Click here for Table of Contents
Click here for home, brianrude.com
I am primarily concerned with mental habits in this chapter, but to get into the idea of mental habits I will first talk about motor habits, and to get into that topic I will say a few things about behaviorism and the stimulus-response model.
The branch of psychology called behaviorism has exerted a great deal of influence in the twentieth century. When I was going to college in the sixties it was assumed that any ideas or principles in psychology or education had to square with some basic principles of behaviorism. I always thought this was a mistake. Behaviorism may be valid so far as it goes, but it has its limits. It does not apply to a great deal of the academic teaching and learning that goes on in schools everyday. And it does not apply the structure-of-knowledge perspective that I think must underlie academic teaching and learning.
The basic idea of behaviorism, as I understand it, is that a response to a stimulus is more likely to be repeated if that response is rewarded. I'm sure that there is much more to behaviorism that this, but I believe this is the central tenet of behaviorism that we need to be concerned with. From this tenet behaviorists attempt to explain many things. For example if a person has a drinking problem behaviorists would hypothesize that he gets some type of reward from his drinking. If a child whines excessively the behaviorist would look for ways that the parents either consciously or unconsciously reinforce his whining. If a dog is to be trained to heel then the behaviorist would argue that the proper, if not the only, way to go about this training would be to reward the dog for increasing approximations to the behavior of heeling. If a wife wants to train her husband not to be late for dinner she must find a way of making the act of being at dinner on time more rewarding than being late. Some behaviorists would even go so far as to explain specific instinctual acts such as a bird's nest building behavior as a matter of learning in response to positive reinforcement.
This basic tenet, that a behavior tends to recur if it is reinforced, seems reasonable enough, and I do not dispute its validity. However I will dispute its applicability. I will argue that there is a lot more to it than that. Behaviorism, as built on this tenet, overlooks something very important. That something is the cerebral cortex.
The cerebral cortex is the part of the brain that we think with. It is a data processor, the reasoning machine, or machines, that I talked about in the last chapter. It can take one careful step at a time. We learn arithmetic with the cerebral cortex. We learn about nouns and verbs with the cerebral cortex. The adjective "cortical", in this context, simply refers to the cerebral cortex. To say that something is under "cortical control" is simply to say that it is conscious and willful. To say that something is not under cortical control means that it is not the result of conscious intention. Other parts of the brain controls the behavior or action in question.
We like to think we are consciously in control of things. To a great extent this is true. Our thinking brain, the cerebral cortex, controls a great many things. But its control in many areas is limited, and shared by lower centers of the brain. My typing is very much under cortical control. My breathing is under cortical control when I choose it to be, at least within limits, but most of the time it is controlled by lower centers. My digestion is not under my cortical control. My memory, imagination, and my ability to string words together are under cortical control, usually. When faced with the assignment "Write a two page story about a personal experience that affected your values", I can direct my memory, imagination, and verbal ability to complete the assignment. When placed in a worrisome situation, these faculties are much less under cortical control. Thus cortical control varies a great deal, from almost total to almost nil. Behaviorists, for whatever their reasons are not much concerned with the cerebral cortex, but as teachers we must be.
Before continuing on the direction of cortical thought, I must digress a moment in the opposite direction, that of instinct. I mentioned behavior such as nest building of birds as something that behaviorists sometimes like to explain as resulting from positive reinforcement. I would argue that such behaviors are much more a matter of being "hard-wired" into the bird's brain. That is to say they are not a result of learning. Behaviorism very much emphasizes learning, as opposed to instinctual, or unlearned behavior. When I mention the cerebral cortex as being absent in the behaviorist's explanation of behavior; I do not mean to relate the cerebral cortex to behavior such as nest building, quite the opposite, in fact. Instinctual behavior is at a lower level than the behavior that behaviorists are usually concerned with. Cortical behavior is at a higher level. Instinctual behavior is a field in itself, and a very interesting one, but has nothing to do with the academic learning that I am concerned with in this book, any more than sneezing has to do with learning algebra.
Perhaps the most important experiment in behaviorism was Pavlov's dog salivation experiment. In brief, Pavlov observed that a dog would salivate when presented with food. He called this an "unconditioned response", because it did not have to be learned. He then discovered that if he rang a bell just before presenting the meat then the dog, after a number of repetitions, would salivate in response to the bell, whether or not the meat then followed. He called this a "conditioned response", meaning that it was learned, a result of "conditioning". Behavior is interpreted as being responses to stimuli. But responses can be associated to new stimuli if the organism gets some benefit from that association, if it is rewarded, as the dog was rewarded by getting the meat after hearing the bell. From this beginning behaviorism took the stimulus-response model as the basic unit of all behavior. The primary question, then, is how new responses get associated to stimuli. The answer to this, according to behaviorism, is that when a response is rewarded in some way it gets connected to the stimulus that is given. If a response to a stimulus brings a reward to the organism that organism will tend to repeat the response when given the stimulus. Learning, then, proceeds by "increasing approximations" as a result of "reinforcement".
