Better teacher habits for better student learning

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Better teacher habits for better student learningBetter teacher habits for better student learning
Date14th Feb 2022AuthorHarry Fletcher-WoodCategoriesTeaching

This blog was initially published on the Improving Teaching blog in January here.

I’m describing ways to help students form good habits in a chilly school hall. Or at least, I’m meant to be. The first teacher to speak explains that their discussion quickly led elsewhere: “These techniques are just as relevant to us as they are to students.” Every new strategy we consider leads us back to our own habits:

  • We discuss students pursuing specific habits – teachers describe the value of a clear goal when they have so much to do. 
  • We look at making change easy – teachers note that a small tweak to existing routines is much easier than a transformation.
  • Students’ habits falter. Teacher discuss how often they change – for a while – then fall back on existing routines.

We want to help students improve their habits. We can use strategies from behavioural science to do this. Those strategies can help teachers form new habits too. This much I’d realised. But that chilly school hall led me to a stronger conclusion.  Better student habits depend on better teacher habits.

Recognising the importance of teacher habits

Two recent blog posts helped me appreciate this. Helen Skelton describes herself noticing:

Bad habits. My bad habits. Bad teacher habits. Things I know aren’t good practice, but which I do anyway. And I keep doing them even after I’ve become aware of them and thought, ‘I must stop doing that.'”

She sets out to change three:

  • Asking “Does that make sense?” rather than checking for understanding directly
  • Interrupting students who are working quietly
  • Saying “Shhh” having counted down for silence.

By deconstructing each habit, Skelton is able to identify when she’s doing it, the cues leading her to act, and what she needs to change.

Elizabeth Mountstevens describes working to adopt new teaching approaches, rather than breaking bad habits. But she begins with a similar insight – the importance of her own habits:

Literacy has been on my mind for a number of years… But over that time, I have done little to improve my practice in this area. Finally, this year, I’m starting to make some improvements and that has got me thinking. What has changed? What I have done differently to prioritise this?”

Mountstevens describes elements of habit formation which helped her change. These include making a specific commitment to colleagues about the changes she intends to make, selecting a couple of specific strategies to adopt, and keeping the context the same.

Strategies which help students change can help us change too. (Teachers are human, after all, and teacher learning is just learning.) But in writing Habits of Success I was wary of patronising readers. While I offered six chapters on student habits and one chapter for leaders, I included just a couple of pages for readers changing their own habits. But if better student habits depend on better teacher habits, I think it’s worth being more explicit.

How can we change our teaching habits?

So here’s a five-step recipe for changing our own habits. It employs the same strategies and principles as those described in Habits of Success. Once we’ve decided that we want to make a change, we need to:

Specify a single, powerful habit to pursue


 
There’s a lot we could do. We need to narrow this down to a specific goal: to go from “improving questioning” to “using a hinge question to check understanding every time I introduce a new concept.”

For example, Mountstevens wanted to improve students’ literacy. But she set out to encourage students “to plan their longer answers at KS4 by asking them to write notes on a post-it.”
Maintain our inspiration and motivation to act



 
We are probably motivated to act already – but we can still make action more immediately tempting. In particular, it helps to minimise immediate costs and maximise immediate benefits. For example, better to write one good hinge question, try it, and see the benefits, than to spend an entire afternoon writing hinge questions for a whole unit.

When Skelton was trying to avoid interrupting students working silently, she adopted more valuable alternatives. One was inputting student positives on the behaviour system: something immediately useful.
Plan a commitment to a time and place to act; set reminders






 
Good intentions can fall by the wayside. Committing to the details of an action makes action much more likely. For example, I might tell colleagues I’ll try the hinge question next week. They may ask how it went: this encourages me to stick to my plan.

Skelton committed to her Sixth Formers. Mountstevens committed to her CPD group. Knowing she would need to decribe what she’d done by the summer gave her “the incentive I need.”

Skelton also picked a specific cue: the habit she was trying to break. So when she asked “Does that make sense?” (and students said “Yes”) she went on “Okay, let’s check,” asking “some questions which actually check students’ understanding.”
Make it easy to start



 
If the action is complicated or time-consuming, it’s very unlikely to stick. Instead, we need to make the first step easy. Better to ask one good question and see how it goes than plan some complicated routine I’ll forget.

Mountstevens chose a simple action which encouraged them to plan their answers: she gave them a post-it whenever they were answering a question.
Keep going until it becomes a habit





 
It’s easy to let things slip. We need to keep trying the new technique until it sticks – this can take a while! Anything we can do to keep ourselves pursuing the same action in the same context helps. For example, at the end of a unit, I could look back at how many hinge questions I actually asked. This may nudge me to do more next unit.

Mountstevens described “keeping the context the same… For post-it planning it involves giving students a post-it for every longer written answer and using the same procedure of paired and whole class discussion to gather responses to support planning. Using context in this way can help me build habits and also builds habits in my students.”

Conclusion

It’s not hard to want to improve our teaching. What’s hard is sticking to our good intentions as we are dealing with the thousand-and-one other pressures the teaching day brings. The science of habit can be as useful in changing our teaching as it is in influencing our students. Lasting change means specifying habits, maintaining motivation, committing to action, getting started, and keeping going until the change sticks. It’s the only way to make sustainable improvements. As Skelton puts it:

Thinking about these habits and deliberately planning how I might change them has helped me to start altering behaviours I’ve had for years.”

 

If you found this useful, you may like…

Elizabeth Mountstevens’s post, on adopting new habits, and Helen Skelton’s on breaking bad habits are both brilliant applications of the science of habit to changing teacher practice.

The ideas summarised in this post are explored at length in Habits of Success: Getting every student learning. Chapter 7 focuses on teacher change.

We often forget to apply things which work with students when working with teachers. This post shows how teacher learning follows the same principles as student learning.

I’ve written about many aspects of habit over the last few years: this post is probably the most useful summary of the key ideas.

Harry Fletcher-Wood is a former teacher, and is now head of school surveys for Teacher Tapp.

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