The Thinking Cycle: why education is a battleground, and what to do about it

Education is a battleground. Public statements on schooling frequently insult dissenters, whilst civil disagreements on Twitter spontaneously combust into name-calling and bullying that puts our profession to shame. Like many battlegrounds, the soldiers on this one are often guilty of forgetting why the battle is being fought. Quick to pounce on any indicator of hostility – an innocent deployment of a loaded word, or a well-meaning opinion on a contentious topic – we have created caricatures of ourselves, and use these shorthands to distinct friend and foe.

The dominant fields of thought in education are popularly considered to be traditionalism and progressivism, and generally defined in terms of the issues they disagree over . My contention is this:

Traditionalism and progressivism are manifestations of two competing approaches to scientific reasoning, and will become more pronounced as the scientific aspects of education develop further. To be able to navigate the disputes that will ensue, and know when to leave our natural positions in favour of compromise, we need to understand what these approaches are and how they shape our thinking. Both approaches have merits and flaws – to dismiss either outright is foolish.

Mechanisms vs systems

There are two approaches to scientific thought. The mechanistic approach seeks to break processes down into smaller chunks, and understand each step of a causal chain to learn the precise mechanism that leads from cause to effect.  The systems approach believes that certain properties only emerge at the system-level, and so some knowledge cannot be gathered by looking at the smaller parts – no matter in how much detail you look.

Neither of these approaches is universally ‘correct’. Through history their respective powers have oscillated depending on which was most able to generate the next breakthrough. For example, physics, though dominated for much of history by the mechanistic drive to look at the next smallest thing, had a resurgence of systems thinking after the discovery of quantum theory. Without mechanistic thinking we would not know about the existence or behaviour of fundamental particles, but without systems thinking we would not be able to link their behaviour to the phenomena we see in the observable world. Systems biology is also undergoing a resurgence at the moment, and is proving an incredibly popular option on many university courses.

There are times when the dominant theory endorsed by one approach is simply wrong, and is eventually abandoned in favour of another. However this does not mean that the approach itself is wrong. Science progresses by resolving individual disputes and selecting the best theories, whilst preserving the approaches to thought themselves.

The dichotomy in education

The battleground in education is too often defined by the micro-level disagreements, which mask the underlying approaches to thought that are the origins of these disagreements. I prefer to follow these definitions:

Traditionalism: a preference for mechanistic thinking, or solving problems by looking at component parts to explore observable chains of cause and effect

Progressivism: a preference for systems thinking, or solving problems by looking at properties of entire systems rather than smaller causal chains

Mechanistic thinking: striving to understand the components of learning

Mechanistic thinking digs deeper into the processes of learning. Its natural instinct is towards some kind of experiment with falsifiable hypotheses, and ideally work with quantifiable data. It believes that by learning more about the intricate parts of learning, we will be able to adapt our policies and practice to benefit children. Without mechanistic thinking we would lack these insights and be unable to intervene effectively in the processes of learning – just like early medicine was fixated on the system at the expense of understanding the causal chains.

However mechanistic thinking has its flaws. A whole is often more than the sum of its parts, with certain properties only emerging at the system level that are not observable in the mechanisms themselves. Mechanistic thinking risks missing these, and so maximising the effectiveness of individual processes without actually maximising the end result for the child.

Systems thinking: striving to understand the child as a whole

Systems thinking looks at the overarching behaviour of the child as a whole. Its natural instinct is towards more qualitative research over a longer period of time, and will happily look for effects that cannot be quantified. This does not mean that they cannot be understood scientifically, but that they need more complex techniques as they deal with more complex systems than the individual processes of mechanistic thinking. Without systems thinking we would lack insight into the emergent properties of systems (that only appear at the system-level) – which would leave our knowledge of mechanisms divorced from our observations of reality.

However systems thinking has its flaws. We can only learn so much about a system without understanding its components, and knowledge of details does allow us to develop a greater knowledge at the system-level. By casting aside mechanistic inquiry as reductionist it risks missing out on these details, and so halting the growth of our understanding.

The thinking cycle

Every scientific field is subject to a natural “thinking cycle”, where the influence of these two approaches oscillates and they alternate in dominance. Each takes its turn as the revolutionary, that steps in and makes a much-needed change to overthrow the complacent orthodoxy of the day. We need eras of mechanistic dominance to dig deeper and learn more about the processes of learning. However between these we need eras of systems dominance to link our discoveries and make coherent theories of children’s’ whole development.

