The importance of trust

12 June 2018

It is all about marshmallows.

As readers of research, I suspect that the reference to this form of confectionery has already raised thoughts of one of the most famous psychological experiment that has been used to assess the potential cognitive abilities of children.

The original ‘marshmallow test’, undertaken in the 1960s and 1970s, and followed up in 1990, involved giving children aged between three and five a marshmallow. They could eat that marshmallow, but if they waited for 10 minutes, they would gain two marshmallows. When these children reached their teens, it seemed that the children who had the power to wait exhibited greater traits of intelligence and behaviour.

The thinking behind this experiment is highly relevant to the way schools operate. The vast majority of the work that we do is built on the premise of delayed gratification. We ask students to study hard for a number of years with the ‘promise’ that this will result in reward later in life. We frequently use this carrot as a way of trying to improve the behaviour and approach of students.

Delayed gratification works on the basis of trust. The marshmallow experiment does not work for a child if they do not trust that after 10 minutes a second marshmallow will be produced. The same applies in school.  A student has to actually believe that they have the power to transform their future lives.

For disadvantaged students, this can be key. If your home background teaches you that you need to grab something now or it will not exist in the future, then you are unlikely to accept the delayed gratification principle upon which schools function.

The marshmallow experiment has been replicated recently by Tyler Watts, Greg Duncan and Hoanan Quen (Psychological Science). They took a wider spectrum of students than the original research and a larger sample.

What is interesting about this new research is that they were unable to confirm the predictive powers of the test. Once the background characteristics and environment of the child were taken into account, the long term effects were not as marked. However, that does not change the potential importance of this study to schools.

The EEF’s recent Metacognition and self-regulated learning Guidance Report  offers an accessible overview of existing research into self-regulated learning with clear, actionable guidance.  What the marshmallow experiments clearly demonstrate is that some children do have a greater ability to resist temptation and delay their own gratification, whilst in others, this skill is significantly reduced. Recognising areas in which our students are weaker is the first stage in helping to address them.

The approach advocated in the guidance report suggests that students are explicitly taught the skills they need to learn. The aim is to ensure that they ‘self-regulate’ and can then apply these skills in a wider range of settings. That does not mean that you need to undertake the marshmallow experiment on your students yourself, but it may help to teach the students about the experiment and to ask them what they can learn from this.

I wrote last time about the issue of trust and how this can affect the CPD relationship with staff.  That word, trust, appears again here because it sits at the heart of the much that is effective in education.  Teaching students to learn about, and develop their own understanding of, the learning process that we are orchestrating helps to build that trust.

The effectiveness of the marshmallow experiment in predicting the future may be now in question. However, if it helps us to understand how we learn, helps us to consider the wider issues that students face in learning, gives a better insight into the trust issues that disadvantaged students have, then it can still act as a valid tool at our disposal. The more we can get students to understand and therefore trust education, the more likely those students are to do today what is required in order to succeed tomorrow.

Mark Woodlock
Headteacher, The Blue School

Posted on 12 June 2018
Posted in: Blog

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