“The Power of Habit” Colored Glasses

When I first went over to the table of review copies at Science Online 2012 and saw Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do1 and How to Change It, I thought “Why would I want to read a self-help book?”2

Fortunately, The Power of Habit is not a self-help book, in that it is both informative and helpful. Duhigg invites the reader to view human behavior through the lens of habits through a seamless blend of compelling personal stories and scientific research. Duhigg convincingly argues that these principles worked for the people in the anecdotes and will work for you.

Viewing the world through the lens of habits added depth and understanding to an already moving experience I had earlier this year. In January, my wife and I visited a chemistry class at Hamilton Township High School in Hamilton, OH3 to talk about science and careers in science with the students4. The students were impressive as individuals, but we were amazed by the progress Hamilton Township High School had made as a community.

In 2000, evaluators gave Hamilton Local School District the equivalent of a “D”. Only 68% of high school students graduated and only 55% passed their math standards on their first try (77% after two tries). Hamilton is a semi-rural community just outside the capital of Ohio, Columbus. Economic resources are very limited and the school district has not had an operating levy since 1993. Hamilton is exactly the kind of community where you would expect to find failing schools.

Yet, in their most recent evaluation (2011), Hamilton Local School District earned an “A”. Now, 93.5% of high school students graduate and 91% pass the math standards on their first try (99.5% after two tries).

What changed?

Before the chemistry class, Principal Jim Miller gave us a tour of the new high school building5. Each element had been thoughtfully designed to create new habits that foster a productive educational environment. The new “habits” of Hamilton Township High School may have passed without explicit notice if not for a snack wrapper. As we entered the science wing, Miller suddenly pounced on the only piece of litter in the otherwise immaculate hall. He acted automatically. To me, the wrapper was irrelevant and made no difference to my impression of the hall. Honestly, I had not even noticed it. To Miller, it was a cue to act.

The halls of Hamilton Township High School were not clean because they were making the cleaning staff work harder. They were clean because Hamilton Township High School picks things up when they litter on the floor, without even thinking about it. It was not a discipline issue. There was no effort to identify and punish who was responsible for the litter. Keeping the school clean was the responsibility of the entire community; and no one in the school was too important for that responsibility.

From this perspective, so much of what we saw that day became intentional efforts to change the cues to which the students and staff were exposed. Payment for lunches was modified to make it impossible for students to know if their fellow students were receiving assistance in purchasing their food, removing one cue that we humans use routinely to segregate ourselves along socioeconomic lines.

Class changeovers were the quietest I had ever seen. It was possible to have a conversation in a hall flooded with students without raising your voice. Teachers and administrators did not enforce order by yelling at loud students, but by going out into the hall and engaging the students in conversation. The class bell was not a cue for chaos, but now a cue for social engagement with its obvious rewards.

The cafeteria is dominated by a mural depicting the history and achievements of Hamilton residents. A connecting hall is dedicated to displaying class photos throughout the history of Hamilton Township High School. Walking into these common areas immediately connects the students and staff to the history and community. They know what they do is important to that community. They know someone cares.

It would be overly simplistic to say that these features alone are responsible for the recent success of Hamilton Township High School, but they have created the environment that allows talented teachers and students to succeed. We had a great afternoon visiting Hamilton Local High School. Three months later, I got to enjoy it again in a brand new way thanks to Charles Duhigg and the perspective of The Power of Habit.

Viewing the world through the “habit” lens is so much fun that I want a physical reminder to do so sitting on my bookshelf6. More valuable than the information contained within, The Power of Habit inspired me to think deeply about myself and my world.

1. Doo-Bee-Doo-Bee-Doo
2. As it turns out, those who know me well had many interesting answers to this question.
3. My mother, Susan Witten, PhD (as I tell the students, “Call me, Josh. Dr. Witten is my mom), is Director of Teaching and Learning for the Hamilton Local School District and has been directly involved in many of these improvements.
4. My wife and I have spoken with several classes at Hamilton Township High School since 2010. Instead of using one of the broad programs available to connect students and scientists, we simply made ourself available to a place with a need and a personal connection. In our experience, that personal connection and identifiability (I am from the central Ohio area and my wife is from a town similar to Hamilton) were more important to connecting with the students and presenting a career in science as something “doable” than the actual content of the discussion.
5. In 2003, Hamilton Local School District obtained a school improvement levy and state funds that allowed the construction of new school buildings. The new high school is currently in its third year of use.
6. I endorse the view that physical books are now, and have always been, most important as reminders of the reading experience.

Author: Josh Witten


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