Learn to understand each other, but not necessarily to compromise

The message of this post is not to blandly compromise. There are correct theories and there are incorrect theories – the answer is rarely in the middle. However we do need to learn the discipline of adopting both approaches in our thinking. If mechanistic thinkers could step back and try to think of systems, and if systems thinkers could look deeper and try to think of mechanisms, we would take a great step forward in understanding each other and growing our knowledge about education.

None of Your Business: The role of government in an autonomous school system

After a Twitter debate yesterday on whether removing National Curriculum levels was a good thing (hint: it was), I realised that the  main point of contention lay in what we actually thought the role of government in education is. Rather than continue skirting around the issue, I’m going to lay out what I think.

The education system is going through a period of flux. Where the empire of government once ruled, now increasingly autonomous schools pick up the power to rule themselves. To adjust to a new system we need to understand the roles of all the players. Our new system might be school-led, but what does that actually tell us about the rightful role of government and teachers?

The role of government: to decide on the ends of education
What is education for? You can’t run an education system without an answer to this question, and yet it’s probably the most contentious question out there. The problem is that there isn’t a demonstrably correct answer. This question cannot be delegated to a double-blind randomised controlled trial or conclusively resolved by a panel of experts. It is far too fundamental for that.

Given we need an answer, but cannot seek one from science or consensus, the best place to turn is to democracy. A democratically-elected government should decide whether and what to examine, what schools should be aiming to achieve through education, and how to hold them to account for achieving it. Practically this means that they should set terminal exams, accountability frameworks, and little else.

The role of schools: to decide how best to achieve these ends
Once a government has set the ends of education, it is up to schools to decide how best to achieve them. This must be left to schools, and any mission creep by government or its agencies into this area should be hastily challenged. This role is for schools (rather than for government or teachers) because:

  • Schools see the whole education of each student, and have to balance the competing demands of different subjects.
  • Schools know the specific circumstances of their students and their intake, and are best-placed to respond to these.

Once the end goals are set, schools should determine the curriculum needed to achieve these, and the assessment system needed to keep on track. Where schools have their own set of values they are free to go beyond the expectations set by government, but may not drop below.

The role of teachers: to continually improve the quality of teaching
Schools will set curricula and assessment, but it is teachers who translate these into lessons. To quote the now old adage, the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers. But improving the quality of teaching is not a job for schools or for government, it is a job for teachers. Only we teach our lessons. Only we are in the classrooms with ourselves all day. Only we know our greatest strengths and our greatest challenges. Only we can actually make our teaching great. But this is not the current culture.

The current culture, developed through decades of National Strategies, government guidance, and school policies, sees the quality of teaching as the preserve of schools and governments. Teachers are not fit to make decisions about teaching, but are mere enactors of policy and followers of instructions.

We must break the culture of professional development being done to us by schools, of research being given to us by government, and of good ideas being handed down in quango-branded folders. Good teaching is our responsibility, and we should reclaim it.

The Power of Practice

Maths “ability” is just practice. For all the rhetoric we hear about ability in maths, any innate component is of relatively little consequence. What appears to be ability is just practice masquerading as talent. But despite this we have a Western obsession with innate ability. Culturally we treat Maths as something you are either born good at, or born bad at, and those in the latter camp should brashly accept it. After all, if your genes make you bad at something why should you be shy about it?

But innate ability is a distraction from the real cause of good performance – practice. Practice is the single most important component of success in Maths.

Practice matters because knowledge growth is compound. And it’s compound because:

A. Connections strengthen memories. As we learn more, and so have more associations to make with each new piece of content, we remember more. These new connections in turn strengthen our old knowledge, and contribute to the wider structure of knowledge that forms our view of the world. This often looks like innate ability. A student who knows about fractions will learn more from a lesson on percentages than a student who doesn’t know about fractions. We might hypothesise that this is because they are “better at Maths”. In fact it’s because they can build connections with their fractions knowledge, and so understand percentages better (and are more able to remember this new knowledge).

