Habits- Why we need to change them?

I have been delivering CPD for at least one day a week for over 5 years now. TryThisTeaching.com/CPD

I am fortunate enough to be able to do this alongside being an Assistant Head Teacher leading on Teaching & Learning and Inclusion. This mix and blend allows me to practice what I preach so to speak. It gives me the chance to take back ideas to and from both jobs to ensure the very best, most effective practice is shared and being worked on.

Something I have spent a lot more time thinking about recently, is whether the reason some teachers on the surface of things, seem reluctant to do things others would regard as ‘more’ effective or ‘more’ productive, may be because of their habits.

We are all people/creatures of habits. Our daily/nightly/weekday/weekend routines, actions and decisions are actually almost 50% a habit. Despite us thinking we have planned ahead or thought about what we will do. They are hardwired into our psyche. Habits are argued to be formed neurologically. (Ref.)

Triggers are what activate our habits from a routine or a task we need to complete or we have completed before. It is a cue to remind us to provoke into action our habit. This is movement from the pre-frontal cortex to the basal ganglia. This is why it is a habit, ‘because it’s happening in this part of your brain that for all intents and purposes, from what we think of as thinking, is completely exempt from that process.’

The trigger provokes an action which is good or bad which then stimulates and outcome or a reaction. Which should not be a surprise to us, as we will have experienced it before. It is what we are intending by this almost subconscious action(s).

So what do we do about it? If we have become automatons in this area. How do we change any such (bad) habits.

Firstly, we have to diagnose and negotiate what the habit is giving us. Why we have the habit and what we get out of the habit. We need to ascertain what the surrounding factors are; the emotional response or the expected outcome. We then need to determine what the reward for completing that habit in that particular way is. Is the reward the actual reward or is it an excuse to gather an alternative reward.

E.G. craving one Snickers a day. Is that what you want, or do you buy this Snicker on your drive home and is actually what you are craving, the break in your commute?

Not following behavioural systems in school? Shouting at students? Not using the preferred marking and editing codes? Why? Do we get a better emotional or physical response by not following the ways of working as set out by the school?

If you are aware of this then you will be aware of what researchers call the ‘habit loop; this cue, routine, and reward framework.’

Duhigg’s Habit Loop (2012)

In summary, the cue triggers us to start a routine, which motivates an action, which provides a reward, which then satisfies the craving and, ultimately, becomes associated with the cue.

So when we receive CPD and a trainer has suggested that we need to do something different, for instance use ‘Dual Coding’ to allow our students to receive information in a more effective method. This is the trainers attempt to get us to begin a new intended habit or change a previous habit. To use Dual Coding. Here we need to consider and reflect on what is the most difficult part that is being asked is it creating a new habit or breaking an old habit? My viewpoint is that by tweaking what we do to what we need to do, by starting a new habit we are simultaneously breaking an old habit? Can they coexist?

We then need to think about our trigger(s) for when we need to activate this habit.

Our cue for attempting to instil the habit of Dual Coding is when we are designing/planning or preparing our Presentations/PowerPoints and resources. The action needed is to use images that support the learning of the information. The reward should be, well more success for the students, more progress and better outcomes? The cost of this reward, initially may be that it feels like more work? It’s harder to do? It takes more time…

However, ultimately to enjoy our work more we need to do it right. Therefore the reward of achieving an effective, productive way of working is in theory self fulfilling.

Do we call habits in our organisation consistency? As schools we all yearn for organisational habits, i.e consistency. We refer to the term visible consistencies a lot in my current school. Essentially we would like habitual ways of working.

Think about this in the format of context and cue and use the phrasing ‘when’ and ‘then.’ (This is a recommended strategy by the Institute of Teaching.)

E.G- When I get plan my lessons in the morning/afternoon/evening*, then I will use images to help support the written words’.

*Being consistent for the when, allows the context and cue to embed more successfully.

The Institute for Teaching has written about ‘What do we know about habit building’ and stress the importance of habit reminders, e.g Post It Notes, or Alarms, ‘but in order for a habit to become truly automated, these need to be phased out.’ Do not forget changing a habit becomes ‘easier’ when you seek peer-to-peer support. Could you work on something together? Working in departments and holding each other to account through cheer or admonishment will work! Checking in on each other through Peer Observations is a helpful way to pave the path for successful habit building.

But, still, how do we break the habit of just doing what we always do, which in this case is to plan and create PowerPoints/Slides without any Dual Coding? Well, research has shown we also have ‘Keystone Habits’ which set off an avalanche of reactions. It is in our interest to make changes to our usual ways of working.

Have you ever noticed when you start to make a change in your life, it triggers associated changes. The same will apply to teaching, when you aim to break a usual way of working, you will continue to do so in other areas.

Think about excercise? As a result you will eat less junk food, you will probably spend less on takeaways and therefore, save money?

This is why, when I am delivering CPD I stress the need for 1 tweak a week, working on something, a habitual change for a week to then trigger a reaction to another habit forming. This is called ‘Piggy Backing’ as squeezing in time to make a change and finding another point of your day to do something new is far more difficult then to associated your new change/addition/action to something you already do. Remember the first step is often the hardest, once you get the bug, you will keep going!

‘Peter Gollwitzer’s (1999) research into Implementation Intentions found that those who think carefully about what they are going to do, as well as when and how they are going to do it, are more successful in embedding new habits.’

This is why good CPD must build in time for teachers to plan their implementation intentions. I always insist on time being provided for departments to work on their plans. Short, medium and long term with goals turning into actions, actions turning into steps, steps into tasks and therefore outcomes.

Good managers understand the importance of habits and they think about it. Bad managers pretend like organizational habits don’t exist. And so when habits emerge, they end up being distortive or toxic. Charles Duhigg. Harvard Business Review.

At a personal level we need to understand the way our habits drive us, in order for us to make changes with our teaching we need to understand the Habit Loop within it. A popular myth that even I have perpetuated is that it takes 30 days to build a habit, however, for some 7 days might be enough for others it might be 107 days. Don’t let that put you off. You are potentially trying to change items you have done for years!

I don’t believe any teacher consciously avoids, ignores and chooses not to be effective in the classroom, but instead those teachers have ingrained habits that need changing. It is our job to help change them.

Aristotle once said that excellence is not an act, but a habit.

To be continued… I need to do what I always do at this time now…






  1. Thanks, Amjad – interesting to read.

    I worked with 40 aspiring senior leaders yesterday. At the end of such sessions, I ask all participants to identify:

    3 things you will do differently as a result of your reflections today.
    For each one: Why have you chosen it? When will it happen? How will you check on yourself that you’ve followed through on your commitment to do this?
    And, crucially, what will you stop doing, or do less of, to create the time and space for whatever you have chosen?

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