Of marshmallows and mobiles

In the late 1960s, Walter Mischel conducted what became a very famous experiment known as the Marshmallow Test. A pre-school child was placed in a small room with a marshmallow (or other treat) on the table in front of them, and a bell. The adult left the room, having told the child that they could ring for attention at any time, at which point they would be able to eat the marshmallow. But if they were able to resist until the adult returned (up to twenty minutes later), they would be able to double the reward. The experiment has been repeated many times, and there are plenty of entertaining covert videos on YouTube watching children’s attempts to resist.

One of the issues I want to address this year is that of sustaining children’s engagement at a time when attention spans and motivations seem to be shortening. The school’s intake seems to be changing for the more difficult, and keeping children’s effort and attention is requiring new thinking. As I wrote some months ago, I am increasingly exasperated by the constant demands to have ‘Fun’ in lessons, and that comment by one Year 7 girl who had not done her work “because my lesson was not sufficiently entertaining” is still ringing in my ears. Not because it hurt, but because I felt it is symptomatic of a problem we face with today’s children, namely that many are so indulged that they have no sense of obligation to do anything other than seek immediate gratification. That expectation has been perpetuated by schools encouraging children to want their lessons to be, above all else, fun.

When asked, many pupils are actually very vague about what kind of fun they want; what they really want, I think, is to shorten the pay-back time to their perceived ‘reward’ for the lesson. In a materialistic world, the notion of intrinsic rewards unfortunately seems increasingly thin.

Mischel himself describes the difficulties encountered by indulged children when the school agenda changes with the primary/secondary transition, so I am in good company here. It was a fortunate coincidence that my wife bought me Mischel’s book at this time.


I had already been playing around with developments of Daniel Kahnemann’s two brains model, and wondering whether I could use this to tackle the issue in the classroom. I had decided to use three brains (the third, or first, the unconscious brain, being responsible for bodily functions), and I mentioned this rather spontaneously to a class last term. Rather unexpectedly, they threw the idea back at me some weeks later, so it clearly stuck. I am now wondering whether formally presenting pupils with this concept at the start of the year might help them understand why they need to be able to defer their gratification in my lessons at least.

The Marshmallow Test is  a measure of the ability to do just this, and Mischel’s  longitudinal studies (using precisely my own year-group, I realised…) suggests that this early ability can indicate future life prospects quite closely, even into adulthood. In essence it is about the ability of people to over-ride their ‘Brain 2’ (hot, emotional brain) with their ‘Brain 3’ (cool, rational one) when difficult decisions are needed. The stronger one’s ability to do this, the more likely one is to be able to persevere in the short term for the sake of longer term gain.

It turns out that Mischel worked with Carol Dweck, and he outlines strategies that can help people to develop greater resolve. He is directly concerned with their use by teachers and parents, and the link with the overworked but basically plausible idea of the Growth Mindset is clear.

I have prepared a Prezi that I am going to trial with likely-looking classes, and it can be found here:


I think this might be the making of a ‘nudge’ strategy – I also have a PowerPoint slide of a marshmallow ready to project at a moment’s notice when attention seems to be slipping or the F word gets used…

One unknown is the extent to which the target group of children will be prepared to pay attention to this in the first place, and the extent to which they are willing (or able) to take its message on board. Does conscious awareness of such things make them more or less useful? There is a risk, of course, that precisely those who most need to know this may be those least likely to be able to make any deliberate response. We will see.

Where do mobiles come in? I am also increasingly convinced about the negative impact of mobile phones on children’s concentration spans, let alone ability to find anything else interesting. Mischel writes about the strategies children (and others) can use for increasing resolution to resist. One concerns the mental ‘distance’ one puts between oneself and the temptation. Actively thinking about the tastiness of marshmallows makes temptation worse; thinking about them as fluffy clouds weakens it.

It strikes me that mobile phones are nothing more than the mother of all marshmallows when it comes to modern children’s attention: by definition immediately to hand, and of almost unlimited, instant gratification. The more they use these devices, the shorter their attention span becomes as they get hooked on instant feedback; by comparison, the deferments required by serious learning must seem deeply unattractive, even without all the surrounding inducements.

No wonder they can’t think about anything else. So I am also considering declaring UDI when it comes to phone policy in my lessons. I’m not quite sure how yet, but I have to separate the damned things from the little addicts…


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