I do not accept the idea that all behavior must be interpreted in terms of the stimulus-response model. It is useful model at times, but at other times it is cumbersome at best. To call an equation in algebra the "stimulus" and the solving of that equation as the "response", seems a sterile exercise in semantics. Also I do not accept the idea that we must learn only in response to immediate, tangible rewards and punishments. Geography teachers don't need to keep a pocket full of candy and give out pieces for correct answers.
I also do not accept the idea that educational goals must be stated only in terms of objectively observable behavior. Behaviorism, at some point, adopted the principle that only objectively observable behavior can be considered. If behavior can't objectively be observed, behaviorists decided, then it is not a proper subject for investigation. It is of no use, according to this argument, to ask what the dog is thinking when presented with food or when hearing a bell. We can never know what is going on inside his head, but we can objectively observe his behavior. This makes some sense of course, but can also be detrimental. In a psychology course I took just a few years ago it was just mentioned in passing that "social relationships" or "group behavior" is considered by some psychologists as not real. Only individual behavior is real. Social relationships and group behavior are simply what individuals do. Only individual behavior is a valid subject for study, because only individual behavior can be objectively observed and quantified. The "mother-son relationship", by this perspective, is not a proper subject for study. The behavior of the mother is real and objectively observable. The behavior of the son is real and objectively observable. But the mother-son relationship is somehow not real, or at least not a proper subject for study, because it is not objectively observable.
From a behavioristic perspective, then, the idea of a structure of knowledge would not be considered a valid concept. A structure of knowledge is not behavior that can be objectively observed. It must be inferred. Obviously I very much disagree with this perspective, just as I would disagree with the perspective than a mother-son relationship does not really exist and is therefore not a fit subject for study.
To say that a structure of knowledge does not exist seems absurd to me. Similarly we could argue that "democracy" does not exist. Democracy is an idea, not a physical, tangible, object. But it is still very important. Also similarly we could argue that "today" does not exist. It is not a physical tangible object, and it is not objectively observable behavior. Semantically one might make such an argument, but I see no benefit in it. Young children learn to use the concept of "today", and as they grow they learn to use the concept of "democracy", and many other concepts that are even more abstract. Thus I think the behavioristic perspective is totally inadequate for a serious analysis of teaching and learning. I believe the structure of knowledge concept to be real and useful.
I think it is of utmost importance that behaviorism has remained primarily concerned with a middle layer of behavior, behavior which is learned, but not by the cerebral cortex. Some behavior does not have to be learned. The natural salivation of a dog when presented with meat is a good example of this. The stereotyped instinctual behavior of lower animals such as nest building by birds provided endless examples of this low level of unlearned behavior. The dog's salivation in response to the ringing of a bell is definitely learned. It is at a higher level then the unlearned response of salivation in response to the meat itself. But it is still at a much lover level than the learning of academic subjects. It is at a subcortical level. The dog, we presume, does not consciously think about what is going on, hypothesize that the bell may mean that food is coming, and then decide to check out that hypothesis. Learning such as this indeed occurs by "increasing approximations". It is a gradual process, not an "all or nothing" process.
In contrast, the learning I talked about in the last chapter is much more an "all or nothing" process. Gradualism is apparent on a large scale, to be sure. One cannot comprehend a year's learning of algebra in one step. But that year's learning of algebra occurs as a large number of discrete steps. Each bit of understanding is more a matter of "all or nothing" than of gradualism. Every day or so, when taking algebra, the student must juggle new information and fit it in with the old. Again and again he or she experiences the "Oh, I get it!" moment. In language decoding the "all or nothing" nature is quite evident on the small scale. The "juggling machine" works on a few words and either manages to make sense out of it or does not. It is not a matter of "increasing approximations" or of "shaping" of behavior. Academic learning is primarily a matter of data processing, of proceeding by one discrete step at a time. In other words academic learning is done by the cerebral cortex, and the cerebral cortex does not operate according to principles of behaviorism. Therefore behaviorism is not a good foundation for investigating or analyzing cortical behavior.
Yet I believe this middle level of learning, learning above unlearned reflexes but below cortical thinking, is very important in teaching and learning, and that is what I will try to show in this chapter. Habits are on this middle level. They are learned, but not the way we learn algebra or history. Habits can be quite invisible when they are good habits. Bad habits can cause a great deal of trouble. When this is the case the habits are not so invisible, at least when we know what to look for. I will start with a consideration of motor habits, but it is perceptual and mental habits that I will ultimately be much more concerned with. I am not trying to use a behavioristic perspective, but since the type of learning I am discussing is the type of learning that behaviorism is concerned with, behaviorism may apply to one degree or another.
