Creatures of habit

First published on November 2011.

For several years, my younger daughter Iris, who is nearly seven, has made sure that I get up and sit with her while she eats breakfast, watches TV or reads a story. When I am away working, she doesn’t follow the same routine, but when I am there she insists.

One day last week she chose a different course of action, got up quietly, went downstairs and found the iPad and spent an hour quietly playing on it before hunger propelled her into finding me.

I had mixed feelings about this experience. Part of me was thrilled that, on a Sunday morning, I wasn’t required to get out of bed at 7am. Another part of me was sorry that I wasn’t the first port of call when Iris woke up.

Either way, the episode reminded me about the power of habit and routine in shaping our learning and creativity.

In 1999, I co-wrote with Kimberley Seltzer a Demos pamphlet called The Creative Age, which argued that the emerging knowledge-based economy was generating an unprecedented opportunity for creative learning, fuelled by the demand for higher order skills and the supply of digitally-enhanced learning opportunities.

In it, we argued that education reform, particularly of curriculum and assessment, was necessary to make the most of this opportunity.

Since then, a few things have come and gone, including the first dot-com boom and the 2008 global financial crisis.

But over that decade, the thirst for creative learning – for children and young people and among adults at work and at play – has only increased.

And in the same decade, digital technology has flowered in ways which have spread the possibilities for creative learning and co-production.

My elder daughter Esther, nearly 11, was recently delighted to find that she is quicker than me on the iPad, as we filled in a national census form together online.

Mobile and networked digital technology drives everyday experiences shared by hundreds of millions of people – within families, across workplaces and in social groups of all kinds. What has struck me most about our acquisition of a tablet computer is that it has prompted a new level of collaboration and sharing between the two siblings, as they try out games, make videos together, search for downloads and show each other what they have learned day by day.

When we wrote The Creative Age, we focused primarily on how to reshape formal education for this new era.

There is still plenty of debate: what skills and knowledge should be provided through the curriculum, and how should we nurture creative skills and talent through tertiary education and into workplaces.

But I find myself thinking that a dimension of creative learning that is both broader and deeper is the power of routine and habit that shapes our personal outlook, our capacity for learning and our ability to choose where our learning will take us over a lifetime.

In his 2007 book, Howard Gardner outlined five minds for the future: disciplined, synthesising, creative, respectful and ethical minds that he argues should be nurtured and developed because they are especially critical for our future. His exploration treats these different minds as ‘ways of thinking and acting’.

My family episode reminded me how powerful the habits we form are, as both children and adults, and how ‘ways of thinking and acting’ are shaped by their repetition – through practice, as well as through abstract thought and argument.

In his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell’s discussion of the ‘10,000 hour rule’ – the idea that repeated practice is a determinant of great achievement in a given field – is another illustration.

But many of the most powerful habits we form are those of which we are barely conscious – grounded in everyday routine and social practice.

They are habits of family, work and social life – including habits of thinking and acting – how we listen and pick up information, when and what we read, whether and when we smoke or drink, how we exercise, how we communicate with others.

Developing habits which support the kinds of learning – or the ways of thinking and acting – that we value is therefore an essential task. Learning how to leave other habits behind is equally important.

This may seem obvious. But it is a starting point for understanding, not just how we might shape education to meet the needs of creative learning, but also how it is that we shape ourselves and how we might become more creative in doing so.

Creative Commons LicenceCreativity Money Love: Learning for the 21st Century by Creative & Cultural Skills is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Illustrations by Paul Davis -