As classical Christian educators, we place a high value on cultivating such qualities as wisdom, virtue, and piety in the students God brings into our care. A question that has challenged educators down through the ages has been how to effectively train students in these qualities. Do we put on the hard press, systematically breaking down their wills so that we achieve the kind of conformity one would expect of a military drill camp? Seems a bit extreme and dehumanizing. Do we create elaborate schemes of rewards and punishments? Sure, there are some short-term gains, but at what cost long term?
In this series, we will explore the practice of habit training as a method to raise virtuous children. We begin by exploring the nature of habits in our lives in this post. This will be followed by a post where we dive into the mechanics of how habit training works. A final post will connect habit training to the wider world of biblical and classical thought.
What is a habit?
Think about your own daily routines. You probably have a whole series of habits that run almost automatically each day. Many people have a morning routine that might include such practices as making the bed, brushing your teeth, reading the Bible, making a cup of coffee, checking email, grousing about the number of emails in your inbox. Our lives are governed by habits, little background programs installed through repeated actions on the hard drives of our brains. Some habits are mundane. For instance, you don’t have to think or decide about the best method to walk up a flight of stairs. Compare that to a little toddler who has to work out each step of the way. The habit has become so ingrained, it feels silly to even consider it. But imagine how difficult your life would be if you had to relearn how to walk up and down stairs every day. Other habits are more profound. We find ourselves trying to cultivate daily routines, such as Bible reading, meditation, journaling, practicing music, etc. We sense these will make our lives better, but some habits take time and effort to install. Still other habits seem useless or unwanted, which is why we call them bad habits. I don’t want to check my phone first thing every morning, and yet I can’t seem to help myself. My dour disposition when confronted with lots of unread emails in my inbox conflicts with my otherwise happy outlook on life. Why can’t I listen more effectively to my wife rather than being argumentative?
These little programs operate for better or worse not only in us, but also in our students. Usually we’re better at seeing their habits than they are. One student taps his pencil while another can’t sit up straight in his chair. Yet another student shows a real depth of spirituality in her prayers, but looks out the window during Bible reading. The great thing about habits, though, is that they can change.
The Pathway to Changing Habits
Our brains are filled with all kinds of neural pathways. These pathways bundle together through repeated actions to form habits. The brain, however, is constantly changing. Neuroscientists have been researching brain plasticity as far back as the late 1800s, with the most substantive results coming in the last few decades. Our understanding of neurons is that the physical matter of our brains is overhauled fairly rapidly on a cellular level. The brain you have today is not the brain you had yesterday. What this means is that our habits are not set in stone, they also can be changed by creating new neural pathways. Changes can occur for people of any age and any context. However, our brains – and therefore our habits – are most malleable when we are young. This is encouraging news for us as educators. That student who can’t sit still is not that way because it is his character, he simply has not developed the proper neural pathway that automates sitting in a ready-to-work position during class. With some work, he can learn a new habit.
The good news is that we can change, but we need to understand that change only occurs with intentional practice and concerted effort. Think about it this way, the new program has to be written over an old program. Our bundles of neurons have formed together meaning that the old paths are well trodden. It is far easier for Johnny to move this way and that than it is for him to sit in one position on his chair. If he is to change his habit, he needs practice and lots of it. Because of his weakness in sitting properly, he also needs someone to come alongside him to help him give his best effort the whole way. That’s where you as his teacher come along. In my next post, we’ll explore a method of habit training outlined by Charlotte Mason that will assist us as educators to support students.
The Many Dimensions of Habits
A final thought on the nature of habits is that they encompass many different dimensions. At the most basic level we have the physical dimension. So many of the habits we either want to get rid of or want to develop are such things as not biting our nails or remembering to floss each day. At this level habit training can be fairly mechanical and the results are fairly obvious. You either can or you can’t tie your shoes properly. There are other dimensions, though, that are less easy to quantify and therefore require a more robust understanding and awareness of human nature. I’m thinking here of emotional, intellectual, social and spiritual dimensions. This is where we get to the heart of our distinctives as a classical Christian movement that distinguish us from the more behaviorist philosophical grounding of the progressive educational model most of us were raised in.
At an emotional level, students can learn how to listen empathetically through habit training. This has to be modeled and practiced, but it can and ought to be done. In the intellectual dimension, we can help our students acquire, say, intellectual courage or intellectual humility through the power of habit training. At a social level, students can learn how to care for others and stand up for themselves. In the spiritual dimension, children can gain habits of reverence or consistency in prayer. I think about how Paul advised Timothy to bring his conduct into conformity to the words of the faith, saying, “Practice these things, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress.” (1 Tim. 4:15 ESV) Paul included bodily training (4:8) as well as love, faith and purity (4:12). As classical Christian educators, we can heed Paul’s call to raise up students who will live lives of excellent (ἀρετή) in all dimensions. This means viewing our students as whole, multi-dimensional persons who are capable of tremendous growth.
If you are interested in learning more about habit training in the classroom, check out my free eBook at educationalrenaissance.com, and stay tuned for the next two parts in this series on habit training.