Consider this example of a motor habit: Some time ago I fixed a leaky hot water faucet in our bathroom sink. In putting the faucet back together I got one part backwards. The result was that turning the knob to the right turned the water on, instead of turning it to the left as it was previously. The first time I tried to turn the faucet on just after I got it back together it gave me a jolt. It didn't jump up and bite me, of course, but it couldn't have jolted me much more if it had. It simply stuck solid. I didn't expect that. I expected water. In a moment I realized I must have done something wrong in assembling the faucet and I tried turning the knob the other way, and of course I got water. I decided it really didn't matter when way the knob turned, and I didn't want to spend more time on it so I left it.
A week later I found that I had still not gotten used to the faucet. I like to think that I am fully conscious of everything I do and in full control. Yet time and again I would start to turn the knob the wrong way and again be surprised that it wouldn't work. I would quickly remember the problem, of course, and turn it the other way and get water, but then a few hours later I would repeat the whole process.
If I am fully conscious of everything I do then why couldn't I immediately learn to turn the knob the right way? For that matter why did I get the faucet put together backwards? When assembling the faucet I was aware that the orientation of one particular part would determine which way the knob should be turned. So I tried to remember which way it had turned originally. I found I could not remember. In spite of the fact that I turned the hot water knob many times a day without a thought, I simply did not know which way it should turn. So I analyzed a bit. I decided that the hot and cold water knobs should be symmetrical. I installed the part so that the hot water knob would turn opposite to the cold water knob. That turned out to be wrong.
This illustrates habit. I am not as aware and in control as I thought. I didn't know consciously which way to turn the hot water faucet. I just did it. Getting water was on a habitual level, not a cortical level. When the faucet changed I discovered how tenacious such a habit could be. It was weeks before it became automatic to turn the knob the correct way.
In behavioristic terms one would say that before fixing the faucet my response of turning the knob to the right was rewarded by getting water. After fixing the faucet this response was no longer rewarded, so the response began to be extinguished. The response of turning the knob in the opposite direction was rewarded and so eventually became effortless and automatic. I'm not sure the reward and punishment aspect of this is really that important, but the gradualness is. I could not make an immediate transition from one response to the other.
There are two levels of control here. There is the conscious intentional level, whose source is the cerebral cortex. If you tell me to turn the knob to the right I can do it. If you tell me to turn the knob to the left I can do it. And I can quickly switch from one response to the other, so long as I am consciously thinking about it. But obviously there is another level of control also operating here, a lower level, a level that does not learn quickly, and does not forget quickly. We might call this a stimulus-response level, or a behavioristic level, or a habit level. I think the term "habit level" is the most useful. Actions on the habit level are automatic and efficient. They allow us to go about our daily business without constant attention to every detail. My habit of turning the knob to the left served me well countless times. But when I altered the faucet that same habit caused trouble. A good habit leaves the cerebral cortex free to do other things. Before fixing the faucet I could wash my hands or get a glass of water without a thought. If fact my cerebral cortex could be completely engaged in some other activity while doing these things. I could be planning the day's activities, or deciding what to wear, or thinking about Christmas, or adding fractions, or anything else with my brain. But when I altered the faucet then my old habit was detrimental instead of beneficial. For at least a week, and perhaps considerably longer, every time I would try to turn on the hot water my cerebral cortex would be rudely yanked from whatever it was doing long enough recognize the problem and to direct my hand to turn the knob other way.
But surely my habit of turning the hot water faucet one way or the other is not the sum total of my habits. Everyday life must contain hundred or thousands of such small, generally invisible, little habits. We use them, indeed we depend on them, every minute of the day. They become visible, usually, only when they cause trouble. My faucet turning habit is primarily a motor habit. Are there mental habits, perceptual and/or conceptual habits, that ease us through our everyday activities? Can they also sometimes be counterproductive? Of course I will answer both these questions in the affirmative, but first I will offer a few other examples of motor habits and discuss how habits fit into the total picture of behavior.
Some years ago our youngest boy was finally learning to wash his hands adequately. We thought he knew what he was doing, but one day I discovered differently. He was in the middle of his hand washing and something interrupted him. I think I told him to use different soap, or something like that. I expected him to continue where he left and finish washing his hands, but he could not. Suddenly he was totally incapable of washing his hands. Only by starting over again from the very beginning could he do it.
I interpret this in stimulus-response terms. One response is the stimulus for the next response. Turning on the water is the stimulus to pick up the soap. Picking up the soap is the stimulus for rubbing it on his palms. Rubbing the soap is the stimulus to put it back down. Putting the soap down is the stimulus to rub his hands together, which is the stimulus to rub the backs of his hands, which is the stimulus to clasp his hands and rub, which is the stimulus to rinse his hands, which is the stimulus to turn off the water, which is the stimulus to dry his hands on his towel. I can describe this process in detail because we had carefully taught him each step. He eventually got it all together. We assumed that he understood what he was doing, that he was heading for a goal and he knew what the goal was and how to get there. But this episode suggested that his understanding of it all was very fragmentary at best. He wasn't assembling a series of actions that he knew would lead to the accomplishment of a goal. Rather he was blindly stringing together a series of actions in a stimulus-response chain. When one link of the chain was broken then of course the entire chain was broken.
