...are key to teacher development.
Hello and welcome to the 51st edition of our fortnightly newsletter, Things in Education.
Today we write about a critical component of teacher development – breaking of ineffective habits and creation of effective ones. Breaking old habits and creating new ones is not an easy task, and definitely not one that can be achieved in a single TPD session. How can we use evidence from neuroscience and social science to make TPD more effective? We write today about this specific issue, based on a paper by Hobbiss, M., Sims, S., & Allen, R. (2020).
In the early years of teaching, usually in the first 3 to 5 years, teachers’ effectiveness improves rapidly. However, once teaching practices become a habit, teachers’ rate of growth begins to slow down.
At the same time, intensive teacher professional development (TPD) programmes that lead to an increase in teachers’ knowledge do not lead to change in habitual practices. Simply put, increase in knowledge of a pedagogy or best practices does not change what teachers habitually do in the classroom.
The key term here is habit. Replacing or upgrading habits can improve teacher effectiveness even after the first 3 to 5 years of teaching. So, what are habits? And how can they be changed?
What are habits?
Here is an easy summary of the features of habits, by Peps Mccrea, Director of Education at Steplab:
Think of the brain as many interconnected circuits. When we perform a deliberate action with a particular, valuable goal in mind, a specific part of the brain circuit is used.
You may push yourself to brush your teeth before bed each night, reminding yourself that this is easier than dealing with the pain of cavities or the fear of going to the dentist. This is a deliberate action with a valuable goal in mind, performed with the help of a particular circuit in your brain.
However, when that action become a habit that we perform on ‘automatic’ mode without much conscious thought or a goal in mind, a different part of the brain circuit is used.
Over time and with repetition, brushing your teeth before bed becomes a habit – without consciously thinking, you perform this action on automatic mode as soon as you think of going to bed, with the help of a different circuit in your brain.
What are some actions that have become habits over time for you?
Teaching and habit formation
Repetition of behaviours, time or performance pressure, and conditions of stress all lead to formation of habits. The teaching profession has all these features.
Teachers reteach the same lessons and topics to different sets of students in a year and across different years – this is an example of repetition.
Teachers need to complete the syllabus, administrative tasks, checking papers, and a lot more – these are examples of time and performance pressure.
And all teachers will agree that teaching is a stressful job!
When all these conditions come together, we form habits and rely on habits. This is because when there is pressure and stress, it is easier to perform in ‘automatic’ mode than take deliberate decisions with a goal in mind. These could be habits of how a teacher begins a lesson, manages behaviour, responds to doubts, and a number of other things.
Can you identify some teaching-related actions that have become habits for you over time?
Do all teaching habits need to be changed?
No, not at all. Habits are the brain’s way of saving energy, so we can use that energy for newer tasks, to learn new skills, and grow. If we had to take deliberate decisions every day about brushing our teeth, showering, travelling to our workplace – all of which most of us do on ‘automatic’ mode – we would not have the time and energy to deal with new challenges and requirements.
Similarly, effective teaching practices – such as planning lessons, enforcing on-task behaviours, asking check-for-understanding questions – that improve student learning outcomes, are critical. If such practices become habitual, teaching and learning can be greatly improved.
Our focus is on ineffective teaching habits, and how those can be replaced or upgraded to effective teaching habits.
How can ineffective teaching habits be changed?
The key terms here are experts, specific skills, observation, feedback, and practice.
Experts: TPD programmes must be facilitated by experts in pedagogy, educational psychology and teaching. External experts bring the additional advantage of not being entrenched in the teaching habits of the school, which helps them identify teaching practices and habits that may be ineffective. We wrote about the importance of identifying the right experts based on their approach and skill set in the 5th edition of our newsletter.
Specific skills: We mentioned above that even intensive TPD programmes that focus on building teacher knowledge of pedagogy and best practices do not lead to change in habits. So, instead of a theoretical approach, TPD programmes must focus on building skills. This can be done by modelling the skill, giving teachers opportunities to practice the skill with the expert, and receiving feedback.
Observation: Establishing regular observation routines in the school has two advantages – one, it builds accountability across the school to implement the new skills learnt; and two, it gives immediate data to the observer on whether the skill is being implemented well. We wrote about conducting classroom observations easily and objectively in the 50th edition of our newsletter.
Feedback: Observation must be followed by immediate feedback to the teacher, focused on improving implementation of skills and establishing ‘cues’ that will prompt that habit. For example, often when teachers ask students a question and are faced with a couple of seconds of uncomfortable silence, they give students the answer. Instead, making ‘wait time’ a habit, to ensure that students get time to think through the question and formulate their answers, is important. The ‘cue’ here is the ‘uncomfortable silence’. Right now, the habit it prompts is giving away the answer. We need to replace it with the habit of waiting a bit more!
Practice: Practice is another word for ‘repetition’ – and as we wrote above, repetition leads to habit formation. The more we repeat something, the more ‘automatic’ it becomes. Teachers need ample opportunities to practise the new skills they learn in the TPD sessions with experts for them to become habits. It is here that the sustained cycle of observation-feedback-practice becomes an invaluable support system for teachers to practise the skills.
We at Things Education believe in following the research. Our teacher professional development solution involves experts working with teachers to develop specific skills in a sustained observation-feedback-practice cycle. Our in-person courses, classroom observation tool, monthly reports and planning resources ensure continued support and feedback that enables teachers to adopt effective teaching habits. You can download our TPD brochure here to read more about our approach. If you are interested in exploring our TPD solution for your school, please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org or +91 9898469961.
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