Swapping Bad Habits for Good

There is little doubt that much of what we do is habitual – a string of habits whose origins have been lost in a murky and distant past and for which justifications have a hollow ring to them. If there is good to be had in the current Covid-19 crisis it might be in the consideration of  some of those habitual elements in our lives.

Winston Churchill is credited with saying “You never let a serious crisis go to waste!”  And Charles Duhigg in a most engaging book entitled The Power of Habit (1) has this to say:

During turmoil, organisational habits become malleable enough to both assign responsibility and create a more equitable balance of power. Crises are so valuable, in fact, it’s worth stirring up a sense of looming catastrophe rather than letting it die down sometimes.”

I hasten to add that he makes this comment largely in relation to a serious medical crisis. But our habits generally are ones confined to a much more constrained physical setting and with outcomes that can be serious enough but usually not on the scale of a pandemic. Nevertheless, there are learnings (as we say these days rather than lessons) to be had from Convid-19. Charles Duhigg states in referring to a comparable medical crisis in Rhode Island that once the crisis gripped, everyone became more open to change. Such could be the case with NZ Education at this time.

Working from home. Now here is something that has struggled in time of normality to develop a wholly positive reputation. There was an element of nudge, nudge, wink, wink about it. But now, by fiat, everyone is potentially able to “work from home” largely because the argument on who shall have the ability, the right, and the levels of ethical and responsible behaviour have been side-lined to be replaced by a discussion  on questions such as how it is best achieved and a consideration of which activities can be delivered with quality in this way.

Technology has stepped up in a big way and TEAMs and ZOOMs and Skype for Business whichare all delivering invitations for getting together to meet on a whole variety of purposes. Institutions at all levels have replaced lip-service with action and found ways to wrap students of all ages into the Education bubble.  On-line learning is another example. Yes, there are issues. The provision of equitable access to the online materials through appropriate devices is challenging.  The pattern of pairs of parents committed to be out at work rather than at home, some out of necessity, some out of choice, creates a set of issues that caregivers need to solve. The skills learners need to “work at home” is not necessarily embedded in learners used to having their time managed by others and their work in large measure orchestrated by the mysteries of the curriculum and the experience of the teacher.

Attendance is another. Does authentic learning require attendance in a place called a school? Does ever learner from 2-years-old to 18-years need to be at school all day every day. The levels of observing the requirements of attendance that is ostensibly compulsory suggests that the habit for many is anything but!(roughly 20% of 16-year-old students are no longer at school, about 76,000 students are absent each day, and around 50% of school leavers in some areas do not have a pathway to further education). So what’s the lesson in this? It is that attendance is not a measure of the value to each student of an education, the critical measure is what students actually learn and can do. Perhaps students are learning more by being engaged in learning at home rather than being at school? Or benefit from a blend of the two?

Being at school to learn, being in a room for a meeting, being there every day might simply be habits based on assumptions. If they are habits, then habits can be changed. But we do have another habit in education – knowing what needs to be done but failing to act on it. Talking about the need for change but not changing. As Charles Payne says: “So much reform, so little change.”

For that would show only that we have learned little from the experience and that would be a very high price to pay. School students have tasted on-line learning, working with parents, flexibility in where and when learning tasks are engaged and having varying degrees of shared responsibility for their learning. Adults in education have learnt to engage with each other in a different way that is more economical in terms of meetings and especially time spent travelling. And have learnt perhaps to trust others, parents for example as authentic partners in their children’s learning and when their gaze cannot reach the student!

The challenge of coming out of lockdowns must not be to make up for lost time. Rather it should be to ensure that the return to a normal is not a return to the same practices that prevailed pre-Covid-19.


[1] Random House (2012), New York

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