This interpretation raises some important questions. If much of behavior is a matter of stimulus-response chains then how do we overcome the limitations of a chain. Surely my hand washing is not a chain like I described. I think my observation of hand washing example occurred at a critical time. Had the situation occurred a few months earlier it wouldn't have been worth remembering, because a few months earlier our boy simply didn't know how to wash his hands. Had the situation occurred a few months later it likewise would have not been worth remembering. At this time his hand washing would have been much more under cortical control. The "fragile chain" nature of his hand washing was probably at a peak when I made the observation. The "fragile chain" is evident in many areas of life, but certainly not all. Hand washing must certainly somehow advance beyond this "fragile chain" stage, or we would all act like four year olds.
The "divisibility of habits" is an important part of the answer. My boy's hand washing can be interpreted as a habit. I will define a habit as simply a cluster of associations at some level of the brain below the cortical level. A stimulus-response chain is one form of a "cluster of associations", but not the only form. This cluster of associations can be broken up and reassembled. The smaller parts of a stimulus-response chain or an association cluster can be separated out and attain status as little habits. The cerebral cortex can then control the big habit, or it can control any of the smaller sub-habits.
Consider this example from typing. As I wrote about my leaky faucet example I found that every time I wanted to type "knob", I instead wrote "know" and had to go back and correct it. After doing this five or ten times I began to analyze what was going on. The answer seems simple enough. I very seldom have occasion to type "knob". I type "know" very frequently. Therefore it is not surprising that once I start the stimulus-response chain that starts with "kno" it will end up with "w". Typing "know" is just like turning the knob of the faucet. But here is the problem. It took me a week or more to break the old habit of turning the faucet knob one way and develop the new habit of turning it the other way. How, then, is it possible to learn to fluently type similar words? How can I ever learn to type "knob", and still retain my ability to type "know"? The answer, I believe, is in the divisibility of habits and the cortical control of habits. I am quite capable of dividing the "know" typing habit into "kno" and "w", and then substitute a "b" for the "w". If habits were indivisible then I could not do that. And if habits were not subject to cortical control I could not do that.
The opposite of dividing habits would be adding habits together, and that is just a matter of chaining or associating. Big habits can be divided into little habits, and little habits can be combined to make new big habits. The cerebral cortex manages both the formation of big and little habits and their use. I will go to another example to explain this more fully.
In chapter Nine I used piano playing as an example of an extensive mass of motor-motor associations. I mentioned that the playing of one note or chord is very often the stimulus for the playing of the next note or chord. Thus chains of motor-motor associations are made, chains that are very easily broken. Indeed it was the fragility of these chains that prompted my analysis. These chains, of course, can also be interpreted as stimulus-response chains. I further stated that as one becomes an accomplished player the chains of motor-motor associations develop into nets of associations. All this fits very well about what I have hypothesized about habits.
I read recently about an experiment in which scientists attached electrodes to piano players' heads to observe brain activity while they were playing. The scientists were surprised to discover that an accomplished musician playing complex music had a lot less brain activity going on, at least as measured by their apparatus, than a beginning student struggling with a simple piece. This did not surprise me. And I think the concept of habit goes far to explain this. A habit, as I have said, consists of a cluster of automatic associations that are made in "lower centers" of the brain. These clusters of associations can be started, modified, or stopped by higher centers of the brain. By "higher centers" I am referring to the conscious, thinking, data processing part of the brain, which I believe in general is the cerebral cortex. Apparently the apparatus attached to the heads of the piano players in the above-mentioned experiment picked up signs of conscious mental effort from these "higher centers". An advanced piano player possesses a vast collection of habits, both elaborate and simple, that can be started, modified, or stopped with very little effort of the cerebral cortex. The beginning player does not have this vast repertoire of big and little habits. He or she as little more than cortical control of the fingers, and it takes a great deal of mental effort to consciously control a few finger movements. As a music teacher, primarily of guitar, but also of piano, I see this everyday. I don't need sophisticated scientific equipment to observe a great deal of mental effort in getting fingers to do the right thing. It is written all over their faces. In Chapter Six I introduced the idea of intensity of effort. A beginning piano student often must use a very high intensity of effort to do something very simple. An advanced student may do incredibly more with a lower intensity of effort. The explanation for this, of course, is the establishment of a large repertoire of habits.
Habits are divisible, and they can be recombined. Habits are controlled by the cerebral cortex, but primarily this control consists of starting them and stopping them. From this perspective I will analyze my piano playing a bit closer.
