Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior. We tend to believe our habits are a product of our motivation, talent, and effort. Certainly, these qualities matter. But the surprising thing is, especially over a long time period, your personal characteristics tend to get overpowered by your environment.
Schools are hotbeds of dynamic relationships shaped by physical environment, community circumstances, leadership (or abdication of leadership) of adults, and the given set of policy, economic, and political contexts the school is embedded within (just to name a few).
While we tend to view schools primarily from a lens of academics, when we really get down to the tough work occurring in the trenches, we’re often (rather quixotically, I might add) attempting to instill and shift habits. Students stay up late on social media instead of completing homework, may lack motivation in achieving long term goals, play video games in lieu of studying, don’t exercise, eat junk, ad nauseam. It can be hard to get at academics when students have bad habits.
Maybe we can learn something from Vietnam War veterans and heroin addiction that could apply to schools.
Heroin, in case you’ve been living in a hole, is an extremely addictive opioid. How did the soldiers manage to overcome their addictions? It has everything to do with environment and social relationships:
“Here is what happened in Vietnam: soldiers spent all day surrounded by a certain environment. They were inundated with the stress of war. They built friendships with fellow soldiers who were heroin users.
… Once each soldier returned to the United States, however, they found themselves in a completely different environment. Not only that, they found themselves in an environment devoid of the stimuli that triggered their heroin use in the first place. Without the stress, the fellow heroin users, and the environmental factors to trigger their addiction, many soldiers found it easier to quit.”
The moral of the story?
“The people we connect with and the places we live in often determine our behavior and habits as much as we do ourselves. [Bold added]”
A school should be an oasis providing the cool waters that can quench a child’s thirst for knowledge, hunger for companionship, and craving for novelty and fulfillment. I believe that schools should be buildings that you would want to spend a lifetime within, with natural light flooding through large windows, expanses of cool greenery and spaces designed to inspire thought and social interaction. If we want to break students away from bad habits, we need to provide the environment in which better habits can flourish.
Clear suggests that in the absence of controlling the physical environment, however, that we should focus on designing for “laziness” and make “default options healthier or more productive”
In another post that he links to, Clear gives a neat 2-step prescription for this:
To stick with a good habit, reduce the number of steps required to perform the behavior.
To break a bad habit, increase the number of steps required to perform the behavior.
In a school, we need to consider how we can make it easier to achieve success, rather than easier to fail. And part of this is considering how we can leverage the relationships that we have with one another in the building. How can we make learning “cool”? How can students support one another in cultivating academic success, rather than in social distraction?
If 95% of the veterans of a horrific war can come home and kick a heroin habit, then any teenager failing his or her classes can become a model student.
It just might take an entirely new kind of school.