B. Mastery frees up working memory. Our working memories have a limited capacity. Once they’re full they’re full, and we cannot process any more information. One model of working memory conceptualises it as having a fixed number of slots. Each slot can hold one piece of information, like a step in a method or a number being remembered. Trying to carry out a complex process can easily overload working memory as all the slots get filled and thinking grinds to a halt – meaning the thinker is unable to learn. However fluency bypasses the constraints of working memory. Once you have mastered a procedure you carry it out without thinking – it does not occupy multiple slots in your working memory but frees it up to learn instead. This means that the student who has practised to the point of fluency will learn faster, and have an appearance of greater ability.

C. Fluency solves problems. Because fluency frees up working memory, it gives students the space to think about challenging problems and come up with creative solutions. The most well-practised students will therefore come up with ideas that challenge their thinking, and so learn more at the boundaries of their knowledge.

Getting better at practice must be a national priority. We have a national fear of practice. When being trained as a Maths teacher I was told to “Beware the three Xs. Examples, exercises, and more exercises.” The intention – that incredibly dull lessons should be avoided – was a good one. But there is no need to make practice taboo. It is the hallmark of elite performance, a necessary prerequisite to any worthwhile achievement. It is not an end in itself, but the ends we seek cannot be accomplished without significant practice.

There are two components of this challenge to practice better. We need to:

1. Increase the quantity of practice.
Every time a new international study shows that our relative performance is worse than the Far East there is an outcry from people who argue that the outcomes are just not comparable. It is not fair, they argue, to compare UK results to the results of Singapore, Shanghai or South Korea, because in those countries children do hours of homework, have private tutors, and spend far longer practising. This is not an excuse. If the quantity of practice is the cause for this gap in performance then we need to get that same quantity of practice for our children.

2. Increase the quality of practice.
Good practice means learning the right thing, the right way, and with the right feedback. For this we need:

  • Better resources – well thought out sets of practice questions that develop understanding and challenge thinking. No current UK textbooks (that I have found!) are up to scratch, and downloads from TES certainly aren’t. Schools and groups of schools need to put real effort into designing the best resources so that teachers can stop reinventing the wheel and focus on how to teach to the specific group of students in front of them.
  • Better teaching – teachers need deep subject expertise to make sure students receive good quality explanations and are guided through the practice properly. Subject specialism is important here, but so is ongoing professional development. No specialist is too good to carry on learning, so without a better culture of effective CPD we will continually miss out on the potential of the workforce.
  • Better feedback – good feedback is both precise and timely. It must be precise enough to guide you to action (no vague targets please), and timely enough for you to correct any misconceptions before they settle. Without precise and timely feedback your practice could make you learn mistakes rather than the actual concept itself.

The hallmark of elite performance is a relentless dedication to practice. Sportspeople drill basic techniques over and over again, making them instinctive so that in the heat of a game they can be deployed effortlessly. Musicians practise pieces for days and weeks so that they can begin to play them with feeling and creativity. So too must students practise basic techniques until they are fluent, before they can enjoy the dizzying heights of elite performance. Only with fluency can they begin to tackle truly rewarding problems.

Tim Oates describes how, in the drafting stages of the new National Curriculum, he went through battles to have the word “practice” included in the Mathematics section. It was simply too unpalatable. We need to debunk the two pernicious myths: that maths ability is innate, or that fluency is not a prerequisite for good performance. Practice has the power to make everyone good at Maths, and we need to start to unleash it.

This post is based on a presentation I gave to schools at the first Maths Hub Forum in Manchester last month.


Assessing Without Levels

Exam season does not a good blogger make. However I have attached below the presentation myself and another colleague from school gave at the National Mathematics Conference in Kettering on Saturday. It covers the principles of our approach to assessing without levels, which will be expanded on when our software is built and ready for wider use!

140608 Assessing Without Levels (Kettering)

The Romance of the Poor but Bright

Last year I attended the Evening Standard’s debate on the future of London Schools. I can’t remember much about the evening, but one phrase sticks in my mind. “The romance of the poor but bright”*.

Education is a marvellous sector. It is full of innovation and entrepreneurship: with schools, charities and social enterprises popping up all over. New solutions to old problems emerge almost like clockwork; but there is a worrying pattern. Our effort and resources, of schools but particularly of business and charitable enterprise, are directed disproportionately at students who are already high achieving – the poor but bright.

Huge effort is expended on access to the top universities, with great sums being spent to make marginal improvements to a small set of students at the top of the disadvantaged spectrum. They cite the gap in entry, often to Oxbridge, as a significant problem that blights our society.

