Changing habits/ reluctance to innovate

Q. How many traditionalists does it take to change a lightbulb?
A. Change??!! That lightbulb has always been there. And now you just want to throw it out?? Over my dead body!

I have been interested in the issue of how people change habits for quite a few years, both from the perspective of students and teachers. I have come to the conclusion that the following steps are a useful checklist. For now let’s  just apply it to teachers:

  1. Teachers need to want to change (or at the very least appreciate that change is necessary). See note at the end of this post for a different perspective.
  2. Teachers need to know what they must do in order to bring about change
  3. Teachers need to change their habits

Each of first two steps can be enormous obstacles but can pale into insignificance compared to the third.

Teachers need to appreciate that change is necessary
Teachers are very busy, They are right to be sceptical of dictats which filter down from on high about how they need to change. Much of it is political and not very well thought out. So if you are coming in with your idea you need to be able to convince staff that this time it’s different; this one is worth taking on board. How you do that depends on the context. But don’t be fooled – there are no easy answers.

Teachers need to know how to change
I have heard advice along the lines of ‘get one person in each department on board and they will act as tutors for their colleagues within the department’. It’s not necessarily bad advice if it gets incorporated into a larger plan, but if it’s presented as a standalone ‘magic bullet’ then it’s doomed to failure.
For starters, how does it work if the department in question consists of just one teacher; plenty of departments fall into this category.
What happens if there’s a personality clash between the designated teacher and other teachers in the same department?

The solution has to be seen in the context of a whole-school approach. And this is where the infamous Croke Park hours come in.

“What do you discuss at staff meetings? Busy stuff or impact on student learning?”
John Hattie

Too often staff meetings across the country fall into this ‘busy’ category. And this is where you need buy-in from management. If they agree that the cause is worthy of support then you’re half-way to solving the first step in changing habits. If they’re not on board then you can pretty much throw your hat at it right there and then.

One option which works very well is to get individual members of staff to take one idea that works well for them and present it to the staff as a whole. The advantage of this is that after a while a sizable number of the staff will have presented; this helps to get across the idea that this is a whole school activity and not just for the nerds. It also encourages discussion in later informal settings. Remember that teachers are very busy during the school day so if you can create an environment where teachers are happy to discuss this outside of school hours then you’re onto a winner.

If the cause is related to incorporating ICT into teaching and learning then another useful tool in your armory is the Whole School Evaluation. It’s quite possible that somewhere in your school’s WSE report there is a recommendation to the effect that this is an area where the school could/should look to improve. And I doubt if there’s a school in the country where that doesn’t apply.
If you’re looking to introduce modern ideas on teaching then you need only point to the new Junior Cert program.

Teachers need to change their habits
Steps one and two are very difficult – no point pretending otherwise.
But (and here’s the really bad news) they’re a walk in the park compared to point 3: there is no shortage of examples of where we know that we need to change and we  know how to change, but still don’t change. It’s because habits are the hardest things of all to change.

Any book I’ve read on this subject have been decidedly unhelpful. The following are two examples:
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change
Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits to Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life

Both of these involve a lot of phrases like ‘my mom thought she could never change’ and ‘my friend used to . . . ‘ so they end up reading more like amateur self-help books than any synopsis of science-based research.

Changing hearts and minds is never easy. I’m a perfect example. I know that I need to change in order to become a better teacher. And I’ve a fair idea of how to go about it. I’ve even created a website to help me access other teachers’ experiences whenever I need to. Ironically some colleagues have taken these ideas from me and used them to change how they teach. And as a result they are now much better teachers. But I ‘m still struggling to get from point 2 to point 3 myself. I am enjoying the challenge however. And because I’m doing this on my own terms I can start with very small steps.

So where can you find resources on this?
I have mine here – it may act as a useful starting point:
Some of the big hitters are there including cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham on how cognitive dissonance can explain teachers’ reluctance to take on new ideas.

The half-man, half-myth that is John Hegarty once referred to my main website as web 0.5 so goodness knows what he would make of Having that said, he did acknowledge that ‘content is king’ so hopefully this list of resources will prove useful to anybody else who is trying to encourage change in the staffroom.

Another useful option is to go the homepage of and join the Teaching and Learning discussion forum. It already has over 600 members and is open to teachers at all levels (primary, secondary, tertiary). The aim is to encourage sharing of ideas and resources on how to improve teaching and learning in all our classrooms.

Happy reading, and good luck.

Only after creating this post did I go to YouTube and TED for other perspectives. Here is an interesting sample of what I found:

BJ Fogg hits the nail on the head when he tells us that we have to start small, not big.
And we need triggers to constantly remind us. If this trigger is something that happens regularly throughout the day (in his case it was as simple as going for a pee) then we get reminded to make that small change throughout the day.

This links nice to my plan which to hang laminated instructions from the ceiling of my classroom with simple instructions on them such as “Praise the effort, not the work”, “Deliberate practice”, “Pose, pause, pounce” and “If you’re chatting you’re not learning“. There’s no point putting up posters on the walls; I need to be reminded of these points every single time I face my students.

Jeni Cross explodes some myths of behaviour change:

  1. Education will change behaviour
  2. You need to change attitudes
  3. People know what motivates them to take action (turns out social norms is what counts, though folk won’t even admit this to themselves)

Cross explains that we don’t need to change attitudes, which would contradict my point number 1 above. So I will happily concede this on the basis that science is indeed often quite counter-intuitive, but maintain that while changing attitudes may not be necessary, it should still help considerably to overcome steps 2 and 3.


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