Goals vs. habits

track (1)I recently came across an interesting pdf by James Clear called Transform your habits.  It’s a guide that aims at helping people who wish to make progress in health, business, and life in general. The author argues that when people want to make changes, they usually do it the wrong way. According to Clear’s theory, which is a blend of academic research and real-world experiences, concentrating on long-term goals is not the best we can do. The trouble is that to achieve a long-term goal, we need to keep the level of motivation high for a long time. This is a tough task, as we all know. A momentary lack of motivation may cause the lack of will, and it may ultimately prevent us from achieving our goals. Clear suggests that it’s better and more efficient to stick to everyday habits rather than concentrate on one defining moment in the distant future.

I really like the idea that the process for achieving goals is just as important as whether or not we achieve them at all. In the world of education, we are obsessed with setting objectives and one example that immediately comes to mind is the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. This guideline describes long-term achievements of learners of foreign languages. But how does it actually help the teachers and the students? In other words, does it tell us what habits our students need to form in order to reach a particular goal? Isn’t sticking to such a framework doing things the wrong way?

Take this statement, for instance: A proficient user (C1) can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognize implicit meaning. Once I start teaching a B1 student who wants to reach a C1 level, most importantly, I should consider the habits this student needs to form in order to achieve the goal. I dare say that most learners don’t know what it takes to reach a specific language goal. It’s the teacher who has already been there and knows all the tricks. So in order to achieve the aforementioned goal, the learner first needs to create a habit of reading. This means that he should read suitable texts regularly and frequently. Time can be the worst enemy so it’s really important to get small doses rather than attempt to read something longer once in a while. The learner needs to read a variety of texts, and thus he needs to form a habit of searching for suitable English texts. This is easier said than done, but the teacher is there to tell the student where to look for texts and how to work with them.

To be able to recognize implicit meaning, the learner will probably need to read texts rich in metaphors and idioms. The learner should then create a habit of storing these language items and revising them. The teacher can make things easier for the learner by showing the tools available and demonstrating how to deal with metaphorical and idiomatic language.

I’m not sure we teachers always do it the right way. Mind you, we do our best to bring engaging materials and we focus on our flawless classroom management and perfect timing. But we only tell the students what to do at one given moment: Now, read this text and then do the comprehension check exercise. Then work in pairs and share your answers. But do we help our students form useful habits that would help them learn autonomously?

When I think about my own classroom, I’d say that basically, most of my students obediently do what I tell them to do. However, once they leave the classroom, many of them forget about English completely. Apart from listening to English songs, watching movies and playing PC games, I don’t think they have any habits related to learning the language whatsoever. Every day, they reluctantly complete their homework, because they are required to do it, but that’s all.

For many students, the goals we have set for them are unattainable, which inevitably demotivates them. For others, on the other hand, the goals are not challenging enough and this demotivates them too. One way or the other, it seems that the goals are the problem. Although most students don’t really care about the long-term goals some bigwigs have invented up there in the ivory towers, we teachers have a bad habit of mentioning them all the time. What if the students only concentrated on forming good learning habits and forgot about the CEFR rubbish completely? I believe they might as well be much more successful in the end. Or at least much happier.

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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
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