Charles Duhigg is a champion writer. Through years of deliberate practice, he’s attained a level of excellence that makes the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Times bestseller list possible.
In his book The Power of Habit, you begin to see how Duhigg reached this level of success. Yet, more importantly, you see how we can teach our students, and ourselves, to do likewise.
Why my students don’t turn in their homework
The full title of Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, contains the book’s central question: why do we do what we do?
That’s something I’m interested in knowing, but from a slightly different angle: why do my students do what they do?
I teach fourteen-year-olds that I genuinely love, but that doesn’t mean their actions don’t often frustrate me. I’ve got my fair share of “Wow, these kids are amazing” stories from this year’s crop of kids (and every crop before), but I’m much more intensely interested in why they don’t do as well as I hope they will.
Too often as educators, we slip into one of two modes when thinking about students:
- super positive at the expense of considering negative realities,
- super negative at the expense of considering positive realities.
I commend a third way: super grounded in a balanced reality. In general, we ought to strive for a view of students that is fervently committed to their potential for long-term flourishing and therefore relentlessly facing the brutal facts so that we can make adjustments toward what works.
I’m not interested in negativity or positivity — instead, reality + a single-minded devotion to the goal. And my goal, as a freshman teacher, is to help my students develop the academic and character strengths they’ll need to succeed in the long-term. (For more on why the freshman year is so pivotal, click here.)
So back to Duhigg’s book: can it tell me why my students don’t turn in their homework?
In a word: habits
The thing with habits is that our brain basically turns off when we enter a habit loop. It goes like this:
- We experience a cue
- We complete a routine
- We receive a reward
The majority of my students who don’t do their homework do not lack the desire to be successful. The problem is that, even though they are visualizing in class how and when they’ll do their homework, that visualization doesn’t succeed against their home-from-school routines.
For many of them, it goes something like this (feel free to switch out “video games” with cell phone, Internet, etc.):
- They sit down to do their homework and experience the desire to play video games.
- They tell themselves they’ll just play for a minute.
- They feel awesome because video games are really fun; they end up playing for longer than a minute.
My students are not stupid — no more so than the guy writing this article who knows he needs to eat less sugar yet still seems to eat an unnecessary snack each day — but they are also not immune to the immense power of habit. (Hence the name of Duhigg’s book.)
So the question is, how do we help students change their habits? How do we help ourselves change our habits to do the things we’ve always dreamed about doing?
Keystone habits: little big things
It’s hard for me to pick a favorite part of a book like Duhigg’s — that genre of explanatory journalism is so fun to me; it’s right in the same vein as Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed. Duhigg tells stories of brain-damaged patients and the Indianapolis Colts and aluminum manufacturing companies, and the whole time he’s building this story about the power of human habits, and I just can’t help but be enthralled.
But here is probably my favorite part of the whole book: the concept of the keystone habit.
Why aren’t more of us physically fit?
Physical health is a near universal goal, yet few of us have it.
Take me: I eat too much junk food, don’t really exercise, and don’t consistently sleep as much as I should. Yet I want to be healthier — so why don’t I do the work to get there?
It’s the same reason that many of my students don’t do their homework! Success in school is like being physically fit — it requires this whole set of tiny behaviors to happen on a consistent basis, day in and day out.
Here’s how keystone habits come in
The good news is that researchers have found that not all habits are equal. For example, with physical fitness, they’ve found that if you just develop one small habit, the rest are much more likely to follow — that one small habit is exercising for a few minutes a day.
Jonathan Fields explains it best in this guest post over at ZenHabits:
Every morning, you wake up and power walk around the block or do 5 minutes of Sun Salutations. The commitment threshold is so low, you don’t dread the behavior the way you would had you committed to 45 minutes out of the gate. Then a funny thing happens. You hit 5 minutes and you figure, hey I can go for another minutes or two, I’m already here.
Over a period of weeks and months, the behavior becomes more automatic and the repetition begins to build facility and ease that allows you to do more, work harder, suffer less and smile more. So, without even thinking about it, you end up expanding 5 minutes into 25, then 35 and 45. And along the way, something else begins to happen.
You begin to exercise long enough and at a high-enough level of intensity that your brain begins to change. Your mindset becomes much calmer and the stressor hormones that seemed ever-present start to fade. Your prefrontal cortex stays better fueled and lets you self-regulate with far more ease. You also start to become stronger and maybe even start to lose a bit of weight and become more physically capable, which makes you feel better emotionally.
With that emotional shift, you start to need sugar, cigarettes and alcohol less and less, because the exercise is giving you the psychological boost those things used to give you. So without even forcing it, your diet begins to change. You begin to eat healthier foods and take an interest in foods that’ll allow you to fuel your exercise better. That in turn leads you feel stronger, prouder of your choices, healthier and less pained, which leads to more exercise, better nutrition, less abusive compensatory behaviors and more weight loss and strength gains.
Your single commitment to 5 minutes of mild exercise, over times, begins to unlock a waterfall of follow-on behavior shifts that, done in a ritualized way become their own habits.
So, after you go out and take that five minute walk, come back and let’s talk about what this keystone habit idea has got me thinking about success for our students and for us.
How do keystone habits help our students and us?
Here at Teaching the Core, I think we’re all pretty comfortable with the idea that hit-every-last-standard approaches to teaching don’t get the job done; instead, we aim to reduce our work, be it literacy instruction or character development, as much as possible, aiming at those 20% of standards or strategies that might yield 80% of the results.
So obviously, this concept of the keystone habit is highly intriguing to us. It also promises to make us better at our own lives and jobs.
It makes me wonder: what are the keystone habits of thinking, reading, writing, and speaking? What’s the keystone habit of developing things like grit and self-control? I’ll be talking more about that lattermost bit in the weeks to come, as I have a very fun announcement to make next week.
But for today, I just want to end by putting the question to you, my colleagues:
What are the keystone habits for success in school? For reading, writing, speaking, and listening?
Which habits are most likely to create a “waterfall” of further behavior shifts, thereby solidifying our students’ chances of long-term success?
I’ve thought a lot about this in the last week and have some theories. I shared one last week during a keynote at the SSDA conference in Sactown , and I’ll share it with you in my next post.
What’s your gut tell you in response to the questions above? Let’s talk about it in the comments section below.
1. I’m not kidding — that is what folks nearby call Sacramento, CA. There’s even a fan website for Sacramento’s NBA team called Sactown Royalty. Thank you to my friend Angela Quinteros for letting me in on this beautiful nickname.