As a teenager I was aware that I needed the printed page of music. Of course I was capable of memorizing a piece, but generally I was not willing to put forth the effort to do so. Most of my playing was from the printed music, and if I lost my place on the printed page I would seldom play more than a few more notes before being stopped. This indicates I am using extensive perceptual-motor and perceptual-conceptual associations. My perception of a symbol on the printed page would be associated with either an action of my hands or fingers, or perhaps with a concept which would then be associated with actions. But as I have already mentioned the printed page was not the only stimulus involved. The printed page was not the complete stimulus. If it were, then I could play a new piece immediately without extensive practice. Ideally a piano player learns to associate the notes on the page with the keys on the piano, and/or with the motions needed to produce the required sounds. That way he can play anything for which there is printed music. He can "sight read". But until one is a very accomplished player this ideal is far from met. When faced with a sheet of new music extensive effort is needed to learn to play it. One must chain together many series of motor actions, and the printed page can be the stimulus to elicit these chains of motor actions. And, as I pointed out in Chapter Nine many of the motor actions are the stimuli for further motor actions. The printed page, then is only a general guide to the playing of the piece. Logically it is a complete guide. It details all the information that determines the end result. But until one acquires a great deal of piano playing skill, it is only a general guide.
I also was aware that my piano playing needed constant mental effort. This mental effort would vary as often as several times a second. I had to direct my eyes to take in the information from the printed music. I had to direct my ears to pay constant attention to the sound. I had to continually reach into memory for information. I had to tell my fingers to start each motion that was not automatically forthcoming. Sometimes my mental effort would be directed towards deciphering printed symbols. Sometimes it would be directed towards a difficult finger or hand movement. Sometimes it would be directed toward remembering something important, such as where a repeat sign goes back to. Thus the chain of motor-motor associations that I described in Chapter Nine is only part of the story. The perceptual-motor associations and perceptual-conceptual associations I mentioned in the last paragraph are also only part of the story. These chained motor-motor associations and the perceptual-motor and perceptual-conceptual associations are all held together and managed by cortical control.
In piano playing, and many similar actions, all types of associations are involved. Associations cluster together. The more clusters of associations I have available, the less work I have to do holding everything together. A beginning piano player must use a great deal of cortical control just to put two notes together. An advanced player can use much less cortical control to set in to motion a complex sequence of motor actions.
Piano playing, for anyone, is a mosaic of cortical effort and automatic associations. Conscious efforts are directed at managing the clusters of automatic responses or associations. The automatic associations are absolutely necessary. A beginning player has a very small repertoire of automatic associations to call on. An advanced player has a very extensive repertoire.
In Chapter Ten I argued that perception is a matter of skill, and a skill is the brain's ability to send out a large number of neural impulses in a precise pattern. I can now refine that definition a bit. A skill is still the brain's ability to send out a large number of impulses in a precise pattern, but most of the impulses are organized into habits. A skill depends on having a repertoire of habits and the ability to control them, to start them and stop them, to elicit them or delete them. Thus a skill and a habit are almost the same thing. The difference is primarily semantic. The difference is in the relative emphasis we give to the higher or lower centers of the brain. When we think of a skill we think about the conscious cortical control. A juggler keeping several balls in the air shows considerable effort and concentration. Obviously he needs to keep his mind on his work. But equally obviously most the of the activity has to be on a habit level. We think of juggling as a skill because the cortical control is easily visible while the repertoire of habits is not so visible. Typing is similar to juggling. To type fluently one must have a very large number of small motor habits, but with a reasonably high level of cortical control. It didn't take me several weeks to learn to type "knob" without first typing "know", and I didn't have to unlearn "know" in order to learn "knob". This is because I have always maintained rather tight control over my typing habits. So we think of typing as a skill.
When talking about a habit we generally are little concerned with cortical control. In fact it is usually the lack of cortical control that causes us to think of it as a habit. Cortical control is still there, of course, to at least some extent, but often to an inadequate extent. My habit of getting water by turning the knob to the right was under cortical control, but in a very superficial way. I wouldn't start the habitual motor pattern to turn the knob unless I wanted water. But the cortical control was shown to be a bit inadequate when I changed the direction of turning the knob. Cortical control increased in the week or so that I kept trying to turn it the wrong way, but then decreased again when the new habit of turning it the other way became established.
In chapter Ten I argued that perception can be interpreted as a matter of skill. Of course the habit interpretation also fits. In perception we generally don't think about the cortical control involved. Therefore we think of perception as easy and automatic, at least until we need to develop a new perceptual skill. Learning to look through a microscope with one eye, while keeping the other eye open, would be a good example of learning a new perceptual skill. Suddenly perception is not effortless and automatic, which is to say that the desired skill is not on a habitual level. One would begin to develop this skill by consciously directing attention to the microscope image and consciously trying to ignore the image from the other eye. If one develops the skill and uses it daily then of course it will be put on the habit level and eventually seem effortless and automatic. It is certainly a skill, but it's habit nature may seem more important than its skill nature. The skill nature might in some circumstances again become more important. Perhaps a scientist uses a microscope everyday, keeping both eyes open and automatically attending to the microscope image, but then finds a reason to simultaneously compare a drawn image, viewed with one eye, with the image he sees through the microscope with the other eye. Then he would have to again exert cortical control to direct his attention to first one image and then the other. The skill nature of perception would again be paramount.
