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Teachers are in the habit forming business

There’s no escaping one simple truth: teachers are in the habit forming business.

The only problem is that – the older they get – students are in the habit of manipulating their teachers to provide them with answers and solutions rather than helping them build understanding for themselves. Teachers – in many schools – comply with this and work very hard to cover all bases and make sure that the what they have taught is watertight. This may not necessarily assure high standards and transferable habits of mind that can be applied elsewhere.

Despite the findings of John Hattie and others – It’s what learners do that matters…make students their own teachers – we continue to disempower our students and make them less well-equipped for the challenges they will meet after school. As Tim Birkhead of Sheffield University has said of first year undergraduates: It’s almost as if the spoon-feeding and teach-to-the-test culture of schools has robbed them of independent thought. This isn’t just a UK problem, I have found heads nodding recently when talking to audiences of Irish and Dutch principals.

We have a choice: either build the habits of dependency – Do we turn the page now? – or orchestrate our lessons with a focus not just on content but the habits that students will need in order to access that content and truly understand it.

First of all, we need to think habits not skills.

A skill is something that can be taught, tested and graded but it will not be engrained unless it is habituated through use and application in a variety of different contexts inside and outside school.

If my teachers organise lessons so that I am in the habit of asking questions of myself, others and whatever is coming before me then I will stay curious and progress deeper questioning habits over time.

If my teachers want me to listen actively – not passively – then they need to make listening a feature in lessons so that I am not just told to listen but stimulated to listen forensically to what I am hearing (read more in my blog about listening here).

If my teachers want me to do more than cooperate with others – Turn to your partner and talk about… – then they need to build collaborative challenges into their lessons so that I learn how to adopt flexible roles, work to deadlines and function in effective teams.

If my teachers want me to think before I do anything then they need to stop over-scaffolding my work and doing the planning for me by building in thinking time when I can routinely ask myself questions like: What do I know…what do I need to know.. how can I get started… when will I stop and take stock…?

It only takes a small shift for teachers to make a huge difference.

Instead of spending preparation time thinking exclusively about what students need to learn, spend more time thinking about how they need to be as learners and orchestrate your lessons accordingly.

I watched a consummate professional teach a lesson with this dual focus recently. Year 9 students were to explore the properties of Photosynthesis and to move through a carousel of practical experiments in order to make meaning for themselves. The teacher asked the class to discuss how they would need be as a class to make the most of this.

Aware of their learning habits, they agreed that they would need to notice features, distil what they were seeing, link each experiment to those that went before, listen actively to each other and review their points of view as they went along.

The teacher warmed up these habits by showing them a three minute clip from a feature film – sound only. Before he did so, he said what might you hear? They said sound effects, music and voices. He asked them to consider how they might capture their perceptions. Some suggested by drawing, others by spider diagrams, others flow diagrams – he told them to choose what was best for them.

They listened and recorded then they shared perceptions in pairs. They adapted their points of view before he showed the clip again – visuals only this time. They were rapidly making links and changing their opinions. There was an atmosphere of avid curiosity that infected the ways in which they operated when conducting their experiments. Better still, they critiqued their learning approaches and changed tack. As one students was heard to say: We’re not linking what we’ve just seen to what we’re seeing now… we need to listen to each other better.

Learning habits in practice as a result of teaching that focuses on the how of learning and not just the what have they got to learn.

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