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teaching, learning, and small victories

I’ve been spending a lot of time, lately (well I should say a lot *more* time, really) reading books on habits and learning and thinking about how what I’m reading and learning applies to teaching and progress in general. After presenting on learning styles, and getting the first draft of a paper on feedback in, I have really started missing the day to day reality of teaching, and the opportunity teachers have to watch (and aid) the sort of small victories that gradually grow into big changes.

Those small steps to big changes come up in “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg. This book seems especially relevant right now because it deals with habits in three different areas: individual, corporate, and societal and lets its readers understand how habits exist on micro and macro levels. This is not a self-help book (although it does address (and follow up in the appendix) some methods that readers might use on their own habits or goals), instead Duhigg spends significant time explaining, from current research and historical perspective, how habits work–giving those who read it the understanding that enables change, instead of instructions on what to do–instructions that can’t cover for every eventuality and therefore might fall down at crucial moments.

That, in fact, is one of the key take aways from the book.  Habits are not changed by knowing a magic formula (although understanding the “habit loop” will help) or by sheer will power (although, again, knowing how will power can be affected by effort will help); habits are changed through an understanding of how they work and a series of small successes over the obstacles that can derail the best efforts. Duhigg works to make sure his readers understand the process of habit forming–something that I have found myself recently focusing on when talking about teaching and learning.

As exam season approaches, I’ve  been giving a few talks on learning styles (and study skills) around the Uni (and to random people at the yard–I have a difficult time not teaching…), and one aspect I keep coming back to is that giving students an understanding of a process is often as important as helping them to understand content. Once students (or anyone!) understand how they learn best, they can not only seek out opportunities to learn but also are better prepared to compensate for anything that makes their learning more difficult.  Differentiated instruction is not just about preparing lessons that allow all students to learn, it is also about allowing students to take control of their own learning.

Of course, nothing is that easy, especially nothing about teaching, learning, or self-awareness. Merely understanding learning doesn’t make high level subjects instantly easier to comprehend, and understanding how habits work (at least a bit) doesn’t make picking up healthier habits as simple as deciding to follow the appropriate feedback loop, but I think it is fascinating that success at forming new habits has something to do with finding the ability to overcome small obstacles and keep stepping towards a larger goal, much like the small steps students make in their learning. (Oh, and I also think that the book is definitely worth picking up! I’m sure there will be a more detailed Bookgeeks review of it sometime soon as well!)

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