The role of habit and detail in vision and culture
"One of our year 9 students told me recently that it should say the word ‘habits’ above the door. ‘Everything here is about habits,’ she said."
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One of our year 9 students told me recently that it should say the word ‘habits’ above the door. ‘Everything here is about habits,’ she said. According to a recent visitor, ‘year ten boys expounded eloquently about the importance of habits.’
Our vision is to create the culture which best supports our students; we believe that this is to develop in them outstanding habits of learning and outstanding habits of behaviour.
Habits are important in this because most of what we do is determined by habit; the way we walk, the way we react, the way we speak; the things we say and the way we say them. What we do at the most important times of our lives, when our reactions may determine the course of things; when we have decisions to make, when we have to stick or twist; these moments are likely to be heavily influenced by our habits. Our habits are central to our success, our confidence and our happiness.
Luck happens in our lives and what we do to make the best of the good luck and what we do to mitigate the worst of the bad luck will determine the net fortune we experience. A great deal of that will be determined by our habits.
The second reason why habits are important day to day is related to cognitive load. If our students read, learn, recall, behave, calm themselves, regulate their thoughts and behaviours, prepare, consider, question, internalise, take part, act with kindness; react instantly to the changing demands of time and place - all out of habit - then they will be in a good place.
They will be in a place which allows them to use their conscious thought productively and energetically because their conscious thought is not clogged with the self-doubt caused by not knowing how to be. They will know themselves. They will be confident and their confidence will be rooted in substance.
This is our vision.
What is our culture?
If our vision is about habit then our culture is about detail and consistency.
Habits are formed by repetition. Good habits are formed by repetition of good things and bad habits by repetition of bad things.
If we want students to react instinctively, imperceptibly, without cognitive load - out of habit - then they need to do so repeatedly until it is part of their ‘muscle memory.’
The academy day is loaded with fertile moments in which such habits can be developed for the better or for the worse; which way it goes depends on details; how we stand, where we stand, how and when we speak; how and when we intervene.
Like Christmas, our culture is best represented by its details.
Examples to illustrate how details support vision;
Entry into the building
When our students enter the building for a lesson after a break or lunch there is a shift in time and place. The behaviour for the playground is no longer appropriate. If we want students instantly to recognise this, without cognitive load, without fail, then they must react without reminder; and they must do this repeatedly, time after time, day after day. They must put their jackets on, turn their ‘phones off, put their ‘phones away, tuck their shirts in, regulate their excitement, turn their attentions. If they are to do these things without cognitive load then they must do them through habit, not through supervision and reminder
There are three possible scenarios;
- firstly, the desired scenario; the realisation of our vision; that these habits are developed, take root deep in the subconscious, become part of each student’s imperceptible set of translatable personal skills; they detect a change in time and place and instantly react appropriately without even knowing they are doing it. The process is reinforced by a social norm; students who forget themselves are socialised by their peers; there is a further habitual change in behaviour on entry to the classroom.
- secondly, a control scenario; students are reminded to do these things, they behave appropriately on the whole when supervised; but they don’t learn self-regulation; no habit is formed except to listen to staff; students learn little and
- thirdly, the uncontrolled scenario; students continue the inappropriate behaviour of the playground into the building; the wrong habits are learned; students fail to perceive any change in time and place, fail to practice appropriate behaviour and remain unable to switch when necessary; students are ill equipped for similar scenarios; no education has taken place.
The realisation of the vision therefore places a considerable responsibility on the academy; how to create an environment in which students build the habits in scenario one without the reminders and removal of ownership evident in scenario two or the poor behaviour evident in scenario three.
In our academy we say that we must learn to control the environment and the students must learn to control themselves. The answer requires understanding, training, attention to detail and organisation.
Where do we stand?
We need to consider what is happening at the door; at the place where the shift in time and place is manifest; the place where the students should have realised what is happening and adapted. The few metres outside, before the door, is crucial. The time it takes to move through these few metres are the fertile moments in which perceptions change, habits form, self-regulation occurs, ownership of behaviour develops. If staff place themselves here, they remove the conditions in which these habits take root deep in the subconscious and replace them with reminder and supervision.
Staff stationed at the entry to the building should therefore place themselves just inside the building; students reaching them should already be - evidently - in a new time and place, modelled and reinforced by the member of staff who is well dressed – not wearing a coat - and greets them politely and quietly.
Students who have not adapted by then should not be reminded but should be returned to the place in which they are surrounded by their peers and subject to social pressure; to the place where the fertile moments persist; where their perceptions can be retriggered, their habits re-established. They should be returned quietly to the few metres outside the door.
Many of these responses that we expect of staff will be alien; most traditional responses would be to remind, control and chastise where necessary; supervision in such a place would normally be charismatic, energetic and loud. Staff in an academy without our vision would tell students to tuck their shirts in and put their ‘phones away. That is not good enough if you have the vision we have. It is not good enough for the student to stand in the corridor inside the building and attend to whatever they have forgotten; that does not reinforce the behaviours we want to see.
