Research School Network: The Hidden Power of Habits ELE Tara McVey explore habits and how both teachers and students can be supported to change them

The Hidden Power of Habits

ELE Tara McVey explore habits and how both teachers and students can be supported to change them

by Durrington Research School
on the

This morning, I was late. The most frustrating thing was that my lateness was caused by a complete cliche of a reason; I could not find my car keys.

I am a creature of habit. I drive a slightly different route to work than I do coming home – but always the same as the day before. I have two cups of coffee when I get to work in relatively quick succession and then, with the same pang of guilt as yesterday, I fill my water bottle. And every day when I get home from school, I put my keys in the same drawer. Only last night, when I arrived, my son called me to look at his painting. My habit was interrupted and my keys, as I tried to leave today, were nowhere to be seen.

It turns out that I am not alone; Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit’ says that most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not. They’re habits’.

It was Dan Willingham who first introduced me to the idea that humans don’t actually like to think hard, that the brain is not designed for thinking. It’s designed to save you from having to think. And, that’s where habits come in. In the Learner lab podcast on 24th March 2020, Wendy Wood defines a habit as a mental association that we form through repetition, a mental shortcut that helps us automate processes in our brain which, in turn, frees up mental energy.

Habits may well have started out as choices. At one point, I probably consciously decided which way to drive to work and which way to drive home. But at some point, I stopped making a choice. The behaviour became automatic which Duhigg suggests it is a natural consequence of our neurology. Habits emerge because the brain is constantly looking to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit.

Duhigg, in his book, explores the habit loop. First there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.’ Wendy Wood describes this as the context’. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or even emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for their future.’

Wendy Wood, in the Learner Lab podcast talks about the process that most of us go through when trying to change a behaviour – or create a new behaviour. It often starts with a conscious decision and we think that through sheer willpower, we will enact a change. However, over time, when your willpower diminishes, your old habit is still there ready to control your behaviour.

So, if we want to change habits – by introducing a new habit – we can use the loop to create new neurological routines. Fiorella states that breaking bad habits does not require major changes in life circumstances, only changes in the specific cues associated with the behaviour.’ So, if we want to make lasting change, we need to turn our attention to our environmental cues that start the habit loop..

In Woods’ view, the easiest way to think about it is as friction. If we want to encourage a specific behaviour, we want to reduce the friction involved with it and if we want to reduce a specific behaviour, we want to increase the friction involved with it. So, we need to make it easier to default to the habits we’re trying to create, and more difficult to resort to the habits we’re trying to break.

Student habits

Fiorella suggests that habits, in addition to motivation and metacognition, play a critical role in student self-regulation’ and that contextual factors that support or hinder student habits can have a huge impact on educational outcomes.

So, how can we use this in schools? Firstly, we could teach students about how habits work. For example, when thinking about studying, students can learn to disrupt cues that trigger antagonistic habits (eg video games), establish a consistent time and location for studying each day (eg after class in the library), modify their environment to make it easy and convenient to engage in studying (eg leaving the textbook open on their desk), and find ways to focus on the intrinsic benefits of studying consistently (eg a sense of accomplishment, reducing stress by not procrastinating). Alternatively, we could formulate habit interventions in which we intentionally design, teach and repeat expected behaviours tied to specific cues so that the choice of beneficial strategies becomes the default.

The potential here is clear – we could support and reinforce positive conduct and study behaviours by expecting the repetition of processes across the school.

Teacher habits

Hobbiss et al explore habitual behaviours, focusing on the staff rather than the students. This paper cites a study suggesting that one of the defining characteristics of habits is that they are insensitive to negative feedback, meaning that sub-optimal teaching practices can become locked in, even when they are known to be sub-optimal.’

Overall, the paper suggests that there is converging evidence which provides strong reason to believe that habit formation is an important factor in limiting teacher effectiveness’. It recognises that understanding which behaviours are most prone to automaticity could have important implications for the design of teacher professional development.

In November, when Teachertapp asked the question Have you ever taught a lesson on autopilot, getting to the end of the lesson without being able to recall how you got there?’, 19% of respondents answered either frequently’ or occasionally’ and more experienced teachers tended to be a bit more likely to be in this group. So, it is interesting to consider what habits we might have fallen into as teachers – in areas as diverse as the questions we ask, where we tend to stand, how we respond to student behaviours, how we explain key ideas.…

Creating a system of instructional coaching or of ongoing incremental feedback could be key in supporting teachers to identify sub-optimal habits and then, using the habit loop, to design new cues to support the deliberate practice of carefully designed routines until the point of automaticity.

It turns out that we are all creatures of habit. By looking carefully at how we could use this knowledge to construct the best possible habits for staff and for students, we will all benefit.

And hopefully I’ll know where my keys are tomorrow.

Tara McVey is an Evidence Lead in Education (ELE) at Durrington Research School and Vice Principal at Towers School in Ashford, Kent. She is co-leading our Improving Behaviour & Attendance’ training programme this year. 


Fiorella, L. (2020). The Science of Habit and Its Implications for Student Learning and Well-being. Educational Psychology Review, 1 – 23.

Willingham, D. Why don’t students like school. American Educator, Spring 2009

Hobbiss, M., Sims, S., & Allen, R. (2020). Habit formation limits growth in teacher effectiveness: A review of converging evidence from neuroscience and social science. Review of Education, rev3.3226

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.

Belser, A., Ragan, T. (2020). Habits: How to Make Lasting Change with Wendy Wood. (podcast) The Learner Lab. Available at: (Accessed 14th Nov. 2020).

Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. Random House.

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