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What are the Keystone Habits for Success?

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Post Image- Keystone Habits Success

In my last post, I introduced the concept of keystone habits and invited you, dear Teaching the Core family, to weigh in on what you suspect are the answers to these questions:

  • What are the keystone habits for success in school? How about for specific areas of literacy skill, like reading, writing, speaking, and listening?
  • Which habits are most likely to create a “waterfall” of further behavior shifts, thereby solidifying our students’ chances of long-term success?

There were so many great replies to those questions — please check out the comments from last post. So what are my answers to these questions? Let's get into it.

Answer 1: I don't know.

In case you haven't noticed, I'm not a trained researcher (But hey! I'm kind of trying to be! Click here by 3/31/15 to help me with a one-click vote! Woot!), and I've honestly not read nearly as many books on teaching as I'd like. Even when I do read them, I tend to be going pretty quickly, and, therefore, I miss a lot. When I do action research in the classroom, it's a mixture of science and gut instincts. This is the teacher I am.

But here's the thing: not knowing all the research, not having read all the books — these aren't good excuses for not hypothesizing and experimenting and acting and adapting.

The best teachers give themselves the freedom to form and test hypotheses that could be wrong. They have hunches that they act on.

Now that I've shot straight with you, let me share some hunches.

Answer 2: I have hunches; here are four of them.

I don't know what the one keystone habit of success is, particularly in the beautifully simple, “exercising five minutes per day tends to waterfall into other healthy habits” sense.

With that said, here are some ideas:

1. Thinking argumentatively

Argumentative thinking yields clearer thinking and better decisions. It's the central thread of academia and the workplace, yes, and also of a better life, I think.

The first problem with argument is that it's mostly misunderstood; the second problem is in boiling it down to a simple habit.

I'm not talking about I-Am-Right-Because-I-Think-I-Am-Right argument

There's a wrong way to argue — or at least, it's a way to argue that won't consistently lead to success — and it's like this: I'm right because I'm right. Another way of putting it: I argue to win.

As Jerry Graff and Cathy Birkenstein communicate in their elegant They Say, I Say, the first goal of argument is in understanding and acknowledging what has already been said — what “they say” — before diving into the second goal, which is communicating what we want to add to the conversation.

There's more at stake with a poor understanding of argument than just academic success, however; I argue to win argumentation decays the foundation of democracy, poisons decision-making, and erodes intimate relationships.

When we enter into a political debate, for example, with our mind resolutely made up and our identity staked on our claim, we are highly unlikely to leave that debate with any kind of greater understanding or clarity. Our main takeaway will be: they are wrong; I am right. It seems we've discussed the issues, but actually we've just taken turns with target practice.

When we enter a decision with our mind already made up, the same is true: we'll leave with a “decision,” but it's unlikely that we've made the best one. We've used a biased scale to weigh out the options, ending up exactly where we wanted to. This is a huge deal if we want to lead a flourishing life and help our students do likewise.

Finally, when I enter into an argument with my wife in this I argue to win mode, my wife and I are very, very, very likely to experience a range of negative outcomes by the end of that conversation: hurt feelings; flared tempers; a sense of isolation; and, at the very least, a sense that, though we maintained a pleasant tone throughout the conversation, we weren't really understood by the other. All of these things are destructive to the kind of deep, intimate relationship we want with one another.

In sum: thinking argumentatively under the I argue to win conception of argument is actually a keystone habit of anti-success.

I'm talking about argument proper, or getting to the bottom of things collaboratively

As Richard Fulkerson (1996) puts it in Teaching the Argument in Writing, the proper context for thinking about argument is one “in which the goal is not victory but a good decision, one in which all arguers are at risk of needing to alter their views, one in which a participant takes seriously and fairly the views different from his or her own.”

That's what I'm talking about when I say that argumentative thinking is a keystone habit for success. When we get in the habit of thinking argumentatively like that, then I think we've tapped into a core success process.

How do we build this habit in students?

