For better or worse (mostly better), people are creatures of habit. As teachers, we can use that to our advantage. The more we embrace—and instill—positive habits in the classroom, the better.

What’s a Habit?

Think of habits as ingrained routines that people follow. Habits are the behaviors we default to, often without conscious thought. Habits—good habits, of course—are some of the most powerful behavioral tools available to us, regardless of occupation or industry.

Certain good habits—e.g., brushing your teeth or putting on a seatbelt—are so well absorbed into our minds that changing that behavior seems alien. On top of this, a habit is inherently comfortable. It’s a routine that has worked, currently works, and will keep working into the future.

Good habits are great because:

– Habits are easy: we want to stick to our comfortable routine.
– Habits are permanent, or close to it: there’s a reason that breaking a habit is such a hard task.
– Habits are practical: they force action instead of merely planning it.

What’s a Goal?

In contrast, a goal is nothing more than a specific desired outcome. Say, for example, you set a classroom goal that every student will have a piece of work featured on the classroom wall.

Setting goals themselves—e.g., featuring the work—is simple enough. But, of course, you’ve taken no concrete steps toward establishing behavioral patterns that will help the class accomplish this goal. What you’ve done is spend a lot of time, energy, and mental goodwill on establishing a direction, not a system.

When it comes to classroom culture, think about shying away from classroom goals.

– Goals are hard: achieving a goal means breaking our regular routines and striving for something new.
– Goals are temporary: once you achieve a goal, the mind thinks “Phew, game over” and wants to revert back to (you guessed it) habits.
– Goals are theoretical: use them to plan progress, not make progress.
Hint: Goals are on-off switches. You can’t fail to achieve a habit.

Why Are Habits Better Than Goals?

When we talk about classroom culture, we’re really talking about creating permanent change. As teachers, we want to instill positive classroom habits in our students and have those changes take root.

Setting goals is about achieving a single, specific outcome. Take, for example, a student who sets a goal to achieve a certain grade on a specific test. To accomplish that goal, the student may temporarily dedicate extra time toward studying and focus more on schoolwork. Once the goal is accomplished—and the test is passed—how likely is it that the student will continue to showcase these positive behaviors?

Now, take that same student and instill a habitual hankering to study. If the positive behaviors associated with the initial goal-setting (studying, reviewing notes, etc.) can instead become ingrained routines, the student is that much better off.

Classroom Goals + Good Habits = Effective Systems

As teachers, we know that the best classroom is one that follows a practical, effective system. For that, we want to emphasize good habits over goals. The act of setting goals is not by any means a useless activity, but goals should exist within a system that values systemic routine over temporary goal-setting.

In the end, good classrooms are about permanent, routine systems. The more we create good habits in our students, the better they’ll perform.


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