Friday 17 June 2016

School Research Champions and Habit Formation


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.  I will then use this framework to help explain one of the main findings – i.e. there was no evidence that teachers were more likely to use research to inform their teaching practice after being involved in the pilot (p4) -of the recent Rochdale Research into Practice Evaluation report and executive summary which was published in May 2016

A cross-disciplinary framework for habit change

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.   As such, 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.

Bringing about habit change

So what if a school research lead or teacher wishes to develop 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 strategy practice that you would like to embed in your teaching, for which would appear to be robust evidence to support the strategy’s effectiveness
  • 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 Rochdale Research into Practice Project and subsequent interventions?  However, before do this I will provide a very brief summary of the Rochdale Research into Practice  project's main finds

Rochdale Research into Practice Project – A summary 

Aim – to pilot intervention aimed at supporting teachers to use evidence-based teaching and learning strategies to improve pupil progress. 

Objectives – To help teachers to: have more positive views about the use of research for improving teaching and learning; apply educational research findings in the classroom and at a strategic development level; and, establish a stronger culture of evidence-based enquiry and practice.

Duration - The project ran for one year (2014/2015) 

Who was involved - Ten primary schools in the Rochdale area, all of which are members of the Inspirational Professional Learning Community Network (IPLCN) and 280 pupils were taught by participating teachers

Delivery -  by a senior Continuing Professional Development (CPD) consultant based at one of the schools and involved the following strands
  • CPD sessions – 3 full days and 4 half-day sessions
  • School visits by the CPD leads
  • On-going implementation
  • Ongoing email and phone advice and guidance by CPD Lead 
  • Collaborative CPD and professional learning conversations 
  • Engagement with senior leadership
Focus- by using evidence- based teaching and learning strategies such as metacognition, self-regulation and feedback

Funding The project was funded through the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) Research Use in Schools grants round. It was jointly funded by the EEF, the Department for Education, and the Mayor’s London Schools Excellence Fund.


There were some positive changes in teachers’ attitudes towards research during the course of the pilot.

There was no evidence that teachers were more likely to use research to inform their teaching practice after being involved in the pilot.

The project was very well received by teachers suggesting that this model may be a promising way of engaging teachers in evidence-based practice.

Finding time for working collaboratively on implementing research evidence in practice was considered a challenge, but overall the requirements of the programme were feasible.

Before a trial is considered, further thought should be given as to which elements of the project are essential for its efficacy, and whether a trial should test the project structure as a model for research dissemination or both the structure and content of the project as piloted (p4).


So given apparent both the lack of change by teachers in the use of research to inform their practice leading and question marks about both the structure and content of the pilot, what can we learn from the work of Gardner, Lally and Wardle to inform both the content and structure of future interventions.
  • For research to be used to bring about sustained changes in practice, then such changes may need to be relatively small and easily repeatable on a regular if not daily basis. 
  • To bring about such habit change – CPD programmes needs to be designed to ensure there is almost real-time monitoring and support. CPD programmes – which rely on the colleagues getting together on a relatively infrequent basis or even half-termly are unlikely to bring about habit change.
  • It is unlikely that sustained habit change – even in using small bite-sized changes in the use of research research to bring about changes in practice - can bw brought about quickly and will require sustained practice and support 
  • School and leaders need to be conscious of situational and contextual cues and work to create an environment where those cues promote positive habits and research and evidence use and reduce the numbers of cues and contexts which facilitate less productive habits and behaviours. To use a phrase –borrowed from Margaret Mulholland of Swiss Cottage School – research and evidence need to be baked into that everything a school does – rather than simply being bolted on as an extra requirement. 

And some final words

Although both the Rochdale Research into Practice and Ashford Research Champions appear to be less than successful in transforming research into practice, we should not be too disappointed.  Evidence of what appears not to have worked, is just as important as evidence of what works.  As Christensen and Raynor (2003) note positive research outcomes are very rarely the final word.  Progress comes when researchers refine a theory to explain situations in which the theory previously failed.  As such, those of use interested in developing theories of action associated with evidence-based practice should be grateful to colleagues who participated in the Rochdale and Ashford projects, as their work will hopefully contribute to development of new hypotheses and theories of action.  With this in mind my next post, explain a three-step process whereby schools can maximise their learning from a relative lack of success or failure.


Christensen, C.M. and Raynor, M.E., (2003). Why hard-nosed executives should care about management theory. Harvard business review, 81(9), pp.66-75.

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

Griggs, J, Speight, S.,  and Cartagena Farias, J (2016) Ashford Teaching Alliance 

Research Champion Evaluation report and executive summary May 2016 , Education Endowment Foundation : Accessed 8 June, 2016

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

Speight. S, Callanan, M.,Griggs, J. and Cartagena Farias, J.  Rochdale Research into Practice Evaluation report and executive summary May 2016, EEF


  1. The thoughts and ideas about habit change was really helpful and informative!! Thanks for sharing!!
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