Small habits, big changes

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Date published 10 March 2020

Sarah Cottingham looks at how we can kick-start positive behaviour change amongst students and teachers through the use of small but ‘fertile’ habits.

Around 40% of what we do every day is likely to be habitual (Wood, Quinn and Kashy, 2002). Yet, trying to change habits often leads to failure. Even when the alternative is death, 9/10 patients told to change their lifestyle habits after heart bypass surgery failed to do so (Deutschman, 2005). So what hope do we have in changing our habits? What hope do students have?

To answer this, we need to understand what we're dealing with. Dragging yourself out for a run once in a while is not a habit. Leaving your classroom every break time as soon as the bell rings to make a coffee is. A habit is a behaviour that is cued by the environment, for example, the school bell ringing or sitting on your sofa, and met with a reward. A habit no longer needs conscious thought: the environment is enough for the behaviour to happen (Wood and Neal, 2007).

It's easy to see how some habits become useful routines that reduce the cognitive load associated with mundane processes like driving to work or setting homework, and free us up to focus on the complexity of the classroom. In fact, much of what teachers do will be made up of useful habits such as checking in on particular students first when circulating the classroom.

But other habits are less helpful, and some are downright detrimental. Take the student who knows the difference between ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they're’, but when she picks up a pencil and starts writing, can't break the habit of using them interchangeably. And what about the teacher who intends to switch off when she gets home from work, but as soon as she steps into the kitchen, sits down at the table and pulls out her laptop.

Randal Cremer_ teacher reading with children

We mean to change – in fact, the intent is often so strong that we pledge to change our habits in grand declarations like New Years' resolutions. When we fail then, surely the fault lies with our strength of will: we just didn’t want it enough.

You’d think so, but consider again the fact that these unhelpful habits are cued, not by our inner intent, but by the environment. Disruption of that environment offers us a way to hide the cues for unhelpful habits, or cue a helpful one instead. What if the student had a post-it on her desk with "their, there, they're" written on it, prompting her to use it correctly? Or if, before leaving her house in the morning, the teacher sets the kitchen table for dinner so when she gets home, she's reminded to start cooking not working. Disrupting the context can change cues and break the associated habits.

"Creating one habit can help us achieve many goals – we call these ‘fertile’ habits."

What would be even better though is if we could somehow use the enduring, effortless nature of habits to our advantage by creating useful habits that help us achieve a goal. Better still, creating one habit that helps us achieve many goals – we call these ‘fertile’ habits. To understand what these fertile habits are, we turn to an aluminium company in 1987.

Paul O'Neill took over the Aluminium Company of America (Alcoa) at a challenging time. Profits had dipped and he was under pressure from shareholders to turn the company around. The previous CEO had tried to make changes but many of these had been thwarted by strike action. But O'Neill planned to focus on safety as an indicator of excellence in the company. His aim was for zero injuries across the company. He set Alcoa's managers and workers one target: within 24 hours of any accident, he had to be handed a report explaining what was being done to ensure this never happened again (Duhigg, 2012).

Think about this for a moment. In order to achieve this, communication between workers and their managers had to improve, managers had to listen to workers, workers' performance had to be measured to understand where safety hazards arose; something that had been resisted in the past. Processes were streamlined and profits rose. From one, fertile habit sprang all of these benefits. Testament to the endurance of these positive changes was that, even after O'Neill left Alcoa, an accountant was more likely to have an injury at work than an employee of Alcoa.

Note the ingredients of O'Neill's fertile habit: it's concrete and transparent (the report in 24 hours), but at the same time it's flexible - O'Neill doesn't stipulate the processes for coming to conclusions about how to fix the problem. It’s rapid/frequent, within 24 hours of any accident. It's inspirational: zero injuries. Best of all, it's fertile, breeding positive change (Fletcher-Wood, 2020).


Fertile habits aren't suitable to every situation but when they are, they are powerful. Take the headteacher who wanted to change a negative school culture. He told his staff and students they needed to do two polite actions in school per day. Politeness bred good will, and soon two actions became habits of holding doors open, or teachers and students greeting each other in the playground and at the classroom door. Behaviour improved, as did attainment.

Or consider the teacher who wants to get her students to make links between her subject and the world around them. She tells students that each week they have to come to the lesson with the best link between the topic they’re studying and real life; the best one will win the weekly connector prize. More students complete their homework and numerous interesting links are made creating a fruitful discussion during the lesson based on students' burgeoning curiosity.

Some behaviours aren’t ripe for habits. Teachers need to respond flexibly to answers from students, for example. But for everything we can make habitual in ourselves and our students, we should look to do so, to reduce the associated cognitive load and allow for a greater focus on the key learning. In some situations, we can seek to create habits that are concrete, transparent, flexible, rapid/frequent, inspirational and best of all fertile, to spark wider, positive change.

The government recognises the importance of setting good habits early in a teaching career: its Early Career Framework says “During induction, it is essential that early career teachers are able to develop the knowledge, practices and working habits that set them up for a fulfilling and successful career in teaching.”

Our new Early Career Teachers programme, which based on the Early Career Framework, is fully-funded for schools and trusts in Greater Manchester, Bradford, Doncaster and across the North East.

Find out more about the programme and how to apply here >


Deutschman, A. (2005). Change or Die. Fast Company

Duhigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. New York: Random House

Fletcher-Wood, H. (2020). TBC

Wood, W., Quinn, J., and Kashy, D. (2002). Habits in Everyday Life: Thought, Emotion, and Action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 83(6), pp.1281–1297.

Wood, W. and Neal, D. T. (2007). A New Look at Habits and the Habit-Goal Interface. Psychological Review. American Psychological Association, Vol. 114, No. 4, 843–863

Sarah Cottingham
Sarah Cottingham
Learning Design Fellow at Ambition Institute

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