The first cycle of classes is almost over and students are settling into their school routines. Many of our new students, if not all, are likely employing the effective habits of mind that led them to York, but whether students are new or returning each start to the school year provides opportunity for self-reflection and refinement of one’s approach to learning. Thus, many students are currently asking themselves how do I want to go about achieving success, academic confidence, and happiness? To that question, we’d say it is never too late to start thinking about the power and function of the brain’s basal ganglia and prefrontal cortex.
That is exactly what New York Times business writer Charles Duhigg urges us to consider in his book The Power of Habit, which explores the science behind why we do what we do. The “habit loop” Duhigg describes follows this pattern: 1) a cue, or trigger, that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and let a behavior unfold; 2) a routine (the behavior itself) follows the cue; and 3) the behavior is followed by the reward, something that your brain likes that helps it remember the "habit loop" in the future. Those rewards can be extrinsic (applause, a good grade, money) or intrinsic (a sense of purpose, meaning, or happiness).
So what’s happening in the brain exactly? Our habit-making behaviors are processed in a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which also plays a key role in the development of emotions, memories and pattern recognition. Decisions, meanwhile, are made in a different part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. But as soon as a behavior becomes automatic, the decision-making part of the brain goes into a sleep mode of sorts. The basal ganglia takes a behavior and turns it into an automatic routine, such as brushing one’s teeth or punching a passcode into a phone. As Duhigg explains, “What we know from lab studies is that it's never too late to break a habit. Habits are malleable throughout your entire life.” And that malleability, what we now refer to as neuroplasticity — the neurons in the brain adjusting their activity in response to new situations or changes in their environment — can also help us build habits. Therefore, building healthy habits of mind (those that are both automatic and those that are deliberate) is essential to academic success. Let’s consider a few critical routines.
I wrote about the role of the planner in an earlier post here. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is to success at York.
STUDY EARLY and OFTEN.
Our Transition Guide offers some great study tips for students. Those 14 tips can be viewed (or printed for the fridge) here.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK.
Much of the research for and against homework can be summed up as follows: those against homework claim “homework contributes to a corporate-style, competitive U.S. culture that overvalues work to the detriment of personal and familial well-being”; “teachers are not well trained in how to assign homework”; and “research fails to demonstrate homework's effectiveness as an instructional tool.” Those for homework conclude “doing homework causes improved academic achievement.”
At York, we side with those for homework, independent practice, and extending learning opportunities beyond the school day. We are constantly monitoring student achievement and student health and well-being; we dialog with our students in and outside of class as to what homework we assign, how it supports student learning, and how to best engage with and complete homework in support of achievement.
And we are staying on top of the best practices and current research in support of homework. I highly recommend the following white paper from Stanford’s Challenge Success. At York, we focus on assigning smartwork not busywork.
GET ENOUGH SLEEP, EVERY NIGHT, AND GIVE THE SMART DEVICES A REST, TOO.
When we sleep our brain goes about a process of maintenance, a sort of scrubbing (some scientists believe the brain is cleaning itself of beta-amyloids and tau, which is akin to deleting emails from our inbox or a filter cleaning a fish tank. That sleep nourishes us and supports long-term memory storage. Thus, a good night’s sleep is vital for students' academic success. Meanwhile, you may have noticed more of us are going to sleep these days with a smart device in or beside the bed. Research reveals, however, that smart device use at night saps productivity the next day. So let that device sleep, too.
Best practices in master schedule design recommend that after every two classes students are provided a break. That is why York’s daily schedule is intentionally designed with a break time after period 2 (Break on ACE days, Path on D days, Tutorial on BF days, and Class Meetings on G days; lunch after period 3; Workjobs after period 5; and H&F or interscholastic athletics after period 6).
B and F day morning tutorials offer time for teachers to meet with students one-on-one or in small groups. They may also be used by students for study groups, as additional study hall time, or for meetings with Class Deans, PATH leaders/Sherpas, the Academic Dean, or the Dean of Students. Above all, tutorials are designed to ensure students receive the support we know they need outside of class time. And because that Tutorial time is so beneficial almost every Wednesday afternoon, York offers Tutorial from 2:50-3:30 p.m, so students and teachers can go even deeper into that form of teaching and learning. Equally beneficial meta-skill building is also supported by tutorials: self-advocacy and relationship building. York alumni report not only academic confidence and preparedness but also readiness in their ability to engage with professors outside of class, such as in office hours. That relationship building is a direct result of how York encourages students to practice relationship building during free periods and tutorials.