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  • by Blaine Helwig

Atomic Habits – Repetition, Mastery, Pedagogy

Updated: Sep 9, 2022

After years of visiting Title 1 elementary charters and traditional public schools, I am constantly amazed at the minimal number of repetitions that so many novice teachers provide their students. A seasoned educator is immediately aware that there is very little chance that many of these teachers’ students will achieve skill mastery.

I have repeatedly conveyed to campus principals, “It is not that teachers have too much repetition in their core lessons, it is that they do not sufficiently practice to threshold levels to achieve student mastery.” And, to my stunning surprise, many elementary principals agree, but far too many campus administrators continue to allow their novice teachers – with under five years’ experience – to continue that daily pedagogy despite obvious and depressed student achievement.

It is not students who mind the necessary repetition to achieve skill mastery; it is the entry-level educators who have not been properly trained in their teaching programs to realize it is paramount in skill mastery, and it takes them years to become fully cognizant of this fact. Unfortunately, this situation is not an uncommon phenomenon in either traditional or charter public elementary schools.

Skill Mastery – Good Pedagogical Habits – Atomic Habits

Over the last decade, I have written much on the importance of repetition thresholds to procure skill mastery. However, it seems next to impossible to make an impressionable dent in current educator thinking about core lesson design, as well as the threshold repetitions that affords skill mastery regardless of poor student outcomes produced in the wake. It has been a major frustration point of mine for most of my professional career.

Recently, I finished reading a book entitled, Atomic Habits by James Clear, and it gave me a renewed sense of excitement on the possibility of bettering classroom pedagogy and student mastery thresholds. Atomic Habits is not a book specifically about public schools or teaching for that matter, but I know many veteran educators (both teachers and administrators) that have read it, agreed with it, and liked it.

The book’s main premise is about creating small consistent changes in one’s life to obtain better results in improving any human endeavor one finds desirable. The pragmatic wisdom in skill habit and its formation is remarkable, and I am absolutely convinced after working professionally for over two decades in public education, that far too many young educators have not been properly trained to understand its specific importance in developing their specialized craft. Consequently, I extracted three tips from Atomic Habits with the hope that young educators reflect and adapt their pedagogy and practices for improving student learning and outcomes.

ATOMIC HABITS TIP 1 – Student Skill Mastery is Deferred Gratification!

Student mastery is a deferred gratification process. Mastery is when a person reaches automaticity and owns a skill set – no review is required – the skill has been ingrained to long-term memory. It is important to distinguish between learning and mastery. Exposure to a skill or concept for the first time is often an instant revelation of learning whether the learner is an elementary student or a mature adult; however, mastering automaticity of that skill or concept is definitely a deferred or time dependent one. It takes a certain number of threshold ‘learning’ repetitions to accomplish mastery. In a word, ‘mastery requires repetition and time!’

The question a entry-level educator should ask at this point is, “How many repetitions are required to obtain student mastery?” Of course, there is not an answer set in stone, but it is dependent upon the task at hand and the student’s cognitive processing abilities. In an elementary mathematics classroom, most discrete skills or multiple embedded skills (i.e., all skills taught to mastery) in an application ‘word/story’ problem, there are general rules of thumb based on the following three (3) student categories:

  1. Students classified as TAG/TG (Talented and Gifted) – 1 to 3 repetitions

  2. Student classified as General Education – 8 to 16 repetitions

  3. Students receiving Special Education Services – depends on the student’s disability – follow the child’s IEP – Individual Education Plan for lesson planning, any and all resources as well personnel support prescribed.

When I visit classrooms in any capacity and I observe the lesson design and the instructional delivery over a couple days, I form the impression that too many novice teachers believe their classrooms are comprised of only TAG/TG students – students requiring very few iterations in order to procure automaticity or mastery regardless of the subject matter. Human beings of all ages require a sufficient number of repetitions to ingrain a process. Thus, when working with young students, it is vitally important to consider both content difficulty and students’ learning processing needs – and it is paramount to design the daily lessons to accommodate those demands.

ATOMIC HABITS TIP 2 – Repetition is often Boring – So, Make it Exciting!

