Marshmallows & Delayed Gratification

I felt very fortunate a few years ago when I first came across the writings of Alfie Kohn. The first pieces i read were ones in which he tore apart the weak ‘science’ behind purported studies that alleged academic and learning benefits from homework.

His book ‘Punished by Rewards’ has had a profound effect on many educators. Kohn gives us no choice but to question many of the simplistic beliefs that exist in society about how children are brought up and how schools should run. Over time, it might be concluded that on some things, Kohn himself is wrong, but nevertheless I believe he’s vitally important because far more people ought to be questioning and challenging in the ways that he does. He makes us think hard about what’s right for the child, what’s right for the learner – and that can only be a good thing.

The compassion of the man is unquestionable. It’s pretty clear, he wants us to think very very hard about what we do in our profession and to base practices on reality and more hard-edged research. That’s a very good thing.

In this recent article Alfie Kohn takes on the flurry of recent writing and thought in education circles, especially in the US that has sought to go back to the work of Walter Mischel at Stanford University and to apply it to how we educate children today (the well known marshmallow experiments).

Dispelling the Myth of Deferred Gratification – Alfie Kohn

The first point on which i would take issue with Kohn is on the motivation of those who have been interested in the issues of deferred gratification (and flowing from this self management and discipline). I am one of those who has been interested in the potential of this research and what it might suggest to us that we need to change. However, I would firmly refute the allegation he makes that this is because we are more interested in changing children than we are in changing the education system. In my view, for way too long, educators have behaved as though their only task and responsibility was to ‘deliver the syllabus or curriculum in chunks/ chapters/ portions etc. To acknowledge that any teacher has to take full account of aspects such as learner motivation, concentration span, self management abilities etc. is to acknowledge the broader responsibility of the educator to meet the learner where they are, as an individual – not to treat them as a homogenous group at whom the learning content is delivered.

As for whether people have tried to draw too many conclusions from Mischel’s research – here Kohn might have a valid point. However, i think this is already acknowledged by many and explains why more research and work is ongoing involving people like Carol Dweck, also at Stanford.

So, I don’t, by any means, agree with all of Alfie Kohn’s arguments. However, I appreciate enormously that he makes me think (and think hard) about our profession and the practices within it that are taken for granted or passed down as unquestionable through generations of educators.

In another blog post recently I drew parallels between teaching and medicine as professions. I believe, historically, medicine has been far better at facing up to realities where practices of the past come under challenge. As a result, as a profession it’s changed enormously over the last 50 or 100 years. Teaching hasn’t changed enough,. suggesting to me that educators haven’t been willing enough to challenge and question old orthodoxies. People like Alfie Kohn help to change that.

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