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Thoughts on the Marshmallow Test

The story of the marshmallow test has resurfaced once again in education circles. According to Paul Tough (How Children Succeed), kids from poverty simply need to develop character strengths such as conscientiousness, grit, resilience, perseverance and optimism. It’s simple – we just need to teach kids to delay gratification and work harder in order to succeed.

Those enamored with grit seem to think that memorizing facts, regurgitating information and getting high scores on meaningless exams equals high achievement. In truth, kids are being prepared to sit still, follow directions and regurgitate someone else’s thinking into a ten-page double spaced essay using proper APA format. The kids who are deemed “winners” are the ones who are willing to persist with meaningless work in pursuit of a goal that they likely didn’t choose for themselves. The ones who can’t or won’t comply are deemed problems that need to be fixed, often through the use of external motivators or negative consequences which never work.

What does work is helping kids turn vague aspirations into concrete goals. I have seen dramatic transformations and accelerated growth once students are able to connect interests and talents to passion and pathways. Suddenly, math class isn’t just something to endure or an obstacle to overcome, but a secondary choice in service of their own vision for the future. Failure becomes feedback that helps them determine their next actions toward their goals. A bad test score is no longer an indictment of failure – it is simply information.

Kids develop grit by becoming disciplined creators over time. Resilience is learned through years of trying, failing, revising and improving performance. Patience develops as students wrestle with complex ideas and challenges. Endurance is built through experience as they develop advanced skills and more sophisticated knowledge in pursuit of their chosen goals.

We don’t have to motivate our students to persist when what they are working on is personally meaningful to them. We don’t have to manipulate them by instilling a fear of failure or counsel them to lower their expectations to avoid disappointment. We simply need to pay attention, listen to them and learn about their true aspirations. Steeped in this level of understanding, we can support them to develop the skills to create, take risks, learn and grow. We can set them up to choose a future they wish to create. Grit is a by-product, not a pre-requisite.

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