Can Teachers & Parents Make More Students ‘Better’ Kids?
What if no learning class ever again were boring and only chaotic and disappointing? An Android app hopes to give students a science nugget for their smartphone.
A quick whirl with the Marshmallow in first grade may be behind a majority of American children now – and it might go some way to explaining why some half-empty classrooms are growing deeper and more divided.
The Marshmallow Test
The concept of the Marshmallow Test dates back to 1983, when Chinese researchers Chang’E Huang, Priscilla Chan, and their students took turns sitting in a room and receiving a handful of sugar or chocolate on the table with a single bite each.
Students rated their happiness immediately after the test. “Overall,” read a March 1983 feature in the New York Times, “about four out of every 10 children liked what they were given, but about 15 percent disliked every morsel they received.”
“Will they actually enjoy this?” asked the newspaper. “If not, they will probably be finished before long.”
Okay, some children got frustrated, ate the chocolate first, and reported having an overall bad experience, and even went home and threw their test paper out – which is not exactly good nutrition (no matter what your dietary preference might be). But a recent CNET report reported the actual results of a series of scientific studies that confirmed the veracity of that strategy.
Study: Starting Effective Early
One study, run at Harvard and Brown universities, found that the no-learning-class-ever experiment affected the way some adults remembered information:
Participants memorized a list of facts, then tested how many of the facts they remembered, and then again. Before the experiment began, people who were bored and impatient were less likely to remember anything that happened beforehand. Afterward, those participants were just as likely to remember as those who were energetic and active.
“What’s intriguing here is that at a young age, when kids are still trying to figure out what’s going on around them, memory starts to crystallize and consolidate,” said Clare Silliman, a former postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania who performed the study.
Silliman also mentioned that self-control is typically concerned with maintaining and increasing a current state, like eating food or hitting a home run, but research has suggested that self-control might help children prevent future self-control problems.
In the May 2013 issue of “Competence,” a British journal published by Cambridge University, Laura Darling-Robinson, who was one of the lead researchers on a study conducted at Mills College, Northern California, and Temple University, wrote that “the criteria that are needed to diagnose [reactive] self-control [require] two components: a psychological predisposition towards impulsivity and the presence of significant impairments in self-control skills.”
In the case of basic moral dysfunction like selfishness, her research suggests that not only is self-control lacking, but that the condition of poor self-control is rapidly caused by genetics.
And this isn’t the first of its kind. That same year, a study by the MRC Epidemiology Unit in the UK and University College London found that a child’s psychological health and behaviors appear to determine whether or not they are in an eerily happy, frenetic or dreary classroom.
You might feel like the watchful friend or teacher who interrupts the only agreeable child in class, but the college study showed that depressive symptoms can actually predict happiness levels of kids. Happiness tends to be less prone to genetically-based causes in happy children, while unhappiness more likely appears to be psychosocial in nature.
Does this mean that all the down time with an iPhone, or at home with endless YouTube and Spotify, are actually hindering children’s ability to concentrate and focus on schoolwork? Not exactly.
But maybe more important than whether or not a kid has achieved self-control is how that self-control manifests. Research seems to show that aggression, self-centeredness, and hatred of others are more closely related to negative temperament than a gluttony of willpower that makes the self-control behavior good for you.
These results, found a separate study, were essentially reverse engineering the school test. Instead of testing how anxious the teacher is, they asked how much contempt the students had for the teacher.
And judging from how long into their children’s lives most parents wait for that second-grade teacher to visit, it looks like the social and emotional issues behind behavior really are crucial.