Neither is it good enough for there to be no member of staff inside the door at all. The member of staff here is the model of what is required. In addition, such is the power of the social norm – positive or negative - that we say that we don’t want students to see or know any different. We don’t want students to see other students walking up the stairs with coats on or with their ‘phones out because this dilutes the social norm. The member of staff at the door – by returning students to the space outside the door - ensures the integrity of the social norm inside the building.
The answer also requires attention to process; how long do students need to adapt? What does this mean for logistics? A hundred students trying to enter the building at the same time through a small door might not create the right conditions; urgently herding students will certainly not set the right conditions. So we have to get our organisation right and our processes right.
The foundation for our vision - in this and many other cases - is quite simply where we stand.
A second example which typifies how details support vision is how we go about designing and using prep. When students spend their time at home preparing for lessons, they are building a habit which will stand them in great stead throughout their lives. They are preparing, they are taking ownership, they are managing their time, getting done what needs to be done; they are reading and they are practising recall. Most of all, however, they are entering - by habit - into a process of learning. They are building confidence in the value of preparation and confidence in their own ability to learn independently. Nearly 90% of our students say they value prep.
Prep has an established rationale; it is a leveller; it provides schemata; it promotes reading comprehension; practises recall and builds independent learning skills. However, for this to be true; for prep to be more than pre-reading or even worse, wider reading, prep must be meticulously planned.
There are many fertile moments where prep is concerned but one of the most significant is when students are sat at home on their beds choosing between their prep packs and their ‘phones. We want students to choose to do their prep. If they are to do so, they have to be confident, repeatedly over time, that the effort they put into their prep will pay off. This requires the details to be right – and consistently right – because students who were put off last week will take some time to win back.
Prep must be pitched well and engaging. The reading difficulty needs to be about 2 years above chronological age. The instructions should be very clear. There should be illustration. The prep article should be about one page of A4. The prep quiz and the ‘do now’ need to be answerable well by a student who has spent half an hour to an hour reading and understanding.
Students must know that the core knowledge in the prep will be central to their lesson; that they will feel the benefit of the hours spent at home when they hear the teacher mention as important what they gave their ‘phones up for; that they will be able to contribute in lesson because they have prepared; that they will hear the tier 3 vocabulary which last week was foreign to them and which they have spent time trying to learn, being used in a context they understand; they need to feel pride; they need to feel knowledgeable; they need to believe that the time spent in prep will mean they can put their hands up many times in the lesson with confidence. For a young student, the confident use of new vocabulary is tangible learning.
Students who do this in a subject week after week are developing a constructive habit; not because we tell them to, but because they see and experience the value. This is education; this is the development of outstanding habits of learning.
Our students love History; they do their History prep; they think they are great at History. Students are silent in the calm start in History because they are solidly writing! History prep scores are high in every year group. Hands go up all round the room the moment the History teacher introduces the topic. History gets the details right time and time again to create a virtuous circle of student participation and confidence. History contributes to the vision; to the development of outstanding habits of learning.
The matching of details to the vision takes some effort and planning, however.
Prep articles should be designed and written immediately after the core knowledge has been written in narrative form for the scheme of work. This is the time to do it because the core knowledge and tier 3 vocabulary required is fresh in the mind. Most teachers write their own prep articles to ensure that the core knowledge is presented in the way they want. Some teachers interleave and provide points of recall in prep articles. Tier 3 vocabulary is highlighted and defined in context.
This is also the time to design the prep quiz. The prep quiz should be answerable solely from the prep article. If it is not possible to design eight easily answerable questions on core knowledge from the article then perhaps the article needs work. The prep quiz answers should be one or two word answers; not only is this easy to mark but it provides confidence to students in their performance.
This is also the time to design the ‘do now.’ The ‘do now’ should also be answerable solely from the prep article and should take about ten to fifteen minutes to answer; probably something like a ‘describe’ question; if it can’t be designed like this then perhaps the prep article has little need for understanding and needs some depth.
This is also the time to design the tier 3 vocabulary list. If this is too long, perhaps the article is too wordy; if too short, perhaps there is too little subject specific vocabulary; perhaps the article is not challenging enough or lacks disciplinary literacy.
Students tell us why they do or don’t do their prep. The most common reason cited by students for not doing prep in a subject is that it doesn’t link to the lesson; the second is that it is too easy.
A further significant fertile moment where prep is concerned is what teachers do and say immediately after the calm start; how prep knowledge is embedded, fundamental and central. Students are wondering in this fertile moment if the time they spent is worthwhile. The best teachers understand that the prep quiz and ‘do now’ are fundamental parts of the lesson; they are recall points for core knowledge and a chance for students to retrieve knowledge and show understanding of what they know about the core knowledge presented before the lesson even starts. The best teachers use this period to assess where students understanding is and build on it; they use the students’ knowledge to build confidence and engagement, their understanding to create pace; they use the tier 3 vocabulary in context to improve language and understanding.
The best teachers also understand that to consolidate prep is to prove worthwhile in the minds of students the choice they made when they sat on their bed a few nights ago and chose education.
|The role of habit and detail in vision and culture||28th Jul 2021||Download|