The missing context of the Marshmallow Test

By AJ Juliani, 5 comments

This photo went viral a few years ago, as people from around the world shared how it was a “reflection” of our current generation and society. They wanted this photo (as with the recent video from Simon Sinek) to support their own beliefs about younger generations who seem to have their heads buried in a phone/screen all day long.

But, what was really happening?

This photo below was shared by literary translator Lammie Oostenbrink who explained: “There’s another picture of the same group of kids, totally mesmerized by one of his portraits.

“The kids used the iPhones as part of the tour of the museum. Special app… The interpretation of the photo was just wrong. I tried to correct it.”

And here is her tweet, translated:

Context is Everything

Over and over again, our assumptions around the current generation and their views on technology, learning, and everything else are construed by context.

While this example can be played out in malls, parks, subways, and classrooms around the world, there is a bigger piece to the context discussion that I failed to acknowledge as a teacher and now as a school leader.

Without context, you only have one view of the situation. With context, you not only can see the situation as a clear picture but also how circumstances have impacted that situation.

This happens often in our learning discussions, and I’ve seen it more and more at all levels of the education system.

  • Administrators make decisions about teachers, curriculum, and policies without understanding the full context.
  • Students make decisions about teachers, assignments, projects without understanding the full context.
  • Parents make decisions about teachers, administrators, and schools without understanding the full context.
  • Teachers make decisions about students without understanding the full context.

The list could go on, and I have seen it myself, especially in regards to research on best practices.

I once read a study about the Marshmallow Test. I’m sure many of you have heard about the Marshmallow test as well. It can be paraphrased here:

In the original Stanford marshmallow experiment, children were given one marshmallow. They could eat the marshmallow right away; or, if they waited fifteen minutes for the experimenter to return without eating the marshmallow, they’d get a second marshmallow. Even more interestingly, in follow-up studies two decades later, the children who waited longer for the second marshmallow, i.e. showed delayed gratification, had higher SAT scores, school performance, and even improved Body Mass Index. This is normally interpreted as indicating the importance of self-control and delayed gratification for life success.

I believed this study showed everything we needed to know about grit and why it was so important for our kids to have a growth mindset. I watched Angela Duckworth’s TED talk on the subject and shared it with everyone I knew in education. Although I was preaching growth mindset, my mind was “fixed” on this study without thinking about the context.

But, as it tends to do, the context made me rethink things:

In a new variant of the Marshmallow experiment entitled “Rational snacking“, Celeste Kidd, Holly Palmeri, and Richard N. Aslin from the University of Rochester gave the children similar tests with a new context.

The researchers put the children into two groups and asked them to perform art projects. Children in the first group each received small box of used crayons, and were told that if they could wait, the researcher would bring them more and better art supplies. However, after three minutes, the adult returned and told the child they had made a mistake, and there were no more art supplies so they’d have to use the original crayons.

Children in the second group went through the same routine except for this time the adult fulfilled their promises, bringing the children more and better art supplies

Group 1 was told to wait and lied to. Group 2 was told to wait and was rewarded for their patience.

Now for the next iteration, the adult now gave the children in the first group a single sticker and told the child that if they waited, the adult would bring them more stickers to use. Again the adult came back and said there were no stickers.

Children in the second group did the same routine with stickers, and were rewarded for their patience again.

It wasn’t until after these two routines with the art supplies and the stickers, that the researchers finally did repeated the classic marshmallow test with both groups.

Here’s what happened:

The results demonstrated children were a lot more rational than we might have thought. Of the 14 children in group 1, who had been shown that the experimenters were unreliable adults, 13 of them ate the first marshmallow. 8 of the 14 children in the reliable adult group, waited out the fifteen minutes. On average children in unreliable group 1 waited only 3 minutes, and those in reliable group 2 waited 12 minutes.

I took the first marshmallow test on face value. I didn’t think about what the various experiences were like in their households growing up. I didn’t consider what context of life they had lived vs the other kids in the experiment.

Context changes everything.

And if we don’t have context we can be led to believe that a group of students working on an app to research art in a museum, are instead not paying attention and sucked into their phones.

If we don’t have context we can believe that studies, and research, and best practices work for all students, regardless of what context they are bringing with them into school.

I’ve been reminded too many times by my own inability to see the context of a situation, that this is an integral piece of learning conversations.

Bring multiple minds, perspectives, and people to the table when talking about students, curriculum, technology, and best practices in our learning environments.

If we don’t, we run the risk of missing the big picture, and believing a one-sided view of a situation.

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