But the gap in Oxbridge entry is the pretty face of the problem. The far uglier face is the gap in life outcomes for those who take least well to education. With rich parents they may go to a non-Russell Group university. With poor parents they go to prison or the job centre. It is this face of the problem we most urgently need to confront.

Popular discourse is easily caught up in the romance of the poor but bright. It’s such a great story – the brilliant child shackled by poverty, just waiting to be set free by a summer school or inspirational speech. This story has so captivated education that we end up ignoring the more pressing problem – of students for whom our efforts will determine whether or not they will ever have a job or contribute to society. We hear about the poor but bright all the time. When did you last here someone advocate for the poor but dim?**

Here is my attempt. The gap most damaging to society is in life outcomes for the children who perform least well at school. They are most at risk of not being able to engage with society – of not having the real or paper qualifications needed to enter meaningful employment. There would be a phenomenally positive impact on business, public services and communities if all those children who fall through school now were instead supported to exceed basic standards and find fulfilling futures.

For education to have a real impact on society and the economy we need to focus on the tail***, not just the top. I’d begin this by looking at three areas:

1. Alternative provision
Many of the students at risk of significantly underachieving at school have complex behavioural needs. Often these have been built up by a long period of underperformance, coupled with very challenging environments. Teachers lack the time and expertise to best support these students. They do their very best, and often make great headway, but they are not trained or equipped for dealing with complex psychological needs. This is why we have alternative provision. Unfortunately this sector operates as a shadow school system, largely unknown and wholly under appreciated. Developing a national network of high-quality alternative provision that works closely with schools to support students at risk of exclusion must be a priority if we are to close the gap at the bottom.

2. Consistency in SEN support
Many of the students at risk of significantly underachieving at school also have special educational needs. Once again schools are often ill equipped to cope with these, and often manage only because of the extraordinary effort of dedicated staff. The inconsistency in funding and support between local authorities is well known, and means that a student in a less generous (or more stretched) council area will receive far less support than they deserve.

3. Rigorous gateways in assessment
Too often underachievement is allowed to settle and persist because it can be dealt with later. This is incredibly dangerous – as knowledge accumulates in a compound way, falling behind early makes for an ever bigger gap. One way to help stop this attitude of putting off catching up is to have clearer assessments where basic skills act as a gateway. The present assessment regime, for example, allows students to achieve a Level 4 at KS2 by compensating for poor performance in the basics with higher performance on easier, less fundamental skills. Reforming assessment so that a student could not appear to be performing well unless they have mastered the basics would send a clearer message where gaps exist. Proficient use of each of the four operations, for example, could be a gateway for maths assessment, and clarify the importance of solidifying these foundational skills.

Any student failing to meet their potential is a dreadful thing, even worse when it happens due to factors totally outside of their control. This is not just the case for the poor but bright, the students with whom we so easily sympathise, and are so quick to support. It matters too for the student with incredibly challenging behaviour, but who is absolutely capable of achieving academically. It matters for the student with complex special needs, who is not a potential Oxbridge applicant but who does have a tremendous amount to offer society. Their successes have the power to change the British economy, far more so than those of their brighter peers.

Don’t just get caught up in the romance of the poor but bright. The other students need our investment too.

*I believe it was used by Lucy Heller.
**I do not believe in either bright or dim, only differences in epigenetic coding or accumulated lifetime practice, but that is a discussion for another day. Here I use dim as the logically necessary opposite to bright, as popularly used in discussions about education.
***This term is borrowed from the book Paul Marshall edited on outcomes for the bottom 20% of students.

Oi! What’s wrong with you?!

Many of the most significant incidents of poor behaviour in schools are in fact caused by students responding badly to the consequences of a prior, and much lesser, misdemeanour. We can all picture the scene – a student who when picked up for horsing around in a corridor decides to argue their case, walk off, or explode with anger. It is these situations that create so many behaviour problems for schools. And they can often be avoided.

It comes down to the difference between challenge and confrontation. Challenge corrects poor behaviour. Confrontation offends poorly behaving students. When we confront instead of challenging we get escalation, anger, and seriously bad behaviour.

The nature of a confrontation is that you respond to it. A confrontation is combative, and invites retaliation. It provokes the fight or flight reflexes so ingrained in us, which is why they lead to students either walking off or fighting back. The nature of challenge is that you rise to it. A challenge is a statement of higher expectations, and an invitation to reach them.

