Two more thoughts on habits and teaching

Two more thoughts on habits and teaching

I've been continuing to think about the role of habits in teaching, as I first wrote about here. In that post, I wrote that:

  • Habits are the building blocks of behavior, or as James Clear put it in his book Atomic Habits, our behaviors can be seen as lagging indicators of our habits.
  • Teaching is a kind of behavior, so we should be able to trace our teaching practices --- both the good ones and the not-so-good ones --- back to the habits that we've adopted.
  • In fact it seems to be the case that many, if not most college faculty teach purely motivated by their ingrained habits, rather than careful and scholarly reflection on different methods and their pros and cons. (To be fair, this is probably all faculty some of the time, and some faculty all the time.)
  • But, this means that insofar as our teaching may reflect bad or lazy habits and insofar as we need to adopt better ones, there are behavioral tricks we can perform that can help us get there. I highlighted Clear's formula of When I do x, then I will do y for creating habits and gave some examples.

This connection between habits and teaching seems quite rich in terms of explanatory power for how, practically speaking, we might promote better teaching in the college ranks. Here are a couple of additional thoughts on that (which were going around in my head when I wrote the first post, but it was already long enough).

First, thinking about teaching as an expression of our habits explains a lot about the negativity and pushback we often see from faculty when we advocate for better teaching. When you ask someone to improve their teaching, even indirectly (for example by bringing up this PNAS meta-analysis of active learning studies), you are often asking them to break old, unproductive habits and replace them with better ones. And as anyone who's a friend of someone stuck in a bad habit and who needs to change --- or anyone who's the parent of a teenager --- can tell you, getting a person entrenched in a bad habit to just listen and think about changing is serious work that leads through a morass of denial, defensiveness, and outright hostility, and possibly goes nowhere in the end.

Consider for example those "in defense of the lecture" articles that pop up in the media at regular intervals. They are almost always written by faculty who are entrenched in a mode of teaching Derek Bruff has called "continuous exposition" --- i.e. all lecture all the time --- and are either in denial of the research on active learning or completely ignorant of it, and the essays themselves tend strongly toward being defensive, closed-minded, and self-centered. They focus on what "works" for the faculty member but give almost no thought to the needs of others, particularly diverse populations of students who are in these lectures. Quite often there are no real arguments in these pieces at all, but when there are, they tend to be preposterous --- for example this old Atlantic piece I wrote about where the argument was that research shows active learning is better for students than lecture but that's only because we haven't gotten enough training on effective public speaking.

Compare this kind of behavior with that of a person who's entrenched in a habit that's objectively bad, like smoking, biting one's nails, or not exercising. Defensiveness? Check. Denial? Check. Focus on the self rather than others? Check. Responding to interventions with illogical or downright crazy-making "arguments"? Check. So, I don't think the authors of these essays are necessarily being obtuse on purpose. I think they're reacting at a visceral, even unconscious level at having to confront the inadequacy of their existing habits and what it will take to change.

So when we advocate for improved teaching practice, we'd do well to remember that while some will respond to this call with enthusiasm, others will burrow in and take a defensive posture, and we have to deal with such people as we would with anybody who's decided to double down on a bad but comfortable and familiar habit rather than accept the challenge to change --- with caution, patience, care, and a focus on small wins, while at the same time giving up no ground on what the research says works best for students.

That gets me to my other thought on this issue, and that's the role of habit formation when we talk about faculty development. As most readers know, I go around a few times a year and give faculty workshops on topics like flipped learning and teaching with technology. I used to focus (if you can call it that) these workshops on deep dives into big-picture items --- getting faculty to be emergent experts on flipped learning by giving extensive looks the history and research and practice of that subject. I've realized this isn't an effective approach because it rarely seemed to result in real behavioral change among the participants. The faculty liked these workshops and were enthusiastic about them, but I had only a handful of evidence that the faculty in attendance actually adopted different/better teaching practices as a result.

I think that's because the big-picture approach is just too much to translate into concrete action for the average faculty member. So these days, my approach has been to keep things minimal. I talk about the history and basic practice of flipped learning and some of the research behind it, but only enough to support the formation of basic habits that will support flipped learning later on --- and focus the workshop on building those habits. That's the essence of my One Year Plan. You don't immediately go and try to flip a class once you hear about flipped learning. You instead focus the first semester on building in habits of active learning and get those firmly ingrained, and then you think about redesigning a class.

I've only taken this approach with the most recent few workshops I've done, but I think it has a much bigger impact because it acknowledges the Pareto principle that 80% of our results result from 20% of our actions, and focuses on that crucial 20% instead of a big picture that's too big for most faculty to handle. The results have been pretty promising. Although we cover less in the workshops, we get more done and what we get done has more staying power. (Cue the comparisons with teaching.)

I wonder if faculty development everywhere wouldn't benefit from the same approach, to present a big idea to work toward like active learning or peer instruction or inclusive teaching practices or whatever --- for the first 1/5 or 1/4 of a workshop, and then the remaining 3/4 to 4/5 of the event are spent identifying and strategizing how to build daily habits of mind and practice that will eventually lead to the big results. You could even have faculty track this kind of thing using habit tracker apps or through some kind of bullet journal setup and use the results to quantify (or at least visualize) their progress. Maybe some faculty give up on developing as a professional not because they feel their current practices can't be improved upon but because they are secretly shamed by the daily failures and setbacks of adopting new and better habits.

It seems like that kind of approach might work especially well with training graduate students (who we in the faculty ranks do a notoriously bad job of preparing for teaching) and new faculty, because being in a new work context, they're in a perfect position to start fresh with their habits, and habits --- being at the atomic scale --- are simple to think about and measure, and therefore easy to talk about with faculty mentors or center-for-teaching staff. And again, it's satisfying to see behaviors change and improve over time through the adoption of better habits. Actually the behavior of cultivating good habits is itself a habit ("When I hear about some new teaching approach that seems good, I will set up the habits needed to learn it") and faculty at the start of their careers are well-situated to immerse themselves in it.

Any further thoughts on this? Leave them in the comments or on social media.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.