What practices can I teach the athletes to have them develop those actions?
In the same way, you as a teacher or school leader can ask yourself two questions:
- What are the habitual practices I want my students and teachers to develop? (List all the habits that you want the students and teachers to develop throughout the year.)
- If I want my students to develop these particular habits, what structures, routines, procedures can I put into place that will develop these habits over time?
It is even worth getting together as with your colleagues to collect that habits they have found works for them and then trying them out.
One primary school we are working with has created over-arching themes for each year level. For example, foundation year is "Having a go and looking after each other." The teaching team are now designing structures, routines, conversations and ways of interacting with the students that reinforces the theme. The intention is for the students to develop a growth mindset about learning and that it is as much about learning as it is safety and community.
Below are links to a range of articles for you to access to give you some ideas about possible habits you can use. Doug Lemov's book, Teach like a Champion, is a gem. One thing worth noting is that there may be some unconscious habits you want to stop doing in the process. One big one for some teachers is they talk too much! It is worth reading Charles Duhigg's book called The Power of Habit where he gives a range of examples and coaching on how to change the routines we are stuck in.
- "5 Scientific Ways to Build Habits That Stick" by Gregory Ciotti
- "25 Reading Strategies That Work In Every Content Area" by TeachThought
- "Student-centered learning and teaching" by Nina C. Smith
- "Hacking Habits: How To Make New Behaviors Last For Good" by Jocelyn K. Glei
- "How Visual Thinking Improves Writing" by Katrina Schwartz
- "Feedback Unlocks Reluctance by Gwendolyn Todd
- "Why Teaching Helps Students Learn More Deeply" by Annie Murphy Paul
- "My Biggest Regret as a Teacher: Extrinsic Rewards" by David Ginsburg
- "Explaining KIPP's 'SLANT'" by Deborah Meier
- "New Research: Rituals Make Us Value Things More" by Heidi Grant Halvorson
Adrian Bertolini is a former university educator of aerospace engineering who saw the light and chose to create a career empowering schools. He is the founder and director of learning at Intuyu Consulting, an Australian educational consultancy that works around the Melbourne, Victoria, region working with schools to provide powerful learning environments. Connect with Bertolini by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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