We all have habits – things we do without thinking. Without them we couldn’t function, as our working memory would be crowded with thought processes about the simplest of operations. ‘Should I put my left leg or my right leg forward now?’ we would think, and we wouldn’t be able to remember where we were actually going, so demanding would be the process of walking. On the other hand, once we have formed the habit of walking, we are free to think about the place we want to go, and even to admire the scenery, or the outrageous beard of the young man strolling next to us down the station platform.
Habits operate in every area of life, from the simplest to the most complex, because we have an amazing capacity to do things automatically if we do them often enough, combined with an almost limitless long term memory for storing the information needed to perform the processes we have automated.
The main function of elementary education is to fill the memory with needed facts, and automate needed processes, so that as pupils progress to higher levels of cognition, they are free to contemplate more complex ideas without the burden of consciously doing the lower ones.
But this doesn’t happen most of the time, as far as I can tell. Pupils typically come to secondary school with almost nothing in their heads: just a few random facts about the Black Death and the American civil rights movement, washing in a sea of rubbish picked up from popular culture. Many also come to secondary school with very bad habits of behaviour, because people have been so nice to them over the years.
Just as in learning, behaviour is about habit forming. The habit of respectfully listening to a teacher and obeying instructions immediately is not natural to children. It needs to be formed over many iterations, in which doing the opposite – talking over others, ignoring instructions – leads to unpleasant consequences (detentions, withdrawal of privileges, sharp verbal reprimands).
All habits are formed over many years by persistent effort, on the part of the teacher and the pupil. There are those who believe that covering something once or twice means you have taught it. But in discipline just as in learning, coverage does not mean mastery. Just as a pupil does not know their times tables until the answer pops out without a moment’s reflection, so they do not know how to behave until respectful obedience to teachers has become second nature. They do not need to pause and reflect, ‘now, should I obey this person?’. They do it without thinking, because they are in the habit of doing it.
Explaining to pupils that it is selfish and disrespectful to interrupt, to shout out, to distract others, to waste the teacher’s time by ignoring instructions and only obeying them after repeated nagging, if at all, is one thing. When we explain these things we are appealing to pupils’ reason, and I am not saying we should never do so. But we must not confuse such lectures with the long, slow process of training which actually enables pupils to behave respectfully and obediently. That takes years, and with some pupils, many, many instances of suffering the consequences of taking the wrong path. To deliver this essential training, we have to be organised and relentless, both individually and corporately. And we cannot afford to be nice.
To become a true master golfer, you must practise your swing thousands of times. Every time you make a bad shot, you get instant feedback as the ball goes into the shrubs, or the sand, or the lake. Our pupils need to practise listening and obeying in thousands of instances over the years, too, and they need the feedback of unpleasant consequences every time they miss a shot. Not providing them with this training is nothing less than neglect.