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.
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.
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!
Source: The Confident Teacher