Education as Habit Formation

The history of philosophy offers several competing views on the nature of education, from Plato’s account of knowledge as the grasping of eternal and unchanging forms, to William James’s view that knowledge should make some pragmatic difference in the world without being too abstract. The antiquity of a specific theory of education makes no difference for its relevance today, as some of the most ancient theories of education are still surprisingly relevant and applicable. Aristotle’s virtue based account of knowledge comes immediately to mind.

According to Aristotle, education is a matter of cultivating virtuous character traits, which he further defined as cultivating proper habits of action over time. These virtuous character traits, or virtuous habits of action, exist as the middle ground or the “golden mean” between opposing vices. Courage, for example, can be understood as the golden mean, or the average between the opposing vices of cowardice and recklessness.

Learning to act within this virtuous middle ground, say to act courageously as opposed to cowardly or recklessly, takes continual training and reinforcement about which modern psychology later had much to say, regarding various forms of positive and negative reinforcement and conditioning. These virtuous character traits do not come to human beings naturally or fully formed from birth; they must be continually cultivated and reinforced over time to become habitual and second nature to each individual.

So how can Aristotle’s notion of virtue as habit formation be applied to education in the 21st century? All learning requires the formation of habits, some of which are general and relate to learning and education as a whole, and some of which apply only within specific disciplines or fields of mastery. General habits of good students include: habits of study (being proactive about required materials and assignments); habits of timeliness (turning in work on time); habits of critical reflection and inquisitiveness, and various other habits cultivated by the best students. More specialized habits are those tied to a specific field of study or practice, such as the way a surgeon must make certain cuts or movements with the scalpel habitually, as if the scalpel were an extension of the surgeon’s own mind and arm. It wouldn’t do, for example, to have a surgeon who must repeatedly consult a “Surgery for Dummies” book before beginning even the most basic of surgical procedures! Similarly, a trial lawyer must make habitual the various patterns of rhetoric and argumentation to anticipate and quickly form a reply to any line of reasoning from the opposing faction.

This notion of habit formation as central to any form of education, whether in a general sense or in a discipline specific sense, has implications for the most effective uses of educational technology in the 21st century. Given the central role of habits in student success and virtuousness, the best uses of educational technology are to form, cultivate, and reinforce desirable patterns of student behavior and action, to make those patterns habitual and second nature over time.

As a simple example, the most basic functionality of almost any Learning Management System (LMS), with its assignment due dates and calendar reminders, not only eases the burden of instructors in managing these administrative aspects of education but also (ideally) reinforces the regular and timely completion of assigned work, to cultivate the aforementioned habits of studiousness and timeliness within students. Various mechanisms of providing feedback to students (whether in an automated sense as in automatically graded formative assessments, or in a manual sense as in instructors providing written feedback on student work) all serve to cultivate various academic or professional habits through ongoing feedback and reinforcement. Various specialized interactive educational tools and simulations exist likewise to cultivate desirable habits for a specific purpose, such as an interactive “Surgery 101” scalpel-incision simulation for the aspiring surgeon to practice surgical maneuvers, or an automated trainer in rhetorical techniques for the aspiring trial lawyer.

The success or failure of all of these forms of educational technology, from a pedagogical standpoint, is the extent to which they succeed or fail in cultivating the intended habits within the learner, whatever those habits may be, and however general or specific. This insight also serves as a useful demarcation between educational technology that is truly pedagogically useful (which succeeds in cultivating desirable learner habits more often than not), and educational technology that is not truly pedagogically useful (either because it fails in its attempt to cultivate desirable learner habits, or because it does not have habit formation as one of its intended purposes in the first place).

Compared to the history of philosophy of education, much educational technology “fluff” has been developed in the relatively brief history of educational technology over the past 40 years or so. Even many seemingly high quality (in some sense) and well intentioned electronic or online course materials have ultimately proved to be pedagogically unhelpful because they did not serve to reinforce the cultivation of any desirable habits of action, due largely to their passivity —such as the oft cited PowerPoint presentation viewed in a purely passive way with no subsequent and reinforced calls to action. In contrast, various forms of educational technology have been more successful in cultivating and reinforcing learning habits and genuine intuitive mastery.

Why do some forms of educational technology succeed where others fail in this regard pedagogically? Some fail because they are too passive have no calls to action, or because their calls to action are “single serving,” prompted once but without any follow-up actions to develop good habits over time. Some fail because they have a misunderstanding of the most effective uses of positive and negative reinforcement (reward based reinforcement or punishment based reinforcement) in developing habits of action. Some fail because they have calls to action but no corrective power or influence, whether in the form of automated feedback or instructor feedback, again lacking subsequent calls to action to correct mistakes and hone the formation of better habits of understanding and mastery.

Ultimately, when evaluating the pedagogical success or failure of any form of educational technology, the more fundamental question to ask is not “Is this engaging?” or “Is this innovative?” but rather “Does this tool cultivate and effectively reinforce the intended habits within the learner?” In other words, it is (sadly) possible to have an engaging and innovative piece of educational technology that is still pedagogically ineffective because it ignores the fundamental role of habit formation in the production of genuine mastery within the learner.

Zachary Fruhling is a senior instructional designer at HotChalk Inc. where he is responsible for the design and implementation of graduate-level online course materials. Zachary has over 15 years of experience in higher education, both in the classroom as a university-level philosophy instructor and in educational technology as a digital content author, instructional designer, and creator of interactive online course materials and media for a variety of disciplines.

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Education as Habit Formation

by Zachary Fruhling
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