Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Alcott's Apple and the Marshmallow Experiment

A great deal of ink and pixels have gone to recent discussions (by the likes of David Brooks) of the Stanford marshmallow experiment. Here's the experiment: A preschool child is brought to a room with a marshmallow on a table. The child is told that if she can wait 15 minutes without eating the marshmallow, she will then be awarded a second marshmallow. The researcher then leaves the room and watches through a concealed window to see the child's reaction.

A follow-up study found that the children who were able to defer gratification by waiting for the second marshmallow were also later described by their parents as "competent adolescents", and achieved higher SAT scores than those who ate the marshmallow immediately.

Looking at my own family, I'm not sure whether Older Daughter would have waited for the second marshmallow, but I can confidently predict that Younger Daughter would have eaten the first marshmallow, and possibly taken a bite out of the furniture and the returning researcher as well.

There is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes). It turns out that Bronson Alcott, transcendentalist, abolitionist, and the barking-mad father of Louisa May, performed a similar experiment on his own daughters, Anna and Louisa, then aged 5 and 4.

From Louisa May Alcott, Domestic Goddess:*

Bronson, knowing that both girls loved apples, left an unguarded apple near Louisa and her older sister, Anna, with the restriction that it belonged to him and the girls were not to eat it. Bronson knew that the girls would be tempted by this literally forbidden fruit, and he felt that the struggle would reveal important information about his daughters. Since Louisa ate the apple, and then unrepentantly stated that she had done so "cause I wanted it," Bronson's intended lesson in self-sacrifice was obviously only half learned. Anna did not eat the apple, and apologized for even thinking about it. Louisa, on the other hand, may have struggled with her will, but in the end she gave in to it, despite her fear of Bronson's displeasure.
Which daughter grew up to be a famous and still widely-read novelist?

Adults favor obedient, disciplined children, and it is no surprise that such children are spoken of favorably by their parents and do well on the SATs. But the child who insists on her own point of view may have more to offer the world in the long run.

*Overachiever's footnote: I'm still looking for an authoritative source for the apple story. If you know of one, please let me know. I dimly remember a book or article called something like "Rebellion in the Nursery", about Bronson and Louisa Alcott, but I haven't been able to find it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Low Standards + High Pressure

Via Out in Left Field, I came across this article:

School is Too Easy, Students Report

It is no surprise to me that students would describe school as "too easy".  One of the worst aspects of school life today is the pervasive lack of content, papered over by utterly pointless projects and activities.  A bright kid who needs intellectual engagement will find slim pickin's in the average classroom.
I take violent exception, however,  to this statement:
Ulrich Boser, a senior fellow at the center who co-wrote the report, said the data challenge the "school-as-pressure-cooker" image found in recent movies such as Race to Nowhere.
Unfortunately, lack of content does not imply lack of pressure.  The pressure-cooker aspect of school is caused by large volumes of homework, the jumped-up competition to get into "good" colleges, and stress over grades.  It is entirely possible, and actually quite common, to have a pressure-cooker school with low academic standards.  The fact that many kids are stressed out, missing sleep, and working every spare moment in an attempt to keep up with their homework does not imply that the school has high academic standards, or that the kids are learning anything.