How can we create great school ethos?

Create a summer school with practice routines to automate good habits.


‘Habits are like a cable; we weave a strand every day, and soon it cannot be broken’.

Horace Mann, 1848


‘All our life is but a mass of habits’

William James, 1892


Ever since my Dad gave me a copy of Covey’s 7 Habits when I was 15, I’ve been fascinated in how habits work. I’ve found habits to be cyclical: at times, I’m in a good routine: get to sleep early, wake up early, do some exercise, feel a bit better all day, eat healthier; this leads to a positive spiral where I sleep better that night, wake up feeling better, go and do some more exercise – an upward spiral. At other times, I’m stuck in a rut; getting to sleep brutally late, waking up feeling sluggish, not feeling like exercising, eating unhealthily; this puts me on a downward spiral where I sleep worse at night, wake up feeling worse – a vicious cycle. Habits, I’ve found, are not unbreakable, but they do work in cycles.

Last week, I looked into the most powerful levers that school leaders can apply to improve teaching and culture. I have argued before on this blog that what makes the best schools in disadvantaged areas succeed against the odds is school ethos. More than one great headteacher swears by it, including Dame Sally Coates at Burlington Danes and Sir Greg Martin at Durand Academy, both of whom were recently awarded honours for contributions to closing the gap for poorer pupils.

But how can schools actually set about creating a great student ethos? This is the first of a series of posts where I plan to go into detail on the levers of school leadership: starting with student ethos this week and staff culture next week, then moving on to data, observations, planning and training.


Habits are like gravity


In my teaching recently, I’ve become aware of some blind spots. When I’m giving explanations, I’m never sure I’ve got 100% attention. There might be silence, but does that mean complete concentration? In discussions, are they all actually listening to each others’ ideas? When I’ve given an instruction, I’m never sure that the class is focused 100% on task for every task I set. It’s hard with one pair of eyes and over thirty students to ensure focus. But I’m convinced the standard should be set at 100% of kids on task for 100% of tasks, and not fall below it. It’s just that I struggle to work out how to actually make this happen in every lesson.

A couple of things changed the way that I looked at this: Doug Lemov’s micro-technique that he calls SLANT, and something that helped me understand the deeper reason behind what was going on: a book called The Power of Habit. SLANT stands for ‘Sit up straight, Listen hard, Ask and answer questions, Nod sensibly (we changed it to Never interrupt) and Track the speaker’ (track, as in, turn towards whoever is speaking and look at them), used by the first KIPP schools, as I’ll go into later on in this post. As Lemov says, ‘no matter how great the lesson, if students aren’t alert, sitting up, and actively listening, teaching them is like pouring water into a leaky bucket.’


The reason SLANT changed the way I see things is that it gives me instant visibility as to who is not concentrating. If you’re not looking, you’re not listening; if you’re not listening, you’re not learning. It turns out eye contact is not only polite; it actually helps you listen and learn better. So I began to encourage kids in class to SLANT.

This led me to a discovery: the gravitational pull of habit. Kids found SLANT incredibly difficult to keep up during instructions. They were stuck in the habit of not sitting up straight, alert, tracking and concentrating. They were not used to looking at the speaker. As I hadn’t introduced and engrained this habit from the outset of my classes, they had become accustomed – in my lessons, and other classes too – of not listening actively. And this habit, I became convinced, was preventing them from learning as much as they could. Try as I might that year, the gravitational pull was too powerful: they could not break the cycle of distraction.


In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg argues that ‘habits are at the root of how we behave. They can be changed, if we understand how they work.’ Once you break a habit into its constituent parts, he says, it makes it easier to control. He breaks it into three: the cue (or trigger), routine and reward. For instance, in the habit of smoking, the trigger is socialising, alcohol, a break at work, or colleagues or mates smoking; the routine is lighting up; the reward is the nicotine hit to the brain. In concentration during explanations in class, the trigger is teacher talk; the routine is distraction; the reward is the chance to drift off, daydream or distract others.


