A strong education begins with good habits

Teacher in middle school classroom
Sep 03 2021

A strong education begins with good habits

“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits – practical, emotional, and intellectual – systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.”
– William James”

Ms. Rardon with sixth graders

How would you help Blobby the alien from outer space make it to Keystone? This was the question I observed 6th graders in Ms. Sarah Rardon’s class answering in the first full week of school. Their presentations were interesting, informative, and fun. One group gave Blobby explicit directions for navigating Brackenridge Park; another thoughtfully considered building a freeze chamber of -250 degrees celsius since Blobby is accustomed to the frigid temperatures of Neptune.

Beyond having a good time imagining how to guide an extraterrestrial to their school, what were these students learning? According to Ms. Rardon, the fifth/sixth grade social studies teacher, students were establishing the necessary habits to succeed in this course The process for doing a group project included the following steps:

  • Writing down ideas.
  • Sharing ideas.
  • Working together.
  • Creating a presentation.
  • Observing others’ presentations.

More generally, Ms. Rardon uses this project to accomplish a few goals for the course overall:

  • “The first is to introduce using Canvas for assignments. The students turn in the brainstorming section by taking a photo of the paper, then for their plan they turn it in on paper, and the reflection I use the option to use Google Drive. I use the project to check for the various ways we turn things in over the year. I also show them a rubric in Canvas, so they know what to expect when I grade the projects.
  • The second goal is to teach the format I use for my projects—I really want the students to see that I value the process and not just the final product, including reflecting and evaluating their work.
  • My third goal is to get the students thinking about the Earth in various ways—how are they going to describe location? What steps do they need to give? How can you explain something to someone who may not understand you?”

Walking around campus and visiting classes over the past couple of weeks enabled me to see students in all grade levels establishing routines for success. Whether they were in Pre-kindergarten learning how to process orderly from one activity to another, or they were high school seniors analyzing a poem, Cobras were forming patterns. Students might be solving a multi-step math problem or setting up a lab, they could be exploring new genres in literature or learning their colors. So much of the start of school involves cutting a path or finding a groove.

Career training teaches the necessity for establishing routines in almost every field. We learn this way of thinking in pre-professional school and then in the early days on the job. We are taught the procedures, the places to go, and the order in which tasks are accomplished. Absent these habits, the workplace becomes inefficient and ineffective; people are left to wander and never achieve their potential.

In his excellent book, “Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance,” physician-author Atul Gawande, writes, “We always hope for the easy fix: the one simple change that will erase a problem in a stroke. But few things in life work this way. Instead, success requires making a hundred small steps go right – one after the other, no slipups, no goofs, everyone pitching in.”

Forming step-by-step patterns can feel overwhelming and confining at times; however, in the long run, following these methods allows for greater productivity and creativity. All too often, people argue there’s a contradiction between structure and improvisation, as if the former constrains the latter. This is a false dichotomy. As example after example shows, the discipline we establish early on in a process, whether it’s in school, jobs, athletics, or the arts, enables us to create anew down the road.

We need only look to the worlds of sports and music to see this lesson. Michael Jordan practiced the fundamentals of basketball for hours on end so he could make jaw-dropping moves in games with seemingly little effort. Jazz musician Branford Marsalis once said, “There’s only freedom in structure, my man. There’s no freedom in freedom.” Within a sense of structure, there is room to improvise and create. The free flow of jazz begins with a solid foundation of musical knowledge. Without structure, the music would sound like random chaos; within the parameters established, the artist creates ethereal music.

The education writer Grant Wiggins in a blog post from April, 2013 discusses the importance of beginning well from the perspective of the teacher:

Where to begin? – an essential question in all story-telling and thus, also, in curriculum writing. Where, how should we begin a long intellectual journey? What must we accomplish in the beginning, so as to serve the learner and advance the learning best?

A curriculum etymologically is a ‘course to be run’. Thus, a course of study is very much a trek over many months, through varied terrain, with challenges, twists and turns, and eye-opening vistas en route. Surely, then, starting well matters greatly.

As Keystone students make their way through the 2021-2022 school year, they will travel the path that was initially mapped out in the past few weeks. There will be many steps along the way, and at times, they may take detours; nevertheless, equipped with the habits of mind and action they established in these sweltering August days, our Cobras will emerge at the end of the school year next May triumphant and better for having made the journey.

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