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Friday, September 14, 2012

Baby Steps Will Take You Far

I participated in a program called Tiny Habits ( that was part of a research project by Dr. BJ Fogg who works at Stanford University.  I was asked to pick three very small changes I wanted to make in my daily habits.  The changes had to be very, very small.  An example given in the project was flossing teeth.  Dr. Fogg said his change was to floss one tooth only.  This was a very deliberate strategy because the smaller the change the more likely we are to do it.  Our perception of the change strongly influences our behavior.  We automatically resist anything that is too big or requires too much work or willpower.  The change has to require zero will power.  The next part of the strategy was to anchor it to a habit already firmly established and to do it immediately after the established habit.  He flossed his tooth immediately after he brushed his tooth.  The rest of the program consisted of receiving daily  emails from him checking to see how I did with the change and reminding me to  recognize/celebrate the progress I made. I have continued two of the three tiny habits I that I selected.  I admit that these now happen almost automatically without any effort on my part.

I think that there is a lesson to be learned from this strategy of change.  In schools today too many of changes initiatives fail miserably because people in leadership/authority don't understand the basics of the change process.
The first mistake is that  the change is imposed from above so they people who are expected to change have little or no choice about what they they want or need to change.  (This is sad because a skillful leader usually finds that the choice people make for themselves is very often consistent with the change they would like to see.)

The second mistake is that the change is too big-people feel overwhelmed by what they think is expected of them.

The third mistake is not linking it to the positive habits already happening in the school.  The change is usually perceived as a criticism of previous efforts.

The final mistake is to rely the potential consequences of not making the change as what would motivate people to change.

Schools would make a lot more progress in any area,  if they applied the principles of tiny habits.  I thought of three questions that a school leader could ask their staff at the start of the year:

What was one thing you did last school year that helped improve our school?
What is one thing that you are willing to try this year to improve our school?
What is one thing you think would be reasonable to ask everyone to try this year to make our school a better place?

Staff could share their answers and then come to some agreement on a collective goal.  They could then check in with each other on how they are doing throughout the year.  For example,  I have often thought that if everyone staff person made a commitment to saying "please" and "thank you" as part of their directions to students, that the climate of the school would significantly improve.

 As Michael Fullan succinctly stated: "Think big, but start small".  Schools would do well to follow that advice.

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