5DL Tools: Habit Modification and the 5DL Vital Learning Habits™


As noted elsewhere in this blog, our work focuses on changing habits. We use newly learned knowledge and skills to accomplish habit modification, not as ends in themselves. Why? Our clients understand human-development ROI in terms of changed outcomes, not merely “lessons-learned.” If we are going to maximize their human-development ROI, we need to maximize the amount of real-world improvement their people accomplish.

Put more simply and generally, most people in your life don’t care very much what you know or what you could do; they care what you actually do. They care about your actions, and they care most about those actions that you perform most often—your habits.

We believe that every learning opportunity can be framed in terms of changed habits. That’s a strong statement: some educators would argue, pointing to “intrinsic” outcomes that have great value but that aren’t necessarily related to any specific behavioral change. We don’t disagree about the value of intrinsic learning. We only argue that every learning outcome, including what most people consider to be intrinsic outcomes, can be expressed meaningfully as a change in one or more habitual behaviors. We’re scientists: you can convince us otherwise with enough good evidence. But so far, we haven’t seen compelling evidence to refute our view.

Examples of habit-change in human development are everywhere. Are you a traditional student? You need to learn good study habits, good test-taking habits, and so on—even good sleep and workout habits. Are you being trained for a new job? There are usually several new habits to be learned, some of them extremely important; for example, safety habits, or compliance habits that keep you and your employer out of legal trouble. Are you a philanthropist or social investor looking to improve performance? One of the most powerful ways to do so is to improve your habits of due-diligence when investigating possible grants or investments.

Many of these habits are job-specific. Good safety habits, for example, look very different for a restaurant cook versus someone who works on high-voltage electrical lines. Some of them, however, are nearly universal. One set in particular, we address in every engagement we develop. We call them the 5DL Vital Learning Habits, and they are the primary subject of this post.

Why “vital learning habits?” As we discuss elsewhere on the site, our goal is to maximize ROI for our clients. Learning is often a slow process. If we stayed involved in a project until all the gains of learning are achieved, it would cost our clients a lot of money for no real benefit. Therefore, our goal is to exit as early as feasible, so the costs can stop while the benefit continues. To exit early, we need to be confident that the learners will keep learning after we’re gone, or the client won’t achieve the level of ROI that they expect. Habits that support continuing learning are therefore vital to our Continuing Quality Improvement and Continuing Impact Improvement plans.

As with everything else we do, we started with the research and looked for high-impact approaches we could apply. We ended up with four vital habits: mindfulness, growth mindset, persistence, and resilience. We could have included several others, but we were looking for the minimum set of habits that, if adopted and implemented consistently, would maximize the continual learning outcomes we were seeking without overriding or competing with the substantive objectives of the learning experiences we design. Let’s discuss the four in a little more detail.

Mindfulness. This word means many things to many people, up to and including all-encompassing lifestyle changes. We use it more instrumentally, to connote mindfulness about the learning process. We are all learning continuously, every day. What varies is only the degree of intentionality and effort we apply. Our mindfulness-habit training looks to inculcate habits of recognizing learning opportunities as they present themselves, selecting the opportunities consistent with one’s goals and values, pursuing those opportunities effectively (that is, in a way that maximizes your personal ROI from the effort invested), and reflecting during and afterward on what you’ve gained in the process. Our LADDER2 learning framework is instrumental in this effort.

Growth Mindset. We make extensive and intensive use of Carol Dweck’s (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B000FCKPHG/) key insight about growth v. static mindsets, carefully adapted to the needs of emerging and developing economies. One of the most important ways in which well-prepared and under-prepared students in emerging economies tend to differ is in how they approach learning opportunities. Well-prepared students are more likely to embrace learning opportunities as joyful (growth mindset), while under-prepared students are more likely to view them as stressful (static mindset). At the same time, however, even elite students in emerging economies are more likely to come through prior schooling processes that have inculcated static mindsets than are comparable students in G7 education systems. Moving both types of students into a growth mindset via habit modification is an important part of any learning plan that hopes to maximize long-term ROI.

Persistence. In emerging economies, it’s common to find learners whose prior educational experiences did not emphasize problem solving. Such learners can struggle and fail when they hit obstacles to their learning, because they don’t know how to overcome the problem immediately, so they quit. If we are present, we can assist, but once we are gone, they need to know how to overcome those obstacles themselves. Persistence is a vital habit in achieving that objective, so we work with learners in our projects to cultivate habits of persistence in learning—along with problem-solving skills and knowledge, of course!

Resilience. Everyone who is committed to continuing learning encounters real failure, sooner or later. At that moment, persistence isn’t enough: a learner must know how to be resilient, to get back up from failure and try something new. Like persistence, learning resilience can be encoded as a series of habits that can be taught to learners in our projects, enabling them to keep moving forward even when they encounter unmovable obstacles in their progress after we’re gone.


Collectively, these four vital habits lay a solid foundation for continual (“lifelong”) learning. In turn, continual learning lays a solid foundation for our Continuing Quality Improvement and Continuing Impact Improvement planning, which locks-in maximal ROI for our clients. This alone justifies the emphasis we put on habits—over and above knowledge and skills—as learning outcomes.

There are other benefits as well. The more we focus on habit modification in our learning experiences, and the more transparent we are about what we’re doing and why, the better-acquainted learners become with how to modify their own habits to meet their own objectives. This improves their ability to pursue almost any objective, making them more valuable to their employers, families, friends, and colleagues. It also enables them to address points of personal pain, improving their quality of life.

To us, this is a key benefit of a BASSH-based learning experience: both the organization and each learner in it continue to gain value long after the initial experience completes.

We welcome your thoughts and comments below. Interested in learning more? Please drop us a note at info@fivedlearning.com.