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
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.
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.
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!
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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