I will now turn to conceptual habits, which is the important part of this chapter. When I speak of a "mental habit" I am usually referring to conceptual habits. A mental habit is a train of thought, or a cluster of thoughts, that one engages in habitually. I am primarily concerned with mental habits that affect academic teaching and learning, but I think the concept of mental habit has very wide applicability, as I will try to show..
Consider this example. In the mid seventies "CB" (citizen's band) radios became popular. To quite an extent this was just a fad, but it appeared to me that having such a device in the car could also be very useful at times, so I installed one for each car we had. When using these radios on the road one normally identifies oneself. This identification is normally informal consisting of a "handle" or nickname, and some indication of location, such as "This is Big Bertha, northbound on 37". It is this location part of this identification that I am concerned with here. One's direction of travel is very important on the road. If you strike up a conversation with a traveler going in the opposite direction then you had better talk fast, for within a very few minutes you will be out of range with each other. But if you're both going in the same direction you can talk for hours if you are so inclined. Thus one says "I'm eastbound on I80" or something like that. The mental habit part of this example comes in with the amount of mental effort one has to make before saying this. When I first installed the CB I would not automatically know my direction. I would have to consciously think about it. I would have to remember where I was going and where I was coming from and then deduce my direction. This would not be hard to do of course, but it would not be on the top of my mind. It might take as long as a second or two, which in the life of the mind is substantial. After a few months it became much more automatic. Knowing whether I was northbound or southbound , or whatever, became a mental habit.
Why do people turn to crime? I wouldn't try to answer that question, at least not here, but the question "Why do people stay in crime" is a little more relevant. Part of the answer, I'm sure, lies in their mental habits. When I drive by a gas station I do not automatically think of it as a potential holdup site. But what about a criminal who robbed a couple of gas stations before getting caught and sent to prison for a few years. Even if the prison managed to affect some rehabilitation, we should not expect old mental habits to be completely eradicated. The criminal may have every intention of going straight, but when faced with a few bad breaks, old ways of thinking might be powerful. Simply driving by a gas station might elicit a train of thought that could eventuate in another crime.
The idea that successful dieting depends on breaking deeply ingrained eating habits has often been repeated. I believe it. Dieting for me is very hard, and not always successful. If a person's criminal habits are as hard to break as my eating habits then rehabilitation of criminals is going to be very hard. Eating habits and criminal habits, I believe, are primarily mental habits. They are habitual ways of thinking. They can be just as blind and persistent as my habit of turning the hot water knob to the left or right can be.
Dieting can be made even more difficult by one's circumstances. I have always thought some women put on weight because of what we might call "home habits". Homes are certainly associated with food. Not only do we have most of our meals at home, but we engage in incidental eating at home. As children we often have a snack after school. As adults we often have snacks with leisure time, such as watching television. When a woman begins a family and spends a great deal of time at home then it hardly seems surprising that it is very easy to overeat and gain weight. A mental habit is a train of thoughts. The home environment is associated with eating, so one thinks about eating. Once elicited, the train of thought leads one into temptation. There is always food in the house. The refrigerator is always near by. Most work environments, in contrast, are not intimately associated with food. Mental habits about food are not elicited, so one is not at such high risk of gaining weight.
I think obsessions must be, to at least some degree, a matter of mental habits. Indeed I think mental health must be largely a matter of mental habits. I think what I have briefly mentioned about crime and dieting supports this idea. However that is not the subject I want to continue with here, so I will return to mental habits as they relate to academic teaching and learning.
Expectations are important in everything we do, and expectations can be habitual. Many expectations are on the cortical level, of course, rather than the habit level. If I listen carefully to the weather forecast and am anxious about having good weather for some event, then my expectation of tomorrow's weather is very much on a cortical, not a habit, level. But we also have many, many expectations that are on a habitual level. Many expectations are mental habits. They ease us through our everyday living just as motor and perceptual habits do. I once read an article about a woman who had been widowed and had moved to another city. She was in a grocery store, and found herself reduced to tears because she could not find the peanut butter. I don't remember much more than this about the article. It was probably an inspirational article in the Reader's Digest. The point here is that expectations such as being able to find the peanut butter are just a part of everyday life. They are habitual expectations. They enable us to find the peanut butter and do a million other things everyday. And also like habits in general, they are largely invisible until special circumstances throw them in to relief.
