Learning Happens When You Stretch (Not When You Overextend)

James Clear recently shared this and I immediately started to think about my classroom.

When students came into the room, they were quick to open up their device, check the do now activity, and get started with an entrance activity.

Although the activities changed, it was almost always in the Zone of Automation for my students.

Then there were times when I would put together a ridiculously hard/challenging test and almost every single one of my students would be in the Zone of Aggravation. There wasn’t much learning happening here either, just a lot of cramming for something they would often forget weeks and months later.

The sweet spot happened during design sprints and project-based learning experiences where students had a manageable level of difficulty but also an end in sight. Whether they were creating a PSA for a UN Global Goal or crafting a video with a student half-way around the world, these activities were in the Zone of Adaptation

It also happened during the smaller moments of teaching. A mini-lesson on the dangers of a single story, a class discussion about author’s purpose, an appeal’s day.

The Zone of Adaptation is not about huge exponential learning gains, it is about small 1% experiences that over time add up to powerful learning and growth.

I had the chance to interview New York Times bestselling author James Clear, for my new podcast, Talking About Practice.

James is the author of Atomic Habits and has built up a massive tribe at JamesClear.com. In this episode, we talk about his new book, how he got started researching about habits, what he believes are the biggest game-changers for our lives in terms of habits, and what this means for learning better (and helping fuel curiosity).

You can listen to the podcast below, or check it out on iTunes or the Google Play store. As always I’d love your feedback on this new project, and feel like James was a perfect guest #1!

Here’s what James has to say about the power of tiny habits:

So often we convince ourselves that change is only meaningful if there is some large, visible outcome associated with it. Whether it is losing weight, building a business, traveling the world or any other goal, we often put pressure on ourselves to make some earth-shattering improvement that everyone will talk about.

Meanwhile, improving by just 1 percent isn’t notable (and sometimes it isn’t even noticeable). But it can be just as meaningful, especially in the long run.

The power of tiny gains

In the beginning, there is basically no difference between making a choice that is 1 percent better or 1 percent worse. (In other words, it won’t impact you very much today.) But as time goes on, these small improvements or declines compound and you suddenly find a very big gap between people who make slightly better decisions on a daily basis and those who don’t.

Here’s the punchline:

If you get one percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done.

This is why small choices don’t make much of a difference at the time, but add up over the long-term.

How Do We Get 1% Better Each Day?

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 learner success. 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 learners.

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 tiny habits become essential in our classrooms.

In my interview with Atomic Habits author, James Clear, we talk about our own learning experiences and also what it is like to teach and lead the practice of building on tiny habits.

What are Tiny Habits

The 1% Rule states that over time the majority of the rewards in a given field will accumulate to the people, teams, and organizations that maintain a 1 percent advantage over the alternatives. You don’t need to be twice as good to get twice the results. You just need to be slightly better.

Tiny habits 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 how 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.

Habit Loop
Here are 10 habits that we can start doing right now with our students, following the habit formation loop popularized by 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. The other key is to be authentic, kids are human beings and need us to treat them that way, every day.

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 a 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 curricula 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. 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 learners? Share them up in the comments!

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