Saturday, April 5, 2008

More on Self-Control

I was considering posting a follow-up to the previous entry, and Sherman Dorn has convinced me that it was necessary (don't you hate it when somebody who knows more than you do about a topic points out all the holes in your analysis?). I make a strenuous effort to keep these posts short so that they're easier to read for those of us with short attention spans and busy schedules, but that often means something gets left out. In this case a lot got left out. And, to be frank, a lot will still be left out after this post.

Anyway, back to self-control. I mentioned David Brooks' op-ed in the last post. In it he recounts Walter Mischel's marshmallow experiment from about 30 years ago. To summarize: 4-year olds were left in an empty room with a marshmallow and had two options: 1) ring the bell and eat the marshmallow, or 2) wait for the adult to come back (without being called) and give them a 2nd marshmallow. In short, those with more self-control were able to sweat it out and receive double the marshmallows while those with less simply succumbed to temptation and ate the one that was there. So, why does this matter? The kids from the two groups (those that waited and those that rang) were tracked into adulthood and the kids who were able to wait got higher test-scored, attended more prestigious colleges, earned more money, etc.

So now we're back to where we were in the last post. If self-control is so important, why don't schools teach it more? Well, like seemingly everything in schools, there is a delicate balancing act involved. Imagine if your kid learned nothing but self-control and discipline in school (no math, reading, etc.) -- you'd be furious, and rightfully so. On the other hand, I'm pretty convinced that the kids with less self-control learn a lot less than those with more, so it seems like teaching some self-control could lead to greater learning.

I've been told (by somebody who attended 1st grade in China) that the lesson on the first day of 1st grade in China is how to sit properly in a chair -- and that kids are expected to go home and practice. One can imagine what a dreadful education this would be if that was the only lesson for a year, but might there be some value in spending one day on it?

Anyway, the point is that students need to learn both self-control and academic topics and that focusing too much on one and not enough on the other could prove detrimental.

I think it has a lot of similarities to discipline in school; some level of order is necessary to facilitate learning, but focusing solely on order means that students never learn any subject matter. You could look at character education the same way.

Can we integrate lessons in self-control with lessons in reading, math, etc.? If so (and I think the answer is "yes"), then I think we should. While psychologists and others have studied self-control, I almost never heard it mentioned among teachers or in teacher education and I almost never hear it now in the news or in policy circles. I'll be the first to admit that there's no easy solution, but I think self-control is too important to ignore.

No comments: