The importance of habits

Are we all just habits?

In this post I will attempt to discuss the implications of habit research into how we look at student behavior and in general as well. I will show the implications of the research out there and how perhaps, not being strict enough is truly doing people a disservice. I also hope to, once and for all put an end to the understandable, yet stunningly ignorant and naive standpoint that all we have to do is to get the students to understand and then they will behave. I will take on the lexical definitions as well as a study’s definition of what habits really are.

Firstly, here is the study’s definition of what habits are:

“Habits are behaviours which are performed automatically because they have been performed frequently in the past. This repetition creates a mental association between the situation (cue) and action (behaviour) which means that when the cue is encountered the behaviour is performed automatically. Automaticity has a number of components, one of which is lack of thought.” (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/2009/aug/how-long-does-it-take-form-habit)

Before you start attacking me for wanting to program nazi space robots, I will just let you know that it is not my intention. My intention is to take away the bullshit. I want to get rid of what prohibits us from discovering our true potential. I want to make social change by way of education. How so? Habits, such as vaguely put: caring about the individual, being respectful, listening, respect for learning and expertise, respect for oneself to critique from a point of knowledge and humility. In what ways? Contextualize the proper behavior in given situations.

For example, Student A disrupts in class and despite being told to not do so again, continues. Consequence: detention 30 minutes after school. Possible consequence of said consequence: the student will not disrupt again. Other students will follow suit and not disrupt class. The students might have never understood why they should not disrupt in class. They might even understand, but would still do it. What are we interested in? Getting them to understand because we somehow believe that a verbal confirmation parroted back to us = all things are right? No, I am afraid to say it is not.

This particular study reached the conclusion that accruing some kind of new habit would usually take something like 66 days in general – and in some cases as fast as 18 days. These habits were not advanced in themselves. So, when we ask a student to just realize something, they will not. Even more so, they actually could well know the why and the what, but because they do not have the wanted behavior as a habit, it will still not happen.

“In our study, we looked at how long it took people to reach a limit of self-reported automaticity for performing an initially new behaviour (that is, performing an action automatically), and the average time (among those for whom our model was a good fit) was 66 days.”
https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/2009/aug/how-long-does-it-take-form-habit

Wow, and you try to get a kid to change his/her habits by simple way of conviction? That is naive and frankly mental torture. The kid could even understand, but that makes no difference if he/she cannot change. And the stress you put on parents, kids, teachers, social services and SLT in this culture of trying to get people to change simply through “understanding” is downright contra-productive.

Yes, so here we are, wherever we are. By choice? By virtue? By habits? By luck? This is my case for that we could just please, for the last time, shut the hell up about making students understand what they are doing is wrong. Or saying that “he/she doesn’t understand, it’s impossible!” Tribalism and familiar habits will not make us grow. What we want to change is the habits. The habits are all the settled tendencies or usual manners of behavior.

I might seem reductionist, however, I hope to make a case that I am not advocating a simple policy. I am not going to alleviate your pain and suffering. I am no Messias and I have not seen the land of glory. I have seen the sham of folly and I have walked in the darkness. I have stood by silently, as a silent witness for too long, seeing the Messiah crucified. I am here to testify as an ordinary human.

I am sick and tired of the excuses for teachers, staff, parents and students that if someone does not understand, then that means that person is excluded from consequences. That somehow that person is a lost cause (even though that might actually be the case, but try consequences first, TEACH that person how to act).

Try to use the consequences first. Make students realize that every time they exhibit a certain behavior or habit, then the consequences will always be the same. The kid will not necessarily know why they should be polite and friendly towards others. To heck with that. Let them experience the positive consequences for doing so – it is usually rewarded right back.

During my nine years as a teacher, I have dealt with all sorts of kids. Kids who I knew would never eat breakfast. Kids who I knew could never do any homework other than in school. Kids who I knew were deeply depressed. All kinds of kids. Everyone had some kind of baggage.

Baggage can drag us down. In this metaphor the baggage is our habits, both good and bad. Are you hearing me? The baggage is our habits. We are dragged down by our habits, both good and bad. We are here, right? You, I and all the others are here. Somehow we all made it. We’re alive still. Whatever small incidents or major calamities which have befallen us – we still made it through, we’re still here. We are still doing relatively well. We all have baggage. And if you are a teacher, you have surely picked up on a few things students and you do which are bad and good habits.

Are we just the sum of our accumulated habits, genes and environment? And if so, is it really all that bad? And, if not, could that perspective on things, perhaps be enough? This is where my reductionist part comes into play.

Enough for what? Enough of a low-resolution of the world to be a mensch toward others. Enough to know when to use tough love and when to be kind. Enough to know when to fight tooth and nail for what we believe is just. Enough to be humbled by what privilege we and others have and have not. Enough to be grateful for whatever crumbs were thrown our way in the great lottery of life. Enough to see that we can change our lives and others too.

Habits then, what are they in the lexical sense? According to Webster, the following:

habit noun

hab·​it | \ ˈha-bət  \

Definition of habit (Entry 1 of 2)

1

: a settled tendency or usual manner of behavior

her habit of taking a morning walk

2

a

: an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary

got up early from force of habit

b

: ADDICTION

a drug habit

c

: a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition or physiologic exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance

the daily bowel habit

3

a

: a costume characteristic of a calling, rank, or function

a nun’s habit

b

: a costume worn for horseback riding

4

archaic : CLOTHING

5

: manner of conducting oneself : BEARING

6

: bodily appearance or makeup

a man of fleshy habit

7

: the prevailing disposition or character of a person’s thoughts and feelings : mental makeup

a philosophical habit

8

of an organism : characteristic mode of growth or occurrence

a grass similar to Indian corn in habit

9

of a crystal : characteristic assemblage of forms at crystallization leading to a usual appearance : SHAPE

I am going to pick up on these definitions, albeit not from 1-9, instead I will actually start with definition number 9: “of a crystal : characteristic assemblage of forms at crystallization leading to a usual appearance : SHAPE”

Anyone else in this place reading David Didau? If you do, then surely you must also see how this is fantastic?! It is “a crystallization leading to a usual apperance.” If you don’t know, read his blogpost here . To summarize very broadly, the connection here is that there are two broader categories wherein one might find intelligence. One is the fluid intelligence, which is hard to alter in general and depend on your genes, IQ if you will. The other one, which we all in school should really take at heart is the crystallized intelligence. It is this kind of intelligence which goes on almost indefinitely through one’s life where one will build more and more knowledge, which once rooted firmly and recalled many times, will just continue to grow and further make it easier to learn within the subject-domains of that knowledge.

Now, the one who is quick thinking might get things faster. But, if someone comes up short to a new situation compared to someone who is used to it, the one with the experience and the knowledge usually trumps the other one.

How so? Well, the accumulated habits and crystallized formations of knowledge that person A (experienced, perhaps mid-IQ, roughly 110, just for the sake of argument) has over person B (inexperienced, high-IQ, roughly 140, just for the sake of argument) will make a huge difference. The more complex the systems of knowledge and different indirect knowledge, the harder it is to learn.

So, we gear up kids for success by showing them the values of acquired habits, yes? Well, duh, we already know that, and if you want to get more into that question I’ll advise you to read more from David Didau.

I am not going to go into much more detail on that part, really. Rather, what I wish to get through now is the habits. Let us imagine the following scenario:

You are always late for work. Always, no exception. You do not eat any breakfast. You sleep very little because you deal with anxiety and some kind of depression. It’s ye olde vicious cycle that could easily get to anyone of us, at any time. You rush from point A to point B and use devices to “chill out” and escape reality. You have no or low energy when you get home, where you actually have more work to do, some for your day job and some for your family. You binge watch YouTube and Netflix at night just to keep the demons away.