Expectations are not always best interpreted as mental habits. Some expectations are simple premises. They can be invisible, and they can be destructive or constructive, but they are relatively isolated, as opposed to being a cluster of thoughts, and they are situation specific. When exposed they can be dealt with easily because they are not mired in a mass of associations. In Chapter Three I discussed ferreting out such extraneous elements in a structure of knowledge.
"Don't make assumptions" we are sometimes told, such as when we start an explanation or excuse with the phrase "Well, I just assumed . . . ". But we must make assumptions. The "assumption of universal continuity" is essential. It says that things will continue as they are. I am assuming now that my computer will keep working. I would stop typing immediately if I did not make that assumption. I am assuming that the chair I am sitting on, and the table the computer is sitting on, will continue to hold up. I am assuming that the studs in the wall will continue to hold up the wall. I am assuming that my town will not be invaded by a neighboring state. I am assuming that the sun will continue to rise in the east and set in the west. I am assuming that the law of gravity will not be repealed. I am assuming that matter will continue to exist. All of these assumptions are expectations. But I think they are better interpreted as simple premises, rather than mental habits.
Simple premises grade into what I would call mental habits. For example, when I was growing up I unconsciously formed the premise that no one ever buys a new car. People only buy used cars. Actually I was vaguely aware that I held this premise and that it contained a logical contradiction. Obviously there can be no used cars unless some people buy new cars. But one day, shortly after my wife and I were married, our old car gave out, and when I looked for a replacement it seemed that used cars were overpriced. We ended up buying a new one. Was this idea "No one buys a new car", a simple premise or a mental habit? It seems to me that it is on the borderline. It was a habit in that whenever I thought about buying a car I would automatically think of a used one. And it took about a week of frustrating searching for a used car before I was willing to seriously consider buying a new one. But it was a simple premise in the sense that it usually made economic sense, and when the right circumstances arose the premise was easily recognized and changed.
Consider the statement, "Math is hard". Is this a simple premise or a mental habit? It could be either. The statement itself is not much of a guide to the actual thinking of the student who makes it. If the statement were made by a second grader who just completed a math assignment it could mean very little beyond an expression of his momentary state of mind. If made by a student who just completed a difficult assignment but who is proud of her math abilities and enjoys the subject it could be an indication of healthy mental habits. On the other hand it could be the visible portion of an iceberg of attitudes, associations, and memories that prevent a student from doing well in math classes or from even taking more math than the bare minimum required. If this is the case then the statement certainly could be a representation of a mental habit, and a very unhealthy one at that..
We cannot possibly discover or catalog all the expectations we have. But as teachers we should become sensitive to expectations than can cause trouble. I'm not talking about social relationships or classroom discipline here, or even attitudes such as the "math is hard" example. I am talking about more subtle expectations that concern academic learning. I will give an example.
One day I was helping my seventh grade daughter with her math. I had discovered early in the year that her math book seems disorganized and deficient in some important ways, so I had been paying rather close attention to her math all year long. One problem in a review assignment was something like this:
Simplify: x + y + z - y
Her answer was "2". I asked her how she got that answer, as I could quickly see the answer should be "x + z". She replied that she assigned numbers to each variable and did the addition and subtraction and came up with "2". This shocked me a bit. A few minutes of introspection and analysis led me to discover why.
In much of elementary arithmetic there are mental habits that can be summed up in three premises:
1. There is one right answer.
2. There is one way to get that right answer.
3. It will make sense.
These premises are expectations. But I think they are also conceptual habits, or perhaps more accurately, beginning points of conceptual habits. There are ways of thinking that automatically follow these premises. These premises are not verbalized. They are not conscious. They are premises that I acted on as a child, but I did not realize I had these premises until I was over fifty years old. At that time I realized I had these premises only because I realized my daughter in the seventh grade did not have these premises. I believe these premises are very constructive expectations, so their lack in my daughter was of some concern. Mathematicians would certainly consider them simplistic. They do not fit all of mathematics. But I would argue that they don't have to. Arithmetic in elementary school consists primarily of learning about number relations. These three premises are effective in promoting this learning. The more advanced mathematics that do not fit these premises, I would argue, arise out of these basic number relations. Without a fluency in basic number relations the concepts of advanced mathematics would have little meaning and even less use. For the goal of simply learning basic number relations these premises are very valuable.
One could certainly argue that premises one and two, without number three, would be more detrimental than beneficial. They would make arithmetic into more of a catechism than a structure of knowledge. I agree. In fact in Chapter Three I gave an example involving the perimeter of a triangle in which the student exactly fit this situation. But with premise three firmly in place they make a powerful tool for the learning of arithmetic. One might also argue that there comes a point in which these premises ought to be discarded, at least the first two. Again I agree. They are not constructive in many topics of advanced mathematics. One might also argue that if they are to be discarded at some point then they ought to be discarded immediately. With this I would very much disagree. However I would point out that all of these arguments bolster the case for the importance of mental habits. I feared my daughter had developed an unconscious expectation that math is sort of a meaningless game. You do what the teacher wants, and you make good grades. Everyone is happy. Concrete understanding doesn't matter. But this expectation, the conceptual habits represented by this expectation, is not conducive to really learning math.
