Habits of Learning: Whose responsibility are they?
Habits of learning are important. We know that students are more successful as learners when their habits are effective. But what makes habits effective? Why do some students seem to be more successful than others? Why do we keep fighting the same battles over and over and over? Why can’t they just be more responsible?!
In all of our time teaching and working in schools, there seem to be two types of habits of learning that most concern teachers: those that focus on compliance or behavior, and those that require executive functioning skills. Yes, these overlap at times, but it’s helpful to look at them through this simple lens in order to allow us to focus on what’s most important: learning.
Habits of Compliance or Behavior: Often, when we talk about responsibility and preparation and participation and self-direction, we are really talking about compliance or behavior. We want students to do X because, frankly, it will make our lives easier (and yes, with large classes and little time to plan during the school day, our lives being easier often leads to us being better, more efficient teachers). Here are some examples of habits of compliance or behavior:
- Coming to class with a pen or pencil.
- Walking in the hallways.
- Being on time to class.
- Not having phones out in class.
- Raising hands to talk, or not talking out of turn.
- Staying on task.
While these behaviors may help students be ready to learn, they really have very little to do with learning directly. To be clear: we are not saying these are not important behaviors, and we are not saying we don’t want to encourage these in every way possible. But they are not really habits of learning.
In order to improve these behaviors, we need to determine what’s most important to us, come to terms with ourselves about why it’s important, and then develop structures and systems that help students comply or behave, and minimize the environments and situations that encourage behaviors we don’t want. A few years ago, we wrote a blog post about this called Cleaning the Counters: Changing our Habits to Improve Theirs, which focuses on problems such as turning work in and timeliness. These are student behaviors we can improve by changing our own behaviors, systems, and structures.
One side note about these habits. Next time you are at a faculty meeting or at an inservice, note how many adults tick off the above list. Note the number of adults who are late, those who have their phones out, those grading papers, those having side conversations; and ask your administrators how many of the adults in the building turn in their paperwork on time, or their reflections, or even their grades. And if you ask these adults why they are late or why they are checking their phones or why they are grading papers instead of focusing on the task, they will almost all say that what they are doing is important. They will cite trouble at home for the phone use, an important meeting with a student for why they are late, and not enough hours in the day for why they have the stack of papers on their lap. All good reasons. All legitimate, perhaps. But no more legitimate than our students’ reasons for the same behaviors. Saying “kids these days” lack responsibility is usually not true, and allows us all off the hook.
Executive Functioning Habits: True habits of learning are often related to executive functioning skills. These are actual skills (as opposed to behaviors). And here’s a shocking, horrible, and unbelievably important fact: executive functioning skills don’t fully develop until humans are in their early 20s. Yup. In mid adolescence, age 15-16, most students can function fully in what’s called “cold cognition” environments...in other words, in a vacuum. In “hot cognition” environments, or any times there are other teens around, the functioning is compromised. In middle school, there’s not even full functioning in that vacuum (Jensen). What does this mean? It means we can’t expect students to be good at things that their brains are not developmentally able to be good at!
But this also means that we should be instructing executive functioning, modeling it, and allowing students to practice it in a safe, supportive environment. We should NOT be taking points off, punishing or rewarding students, or expecting the improbable.
Here are a few common examples of executive functioning skills:
- Time management (planning and prioritizing)
These are all things we often expect students to be good at, but developmentally, most of them are not there yet. Because of this, it’s easy to spend crazy amounts of time and emotional energy focusing on these as problems, when we should be looking at them as opportunities to develop and practice these skills.
What can we do to help students develop these skills?
Model effective habits of learning and be intentional about instruction: the more students see what these habits look like, the more models they have to imitate. Letting students see a variety of strategies can help them choose one that will work for them. Here are some examples:
- For time management: When you are giving directions, model how you break down a task and keep track of the steps. In addition, provide time estimations and periodically stop tasks in order to have students check these estimations and set individual time goals. If we want students to become self-aware and effective time managers, we need to teach and monitor these skills in class, where we have the ability to control and adjust as necessary. Task sheets can be really helpful for this. (Side note: Homework does not teach time management.)
- For organization: If using Google Classroom, take 15 minutes once a week to model how you organize your inbox; with all of those emails coming in, students need to learn to prioritize, organize, and occasionally purge technologically. If students keep binders, spend time each week in school (not for homework!) showing them different ways to organize these.
- For perseverance and self-monitoring: teach students about zones of proximal development, and provide them with a system to self-identify their challenge level. Recognizing levels of challenge is the first step to being able to self-regulate, and it encourages perseverance. Here’s a video of 2 students explaining how to use Red, Yellow, and Green cards to self-monitor.
Intentionally articulating, modeling, instructing, and providing feedback on habits will help students improve. But too often we stop at articulating, telling students what we want them to do or how we want them to behave without using what we know about their brains and development to help them get better. If we are going to report about student habits, we have the responsibility to do more than just reward or punish. Putting these habits and behaviors on students--expecting them to take the responsibility to improve--may not only be developmentally inappropriate, but may distract us and them from the learning that is most important. There’s only so much time in our day...let’s use it responsibly.
Helpful resources about child and adolescent brain development:
Power of the Adolescent Brain by Thomas Armstrong
Teaching with the Brain in Mind by Eric Jensen