10 Habits Worth Starting in the Classroom

When we look at what research says about becoming better at something, two pieces of evidence stand out.

First, we must have clarity on what our goals are, and where we want to go or what we want to become.

Second, it is deliberate practice (combined with feedback loops) that increase the myelin in our brain and in turn help improve performance and growth.

Today I want to talk about a process that we often miss when we look at student success in the classroom. We tend to talk about growth, goals, and instructional practice…yet, we miss a key element of going from “defining a goal” to “achieving a goal” with out students.

It’s about building better learning habits.

We often talk about strategies, but forget that our habits as teachers and leaders impact the habits of our students.

Students only become better at writing through deliberate practice, and feedback on the practice. But if students do not have the habit of writing every day, it is extremely difficult to improve that practice and reach their writing goals.

Here’s where habit stacking becomes essential in our classrooms.

What is Habit Stacking?

In S.J. Scott’s book, Habit Stacking: 97 Small Changes, he writes about the importance of habits in building towards success:

“It’s been said that the average person’s short-term memory can only retain seven chunks of information. So the theory behind cognitive load is that since you can only retain a small amount of information, you have to rely on long-term memory, habits and established processes to do basically everything in life.”

“You can trace every success (or failure) in your life back to a habit. What you do on a daily basis largely determines what you’ll achieve in life. Habits create routine, and let’s face it—most of us run our lives by some sort of routine. We get up in the morning and follow a preset pattern: Take a shower, brush our teeth, get dressed, make breakfast, drive to work, do work and then go home. Some of us choose to follow self-improvement habits: Set goals, read inspirational books, work on important projects and ignore wasteful distractions. Others choose self-destructive habits: Do the bare minimum, dull creativity through low-quality entertainment, eat junk food and blame others for their failures in life.”

That being said, we know how hard it is to try and start a new habit. Think about how many people start working out, going to the gym, and eating healthy for a New Year’s Resolution. I’ve tried to build a habit of exercising daily multiple times in my life…only to fail multiple times!

But what I find fascinating is what I did differently when I found success. When I came up with a shared goal of running a marathon with my wife, we began to run every other day. We started with the simple act of just running. Then we began to increase our distance. Then we began to increase our speed. Each of these steps were incremental increases in our practice. In order to run 26 miles we would have to start small and build our capacity. Trying to run a marathon without practice would be considered silly. But that’s often what we do in schools. We ask students to do something without giving them time (and guidance) in building their capacity through practice.

Scott provides an alternative practice to building habits in his book Habit Stacking:

“We all know it’s not easy to add dozens of new habits to your day. But what you might not realize is it’s fairly easy to build a single new routine. The essence of habit stacking is to take a series of small changes (like eating a piece of fruit or sending a loving text message to your significant other) and build a ritual that you follow on a daily basis.

Habit stacking works because you eliminate the stress of trying to change too many things at once. Your goal is to simply focus on a single routine that only takes about 15 to 30 minutes to complete. Within this routine is a series of actions (or small changes). All you have to do is to create a checklist and follow it every single day. That’s the essence of habit stacking.”

Habit stacking can be used in our classrooms and schools in a variety of ways. I’ve seen how a daily routine and morning meeting can get Kindergarteners ready for each day. I’ve noticed what a strong and daily anticipatory set (Bell ringer, Take 5, Entrance Work, Do Now) sets students up for meaningful learning. I’ve witnessed teachers with communication and collaboration norms, so students understood what types of conversations were relevant to their learning.

Each of these examples can be traced back to a habit that was developed in the classroom. And each habit can help build a better practice that is connected to a learning goal.

Building Better Habits For Ourselves and Our Students

[extended_image]Habit Loop[/extended_image]

Here are 10 habits that we can start doing right now with our students, following the habit formation loop popularized by Scott and James Clear:

1. Conversation at the door/desk

Talk to students about what’s going on in their lives and they’ll be more willing to come to you for help or guidance (and to take critical feedback). These short conversations spark the human and social aspect of learning that is an important piece to the puzzle. The key here is to do this with every student.

2. Entrance Work/Do Now/Bell Ringer

When I was in college they called this the “Anticipatory Set” but who likes that name! Traveling around the country I’ve heard entrance work, do now, bell ringer, take 5, and the list goes on and on. Think about your favorite TV show. Now, the next time you watch it notice how the first few minutes are full of action and catch your attention right away. That’s what the first five minutes of class should look like as well. Get ’em thinking!

3. Assess the Process of Learning

Students tend to act like the rest of us and only focus on what is being measured (graded) and praised. Make the process of learning as important as the final product (paper, project, test etc) and you’ll see their work blossom.

4. Write Everyday

You become a better reader by writing, and become a better writer by reading. Get students (and yourself!) in the habit of writing every single day. And make it enjoyable.

5. Transact with Various Texts Everyday

See what I said above. It doesn’t matter what subject or level you are teaching. Students need to have the daily habit of transacting with various (note the fact that these are various!) texts each day. The daily practice allows students to make connections, go into depth with analysis, and find what they truly enjoy reading.

6. Define Problems

We can’t separate problem-based learning from the everyday learning that goes on in our classrooms. Make every day a problem-solving day. The first step is to define problems and empathize with the issue. When students get into the habit of defining problems to their very core, they’ll look for solutions that have the biggest impact.

