Why Schools Must Teach Delayed Gratification

Young woman in the library surfing the net with digital tablet.
Young woman in the library surfing the net with digital tablet.

Traditionally, the prime purpose of school reform on a federal level has been the improvement of schools serving disadvantaged children. Most debate has centered on whether the contemporary "reform" movement has made student outcomes better or worse, and over the costs of "reformers'" test-driven, market-driven tactics. Being an inner-city teacher, I have primarily focused on the damage that the bubble-in mania has done to my students, as I mourned the lost opportunity for improving the lives of poor children and families by improving their schools.

Two pieces in the Hechinger Report are a reminder of another "opportunity cost" of the single-minded concentration on improving student outcomes. All told, the greatest harm done by school "reform" may be that it has distracted us from the No. 1 issue that all of our schools should have made a priority.

More than forty years ago, Walter Mischel's famous "marshmallow test," and subsequent studies, documented the crucial importance of delayed short-term pleasure in order to meet longer term goals. Research showed that kids who are better able to delay gratification not only achieve higher grades and test scores, but are also more likely to succeed in school and their careers.

When I was young, my friends and I were taught that the key to success was becoming an "inner-directed" as opposed to an "outer-directed" person. The key to a healthy and worthwhile life was developing an "internal locus of control."

Over the last generation, the challenge of inculcating a value system of delayed gratification has become tougher, but no less essential. If anything, the importance of inner-directedness has grown. Teaching kids to how control digital technologies, and to not be controlled by them, should have been as important as anything that adults could have passed down to their children. But, families tended to shirk that responsibility, as did schools.

Annie Murphy Paul, in "The New Marshmallow Test: Resisting Temptations of the Web," summarizes recent research on latter day marshmallow tests. Psychology professor Larry Rosen asked students to "study something important," and then he chronicled incidents of distraction. After about two minutes, students' "on-task behavior" declined as they began responding to arriving texts or checking their Facebook feeds. After only 15 minutes, they had spent only about 65 percent of the period doing their schoolwork.

"We were amazed at how frequently they multi-tasked, even though they knew someone was watching," Rosen says. "It really seems that they could not go for 15 minutes without engaging their devices," adding, "It was kind of scary, actually."

In another study, Rosen and his colleagues conducted a different 21st-century version of the marshmallow test. College students watched a 30-minute videotaped lecture. Some were sent eight text messages while others were sent four or zero text messages. Paul explains, "Those who were interrupted more often scored worse on a test of the lecture's content; more interestingly, those who responded to the experimenters' texts right away scored significantly worse than those participants who waited to reply until the lecture was over."

A second Hechinger piece, "Freedom, Digital Distraction and Control," by Anya Kamenetz, addresses possible solutions. She outlines three options for schools seeking to mitigate the damage:

Control by authority. Teacher and schools could take charge of students' access to technology: banning cellphones and instituting "screens down" policies. She quotes a teacher who requested mirrors for the walls of her classroom so she could see who was text messaging. This, alone, would be an outright abdication to outer-directedness.

Control through technology. This second form of conceding defeat to outer-directedness uses tools to "nudge students in the direction of desired use." An iPad could be set to run just one application or run an "eyes on teacher" icon. When the teacher hits the icon on her machine, every tablet in the room goes offline, stops what it's doing, and a message pops up to look at the teacher. This would essentially farm out the dirty work of command and control to technology.

She also cites a more positive type of control through technology, making educational applications engaging enough that students choose them over other video games or activities. This would be a positive step along the lines of the dictum "fake it until you can make it."

Self-control. This, she says, "is the ultimate goal. We all want to help our students, just as we ourselves want to, become self-motivated, self-aware and emotionally intelligent enough to impose their own."

Regardless of whether we call it self-control or inner-directedness; delayed gratification or internal locus of control; perseverance, stick-to-it-ed-ness, or the new term of "grit," our schools must turn their focus toward the socio-emotional. Regardless of whether learning is undermined by the legacies of poverty and trauma, or the digital distractions of an affluent society, our challenge should be clear.

Before we can expect schools to help children rise from poverty, those schools must help teach students how to control themselves. If we expect affluent schools to produce the graduates who keep our society rich, they also must teach children to control their digital tools and not be controlled by them.

And, if we expect schools to focus on what really matters when producing empowered graduates for a healthy and dynamic society, we must stop inundating them with punitive bubble-in distractions.