By learning to challenge instead of confront we can significantly reduce the number of behaviour incidents in our schools. Here are three key differences between confrontation and challenge:

Challenge is directed at the problem, confrontation is directed at the person
Challenge is clear and direct. It states the problem precisely and concisely, leaving no room for misunderstanding. Confrontation, on the other hand, is often vague and frequently personal. Stating that “you are running inside” is precise. Asking “what’s wrong with you?”, or making a claim like “your behaviour is awful”, is vague. This is dangerous, because comments like that allow students to project their own narrative onto your words. They can perceive it as a personal attack against which they must defend themselves, or an unjust statement they need to correct. Successful challenge avoids this risk by being 100% clear about the problem.

Challenge is respectful of the person, confrontation is dehumanising
The tone of a challenge is calm, assertive and respectful. It cares about the person being challenged, but will not compromise on their expectation of good behaviour. The tone of a confrontation is angry and disrespectful. Choosing a tone that cares is often enough to signify that you are challenging and not confronting. My acid test is whether I would speak to an adult that way if they were exhibiting the same behaviour. If not, I’ve erred into confronting.

Challenge is correcting, confrontation is damning
The essence of challenge is that you expect better. Challenge does not simply highlight poor behaviour, it corrects poor behaviour. Confrontation has given up. Clearly correcting behaviour and telling a student how they should act demonstrates that you believe they will. Merely chastising them for misbehaviour suggests that they’re not worth correcting.

When we catch students misbehaving we have a choice: to confront, or to challenge. If we confront, we invite combat and retaliation by offending the student and invoking their fight or flight reflex. Confrontation betrays low expectations of behaviour, and can make a student feel that they’ve been written off. If we challenge, we invite them to rise to that challenge. Our respectful tone and correcting instructions show them our high expectations, and make them feel valued.

May “Oi! What’s wrong with you?!” never be heard again.

In defence of mastery learning

This defence of mastery learning was written in response to this article by Steve Chinn, and is published below it here.


Mastery learning is the belief that students should master a skill before moving on to learn a new one. In contrast to the classic spiral curriculum, where students raced between topics without properly learning any of them, a mastery curriculum gives students the space to learn a skill, understand it conceptually, and practise until it’s automatic.

This approach matters because of its effect on working memory. Students who have mastered previous skills have their working memory freed to learn new ones, while students who haven’t get bogged down in the basics and don’t have the working memory space to learn something new.

There are some important subtleties of definition that Steve Chinn picks up on. What it means to have mastered a topic must be clearly defined from the outset, or confusion will ensue. As understanding improves when students develop their conceptual map of maths and draw links between topics, we know that mastery early in school will not mean perfection. For me, mastery means two things:

  1. The student can demonstrate or explain the concept orally, concretely, visually and abstractly.
  2. The student can apply the concept automatically, so that it is not dominating their working memory.

Chinn does not engage with these fundamentals of mastery learning.

His first criticism is that mastery learning  will not help children catch up, and that they should instead be taught with an emphasis “on understanding maths concepts”. Given that Singapore Maths and its mastery model is renowned for its focus on developing understanding, this seems like an odd criticism. Conceptual understanding is at the heart of mastery learning, especially of Singapore Maths and its concrete-pictorial-abstract model of learning mathematical concepts.

His second criticism is that mastery learning is flawed because the ordering of skills for teaching is imperfect. This is true – there is no universally accepted hierarchy of all skills. This does not detract from the obvious fact that some skills are dependent on others, and that these dependencies are important for the order in which we teach. Adding fractions requires a knowledge of lowest common multiples, which requires a knowledge of times tables. We may disagree on whether we should teach names of shapes or bar charts first in the gap between them, but we know they have to come in that order.

The next criticism is that mastery learning is flawed because some people, for unknown reasons, appear to learn things differently. Even if we accept this argument, I cannot see where it leads. Is the implication that we therefore don’t need to care about the order in which we teach topics, and should pull them from a hat? If order doesn’t matter for some people, why deprive the others of being taught in a logical sequence?

