Habit Pattern Demonstration—why old spelling habits die hard

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Old Way/New Way® Learning

An experienced teacher once said this about the tendency for people to keep falling back to old ways - "The problem's not learning the new; it's forgetting (unlearning) the old!"

Old Way/New Way® offers a new theory of learning and a cost-effective, user friendly method of continuous improvement and change management in teaching and learning.

Endorsed by Australian State governments as an innovative and effective learning method, Old Way/New Way® is a fascinating synthesis of past and emerging research into the psychology of learning.

It explains why adaptation to change takes so long; why performance slows and errors increase during the transition; why learners initially appear to improve and then forget what they've learned when under pressure; and why they keep falling back to old ways under conventional, i.e., currently available, methods of teaching.

Old Way/New Way® empowers learners, accelerates learning, and reduces the extended period of adaptation to change that typically accompanies conventional change methods. Understanding, knowledge and skills improve quickly so errors are eradicated, performance becomes more skilful, more flexible, and more adaptable.

These claims are backed up by evidence from Government funded research, workplace trials, published experimental research in professional refereed journals, independent university evaluations, and case reports from teachers, students, and adult learners.

Demonstration of the brain mechanism that makes old spelling habits die hard

The simple but intriguing demonstration that follows is based on the Stroop Word Colour Charts (Stroop 1935). It will enable you to you experience firsthand the powerful mental interference effect caused by established skills. Please follow these instructions.

Step 1

Below is a table of different words. Read each word aloud as you normally would when reading. Record how long it takes you to finish, to the nearest second. Start at the top, reading left to right, line by line, as quickly as you can and correct any mistakes. For example, the first word is "green"; the second is "brown" and so on. Record here how many seconds you took to finish and how many mistakes you made.

green      brown      black      blue      green      pink

blue      pink      brown      green      black      red

blue      red      black      brown      black      pink

green      red      brown      green      pink      blue

red      blue      black      pink      green      brown

red       green      green      black      brown      blue

pink      red      blue      brown      green      black

pink      black      blue      brown      red      red

pink      red      pink      black      brown      brown

green      green      red      pink      brown      blue

black      brown      green      blue      red      blue

Step 2

This time, instead of reading the word, you now have to name the colour of the ink in which each word is written. Speak up and say it aloud for greater effect. For example, the colour of the first word is "pink" so you have to say "pink" instead of "green". The second is "red", not "brown" and so on. Do the whole list, line by line, from top to bottom. Correct any mistakes. Record here how many seconds it took you to finish and how many mistakes you made.

green      brown      black      blue      green      pink

blue      pink      brown      green      black      red

blue      red      black      brown      black      pink

green      red      brown      green      pink      blue

red      blue      black      pink      green      brown

red      green      green      black      brown      blue

pink      red      blue      brown      green      black

pink      black      blue      brown      red      red

pink      red      pink      black      brown      brown

green      green      red      pink      brown      blue

black      pink      blue      red      pink      black

black      brown      green      blue      red      blue

Interpretation of your scores on the words in colour

The first task is quite simple. Everyone is good at reading words and most people take around 30 seconds to finish this task. Reading words is a well established skill that requires little if any conscious effort on our part. We have practiced reading for a long time and have become quite good at it. It happens almost automatically and effortlessly, without having to exert our powers of concentration. You make few if any mistakes and there is no mental conflict involved.

The second task is very different. People say they have to consciously suppress the tendency to want to read the word, to revert back to their old habit (Task 1). The old habit ("green") tries to interfere with the new learning ("pink"). But today the old habit is "wrong" - "green" is wrong and "pink" is right. Times are very changeable, as we all know. You now have to quickly change your knowledge, your skills and that is very difficult.

Old habits die hard, as we all know. The interference effect slows down our learning of the new information, the new skill. Because we all differ in how much interference we experience on this task, the time it takes can vary from 40 seconds to 150 seconds or more. Clearly, people differ in the strength of interference from prior knowledge but everyone takes longer on this task than the first task and some people take very much longer. Most people take from 2 to 3 times longer. The important point is that we all have this problem and this is why we all dislike and resist change. It is the reason why old habits die hard.

Apart from taking longer to complete, the second task also generates mental conflict and emotions in people. Over many years of doing this demonstration with all kinds of people and occupations, we get comments like these, "It's really hard", "I really had to concentrate hard", "Noisy people around me made it even harder to concentrate - I tried to screen them out but there was more interference", "I got really frustrated by not being able to do what appeared to be a simple and easy task", "I had to actively stop myself from saying "green" when I knew I should be saying, "pink", "I got angry and frustrated at my inability to change quickly to the right answer".

