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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Join the discussion 13 Comments

  • I thoroughly enjoyed this article/blog. We just launched 1:1 M*Powered Initiative in our district and are currently having our parent meetings. I love the lens in which you approach perspective with “context”. So much of society believes that children/youth of today are “consumers” only on devices…because we often see that – in restaurants, in stores, in church, etc. But, what we are doing in context in our schools is much more than “consume”….our learners are “producing”, our learners are “connecting”, our learners are “collaborating”, our learners are “engaging”, our learners are being “empowered”. I am so thankful for this TIMELY article….keep them coming, AJ!

  • Rose Marie Miller says:

    Very perceptive, but we make assumptions all the time don’t we?

    • Tova Shimon says:

      we are better at make the more informed and reflected assumptions if we consider all factors and contexts.

  • Steven says:

    This idea is very well established by Mischel in the book and he uses several pages to explain the role of trust. I think the problem is we spend a lot of time talking about good ideas in education, but very rarely spend time understanding research like Mischel’s. So we end up making arguments we don’t understand.

  • B Caughey says:

    So so true. I agree fully about the importance of context. This is why I struggle with the concept of Research- Often as demonstrated in the Marshmallow test that unless the big picture is considered then the research can be misleading. There are always so many influencing variables that can influence research results. Thank you for sharing.

  • […] I were to share such a photo without any background, people might jump to the same conclusions they did when the photo below was shared of kids in a museum (ie, “Kids these days!!” […]

  • The original photos in this post point to more than just how the viewer can misperceive the situation due to lack of context/perspective. It also points to a benefit of viewing art in general: It broadens our perspective. David Perkins in his book “The Intelligent Eye” talks about this. When I taught middle school for two decades, my classes visited our local college’s art museum and we practiced the kind of close viewing Perkins talks about. Invariably, in the debrief and reflection parts of our visit, students would discuss how what they saw was different from what others saw, and how that exposure to different perspectives helped them see and understand more about the art and, perhaps more important, about other people.

    Such is the power of the arts.

  • Paul Murphy says:

    Great article. To add more context, it’s possible the marshmallow eaters ate because they lacked the willpower to resist, having used willpower to suppress their emotions after being lied to.

  • Paul says:

    Grit, as per the marshmallow test, could also be contingent on parental and teacher pre-task support in addition to integrity. But is true-grit not more based on the drive from our inner passions? If I don’t like colouring, stickers or marshmallows I will not show self-control.

  • Bo says:

    Little delayed. Been in the mountains. No service.

    Thanks for the post A.J. This one got me reflecting instantly. My initial round of thoughts, I agree context is important. In order to maximize growth we need to understand individual Ss strengths, challenges, passions, dislikes, senses of humor & more. To help each Ss create the best them they can, we need to help them build grit within their context. The ability to grow in grit & see a big picture will help them be stronger in whatever they choose to do. Plus getting to know & teaching a one of a kind human being rather than a statistic is way more inspiring and rewarding.

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