7. Collaboratively work for a solution

Collaborative work has to have a reason. Sitting students in a group and having them fill out a worksheet together is not collaboration. Instead, focus on the habit of solving those problems you’ve defined earlier in a group type setting. This puts everyone on the same team with the same goal.

8. Debate

Get students fired up! The idea of a daily debate was first inspired by John Spencer, and I love this in the classroom. Set norms for how to debate, talk about what makes a strong argument, and have students voice their opinions on topics they care about. When it comes time to write that paper, or give that speech, students will have a habit of making their case stand out.

9. Create/Make/Tinker/Play

It may sound obvious to get students making each day, but this is hard to do without making it a priority. I’ve seen too many scripted curriculua and programs that do not allow for any “tinker time” and when students finally do have this opportunity, they’d rather have a worksheet to fill out (sad, isn’t it?). Do this daily and students will want to carry the making back home!

10. Reflect

We all need to reflect more. It is one of the most powerful learning tools, to self-assess and reflect on what we’ve learned, done, and need to do. Have students reflect multiple times a day, and keep it short at first. This time of “taking a moment” will revitalize their minds and keep a daily practice of thinking about thinking. Too many? Start small. Try a few (or just one) in your class every day and then begin “stacking” the habits as you master the daily practice with one of them. Remember, these can also be combined in many ways/shapes/forms but the key is to do it daily and make it stick.

What habits are you starting this year with your students? Share them up in the comments!


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  • Spencer Scarbrough says:

    I have 45 minute foreign language classes. While I like and can see the benefit of all the habits mentioned here I wonder if you have any suggestions on how to manage my time to get that much in each week? Failing that, any suggestions on time increments per event?

    • Hey, Spencer. I completely agree that we have limited time in our classes, and I cannot imagine being able to work all ten things into my class routines. That said, I could probably make three or four of these a part of my regular class habits. I wonder if several of my colleagues would be willing to add different practices into their classes as well. If my grade level team worked together, we could probably start all ten habits with our students so that they get the benefit of all of them over the course of a week. What do you think? Does that make sense?

    • AJ Juliani says:

      I, too, taught in a 45 minute period school day (High School English). Really the “stacking” piece was key for me. I started with #1, 2, 4, and 10. Those combined took about 5-7 minutes of class time. And what was amazing, is that those 5-7 minutes were previously not used very well in my classroom – almost like a waste.

      Then I started to build in 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 – many of which are combined in nature. Such as defining a problem, transacting with a text to help find a solution, and then creating/making something to share out with students who would debate it’s purpose/usefullness as a solution.

      Really, these habits are about what works in any classroom, and we also know what doesn’t work. Giving MC tests and quizzes to my students did not work. I still did it every now and then because of common assessments in my school and state, but they were not daily/weekly habits that we strived to do every day.

      Final thought: You know how many times we did not do one of these habits? All the time! But they became habits because more than not we did it in class and then it became routine and my students knew what to expect and how to interact during these activities.

      Hope this helps!

  • Patricia says:

    AJ, listened to the Launch Video yesterday. It was awesome. How long will you honor the discount for your class? I need to think about this for a few days, but I really want to sign up 🙂 Thanks.

  • J. Golding says:

    I’m interested in the concept of assessing the process of learning but how do you go about doing that? What does it look like it the classroom? I am a senior school Science teacher so my lessons are about an hour long.

  • Sinoxolo Ndlovu says:

    Hi AJ

    I am a teacher intern at a school in South Africa. I joined your website last year towards the end. I was taken by this article of HABITS! Our theme for this year is the Habits of Mind and Learning. In our summits we were discussing how we can teach and adopt new habits in our practice to make students/classroom/lessons more innovative and more fun while learning.

    I believe that one needs to know which or what habit works for them and has contributed to their success; whether in the classroom or personally. Just like you have mentioned that we need to have a reminder, routine and reward to help stick to the habits that we have adopted to change the ways we teach in our classrooms.

    I am grateful for this article because as a training teacher I was still trying to discover how I will make my class or lessons to be productive everyday and what creative ways that I can come up with to make sure that the students are thinking, collaborating, communicating and implementing the content that they learnt.

    What stood out for is how we can start asking difficult questions and allowing students to reflect on their mistakes and how they went about tackling those difficult tasks. This will develop a habit of students to be able to review the process they went through to get to their answer.

    You have also reminded that teaching is about the student, student and the student!

    Thank you!

  • Lisa V says:

    What an obvious point- students won’t get better at writing if they don’t practice every day! I certainly need to include daily writing more often with my 6-grade students. They need a lot of practice writing. They actually enjoy writing in their journals- I just don’t have them do it enough.
    I also like the idea about debates- my homeroom loves to debate- we will be choosing one or two topics a month that they will be able to debate. We are actually going to start that next week- I will see how it goes.

  • […] 10 Habits Worth Starting in the Classroom – A.J. JULIANI […]

  • […] 10 Habits Worth Starting in the Classroom – A.J. JULIANI […]

  • […] A.J. Juliani recently wrote about students writing in several of his blog posts. It is logical to have students spend time writing daily. The more they write, the better they will get. Why don’t we spend more time on student writing? I think one reason is teachers feel pressed for time. If students write every day in class, it leaves less time for a standards-based lesson, or a textbook activity. On the other hand, if a student doesn’t learn to write well, then his or her ability to successfully complete the lesson or activity is limited.  […]

  • […] A.J. JULIANI. “10 Habits Worth Starting in the Classroom” por A.J. Juliani (inglés) […]

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