We’ve been showing a video of the classic “marshmallow experiment” for years at parent education seminars across the country. We re-constructed the experiment with a group of local parents here in the Twin Cities about ten years ago, and it serves as a catalyst for important conversations about the role that self-discipline plays in our children’s success and happiness.
A lot of parents have asked us over the years whether or not they should do the marshmallow experiment with their kids to ‘test’ their self-control. While asked half in jest, it is clearly tempting for them to want to assess this critical character trait in their children. If self-discipline is so important, the logic goes, then how do I know if my child has enough of it? We’ve been asked the question enough times that we now preface the video with a reminder that while it is a fun activity, it’s not a diagnostic tool.
Of course self-discipline isn’t the only “non-cognitive” skill that research has shown to be an important factor shaping our children’s success in school and life. A growing body of evidence demonstrates that these skills, ranging from emotional regulation to optimism to mindset, are key drivers of school success.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that entire schools are beginning to ask the same question, “If it is so important, why don’t we start measuring it?” Some schools have begun to do just that, including assessments of “character” in their evaluations of student progress and school accountability measures. At first glance it seems we should be celebrating. After all, we’ve been championing the importance of these skills for years and believe wholeheartedly in the relationship between character and academics.
The problem isn’t that more people, schools included, are beginning to understand the central importance of character and “non-cognitive” skills. The problem comes when we start including these skills in the battery of high stakes evaluation tests that are used to assess students and evaluate the quality of teachers and schools. We agree with the lead researcher in the field, Angela Duckworth, when she argues that “we shouldn’t be rewarding or punishing schools for how students perform on these measures.”
Proceed with caution
Measures developed for educational research cannot be instantly converted into a valid performance measure. While they might do a great job predicting long-term outcomes (for example, self-discipline reliably predicts academic and career success), they aren’t as reliable yet for individual diagnosis or assessing accountability. As one example, students’ capacity to demonstrate these skills varies across contexts, exhibiting less self-control when burdened by negative stereotypes or when adults are perceived as untrustworthy. In addition, there continues to be disagreement about which skills are most important. Should schools focus on empathy or self-control; perseverance or mindset? Individual schools may have good reason to focus on one or the other, making cross-school comparisons difficult. In addition to the challenges with the measures themselves, there is continued risk of blaming students and teachers for structural barriers that make it more difficult for some children to succeed in school or of measuring individual’s grit within a system that isn’t fostering it.
We applaud the renewed collective focus on qualities like perseverance, kindness, joy, optimism, grit, and self-discipline. We are excited that researchers are working collaboratively with educators to foster them in schools and create learning environments where so-called “soft” and hard skills are seen as equals. Science certainly tells us that that this is important and worthwhile work.
So go ahead and do the marshmallow experiment with your child. But for now, do it with the intent of starting a conversation, engaging in self-discovery, and giving meaningful feedback to your child. Just don’t let anyone put the results on their report card.