In his best-known comedy bit, Louis CK takes all of us to task for failing to see how incredible it is to live in this time. As he says, “everything is amazing and nobody is happy:”
He is right of course. Everything is amazing. We fly through the sky. We have a tiny machine that can direct us to anywhere we want to drive. We download music, videos, and books in seconds. We find the answers to all our questions on the internet. We visit with people live on camera from any where in the world. How can we forget that everything is amazing? The reason is simple. Over time we almost always get used to whatever we experience. Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as habituation.
Habituation occurs when our response to any experience or stimulus decreases over time. Simply put, no matter how beautiful or disgusting a stimulus might be, we can get used to it if we experience it a lot, and we may not even notice what at one time would have been impossible not to see.
Habituation can desensitize us to something beautiful. For example, one of my best friends lives in Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada, my pick for most beautiful place in the world. A few years back I told him how awestruck I am by the mountains he sees everyday. “The truth is I’ve lived here so long,” he said, “that there are many days when I don’t even notice them.”
Habituation can also desensitize us to very unpleasant stimulus. For example, when I have traveled through towns built by pulp mills that fill the sky with disgusting sulfurous smoke, the locals always tell me, “You know, I hardly ever notice it.” Good or bad, the truth is, we usually get used to it.
When habituation happens to us in the classroom, it can have dire consequences.
First, educators can forget about the true joy of this work–how important and beautiful it is to teach, to empower students to read and write, to become numerate, to help them transcend their social status, to mentor them to be the first in their family to go to college.
Second, teachers can stop seeing children when they aren’t learning. They can stop noticing students who are bored, wasting time, or hating school. They can come to believe that off-task behavior and poor performance are all that can be expected from students.
Finally, people can get used to their our own counter-productive behavior. They can get used to treating students as objects who simply need to comply rather than complex human beings who deserve to be respected. They can let their own need for control trump their students’ need to learn and grow.
Habituation, however, is not permanent, and it can be broken in many ways. Teachers can video record their classes and watch the video to gain insight into their teaching and students. They can work with a coach to get another professional’s perspective. They can visit a colleague’s class to see how another teacher promotes learning. Or they can learn turn to their students and ask them for feedback on how they are experiencing the class.
Over time, people can get habituated to just about any experience or they can teach themselves to see reality for what it is. In schools, it is clear which path is best for students.