We Are Our Habits

Today I had an interesting conversation with Scott Baldridge and Nell McAnelly, who lead a project in Baker Louisiana to implement Singapore Math in the school district there.

“After two and a half years,” I asked, “what have you learned?”

Nell said that things that were done in summer-time professional development workshops didn’t appear to have much influence on what went on in classrooms.  “To have an influence on what teachers do in the classroom, your work with them needs to be embedded in their own work in their own classrooms,” she said.

Scott agreed.  “It’s not what you can show and tell,” he said.  “It’s what you can engage teachers in.  People don’t change based on suggestions, or even examples.  Teachers don’t master the mathematical knowledge they need for the classroom if it is simply explained to them.  They need to get involved with it, motivated by their own interest in it.”

Of course, I’m paraphrasing, since I can’t recall the exact words.  But this reminded me of a conversation I had with my wife, Dianne, just last night.  Dianne is a graphic designer and an art teacher at a private school here in Baton Rouge.  She came home all excited about a workshop on Critical Thinking she had attended.  My reactions must have been disappointing.  I always seem to be prepared with a wet blanket to smother those annoying cases of enthusiasm, whenever they pop up.

Well, after I was able to clarify to Dianne that I really was interested in what she was saying and was taking it in thoughtfully, I found myself explaining something very much like what Nell and Scott would be saying to me the next day.  “I’m sure you found the lecturer inspiring–after all, he gets contracts based on the enthusiasm he can generate.  But will your classroom change?”

Dianne thought,  “Yes, it might take some time to get the kids into that kind of critical thinking activity, but it seems really exciting, and I’ll bet it wouldn’t be hard to make that kind of thing happen.”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Think about cooking.  I’m always trying to do new things.  But real changes are extremely difficult.  The stuff I cook always has certain tastes, textures and aromas.  I get bored with my own cooking sometimes, but I can’t escape it.  I have so many unconscious cooking habits that I cannot consciously overcome them.”

Personal knowledge–a term taken from the title of a book by Michael Polanyi–is based on deeply internalized experience acquired over a long period of time.  It’s a kind of knowledge that guides and controls us at a level that we are scarcely aware of.  Our most complex interactions with the world around us, both the world of people and the world of things, are based on this kind of knowledge.

Cognitive scientist Jordan Grafman has a word for this kind of knowledge.  He calls it a “structured event complex.” It’s a complex of memories, recognition patterns and action scripts that enable us to operate in the midst of the booming buzzing complexity of the kitchen, the classroom or wherever else we happen to be.  These are stored in the pre-frontal cortex, the executive suite of the brain, and are activated automatically, according to the situation.

Changing the way that teachers operate in their classrooms would necessarily mean reaching that geological substratum of practical, personal knowledge.  Changing it would be a task as formidable as changing the patterns in the way a married couple interacts, which would be almost as hard as altering the course of old river.


About jamesjmadden

Professor of Mathematics at Louisiana State University
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One Response to We Are Our Habits

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