This emotional reaction is the same reaction we experience whenever we try to change what we already know and what we can do. It is a universal response to change in human beings. It helps to explain why people resist change and why old habits die hard.

While you are welcome to try this test on your family and friends, please resist the temptation to compare your scores with those of others. All that really matters is how your score on the second task compares with your score on the first task - the greater the difference, the more likely you are to experience interference from your prior learning and the longer it takes you to change and adapt to new things and ideas.

In case you were wondering, performance on this demonstration seems to have nothing to do with intelligence as measured by IQ tests. The interference effect seems to be independent of other abilities although if you have a big difference between task 1 and 2 it is possible that you have a more retentive memory. It also means that you may find it harder to change your established ways.

In your brain you have an inbuilt, hard-wired mechanism that protects and preserves everything you know - all your knowledge, skills, beliefs, understandings, and so on. Once you have practiced, i.e., repeated, and learned something, it starts to becomes instinctive and automatic for you. At that point you can perform the skill effortlessly, without having to concentrate on each step. Your brain mechanism protects and preserves what you have just learned and this saves you having to re-learn it all over again the next time. In this way, the brain mechanism is a real bonus.

But when time comes to change what you know, this same mechanism still tries to preserve all your prior knowledge. It does not matter whether what you know is "right" or "wrong" for you; everything is preserved. Even when you have no further use for this knowledge and you really need and want to change, that knowledge is still protected from all attempts to change it. To your dismay, you then discover what it means when we say that "old habits die hard."

All this happens unconsciously, behind the scenes, inside your head and unintentionally. And you have no control over it. The knowledge protection mechanism is activated automatically, instantly, and fully, whenever what you are trying to learn differs from and conflicts with what you already know. You want to change but your brain won't let you change quickly. The conflict between the new knowledge or skill, and your old established knowledge or skill, generates massive interference with learning. This is known in the psychological research as proactive habit interference or proactive inhibition. This interference affects your ability to recall the new knowledge or skill you just tried to learn. Within minutes or hours, you forget what you have just learned and fall back to old ways. This is called accelerated forgetting. Together, proactive inhibition and accelerated forgetting explain why old habits die hard, and why change is so slow, frustrating and expensive.

Proactive interference, i.e., when old learning interferes with new learning, accelerated forgetting, and the associated reversion to old ways are familiar to us all. If you have ever tried to change your golf swing you know how hard that is. You have to concentrate hard on every step. The new way feels strange, having done it the other way for so long. You get confused, frustrated, performance slows dramatically, and your error rate goes up. You appear to forget what you've learned from the coach and fall back to those old, wrong, ways. You can do it correctly during coaching sessions and appear to improve. But, as soon as you are left to your own devices or have to perform under the stress of competition, your game falls apart and you revert to those old, wrong, ways. This roller coaster ride may continue for weeks, months, or even years. It is called the "adaptation period" and is well documented.

The same applies to spelling problems. You find out how to spell that word that you've had trouble with for so long; you practice it many times over; and the next day you're still spelling it in your old, incorrect, way. Old habits die hard.

In our new theory of human learning, the adaptation period is seen as symptomatic of mental interference with learning. It is a sign that the brain is experiencing conflict between the old and the new learning. Proactive inhibition and accelerated forgetting are the result - that is what produces the adaptation period and slows down change and improvement.

It follows that the adaptation period is an indicator of a brain in trouble. The person is no longer learning efficiently and effectively but is struggling to cope with change. Currently available teaching, training and learning methods, and change methodologies, result in a prolonged and resource expensive adaptation period. This suggests that most coaching, teaching, training, therapeutic and other behaviour change and concept change methodologies are working against the brain; not with the brain. These approaches inadvertently activate the brain's knowledge protection mechanism and make it harder for the person to adapt to new ideas, new skills, new techniques, and new procedures. Clearly, we need a better way.

Old Way/New Way® overcomes the brain's knowledge protection and maintenance system, greatly reduces the interference from prior conflicting learning. It empowers individuals to adapt more quickly to change, improve and become more flexible. It virtually eliminates the typically prolonged period of adaptation to change that accompanies more conventional teaching, coaching, training, therapeutic and other behaviour change methods, making it possible for individuals, groups, teams and enterprises to truly achieve continuous improvement and more cost-effective change management.

All this has clear implications for improving all human learning and performance, including spelling.

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