“It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle — they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.”

Alfred North Whitehead

I was in the habit of going to the gym. At 5.30 am every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I would haul myself out of bed, dress in the dark, grab a water bottle and head to Anytime Fitness. I disliked the start but felt good by the end.

Then, one day, I turned up and the gym was closed for refurbishment – I must have missed that email. I tried going to the next nearest branch but that was an extra 15 minutes, which makes a difference at that time of day. I watched Facebook closely as the gym manager posted photos of the progress being made and I messaged him to ask for an opening date. Eventually, my local gym did reopen but that was just about the same time that the COVID-19 event hit and now I’m not sure if I even should go. My habit is trashed.

I don’t know why but we tend to overvalue the concept of thinking about things. Perhaps we believe that smart people think and really smart people think really deeply. If being smart is desirable – a proposition teachers are likely to buy into – then we should cultivate deep thinking in our students as well as ourselves.

This may be what lies behind the veneration of metacognition – thinking about thinking. I am sceptical of the extreme broadness of this category of educational approaches. If we are told that something involves metacognition then it could range from something potentially counterproductive, such as giving over subject time to a discussion of ‘learning muscles’, to something quite useful such as teaching study skills. It is good for students to know that quizzing (retrieval practice) is better than re-reading notes and that practising it little-and-often (spaced practice) is better than a block of last-minute cramming before an exam.

But let’s just consider that example for a moment. Would you rather have a student who knows about retrieval practice and spaced practice or one who is in the habit of doing their homework? Let’s assume the homework you set is not pointless – that there’s no making posters or finishing off class work or having a chat with the cat about Napoleon. Let’s assume your homework honours the principles of retrieval practice and spaced practice. We have one student who knows about these principles and one who enacts them. Which is better?

I suspect one prerequisite of genius is to have entire classes of concepts that are not consciously registered at all, freeing-up the mind for the objects of deliberation. Sometimes this may be achieved through omission – the absent-minded professor with unruly hair who forgets to eat is a stereotype for a reason. But often it is because the stuff you or I would deliberate over has become unconscious and automatic to the genius.

One way of developing automaticity is through habit. My students don’t need to be told what to do when they enter my classroom. They just do it. There is a routine or habit that means they can centre their minds elsewhere, ideally on the maths. The right habits make things easy.

As we enter uncharted waters, it may be worth taking a little time to think about these habits. Are you still at school? Are you at home now? What routines do you want to develop? What do you want to avoid? What habits do you want your children to develop – both the ones you teach and the ones who may be in your own home?

Don’t make vows you cannot keep. Don’t commit to 20 km every day on that rowing machine that you haven’t been on since Amazon delivered it early last year.

Instead, choose routines that are achievable, that can grow with you, that support those you care for and honour those you love.


3 thoughts on “Habits

  1. Karey says:

    The importance of habit has a long history in philosophy. Aristotle argues, in his Nichomachean Ethics, that excellence and living well, which he calls ethics or good character comes precisely from practicing good habits of attitude and action. Following Aristotle, Alisdair MacIntyre argues that all human excellence depends on the development of habits of mind and body, and non-self regarding attention to the activity.

  2. Chester Draws says:

    This is one area where traditional and progressive run up against each other, hard.

    I tell my students that ideally they should be able to complete any test without thinking. All the thinking should have been done in class and in study, so that they can do everything easily on the day. Obviously this never happens, but the more that they can do on auto-pilot, the more time they have to work through the hard questions. (And the less over-loaded their brain is, reducing the fatigue factor and reducing “careless” errors.)

    Too many progressives actually want students to have to think every problem through. That’s exhausting and will lead to far more mistakes. If a student can do a problem on auto-pilot, then they are called “zombies” and their teachers derided. They deliberately confound the ability to something by rote with “not understanding” it, even while testing repeatedly shows that students who learn the traditional way are more able to cope with novel questions.

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