Monday, 14 July 2014

CPD and the difficulty of habit change

Given one of the goals of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is to bring about  beneficial changes in actions and behaviours and for those changes to be sustained by becoming habits, it seems sensible to consider what the research literature suggests about habit change and habit formation.   In doing so, I will be taking a cross-disciplinary approach and draw upon what has been written about habit formation and change within a health promotion context.

Neal et al (2012) state that habits are defined as actions that are triggered automatically in response to contextual cues that have been associated with their performance.   The regular performance of the action creates a linkage between the situation (cue) and the action, so as the cue is encountered or experienced it triggers the action which is performed automatically, for example, automatically taking the register as students enter a classroom, or when asking a question of a class, choosing the first-student who puts up their hand.

Lally et al (2010) worked with 96 undergraduates and asked them to adopt a new health-related lifestyle behaviour.   Of the 82 participants who completed the study, the average time it to took for a behaviour to become automatic was 66 days, although this varied by participant  from 18 days to 254 days.  This period of time is much longer than the 20 to 30 days which is often talked about as the time required to bring about the formation of a new habit.

So what if an individual lecturer or teacher wishes to bring about a new behaviour?  Gardner, Lally and Wardle (2012) provide a useful checklist developed for health promotion and which I have amended for use in an educational context.  
  • Decide on a goal that you would like to achieve in your teaching, for example, improved questioning skills
  • Choose a simple action that will contribute towards your goal and which you can do on a daily basis within a lesson, tutorial or other context e.g questioning and wait-time
  • Plan which lesson or lessons where you will undertake the chosen action.  Try and be consistent and look to find some action which you can repeat daily.
  • Every lesson or session you encounter that time or place, perform the action you have chosen.
  • Continue the action for at least 66 days, by which time the action should have become automatic.
So what are the implications for the organisers and participants of CPD activities and programmes.
  1. Changes in actions and behaviour take time and 'victory' should not be declared too early and will take at least a term.
  2. To get new habits requires the opportunity to repeat the desired behaviour on a regular, if not daily basis.
  3. School and college leaders need to be conscious of situational and contextual cues and work to create an environment where those cues promote positive habits and reduce the numbers of cues and contexts which facilitate less productive habits and behaviours. 
Gardner, B., Lally, P. and Wardle, J. (2012) Making health habitual : the psychology of 'habit-formation' and general practice,  British Journal of General Practice. 62 (605) pp 664-666
Lally, P. Van Iaarsveld, C. Potts, H., and Wardle, J. (2010) How are habits formed ; Modelling habit formation in the real world European Journal of Social Psychology 40, 998 - 1009
Neal, D., Wood, W., Labrecque, J. and Lally,P. (2012)  How do habits guide behaviours  ; Perceived and actual triggers of habits in daily life, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 48 : 492 - 498

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Why does so much CPD lead to so little change?

In my penultimate post before the summer break I will focus on the linkage between CPD and habit change.  In doing so, I will be drawing upon the work of Kegan and Lahey (2009) on how to overcome both individuals' and organisations' immunity to change.

Kegan and Lahey refer to a recent study which showed that when doctors tell heart patients that they will die if they do not change their habits, as few as one in seven will be able to change their lifestyle habits and change successfully.   Even when the stakes are a matter of life and death the power of the status quo can be incredibly attractive.  If this is the case, and given that CPD if often about bringing about much lower stakes change in habits and behaviours we should not be surprised if CPD is more often than not ineffective in bringing about sustained and meaningful change.

Kegan and Lahey argue that both individual collective beliefs provide a powerful antidote to change. This mechanism is illustrated in the following table which looks at the immunity to change, using as an example the integration of digital technology into day to day delivery of the curriculum.

Doing/not doing instead
Hidden competing commitment
Big assumption
We are publicly committed to integrating digital technology into day to day deliver
We continue not to integrate digital technology into schemes of work and teaching.
We value traditional teaching methods over and above the use of digital technology.
We assume that if we do integrate digital technology  it may reveal our own individual weaknesses in the use of digital technology.

This model of how an individual or group may thinks gives a profound insight into why many seemingly well supported CPD initiatives fail, i.e there maybe a commitment to the change but other things are more important and overpower that commitment.  Given the seeming power of this model to explain the immunity to effective CPD and resultant change, what can be done to try and overcome the thought processes which inhibit change

In a short blog post it is not possible to do full justice to Kegan and Lahey's insights into the process, nevertheless, they identify three ingredients' which increase the probability of change.
  1. Gut - the individual/organisation must really want to achieve the first column goal, it's never enough to have an objective which seems reasonable and rational, the commitment must come from a real sense of desire.
  2. Head and heart - both thinking and feeling must be engaged at the same time 
  3. Behaviour and mindset -it's not enough to think differently, success comes from taking specific steps which are inconsistent with our immunity to change and in doing so, challenges our thinking.
So what does this mean for the leadership and management of schools and colleges, well for me, three things stand out.

  1. Leading and managing effective CPD is hard, sophisticated work and requires time, skill and resources.
  2. An individual's CPD objectives need to fully engage with both the head and the heart. Top down models of setting individual' objectives which are mechanistically created from the top-level organisational objectives are unlikely to do so.
  3. The pace of change is likely to be erratic, this is messy stuff and individuals need to have safe places to try out behaviours which are not consistent with their belief systems.  

In my next post, I will be looking at the work of Philippa Lally and habit formation.


Kegan, R and Lahey, L, l. (2009) Immunity to Change : How to overcome it and unlock the potential in yourself and your organisation, Harvard Business Press, Boston.