It is particularly dangerous to support such arguments with anecdotal success stories like the dyslexic maths student whose times table recall was not perfect. Anecdotes do not a policy make. This anecdote seems compelling precisely because it is so rare, and it is so rare because it is an exception to a large body of well established research. This student succeeded in spite of imperfect times tables, not because of them. That they succeeded against the odds is not a reason for us to stack the odds against everybody else.

Strong Soft

Last year I got together with a group of colleagues and friends from outside of teaching to try and establish what the most important non-cognitive skills for our students were. We began by all privately making a list of the things we thought had been influential in determining our own success. Most responses were expected – resilience, curiosity, etc. But there was one thing that came up in all of our lists, which none of us had heard or read about before.

I described it as “the ability to assertively but politely disagree”. As a group we struggled for a good name. Then someone proposed we call it “strong soft”.

Strong soft is the skill of making a point both strongly and softly enough to be heard. Too strong and you’re written off as rude. Too soft and you’re ignored. Strong soft gets the balance right.

And I think it’s the most important skill we don’t teach at school.

Think of the rhetoric schools use when students, who don’t know any better, try to argue about a behaviour consequence or other instruction they think is unfair.

“Keep quiet”
“Don’t answer back”
“Don’t argue”

We’re telling them to keep it zipped and say nothing, but just to accept potential injustice.

The problem is that’s not what we actually mean! What we mean is something more like “I understand you think that this is unfair, and I’m more than happy to explain my decision-making to you and hear your view, but we’ll have to do that at a more appropriate time because right now I’m teaching and you’re learning”. But that just doesn’t roll off the tongue. The consequence of this is that we’re accidentally teaching students that they never have the right to complain or challenge authority, and unsurprisingly this is a teaching they often rebel against.

Instead of teaching this, we need to teach them strong soft. They need to learn how to challenge authority, but in a polite and appropriate manner. If they get into a habit of this at school, then (a) we have less disruption to learning, and (b) our students will be more successful adults, who don’t get taken for a ride but do get respected by their peers.

Here are the three components of strong soft to build into our students’ habits.

Choose a winning time
When the other person isn’t busy with an immediately pressing task, and generally when there’s no audience. If you challenge someone when they’re doing something more important then you’ll simply be ignored. If you do it in front of others then they won’t back down. Strong soft chooses a winning time, when the case will be heard and will get a fair hearing.

Choose a strong reason
The strength comes from clarity. Put your problem into one sentence. Clearly stating the issue and staying on topic forces the other person to respond directly to your point, and ensures the most important thing gets listened to.

Choose a soft tone
Too strong a tone makes you seem rude, and rude people have their arguments ignored. Instead of listening to your point, the listener concentrates on your tone and how it makes them feel. Instead, choose a calm and soft tone that works hard to be as polite as possible. This will impress your listener.

Strong soft comes down to: time, reason and tone. Strength comes from the reason, softness from the tone. If we train students in using strong soft when they need to question or challenge, we will significantly reduce the amount of disruption to lessons, and the trouble they get into. We’ll also be setting them up with the habits they need for adulthood.

Build strong soft into a habit by using the time, reason and tone mantra for the habit routine. Sentence starters like “This feels unfair to me because…” will also make the routine easier. The reward is being listened to – for many students often the first time they have been listened to when challenging authority.

It’s been missing for too long
During the holidays I was talking to a group of Year 11 boys during a break from revision. They were complaining that if a teacher upsets them then they get told to sit there and keep quiet. Surely this is hypocritical – the teachers can’t just sit there and take it if their boss does something unfair to them? Teachers write in the newspapers and go on strike, so why do they tell students to never question authority?

This was a lightbulb moment for me. They just didn’t get strong soft. They’d never seen it modelled by adults around them, and so didn’t understand how to politely disagree. We spent 10 minutes discussing how to challenge authority in a professional manner that gets you listened to, and they lapped up every word.

Strong soft is the most important skill we don’t teach at school. Right time, strong reasons, soft tone.

7 Keys to Classroom Habits That Stick

Last week, in the 1 Big Secret to Good Behaviour, I looked at how habit is at the heart of good behaviour in schools. Students, particularly those from the most challenging backgrounds, suffer from depletion of their self-control. Each bit of stress they face, every time they resist temptation or make a challenging decision, their ability to deal with the next challenge diminishes. This means that sometimes they just don’t have the self-control to delay gratification and make good decisions.

