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Superintendents’ Forum: Opportunity Knocks, Habit Answers

This article was originally published in the Reading Eagle: 

By: Dr. Cathy Taschner, Schuylkill Valley School District Superintendent
Thursday, January 19, 2023

Each new year brings new opportunity and an accompanied time for introspection. As 2023 was ushered in, many people likely made resolutions to improve fitness and nutrition, to spend more time with family, to improve finances and more.

Regardless of the resolution, the success of achieving almost any new year’s goal is inextricably tied to changing habits. While most of us have participated in the new year’s resolution process, changing habits — and facing the challenge of doing so — is not a course of action reserved for individuals. Now more than ever, spurred in part by an electronic revolution fueled by the pandemic, schools too, must participate in an examination of their own educational habits.

Much like individuals, schools are no stranger to habit. In fact, most schools have habits that look similar in many ways to those that educated the last four decades of students. Change has occurred in schools, but it has not matched the rate of change that has occurred in the workforce. Businessman Jack Welch once remarked, “If the rate of change on the outside (of an organization) exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.”

Most people and organizations have acknowledged the accelerated rate of change occurring in our world. However, questions remain on how to transform work habits (or personal habits) in a way that allows the organization (or the individual) to remain poised to meet the demands of an ever-changing world.

Changing habits is always a challenge (as is understanding the neuroscience and psychology associated with it).  Charles Duhigg in his book “The Power of Habit” retells the story of Claude Hopkins, a salesman. While Hopkins became wealthy by coining what some will remember as the “Pepsodent smile,” he attributed his success in selling toothpaste to understanding human psychology and to being able to change the habits of people.

Hopkins believed the two important parts in changing a habit included finding an obvious cue and then defining the rewards. Since that time, researchers have clarified and expanded Hopkin’s understandings, yet the simplicity of his equation still remains.

Researchers agree that habits are refined by creating a cue, performing a routine, and providing a reward. But, cue, routine and reward by themselves are not enough to create lasting habits. Author James Clear offers that our brains must also crave and expect the reward.

Cravings drive habits, and figuring out how to spark a craving makes developing a new habit easier. However, if the thought of developing new habits seems monumental, or if you’re a believer in the “can’t teach an old dog new tricks” adage, there is good news. It is possible to elicit new outcomes without creating new habits. In fact, there is great promise and reward in changing old habits. Changing an existing habit allows us to keep the old cue, keep the old reward and still experience a new outcome simply by changing the routine.

For schools, changing habits doesn’t mean a full-scale revolution. It means reexamining what have in some cases been, the long-standing routines of school. It requires changing those routines and the associated pedagogy to maximize the engagement of students who have lived their entire lives in a digital age.

Perhaps educator and author Phillip Schlechty said it best: “Engagement does not result from students’ desire to learn, engagement results from students’ desire to do things they cannot do unless they learn.”

Students of the 21st century are here. They are ready to build and accomplish things that we have not yet imagined.  They cannot do it unless they learn, and the learning environment of yesteryear will not meet the needs of today’s students.

Opportunity is knocking.  Schools that commit to changing routines and to creating new educational habits will continue to answer the call in developing citizens who will become leaders in the innovative and global workforce that awaits them.

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