To change a habit, you need to keep the cue and the reward, and change the routine. So smokers trying to quit keep socialising, change tobacco to nictotine gum, patches or electronic cigarettes, and keep the reward of the nicotine hit. Might this work with concentration? It seems harder, because while you keep the cue of explanations, you need to change both the routine (from distraction to concentration, not listening to listening, from not focusing to focusing), AND the reward (from drifting and daydreaming and missing out, to learning). This might also require improving the quality of explanations in the first place; in other words, changing cue, routine AND reward; not just breaking a habit, but making a completely new one.

This insight into the increasingly cyclical, automatic, gravitational pull of habits means that they can work for or against us; for better or for worse, their orbit gets stronger every day that we’re in them, until we barely notice them. If organisations like schools are a mass of habits, carefully noticing them might provide clues as to how to change or create great pupil ethos. So what bad habits do we often see in students in school? Off the top of my head, here’s a list of some of those I’ve seen most often:

  • Slouching
  • Getting distracted
  • Shouting out
  • Giving up
  • Forgetting homework
  • Forgetting equipment
  • Making excuses
  • Feeling demotivated
  • Avoiding responsibility
  • Blaming others
  • Littering
  • Being rude
  • Being mean

And here are their corresponding good habits that we’d all prefer to see in the culture of a school:

  • Slouching – Listening
  • Getting distracted – Concentrating
  • Shouting out – Taking turns
  • Giving up – Persevering
  • Forgetting homework – Completing homework
  • Forgetting equipment – Bringing equipment
  • Making excuses – Avoiding excuses
  • Feeling demotivated – Becoming self-motivated
  • Avoiding responsibility – Taking responsibility
  • Blaming others – Avoiding blame
  • Littering – Tidying up
  • Being rude – Being polite
  • Being mean – Being kind

There are a great many more good habits we want pupils to get into, though these are some of the most specific. Creating a strong school ethos starts by being precisely, explicitly and exactly clear about which habits we want our pupils to develop.

How do we cultivate these good habits?

As Bambrick-Santoyo says in Leverage Leadership, ‘Student culture makes sure students build the habits of mind and heart that allow their learning to fly. It is not built by motivational speeches or statements of values. It is formed by repeated practice: using every minute of every day to build good habits…. Exceptional culture builders set a meticulous vision and work relentlessly to achieve it with a specific set of culture systems that every teacher will commit to implementing in every classroom. In short, they do not leave learning to chance’. Small details distinguish the best schools from the rest: ‘Students know that the rules, routines and consequences are the same across each and every classroom: the same in a veteran teacher’s class as the newest novice’s… It is one thing to have a written system; it is far more complicated to get everyone to implement it consistently’. Consistency, as I have argued before on behaviour systems, is key, though it is easier said than done.

Use Practice Routines 

The good habits listed above are neatly captured in the motto of America’s largest charter network of over 100 schools and 24,000 students, the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP): Work Hard, Be Nice. Over 85% of their students are from disadvantaged families, yet they have a track record of substantial, sustained academic success. Core to the program is explicit teaching of character habits through a three-week summer school.


Before summer school, pupils arrive at KIPP with often-engrained habits from families, communities and primary schools. The transition to secondary school is a unique opportunity to change habits of (and for) a lifetime: ‘to create an atmosphere of teamwork and family, for students to grow comfortable with expectations from the beginning and learn the routines, how to behave in difficult situations, how to be kind, how to help others, that made all other learning possible, and give a sense of purpose and responsibility.’ As Jay Matthews says in the 2011 book on KIPP, Work Hard, Be Nice: ‘Habits of behaviour were crucial. Each child had to find a away to stay focused on learning, obey the rules, and develop the spirit of consideration for other students that would pay benefits for the rest of their lives.’


I’ve seen this summer school in action, and what makes it so powerful is the practice routines that teach pupils precisely how to behave across the whole school, in every lesson: how, for instance, to react to a sanction: ‘Who can volunteer to show us a bad way of responding to a demerit…? … What went wrong there? And who can volunteer to show us a bad way of responding to a demerit…? … And what did she do well there?’ ‘Who will volunteer to show us a beautiful SLANT? Right, what’s so important about that, then?’ ‘Who can show me a terrible one? What’s so bad about that?’