This next example made quite an impression on me when it occurred. Perhaps it is not quite as subtle as the math premises that I just described, but the effects are probably much more devastating. I was trying to help a fifth grader with her social studies. There was one sentence in particular that impressed me when she read it aloud. I do not remember the exact wording, but it was something like this:
Washington struggled hard, but victory was not possible, he had to yield, and his defeat was a terrible blow to his cause.
She read this sentence fluently, but by a few questions I was able to determine that the key words, "victory", "yield", and "defeat" were either poorly understood or not understood at all. She must have had some familiarity with the words, for there was no hesitation in recognizing or pronouncing them. Yet she seemed to get no meaning at all from the sentence. I would ask her, "Who won the battle" and her answer would be wrong, or even nonsensical. I would ask her, "does 'victory' mean you won or lost?" and her answer would indicate she was guessing. I would ask her, in some way, what "yield" means and again see evidence that she really didn't know.
Habit here enters in what one does with unfamiliar words. I believe she had fallen in the mental habit of attending to the sound of words, but not their meanings. Words that didn't make sense were simply "thrown away". Of course when key words are thrown away she would get little meaning from her reading. This did not seem to matter to her. She expected little meaning. This "throwaway" habit had apparently become well established.
More recently I discovered that I have my own "throwaway" habit, but of a form not quite so virulent. Often when reading a newspaper or magazine article I will realize that the article is making repeated references to some person. These reference will be by last name only, such as "Smith assured us that . . . . " Who is this Smith, I will wonder. Why don't they tell us who they are talking about. When I take the trouble to go back and reread the article more carefully I will find that they have identified him. Earlier in the article there will be something like, "Joe Smith, director of the investigating team . . . " Why did I not read this when I first read the article. The answer is simple. I have a habit of mentally skipping over such information. It is certainly a "throwaway" habit. I habitually throw away information that I perceive at the moment that I don't need. Such a habit can be useful. It is essential to "scanning". We don't need to read for details on every article we read. But such a habit can also be detrimental, as I repeatedly find out myself when I have to go back and reread to get information I want.
I mentioned early in this chapter that we must have many, many habits that ease us through our everyday life. We can't catalog and analyze every little habit we have. But we ought to be on the lookout for really bad habits. The "throwaway" habit this fifth grader exhibited certainly qualifies as a really bad habit.
How such a habit can develop is understandable. In elementary school when one learns to read, one is judged first of all by the ability to say the word that appears in print. If a child sees the word and says the word then it seems reasonable to say she has "read" the word. Of course that can be misleading. If one is of limited ability and not highly motivated one can fall into the habit of reading without understanding. By saying the words the student keeps the teacher happy. Once this "throwaway" habit starts to develop then it will build on itself. I was able to observe this "throwaway" habit in this girl in other learning. Often she would insist that her assignment was to copy definitions from the glossary in the back of the book. I always suspected the real assignment was not so simplistic. She would do this mindlessly. She would do things like leaving out an important word without noticing it, or even copying the wrong definition without noticing it. I had very little success at trying to get her to think about the definitions she was copying.
This "throwaway" habit, I felt was tremendously harmful. How can she ever learn new words? How can she ever learn history or science? This habit is also subtle. Teachers with a whole class of students can hardly be expected to pick up on it. I observed it only because I was helping her individually, and because I am a very introspective and analytical type of person who ponders over such things. Uncorrected, this habit must surely derail her education drastically.
In Chapter Three I talked about fluency and "fragile structures". The concept of habit, and mental habits in particular, now make it possible to discuss fluency with greater precision. Any subject, even those primarily of implication, depend on habit formation to some degree. Algebra, for example, develops a number of mental habits. When learning to solve equations one puts a number of techniques on the habit level. The student should understand the rationale behind these techniques, of course, for only understanding will form a foundation for future learning. But using these techniques should become habitual. In much of algebra we follow the premise "Set up an equation and solve it". This premise is easily stated, and must be understood, but it's use should become habitual. Habits, as I have discussed, develop in behavioristic fashion, gradually. Fluency depends on the development of many little habits. This is true of a motor skill such as typing or of mental skill such as doing arithmetic or algebra. Thus fluency develops gradually. And since habits tend to be invisible, fluency, or its lack, is often overlooked by teachers. Assumption of fluency remains a common error of teachers.
We would like our students to "learn to think". At this point I can't say too much about how that might be done, but surely the idea of mental habits is very relevant. The fifth grader who cheerfully threw away any word she didn't understand provides a very good example of what not to do. In general I think it would accurate to say that we teach students to think by carefully observing their thought processes. We must elicit feedback. We must diagnose, as I discussed in Chapter Three. Understanding mental habits gives us a better ability to diagnose the students' thinking.