Every morning, I brush my teeth. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven.” I brush in multiples of seven. I shift the toothbrush over one tooth. “One, two, three, four, five, six seven.” And I repeat. I do the same for the insides and tops of my teeth. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven.” Then I spit and brush my tongue. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven.” I take a gulp of water, swish seven times, and spit it out. Every morning.
This is a habit. I formed it intentionally. While I’m brushing my teeth—despite the fact I keep count—my mind wanders…to my dreams, the day ahead, the day behind. This habit serves to free my attention; it lets me focus on other things while I brush my teeth.
Every evening (except for Saturday), I draft a wilt. “wilt” stands for “what i learned today.” It’s an email with five bullet points. Three of those bullet points are observations about what I thought or learned that day. Two of them are wirts, i.e. “what i read today.” I send this email out to the same people, every day.
This is a habit. I formed it intentionally. While I’m wilting, however, I am thinking about nothing else; I am processing my day and doing occasionally hard thinking to communicate a new idea. This habit serves to focus my attention; it lets me ignore other things while I write.
I brush my teeth because the health of my teeth matters to me. I don’t want bad breath. I want to avoid dental bills. I want to avoid being having ugly teeth.
I wilt because of certain ideas I have about my intellectual development. I want to actively reflect on my experience. I want to keep in touch with the small group with whom I wilt. I want to set up a structure encouraging me to read something meaty every day.
Embedded in each of these habits is a set of values. By engaging in these habits, I privilege certain values. I am pushed to embrace those things which pay respect to those values—or even better, make these habits easier. “Cleanliness” or “intellectual rigor” or “easily documented” or “interesting to my friends” or “attractive to others”—each of these, with different weights and emphases, inform and are informed by my habits.
The arrow of causation can go both ways—not only does each habit carry with it a utility, each habit can inculcate the value of that utility in us. Anyone who has gone to Mass or boot camp can attest to this.
Moreover, adopting a habit normalizes certain expectations about how you handle “that type of thing.” Personal hygiene is seen as a collection of small habits like brushing my teeth. Successful first dates, not so much. We think it’s reasonable that ‘staying healthy’ require an hour a day of food and exercise considerations—even if most of us fall short of that. But, most wouldn’t think an hour a day of mental health care would be healthy unless it were reframed as something like meditation or family time.
I’d like to suggest that we can bring this lens of “freeing” and “focusing” habits and the expectations they normalize to our experiences as students. Consider the average school day. And in particular, consider its schedule. Few think about patriotism during the Pledge of Allegiance. Few think about obedience when a teacher calls out, “Give me five!” Some think about algebra during algebra class.
What about the schedule? What messages are embedded in the tempo of a buzzer every forty-seven minutes? Well, many—e.g. there’s a long history of critique digging into the economic and sociological forces defining the institutional logic of a ‘period.’ But actually, I’d like to set aside the various questions about what good learning looks like and what’s “necessary” to teach effectively in “today’s world.” I’d instead like to focus on a single, concrete side effect: the message we implicitly communicate about the nature of intellectual work. For at least eight years—just under nine thousand hours in school—the overwhelming majority of examples and experiences students have ‘learning something’ suggest that ‘learning’ happens in consistent, well-managed chunks of small, steady applications of effort to do something that someone else has laid out for you. This is the precise opposite of the deep work and focus that we know accompanies real learning.
Again, at the moment I am not concerned with pedagogy—i.e. with what ‘effective teaching’ looks like. Instead, I’d like to suggest a simple exercise: think through—minute by minute—a school day. (If you have a child of your own, even better—think through their day.) And don’t think about what the schedule says people do—i.e. don’t think, “Algebra class”—think about what you’d see if you could set up a videocamera and lay over the student’s thought-track for their day.
Now when I run into a challenging question, my muscle memory tells me to ⌘-tab to something easier. Sometimes it’s twitter, sometimes it’s my email, and most of the time I intercept the impulse. That’s what you’d see on my thought track (with a boring video of me staring at my computer, occasionally straightening my posture, and bobbing my head to a beat). These tiny vagaries give my time a texture. So be sure to think about that texture of each minute you imagine—is it spent deep in thought? Listening? Making something? Talking to someone? Thinking about a crush? Worrying about grades? Worrying about food?
Imagine integrating that habit over time, day-in and day-out, for one thousand days (about how long we spend in 6-12th grade). And importantly, imagine that you never see any other examples of learning. “Sure, ice skaters and actors and cellists quit school to pursue their craft,” you think, “But a) they’re nuts, b) that’s like 0.1% of folks, and c) my parents would never go for that.”
Now, consider the following juxtapositions. And for each of these, ask yourself, “If I were to turn each of these into a habit, what would that feel like? What habits would I develop or need? Following directions? Being playful? Skimming? Working together? Thinking deeply? Do I spend thirty minutes on a page or thirty seconds?”
Or this one:
Or this one:
Or this one:
And finally, if you aren’t tired of the exercise yet, let’s turn it around. Choose a texture of time and activity you would be proud to see yourself (or your child) adopt as their own. Are they sitting in an overstuffed chair smoking a pipe considering Aristotle? Are they waking up at 4A every day to train for a marathon? Are they making sure to get home by 6P every day so they can spend some quality time with their child? Look at their day to day experiences now and consider how (or whether) there’s any connection at all.
The rhetoric of school centers on of ‘preparation.’ Students are immersed in prerequisites for future courses, many of which are unknown. Their participation in classes are themselves an act of preparation for more classes in college or for the workforce. Because cooking dinner is different than eating dinner, it is simple to conclude that preparing for a rich intellectual life should look and feel different than living a rich, intellectual life. But cooking and living are not the same. And just as spending too much time planning your kids’ activities can change your relationship to them, we should not forget that these habits of preparation do not spin along in a vacuum—they change us. And that means we should have some very persuasive stories lined up which we can honestly deploy every forty-seven minutes, after each buzzer.
Watch your thoughts for they become words.
Watch your words for they become actions.
Watch your actions for they become habits.
Watch your habits for they become your character.
And watch your character for it becomes your destiny.
What we think, we become.
— Lao Tse, author of the Tào Té Chīng
[Discussing a factor analysis of student performance in Edwards et al] Our theory would predict that at the high school level submission to authority would be the best predictor of grades among personality traits. […] This prediction was confirmed. […] The temperament and IQ variables made no independent contribution.— Herbert Bowles & Samuel Gintis in Schooling in Capitalist America
Thanks to Shaunalynn Duffy for reading drafts of this post. The good parts are her fault; the bad parts mine.