Does that make sense? Breaking bad habits

I’ve recently found myself noticing bad habits. My bad habits. Bad teacher habits. Things I know aren’t good practice, but which I do anyway. And I keep doing them even after I’ve become aware of them and thought, “I must stop doing that”. I guess that’s the problem with habits!

I started thinking more about these habits when listening to Mike Hobbiss at researcED Surrey, he mentioned a question he’d asked on Twitter about which habits teachers find it hard to break, the common themes were two of the very things I’d been becoming increasingly aware of doing myself – inefficient mechanisms for checking understanding, and talking when students are silent. It was time to try and break my bad habits.

I had also been dipping into Harry Fletcher-Wood’s Habits of Success looking at how we can develop good habits in students. I decided to try and apply these strategies to my own behaviour to try and turn bad habits into better ones.

The key ingredients in forming new habits are knowing what you want to change, being motivated to do so (these have been true for a while, but my habits have stuck), and crucially having a clear plan for change – a cue and a routine which it initiates. If practiced deliberately and often enough this will become a habit. Here’s how I’ve tried to turn around my top three bad habits.

Does that make sense?

I know that ‘student self report’ (TLAC – ‘reject self-report’) is a really ineffective way of checking for understanding. When planning lessons I try to think carefully about how I will check for understanding (mostly through questioning using ‘cold-call’ (TLAC) and mini whiteboards) when teaching new concepts. However, if a student asked a question, or a wide-spread lack of understanding became evident during independent practice, I would re-teach, or try to explain the concept better, then frequently find myself falling back to the default of asking, “Does that make sense?”, before allowing students to carry on. In these unplanned scenarios my bad habit kicked in. In most cases I would have thought about how to check understanding of the knowledge in question when I had originally taught it, so it wasn’t that I didn’t have the means to do this, I just wasn’t thinking about doing so.

I decided to try to make the bad habit my cue, so rather than asking, “Does that make sense?”, while the voice inside my head shouted, “You shouldn’t be asking that!” I decided to use asking the question as my cue to actually check for understanding.

Me: “Does that make sense?”

Student(s): “Yes.”

Me: “Okay, let’s check.”  Followed by some questions which actually check students’ understanding. 

With sixth form classes, I’ve asked the students to hold me to account on this to make sure that they’re learning more – this definitely helps to strengthen the cue.

Breaking the silence

My second bad habit is to set students off on silent work and then to interrupt the silence with completely unnecessary comments – reminders of the task when they’re all doing it, or a time check which they really don’t need. This time I couldn’t use my bad habit as the cue – that would be too late. Instead, I had a few productive things which I could do to make deliberate use of the silent time:

  • ‘Pastore’s Perch’ (TLAC) – Locating myself at the front corner of the room where I can watch all students working and get an idea of any who might be struggling and need my support so that I can make sure I check in with them later.
  • Using the time to input some student positives on our behaviour system (particularly with KS3 classes) – students love receiving them and I know I’m not very good at giving them. This takes a couple of minutes and I can do it from my ‘perch’, still taking notice of students.
  • Circulating the classroom – once students have had time to get started on the task and I’ve seen who I think might need support, I can circulate and have a closer look at their work. This informs any review activity which follows and helps me to plan what questions I will ask and who I want to hear answers from.

None of these are new ideas, but having a checklist in my mind of what I’m going to do when students are working silently, makes it much easier not to fall back into the habit of talking when I should be silent too.

Shhh!

My third bad habit is that of asking for silence (I usually count down from 3), then saying, “Shhh!”, if students are still talking, rather than just waiting for silence. Embarrassingly, I noticed this when I was leading a CPD session a few weeks ago and found myself saying, “Shhh!”, to a room full of adults (oops!). Since then I’ve realised that I do it all the time and I’m finding it the hardest of these three habits to break. 

My plan was to have the countdown for silence as the cue, with the new routine of just waiting for silence. I generally like to ‘narrate the positives’ (TLAC) and praise students for following instructions, but I’m less convinced of this in the case of waiting for silence – praising silence adds to the noise. But doing nothing seems to be a routine which I’m finding challenging to turn into a habit.

Thinking about these habits and deliberately planning how I might change them has helped me to start altering behaviours I’ve had for years.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.

Aristotle

This applies as much to teaching as anything else. We’ll become better teachers by turning bad habits into good, one little habit at a time.

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TLAC – Strategies from Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion

Image: Silence by Gianluca Manzana from the Noun Project

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