Habit is the solution to this problem. Habits bypass decision-making and go straight to action. Regardless of the state of self-control, habits get to work and manage your behaviour.

Classroom habits that stick
Good behaviour in lessons is largely about classroom habits. Classroom habits govern all those routines and behaviours you want students to display in the room, such as entry and exit routines, holding whole class discussions, listening to explanations, using mini-whiteboards, etc. I’ve recently been working to add habits for silent work and practising grit to the mix as well. But it doesn’t matter what the habit is, if you want it to stick, you need to set it up right. Here are 7 keys to doing just that.

1. Plan meticulously
And I mean meticulously. This is where you shape the routine of the habit cycle (see this post if that’s unfamiliar). Vague plans let unintended behaviours creep into the routine. A meticulous plan gives you complete control. Here’s an example of a vague plan for an exit routine:

      1. Complete exit question on exit card
      2. Close folder, put pencil case, planner and homework in bag
      3. Put folders in the cupboard
      4. Stand behind chairs
      5. Dismissed table by table

This is a meticulous plan:

      1. Three minutes to complete exit question in silence. Timer projected on the board.
      2. At the end of the timer: close folder, put pencil case, planner and homework in bag. Sit upright and wait.
      3. Once the whole table is ready, teacher instructs tables (one at a time) to put folders in the cupboard.
      4. Return and stand behind chairs silently.
      5. Teacher dismisses table by table.

Map out your transitions: know whether they happen automatically or whether an instruction is required.
Plan your environment: know if you’re expecting silence, quiet or talking.
Prepare your red lines: know what behaviour is breaking the routine so it can be challenged immediately.

2. Design the cue
What is going to prompt students into this routine? A cue doesn’t have to be complicated, but it does need to be consistent. If you’re going to rely on a verbal cue, make sure you use the same sentence or phrase every time. Better still, incorporate other aspects of the environment into your cue. Think about the physical elements – for example, always standing in the same place, or including an action like opening the door, or closing your laptop lid. Visual elements can also be useful. Before using mini-whiteboards I have a slide with a picture of a whiteboard and a 15 second countdown. The more immersive the cue, the more clearly it will be heard.

3. Design the reward
What happens at the end of your routine? The reward is just as important as the cue for making a habit stick. A reward doesn’t need to be significant, but it does need to be reliable. A good exit routine could end with:

“Have a great afternoon, and thank you for working so well on those exit questions. Now I know what your best work on this topic looks like I can make sure your next lesson is designed right for you.”

Recognising that the routine was completed well and reminding students of its benefits will often be enough.

4. Teach it
Students won’t get the habit by osmosis, they need to be taught. Set aside some classroom time to explain the cue, routine and reward. Explain the rationale (helps with the reward later on), and all the steps you meticulously planned. Know that students won’t remember all the steps the first time, so have them written up as a guide and gradually remove them over time.

5. Practise to consistency
This is for both you and the students! Students will need some practice when you first teach the routine; enough to be able to follow it next lesson with a bit of prompting. Build practice time into lessons until the habit is embedded and the routine becomes automatic. This is a necessary and worthwhile investment. Time invested at this stage will save much more time later as your class runs smoother, behaving perfectly out of habit.

You’ll need to practice as well. Practise your cue so that it as consistent as possible. Mentally rehearse the classroom situation so that you know exactly what you are expecting. Think up situations where the routine goes wrong and rehearse your response. Your behaviour needs to be as reliable as possible for the habit to stick. An Assistant Head once told me that you can get students to do absolutely anything, as long as you ask and enforce consistently. They were right!

6. Do It Again
This is one of Doug Lemov’s top techniques from Teach Like a Champion. If students haven’t followed the routine properly, get them to Do It Again until they get it right. As soon as you allow some sloppiness into the routine, you’ll let sloppiness into the habit. Your meticulous plan needs to be followed to the letter every time, otherwise it just won’t stick.

7. Don’t give up
Do not give up on a habit because it doesn’t work at the start. Research suggests that habits take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to form – with the average taking 66 days. Easy habits take the least amount of time, but we’re still looking at a good few weeks. As a rule of thumb, you should wait at least a half term before adjusting something because “it’s not working”. You’ve probably just not had enough practise.

Further Reading
Joe Kirby on using habits to build school ethos
Charles Duhigg (author of The Power of Habit) on how habits work
Doug Lemov on academic habits