The power of habit in schools

The power of habit in schools

I spent eighteen months troubled: why doesn’t teacher training stick?  I wondered how trainers can prepare teachers to recall key actions, even if their school offers no reminders. In my previous post I covered a few essentials: excellent school leadership and professional development; using practice in training; checklists.  None was a solution however: what more could trainers do to ensure trainees act on their training (or their checklist) under pressure?

Light dawned when I asked a voice coach, Jude Millins, how she helped her clients remember her training when speaking.  Her suggestion was simple.


Image: Ji-Elle

If a speaker wore a bracelet, she suggested, they might touch it before speaking: a reminder to straighten, breathe deeply, adopt the right pitch.

I wondered where else such a trigger might apply and recalled a checklist in Ticked Off, ‘Does this action merit a sanction?’  It’s designed to help teachers issue sanctions fairly and consistently: it’s a way to maintain (or regain) calm under pressure, but it must be used when teachers are least likely to remember it.  I wondered what trigger might help, and thought a measured walk to pick up their markbook could usefully precede any sanction.  This would provide time (and a cue) to run through the checklist (for more on the effects of this checklist, see Tim Scarborough here).  You could even keep a cheatsheet in the markbook: the checklist, and useful phrases emphasising the purpose underlying your sanction.

Learning more about the power of habit

This reminded me of an article arguing that success in work is like success in sport: we must balance stress with rest, maintaining physical, emotional, mental and spiritual strength.  The key point is the power of habits and rituals to keep these imperatives balanced:

We first understood the power of rituals to prompt recovery by observing world-class tennis players in the crucible of match play. The best competitors, we discovered, use precise recovery rituals in the 15 or 20 seconds between points—often without even being aware of it. Their between-point routines include concentrating on the strings of their rackets to avoid distraction, assuming a confident posture, and visualizing how they want the next point to play out.

These routines have startling physiological effects. When we hooked players up to heart rate monitors during their matches, the competitors with the most consistent rituals showed dramatic oscillation, their heart rates rising rapidly during play and then dropping as much as 15% to 20% between points (‘The Making of a Corporate Athlete‘).”

This moment of calm was exactly what I was trying to reach for trainees: a ritual which would remind them of their purpose, their checklist, or their best selves.

I also realised how much the power of habit was doing for me – specifically in learning languages.


Fifteen minutes study each morning on Memrise has allowed me to manage functional reading and listening in Swedish.  It’s become a habit: a day without my morning language learning feels strange.  So now I’m looking to design habits to ensure I complete boring-but-important and crucial-but-neglected tasks.

Habits for trainee teachers

Whatever problem trainees face, habit formation is part of the solution.  Everything a teacher might want to improve can be framed as a habit for them (or their students) – indeed, it must be framed as a habit if it is to continue when trainees come under pressure.  Three examples:

  • Better parental relationships – the habit of calling two parents every day;
  • Improved subject knowledge – the habit of reading something new every night (suggests Toby French);
  • Better knowledge of the evidence in education – the habit of reading a piece from Rob Coe’s list each Saturday morning.

Creating habits for students

Somewhere amongst all these realisations, I realised I had ‘solved’ this problem once before.*  Four years ago, my Year 11 class were brilliant in discussion, wrote excellent practice answers – and then completed abysmal mock exams.  I knew it wasn’t lack of knowledge: they were struggling to answer questions they had answered well previously; they were struggling even to complete the paper.  I wrote to friends for suggestions; one pointed me towards towards this article by Malcolm Gladwell which distinguished between two effects of pressure – choking and panicking:

Choking is about loss of instinct. Panic is reversion to instinct. They may look the same, but they are worlds apart. ‘The Art of Failure‘”

I tried two approaches.  One was teaching a handful of habits I wanted my students to adopt, to guard against choking (or panic):


Jesus expressed a rule I promoted “the last [12 mark question] shall be first and the first last”(!)  1.5×1 represents the number of minutes (1.5) you could spend on each mark in the paper.

None of these strategies are original: more original perhaps is their formulation as habits to prevent students from cracking under pressure.  I also taught students what I called an ‘affirmation’ or a ‘mantra’ (but for the purposes of this post is a trigger):


I asked students to say it to themselves as they entered the exam – reminding them of what they could do, boosting their confidence and acting as a trigger to action.  I think I made them repeat it, but that may be a false memory!

I also had students practise the exam in situ – taking them into the exam hall while it was empty for a fresh mock paper.  And I stood at the front of the exam hall during each exam, hoping my presence would act as a reminder of all I wanted them to do.


Did it work?  I watched one student open her paper and then visibly relax.  That class received better results than any of my previous GCSE groups.  But who knows, their results could be explained in many ways.  The key point is that habit formation is a critical way to help students and teachers do their best under pressure.  In promoting habit formation, it seems important to:

  • Explain why we fail to do our best under pressure, and how habit formation can help;
  • Identify the critical actions for specific situations;
  • Helping trainees/students choose triggers – reminders or cues – for those actions.


Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit is a very interesting read on these ideas.

Steve Adcock applies Duhigg’s idea of keystone habits to schools.

*This example of forgetting I’d previously solved the problem is my favourite example of my own failure to transfer knowledge: I spent eighteen months puzzling over a problem I’d partially solved.