These types of habits have consequences, obviously. Fast-forward three years in with the same habits. You are still getting by, but just barely. Your performance has gotten worse over the years. Your boss and your loved ones are starting to notice how it is not working. They try to tell you. They try to help. You resist. You hate hearing about the way you do things is wrong, that you should think about your responsibilities. You know what you are doing is wrong. But, it is hard. There is a complicated story behind all of it (there usually is). You feel cheated of life itself.

You say to yourself and others that “Yeah, yeah, I’ll do better. Yeah, I know it’s easy and sounds easy, but it’s not, it’s just so hard!”

We have all been there, in one way or another. Or, if we have not, we know someone who has. Oh, you do not think so? What if this could be one of your students? You know, THAT student who is always tardy with everything that everyone fights for tooth and nail to get through the various thresholds in school, yeah, THAT kid. That kid who seems to be in a rut with some kind of learned helplessness. That kid who everyone tries to be supportive of, who will hear everyone be on his/her case all the time.

Is there any way out? Is there anything that could help? Well, counseling is being brought into mind now. Or, perhaps there is something wrong with this person? Perhaps this person needs to be checked to see if she/he has some kind of diagnosis, which should have been in place a long time ago? Perhaps it is time to medicate?

No, or yes, I do not know. What I do know is that habits will change us or let us be the same. Time will go on. We will die. It is what has been recognized for so long – the paradox that the more discipline and habits rule your life – the more freedom you will have.

The person who is not doing so well might have some trauma behind all of it. Perhaps getting to the bottom of it is good. That does not in any way exclude changing habits. It turns out that we can control ourselves and be controlled much easier than we all dare to admit. The sad reality is that if you do not have any good habits before you become an adult, then you will suffer. The price for naivety is suffering. The price for not seeing and not being true to yourself is suffering. The way out of suffering is to see the ability we all have to change.

The change is not that dramatic however, it is very unlikely that we just one day wake up and go full-on motivation guru/coach mode and just own everything! The change starts small. Change small habits. Get credit for the positive changes. Punishment for getting back to the old ones. Make it hard to get back to the old habits which were no good for you. The rewards and punishments must be felt in accordance with the proper level of violation or achievement.

My kids will say thank you for their meal and ask if they can leave the table. To some, that is something obvious which you should get your kids to do, whereas for others, it is a bit overkill. They did not get why when we started doing so, but for my nine-year-old, the understanding of the why is getting there. As they do this, they get compliments from grownups. If they miss it, I will tell them every time to do so. In this case, those two are all the consequences they need.

I have not talked about what we need to change because that is easy. We all know usually what to do. The thing we usually mistake ourselves and other people for is how fast we want people to change. When we ask people to change something, we are asking them to change a habit of doing things. We are asking them to get new habits. If the person is open for it and we show it properly by way of instruction and encouragement, then the person will pick up on it. We are nice like that, most of the time.

Can we get people to understand us then? Yes, we can. However, this only works if you are willing to listen and understand them right back. I will bash my younger self a bit (it is all right, he is used to it, it is a bit of a habit) to illustrate my point:

I loved debating people when I was younger. I loved telling them how wrong they were (at least in my very limited but vastly overestimated “fountain of knowledge”). That is not in and of itself a bad thing. What is bad is how I thought I could convince others. I very rarely did. I thought I would convince people, especially the times I was so sure I had repeated the exact same line of arguments, executed almost close to near-mimicry perfection in accordance with someone way smarter than me to my opponent. Nope, I did not even convince the audience.

I had a hard time understanding myself. I had a hard time getting others to understand me. Actually, that, I think, is perhaps a never-ending struggle within each and everyone of us. I wish I would have understood earlier how easy it was to win the arguments. No one ever told me I could win, not by dominating or convincing my opponent, no, I won by listening to, understanding them and then making myself understood.

I had to pick up on clues that others were telling me. The consequence of not listening was that I was never truly heard. The consequences of never understanding others were that I could never understand myself, let alone be understood by others. I had to develop new habits.

This is where I finish this time around. Getting people to understand and change using reason is all good. Getting people to understand by listening to them and articulating your own point is all good too. Then again, if you really want to see some change, aim for the habits.

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