Teaching Opinion

Response: Several Ways We Can Help Students Develop Good Habits

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 04, 2012 9 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series on “habits.” Part Two will be published on Wednesday)

A lot has been published lately on “habits” -- how to create good ones and how to break bad ones.

So, last week I asked:

How can we help students develop good habits?

Today, I’m lucky enough to have Charles Duhigg, author of the new best-selling book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, sharing his responses to my questions on how to apply his research to our work in schools.

I’m impressed by his book, and have written about its implications for education.

Tomorrow, I’ll be posting Part Two in this series. It will include responses from other guests, as well as suggestions from readers.

Response From Charles Duhigg

Charles Duhigg is an investigative reporter for The New York Times. He is a winner of the National Academies of Sciences, National Journalism, and George Polk awards, and was part of a team of finalists for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize. He is a frequent contributor to This American Life, NPR, PBS’s NewsHour, and Frontline. Duhigg has spoken to audiences as varied as MIT (where he keynoted the 2010 engineering conference), the SC Johnson Company, and the Pasadena Art and Science Festival. A graduate of Harvard Business School and Yale College, Duhigg lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children:

1) In the excerpt from your book that appeared in The New York Times, I was struck by several ways what you wrote could be connected to education. One is the process you outlined about habit formation -- identification of a “habit loop” of cues and rewards. Can you first provide a simple outline of this habit formation process?

At the core of every habit is a neurological loop with three parts: A cue, which is like a trigger for an automatic behavior; a routine, which is the behavior itself; and a reward, which is how our brain ‘learns’ to remember a pattern for future use.

When most people think about habits, they tend to focus on the routine - the behavior - rather than the cue and reward. But research tells us that creating new habits inside classrooms and peoples’ lives requires focusing on cues and rewards.

Take, for example, exercise habits. In 2002 researchers at New Mexico State University studied almost 300 people who had developed exercise habits, such as working out three times a week. What they found was that many of them had started running or lifting weights almost on a whim, or because they suddenly had free time or wanted to deal with unexpected stresses in their lives.

However, the reason they continued exercising -- why it became a habit -- was because of a specific cue and a specific reward. The researchers found those people had created running habits by choosing a simple cue (like always lacing up their sneakers before breakfast or always going for a run at the same time of day) and a clear reward (such as a sense of accomplishment from recording their miles, or the endorphin rush they got from a jog).

2) Keeping mind the priority teachers have in helping students develop intrinsic motivation, what would your thoughts be about how educators could apply this concept in the classroom in helping our students develop positive habits?

Creating intrinsic motivation is among the hardest - and most important - aspects of designing habits.

Let’s return to the example of exercise habits. Countless studies have shown that when people first start exercising, the rewards intrinsic to physical activity aren’t enough. Put another way, the first time someone goes for a run, even if they record their miles, it won’t feel particularly rewarding. The ‘runner’s high’ caused by an endorphin rush often doesn’t occur the first time someone jogs.

So, to teach our brains to associate exercise with a reward, we need to use a trick. We need to give ourself something we really enjoy - such as a small piece of chocolate - after our workout. This is counterintuitive, because most people start exercising to loose weight. But the goal is to train your brain to associate a certain cue (“It’s 5:00.”) with a routine (“Three miles down!”) and a reward (“Chocolate!”)

Eventually, when your brain will start expecting the reward inherent in exercise (“It’s 5:00. Three miles down! Endorphin rush!”) and you won’t need the chocolate anymore. In fact, according to studies, after about a month, you won’t even want the chocolate. But until your neurology learns to enjoy those endorphins and the other rewards inherent in exercise, you need to jump-start the process. And then, over time, it will become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning.

The same is true inside classrooms: according to studies, the rewards inherent in learning - the joy of knowledge and discovery, the bliss of discovering something new - are hard to appreciate at first. Students who haven’t developed learning habits don’t know how to appreciate the reward. So they need extrinsic rewards, such as praise, or treats, or something else that is easy for them to appreciate. But over time, according to those studies, the intrinsic rewards will crowd out the external satisfactions, and the behavior will become automatic.

(Editor’s Note: For other perspectives on intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, see Several Ways To Engage Students Without Carrots & Sticks and Several Ways To ‘Motivate’ the Unmotivated To Learn).

3) Your discussion of Target’s use of data, while certainly disturbing, at the same time demonstrates the importance of inductive learning. It also seemed to use the concepts of chunking and automaticity. All three of these ideas can be important in the classroom. In your research, are there instances where you have seen these concepts used effectively for social good, and not just for selling more diapers?

Absolutely. One of the chapters in The Power of Habit is about how Starbucks teaches employees willpower habits. Dozens of studies show that willpower is among the single most important habits for individual success. And the way that Starbucks (as well as numerous schools) turn willpower into a habit is by relying upon the habit loop described above. Teachers can help students identify cues where their willpower is likely to fail (such as when temptations arise, or when heated emotions suddenly erupt) and then choose routines ahead of time. And by helping students recognize the rewards that come from self-discipline (such as making the link between getting your homework done, and the fulfilling sense of mastery when you understand what is going on inside a classroom), those tendencies become habits.

Some of these techniques are fairly sophisticated - the chapter describing how schools, companies and coaches have created willpower habits, for instance, spans almost 30 pages - but study after study shows how powerfully they can impact lives.

4) Are there other examples and concepts that you discovered in your research that would be applicable in the classroom?

One of my favorite lessons from the book regards a concept called ‘keystone habits.’ Some habits, say researchers, are more important than others because they have the power to start a chain reaction, shifting other patterns as they move through our lives. Keystone habits influence how we work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate. Getting keystone habits right can transform a classroom.

A great example of keystone habits lies in Michael Phelps, the Olympic champion. Phelps started swimming when he was seven years old. His coach, Bob Bowman, knew Phelps could be great, but to become a champion, he needed habits that would make him the strongest mental swimmer in the pool. So Bowman focused on giving the swimmer keystone habits that drew on what’s known as “the science of small wins.”

Small wins are exactly what they sound like. A huge body of research has shown that small wins have enormous power, an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves. “Small wins are a steady application of a small advantage,” one Cornell professor wrote in 1984. “Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win.” Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.

Every day, before a race, Phelps went through the exact same routine. He woke up at 6:00, pulled on a pair of sweatpants and walked to breakfast. Two hours before the starting gun fired, he began his usual stretching regime, starting with his arms, then his back, then working down to his ankles, which were so flexible they could extend more than ninety degrees, farther than a ballerina’s en pointe. At eight-thirty, he slipped into the pool and began his first warm-up lap. The workout took precisely forty-five minutes. At nine-fifteen, he exited the pool and started squeezing into his LZR Racer, a bodysuit so tight it required twenty minutes of tugging to put it on. Then he clamped headphones over his ears, cranked up the hip-hop mix he played before every race, and waited.

Which is exactly why Phelps’s daily stretching routine and eating routine - and every other routine - served as a keystone habit: they created a mounting sense of victory. “There’s a series of things we do before every race that are designed to give Michael a sense of building victory,” his coach, Bob Bowman, told me. “If you were to ask Michael what’s going on in his head before competition, he would say he’s not really thinking about anything. He’s just following the program. But that’s not right. It’s more like his habits have taken over. When the race arrives, he’s more than halfway through his plan and he’s been victorious at every step. All the stretches went like he planned. The warm-up laps were just like he visualized. His headphones are playing exactly what he expected. The actual race is just another step in a pattern that started earlier that day and has been nothing but victories. Winning is a natural extension.”

Keystone habits create small wins. So to identify the keystone habits in your life, look for those patterns that give you numerous, small senses of victory; places where momentum can start to build.

Thanks to Charles for sharing his response!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here. I’ll be including comments from readers in Part Two of this series tomorrow.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind. I’m way behind in acknowledging questions that have been sent in, but I promise to get caught up in the summer!

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I’ll be posting Part Two in this series on habits tomorrow, and the next “question of the week” on Friday.

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.