Uncommon Schools reveal how practice routines work in their three books on teaching, training and leadership Teach Like A Champion, Practice Perfect and Leverage Leadership. In a nutshell, the KIPP summer schools work by combining these twelve or so micro-techniques:

  • What To Do: make habits specific, concrete, actionable, sequential, observable so that all students know how to do them. For instance, show them how to ‘SLANT’, don’t just tell them to ’concentrate’.
  • Do It Again: make students practice routines again, doing them right, doing them better, mastering them perfectly.
  • Encode success: take the time and practise getting it all-the-way-right to 100% mastery.
  • Practice the 20%: spend 80% of the time practising the 20% of habits that matter most.
  • Get it on autopilot: build up automated habits to master more complex skills.
  • Isolate the drill: practise new skills in small, discrete, specific chunks through precise and isolated drills.
  • Model and describe: ensure understanding by both showing AND explaining.
  • Use videos: capture good examples and highlight important moments.
  • Shorten the Feedback Loop: timing of feedback works best when it’s given immediately.
  • Practice Using Feedback: put feedback into action right away.
  • Use the Power of Positive: identify what’s going right, help them to repeat it, and guide them to apply it in other settings.
  • Make It Fun to Practice: integrate elements of play, competition and surprise to make it enjoyable.

The beauty of summer school is that it prioritises culture over content. Instead of worrying about covering the subject, teachers can take the time to practise routines again and again until all students master them. By the end of the summer, even before pupils start learning their subjects in September, they have developed a powerful affiliation to their school as a team and family, and a powerful gravitation towards the enduring habits of responsibility, consideration and perseverance.

All this dovetails well with The Power of Habit. KIPP summer school creates new triggers, routines and rewards until good habits are on autopilot. The idea that there are 20% of habits that matter most corresponds to the idea that there are keystone habits: those that have a ripple effect on others in life, those that have the power to start a chain reaction. Willpower, for instance, is a habit that affects the capacity to develop all other habits, especially when it occurs without having to think about it. Exercise seems to kick-start widespread lifestyle change in sleeping, eating and working patterns. In other words, habits spill over.


And maybe, just maybe, some of this reading about habits might actually spill over into my teaching…

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
This entry was posted in Education, Student Culture. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to How can we create great school ethos?

  1. suecowley says:

    In a neat irony I went to Burlington Danes as a child. We used to joke that you went from the school to the hospital to the prison (geographically they are or used to be next to each other with Wormwood Scrubs at the end).

    I find this all a bit Americanized and acronym-ised for my taste (perhaps that’s the TF/TFA approach filtering through). In our preschool we call this ‘good listening behaviour’ and we teach it right from the word go. I get what you’re saying about ingrained habits (I call it ‘pavlov-ing the kids’ when I train teachers). However, it’s wise to remember that these are children and not robots and to consider the place of flexibility and responsiveness when working with young people. I’m really struggling to think of any teachers I know who wouldn’t ask for eye contact from their students when they teach them. Most would also view the phrase ‘let’s see everyone sitting up straight’ as a key part of their classroom vocabulary.

  2. PapaAlpha says:

    I remember a documentary, broadcast some years ago, that compared British classrooms with Finnish classrooms (and we all know where Finland stand in the PISA wars). In the British secondary classroom the pupils were sitting up and appeared to be actively listening, in sharp contrast the Finnish children were sitting on desks, some were sprawled out on the floor and a few were sitting in chairs. Every single one of those Finnish children were listening.

    I do ask children to ‘sit up straight’ in lessons, indeed I often give those with shorter legs a plastic tray to rest their feet on. However, it is the spectre of SLT ‘drive bys’ that encourages me to drill this habit, if it were acceptable I would let the children lay on the floor or sit under the tables if they they wanted to.

    Personally, I enjoy watching the News at Ten sprawled across the sofa, but that doesn’t mean I’m paying any less attention than when I am sitting bolt upright.

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