Saturday, April 5, 2008

Resisting Impulses and Delaying Gratification

A couple days ago a pair of scientists wrote an op-ed in the NY Times that concluded "consistently doing any activity that requires self-control seems to increase willpower — and the ability to resist impulses and delay gratification is highly associated with success in life."

I occasionally like to step back and re-examine the current structure of schooling rather than just finding tweaks that would make it better, and I have to say that my reaction to the final sentence was "if this is highly associated with success in life, then is this what we should be teaching in school?"

Now, to be fair, I was already pre-disposed to answering "yes" to that question. Before starting teaching I was pretty sure I knew what was wrong with schools and how to fix them. I quickly discovered that I was wrong, and I discovered a few things that I never would have named as problems. One of these, and maybe the most important one, was self-control. From my perspective, there was no greater difference between the students that succeeded and those who floundered than the amount of self-control that they exhibited.

Near the end of my second year of teaching David Brooks wrote this op-ed in which he comes to a similar conclusion. Maybe I'm just looking the wrong places, but so far I can't disagree with his statement that self-control is "largely ignored by educators and policy makers." Indeed, I've only seen it mentioned in one study since that I can remember I started grad school.

I'm not really sure what the research base is on the linkage between self-control and "success" in life, but I see no reason not to believe people who know more than me when they say that there is a strong correlation. And I can't help but wonder if self-control is more important to teach than, say, an extra period of math.


Sherman Dorn said...

I'm not sure why you think the topic hasn't been discussed: People have written about the "hidden curriculum" of schooling for 40 years, from Phillip Jackson's and Robert Dreeben's books on. In plenty of contexts, teaching "self control" can be a dangerous substitute for academic subjects, serving more as a gateway than as an adjunct topic.

All that doesn't mean that what psychologists call "executive functions" aren't important, but that they're firmly on the radar screens, sometimes to the good and sometimes not.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

Hence why I added the caveat "unless I'm looking in the wrong places." What I mean is that I don't see it mentioned in in most ed policy journals, I really haven't heard about it in my classes, and I haven't seen much in the media. I'm well aware that *somebody* is studying it, but I'm less sure how much influence those who study it have on schools (or try to have on schools). I was thinking about a follow-up post, and your other comments have convinced me that that's necessary.

RDT said...

I think the first place to look for discussions of teaching self control is not in ed-policy journals, but in what elementary teachers learn about classroom management in their credentialing programs.

I don't know what is taught explicitly, but certainly all the elementary teachers my daughter had built it into their teaching. The lessons about taking turns, respecting others, working out conflict, etc are in a large part, lessons about impulse control. Extrinsic rewards of the "finish your work today and you'll get 'free-choice' time on Friday" are lessons in delayed gratification.

But this may be an area where what kids learn (or don't learn) at home has changed substantially over the last half century.

Perhaps schools need to focus even more on it now than they used to but it's probably only going to be effective if kids aren't learning something totally different at home.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

point taken, but there is an important distinction between learning self-control and learning to follow rules