I am not positive, but my hunch is that pop-up debate can help. Please, if you haven't yet, click on this link and help me win a grant to further study pop-up debate. All it takes from you is a click, my friend!

Seriously, stop reading and click this button, then click vote. I need your help, dear reader!

2. The Act, Reflect, Tweak Loop

I just made that phrase up, but it's something I've been thinking a lot about because of my student Noah. Noah, like all of my kids, knows that I run a blog, and he knows I do it largely so that I'm not just saying “do hard things” to them, I'm living it in front of them.

Like several of my students do each year, Noah also asked me how he could start his own blog. I gave him a few pointers, but mostly I just said, “There's no substitute for the work, Noah. Go to WordPress, start yourself a blog, tell people about it, and keep writing.” I have 1,000 tons more advice than that, but I've found it's a complete waste of time to give aspiring bloggers a ton of advice — they just need to start. The obstacle is the way; the work will teach them the right questions.

The cool thing is, Noah did start a blog. He acted on advice given. Through reading some of his posts, I've since learned that he does a lot of acting on advice given.

What's powerful is that Noah consistently reflects on his work at the blog. At one point in his blog's short history, he and his co-author decided to create multiple blogs to house different types of content. This idea grew from a sense that his posts were all over the place.

When Noah sensed his posts were all over the place, he made a tweak — he started the different blogs.

While that's all neat, Noah's promise lies in how he has habituated this ART Loop. A bit later, he decided that the multiple sites thing was not working — so he changed again. With this ART Loop going on, he's going to have a hard time not succeeding.

3. Goal setting keeping

I have my students review old goals and set new ones every week-ish. This has been a grit experiment because part of grit is staying committed to one's goals. My hunch is that if students can get in the habit of keeping weekly goals, it will produce natural secondary habits. I would say that my hunch hasn't been proven true or false this year — for one thing, I kind of stumbled into this experiment and had no plans for measuring its effects on kids. (See: not a trained researcher. Also see: I need you to click here and then click “vote” so I can become a more-trained-teacher.)

Here is how this activity played out yesterday (I had to prepare this video for an upcoming PD).

The Angela Duckworth video I reference in the lesson is here.

4. Reading recreationally

My English-teaching brethren know this one intimately. See Donalyn Miller, Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Erica Beaton.

I'm not the expert here; all I'll say is that I've observed really successful kids who are recreational readers, and I've also observed spectacularly unsuccessful kids who are recreational readers.

The difference between the two groups is probably partly that even the best habits can hurt us when they transition into addictions.

A final note on habits

I suspect that habits are a key part of the picture for increasing the success of our kids. Many of my kids leave class inspired by their progress and their visions for their futures, yet only those who have developed successful habits tend to do anything with that inspiration.

Inspiration is not enough in our classrooms, my colleagues. It leads to short-term bursts of energy; it facilitates joy; it's beautiful and it's part of why I love this work. Yet my students will only succeed through long-term energy applied in the same direction for years. One of the most promising ideas for helping them do this is through helping them build habits because habits require no energy.

It's like we're NASA trying to send people into space. NASA scientists are awesome at achieving efficiency. Habits have the potential to make my little rocket missions (ahem, my students) way more efficient, and so habits can have a shot at helping my kids get themselves on the moon.

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4 Responses to What are the Keystone Habits for Success?

  1. Hannah March 28, 2015 at 4:58 pm #

    Habits can be such a transformational way to impact the trajectory of students’ lives! This quiz popped up recently on the NY Times and seems to connect to another fascinating book on the subject: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/03/26/take-the-habit-personality-quiz/

    • davestuartjr March 30, 2015 at 4:30 pm #

      Sweet, Hannah — thank you for sharing this!

  2. Denise Ahlquist March 30, 2015 at 4:30 pm #

    I strongly recommend the work of Art Costa and Bena Kallick on the subject of Habits of Mind. See http://www.habitsofmindinstitute.org/ for more info.

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