Of course, repetition on any given task we do can be monotonous. There is not a time in our lives when any of us have not experienced boredom during a learning process, whether as a child or as an adult. However, I thoroughly enjoyed James Clear’s example on repetition. His situational example with regard to a mature adult's perspective on practice is provided below, verbatim from his book:

[[ - “What’s the difference between the best athletes and everyone else?” I asked. “What do really successful people do that most don’t?” He (a trainer) mentioned the factors that you might expect: genetics, luck, talent. But, then he said something I wasn’t expecting. “At some point it comes down to who can handle the boredom of training every day, doing the same lifts over and over and over.” - ]]

- by James Clear – Atomic Habits.

Teaching young students in school is not filled with boredom, thankfully, if the teacher is doing their job! It only takes a threshold number of repetitions for a particular discrete skill. However, once that skill is truly mastered, the student owns it and the teacher moves on. And, mastery of that skill is often dependent upon the mastery of future skills. For instance, estimating mastery of addition or subtraction of two- and three-digit numbers is dependent upon the mastery of a slew of perquisite skills. Specifically, a student must have mastered place value concepts, mental fixity of whole numbers, rounding numbers to the nearest 10 or 100, and addition and subtraction math facts prior to mastering estimation of multi-digit operations.

Can learning whole number lines, math facts, rounding whole numbers, and place value be boring? Of course, it can! But not if the teacher makes the practice quick, exciting and interesting, which of course is at the very heart of classroom pedagogy. A classroom teacher must be creative, encouraging and motivating just as any successful athletics coach does when his athletes are repeating exercises, practicing plays or repetitive movements.

Why does the student or athlete put forth effort and not complain to their teacher or coach? One reason always stands out. There is a positive and unquestioning relationship that has been developed where the learner TRUSTS their classroom teacher or coach. The student or athlete knows that their teacher or coach has their best interests at heart, and they respond with effort!

ATOMIC HABITS TIP 3 – Do What Works – Be Effective!

I have observed teachers changing successful teaching practices to LESS successful pedagogy and not because the original lesson was not effective, but because they were bored teaching it in that manner. James Clear presents the following example in an interesting, but an analogous way for the classroom teacher’s daily work.

[[ - As soon as we experience for the slightest dip in motivation (or boredom), we begin seeking a new strategy – even if the old one is still working. As Machiavelli noted, “Men desire novelty to such an extent that those who are doing well wish for a change as much as those who are doing badly.”- ]] - by James Clear – Atomic Habits.

Avoiding this pedagogical pitfall is not easy. We all desire extemporaneous experiences in our lives; but the classroom is for learning –– student learning. Mastery requires practice! When you discover a lucrative silver mine, do not try to change it into a gold mine! The grass is not greener on the other side of the fence, as that old adage goes. Do what works in the classroom – each and every time! Always remember: this content is new for the students. This experience is their first time in learning this skill or concept.

Master, veteran teachers rarely, if ever, make this mistake. They present the same concept in such a manner that has been proven effective to every classroom full of students, year in and year out. However, if anyone is observing the classroom, they would not be aware of that fact. Why? Because the master teacher presents a lesson they have repeatedly taught for many years as if it is THEIR first time in doing so – not their fifteenth (15th) time. A seasoned master teacher is excited, encouraging and thoughtful in their instruction. They know this specific lesson is efficient and effective in delivery and results. Most importantly, they are cognizant it is this group of students’ first exposure to this content.

Closing Thoughts

I strongly urge young educators to read James Clear’s book, ‘Atomic Habits.’ This book speaks to our profession in making us better despite the book’s focus on developing and sustaining good daily habits for a more successful and desirable life experience. It has been my intention in writing this short blog to whet the young educator’s appetite by offering only three tips from his book and applying it to classroom pedagogy and student learning.

Yet, Atomic Habits has many more applicable points that relate specifically to classroom teaching and student learning. For example, ‘The Goldilocks Rule’ is spot on in curriculum design as well as the discussion on beginning (instructional days) with a specific que or action that places (our students) an ‘on-ramp’ for a productive day (of learning). It is well worth a thoughtful read, for it implicitly and analogously focuses on bettering students’ outcomes via pedagogical design and its delivery.

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