The Power of Habit in Schools

I recommend The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.  It’s a sharp, helpful book which shines a light on the role that habits play in our lives.

Duhigg describes habits as ‘the choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day’.  He cites a Duke University paper which suggested that ‘more than 40 per cent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.’

Duhigg describes a community as a ‘giant collection of habits’ which got me thinking about habits in schools, inspired by Duhigg’s reassurance that ‘habits can be changed, if we understand how they work’.  I was particularly drawn to what the author calls ‘keystone habits’ – ‘keystone habits say that success doesn’t depend in getting every single thing right, but instead relies on identifying a few key priorities and fashioning them into powerful levers.’

So where in our schools might we find these keystone habits through which we can leverage sustained improvement?   Here’s my take on the good habits formed by successful schools:

  1. Classroom doors are open and it’s perfectly normal for teachers and school leaders to wander into their colleagues’ lessons.
  2. The programme of study in each subject is published so that teachers can plan ahead, students can read ahead and parents can ask informed questions about their child’s learning. This also encourages curriculum continuity and stability.
  3. Senior leaders are visible: at the bus stops, outside the local shop, in the furthest reaches of the school field, up and down the corridors.
  4. Classrooms and offices are tidy, reinforcing a message of pride and order.
  5. Doors are held open.
  6. Students are greeted on the gate as they arrive each morning.
  7. Question-level analysis is routine, in all subjects and all years, so that teachers and students are familiar with breaking down their work into smaller chunks and identifying where they need to improve.
  8. There is pride in students’ work: old exercise books are stapled to new ones, folders keep work in good order, displays showcase the best work.
  9. They collate and share good practice. They don’t presume that middle leaders know how to run a meeting, that senior leaders know how to line-manage a department, or that heads of year know how to withdraw a student from a class without causing further disruption.  These nuggets of expertise are collated, refined and shared.
  10. Teachers talk about teaching and about their subject.  Leaders seek ways of providing time for this.

We talk a lot about school policies and systems – which are usually public – but not so much about habits and routines – which are usually hidden.  I think they’re worth exploring.


What schools can learn from ‘Quiet – the Power of Introverts’

One of the best books I’ve read recently is ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’ by Susan Cain.  Cain offers several definitions of introversion, but the one that stuck with me is this: “if you send an introvert into a reception or an event with a hundred people he will emerge with less energy than he had going in”.

I’m not a big fan of binary extrovert/introvert splits – I’m sure I’m not alone in spotting my own behaviours on both sides of the divide – but I wonder if we could improve our schools by ensuring that they accommodate students, teachers and leaders who are in touch with their introvert sides.

According to Cain, western society promotes the extrovert ideal, in which the model individual is gregarious, outgoing and comfortable in the spotlight.  On reading this, I recalled those times at parents’ evening when I had suggested to parents that their child should try to contribute more in class.  I recalled lessons dominated by the class clown, and proms in which popular students were crowned prom king and prom queen.


Cain quotes Apple’s co-founder Steve Wozniak: “Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me … they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone …. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

Perhaps our affinity for group work and collaboration stifles the creativity of our introvert students?  In a line that would sit comfortably in the staff handbook at Michaela Community School, Cain suggests, “It’s only when you’re alone that you can engage in deliberate practice”.

What about introvert teachers – how can we ensure that they can flourish in our schools?  There’s a nice line in the book about introverts escaping the hubbub of hectic situations by retreating to quiet, private places, such as toilets.  Schools are socially intense and I’m sure there are plenty of teachers who would love to catch their breath on their own during a frenetic school day, without having to lock themselves into a toilet cubicle.  I sympathise with teachers who spend their days moving from an energised classroom to a frenzied playground to a chatty staffroom.

No one expects their working environment to perfectly match their personality, but with recruitment challenges as they are, we can’t afford to miss out on teachers who particularly value a calm workplace.  School leaders can support this by tackling low-level disruption and ensuring that teachers can access a quiet space to work in their free periods.

I also wonder if schools, like any organisation, are susceptible to the influence of men and women of action – hyperactive leaders who restlessly seek the next intervention, the next marginal gain.  Cain shares the Bus to Abilene paradox: a Texan family sit on the porch on a hot day.  Someone suggests, “Why don’t we go to Abilene?” When they get to Abilene another one says “I didn’t really want to go to Abilene”. Someone else says “I didn’t want to go, I thought you wanted to go”.  It’s a phenomenon which reveals our tendency to follow those who initiate action – any action.

Perhaps calm, reflective leaders might be more likely to consider a course of measured action and then stick to it; more likely to capture the views of others before making a decision.  In any case, we should challenge the idea that school leaders need to be alpha men and women who dominate their schools by the force of their personality.  It’s a stereotype promoted here by Sir Michael Wilshaw:

“Take that scene in Pale Rider when the baddies are shooting up the town, the mists dissipate and Clint is there.  Being a headteacher is all about being the lone warrior, fighting for righteousness, fighting the good fight, as powerful as any chief executive.  I’m not that bothered about distributed leadership; I would never use it; I don’t think Clint would either. We need headteachers with ego. You see heads who don’t use ‘I’ and use ‘we’ instead, but they should.”

The energy and buzz of schools is part of the joy of the job, but a few tweaks might ensure that students, teachers and leaders on the introvert end of the spectrum can flourish in our schools:

“The secret to life is to put yourself in the right lighting. For some it’s a broadway spotlight; for others, a lamplit desk. Use your natural powers – of persistence, concentration, insight and sensitivity – to do work you love and work that matters.”