Tackling instant gratification

  • Education
  • Sunday, 19 Jun 2016

Consistent effort: What does it take for students to achieve their academic potential, asks the writer. — File photo

WHEN I was a young girl, my parents taught me the difference between two important four-letter words: need and want.

I had my first part time job at 14 years old and from that point on, I was expected to pay for the things I wanted while my parents continued to pay for the things that I needed.

My first part time pay as a student was A$3.25 (RM9.82) for my Saturday morning job and it took me two and a half months to save up for a very special pair of white denim jeans that I really wanted. Are these important life lessons still relevant now?

In contrast to my early experiences of delayed gratification, I recently overheard a small child talking to her mother while at the cash register in the supermarket. The child was commenting on how wonderful it was that her mother could have anything she wanted from a shop by simply tapping a credit card on a scanner.

The little girl then asked her mother when she would be old enough to have her own credit card so she could have everything that she wanted. The mother looked horrified!

I imagine this supermarket scene has been played out with many young children and their parents as technology replaces the traditional ways of operating. I recall, as a young child, seeing my mother put her weekly amount of “housekeeping money” in her purse and then we would go to the shops. I could see the money go into the purse and I could see it go out of the purse, and I had a clear sense of how much there was to spend and that there was a limit.

Through this, I understood that some things could be bought immediately, while we had to save for other things that we would eventually have sometime in the future.

While technological innovation has been responsible for great advances in many areas of life including scientific discovery, medicine, engineering, media, publication and education, to name a few, it had the unintended effect of producing an instant gratification generation (IGG) - who longer see the point of saving up for a special purchase, or waiting for anything. Opportunities to learn the benefits of delayed gratification are dwindling as technological advances increase exponentially.

If we want to know something, we “Google it” anywhere, anytime. If we want to buy something, there is always a credit card in the wallet. This constant access to immediate information and seemingly endless credit has trained us to believe that we should have access to whatever we want whenever we want it.

Anywhere, anytime

This notion of not wanting to wait for a particular outcome has crossed over to our education system where some students struggle with the notion of working hard at school and at their homework to achieve the grades they want in examinations at some time in the distant future.

So, what does it take for students to persist to achieve to their academic potential? There are many student attributes that can respond to this question, including persistence, self regulation, organisation skills, resilience, motivation, clear academic goals, a conducive study environment, plus good old fashioned effort.

However, according to the authors of Teaching Adolescents To Become Learners: The role of noncognitive factors in shaping school performance (Farrington, C.A., Roderick, M., Allensworth, E., Nagaoka, J., Keyes, T.S., Johnson, D.W., Beechum, N.O., 2012), there are five main groups of noncognitive academic factors that can be influential in overcoming the need for instant gratification: academic behaviours, academic perseverance, academic mindsets, learning strategies and social skills.

Academic behaviours are very visible and include regular school attendance, being on time to every class, being fully prepared with the correct resources, openly and willingly participating in classroom activities and devoting time outside of school hours to explore and extend understandings of concepts introduced at school. These behaviours are often the easiest to establish with children.

According to Farrington et al. (2012) academic perseverance “refers to a student’s tendency to complete school assignments in a timely and thorough manner, to the best of one’s ability, despite distractions, obstacles, or level of challenge”. That is, for two students of equal potential, it will be the student with the willingness to put in the additional hours to master a topic and complete work of an outstanding quality, who will be rewarded in future with the higher grade.

Academic mindsets refer to the way students perceive themselves in relation to learning. While the reward of strong academic performance can reinforce a positive mindset, it is more challenging for a student of modest academic achievement to maintain a positive mindset through the hours of study required to achieve a modest grade. For these students, a sense of belonging in a school community, the quality of the student’s teachers throughout their school years, and the sustained interest level and support from parents, can make the difference for a child who can then learn to persist through setbacks, develop the lifelong habit of independent learning, and ultimately be successful in life.

Learning strategies aid students to maximise their academic potential and include ways of thinking, learning and remembering. While, over the past few decades, the emphasis has moved away from lower order thinking skills of remembering to higher order thinking skills of analysis, evaluation and synthesis, there is still a need for students to recall basic information they will use every day.

For example, having a broad vocabulary and knowing the timetables continue to be valuable skills regardless of rapid technological innovation. Progressive schools specifically teach thinking and learning skills, giving their students the edge over other students taught through traditional methods.

Strong focus

Commencing in 2015 at the Australian International School Malaysia (AISM), the teachers were all trained to facilitate learning with an emphasis on the well-researched practices of Visible Learning (Hattie, 2008) and Visible Thinking (Ritchhart & Perkins, 2008).

Visible Learning practices resulted from metaanalyses of over 800 individual educational research projects about which specific teaching strategies have the most success in advancing learning and student outcomes. Visible Thinking strategies have been developed as a result of many years of continuing research undertaken at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

Using independently marked diagnostic tests, AISM students have demonstrated improved learning outcomes across all year levels within the first 12 months of the new school-wide approach to teaching and learning using Visible Learning and Visible Thinking, demonstrating that a focus on developing learning strategies can have a positive impact on student outcomes.

The fifth non-cognitive factor that can be influential in overcoming students’ needs for instant gratification is the development of productive social skills that influence and enhance interactions with peers and teachers. Skills learned and practised in school settings can set students up for success as independent learners at university and then as highly desirable employees in the work force. Interpersonal attributes including responsibility, leadership, teamwork, empathy and cooperation repeatedly appear in educational research and are a cornerstone of the seven General Capabilities that are embedded in the Australian Curriculum.

A strong focus on intercultural and ethical understanding, combined with personal and social capabilities, are emphasised throughout all subject areas in the Australian Curriculum to ensure that students can live and function effectively in the 21st century. Students studying the Australian Curriculum develop these skills progressively from five years old so they can “apply knowledge and skills confidently, effectively and appropriately in complex and changing circumstances, in their learning at school and in their lives outside school” (ACARA 2010).

The interrelationships between cognitive and noncognitive variables and school performance are exceedingly complex. However, on the topic of delayed gratification and its benefits, Sutter, Yilmaz and Oberauer (2015) noted a strong positive correlation between students’ abilities to delay gratification and their higher education and income outcomes as well as their adult health, including a lower body mass index.

With those incentives, it is clear that parents and schools should have a common goal to work together and independently to nurture the important skill of delayed gratification through the development of positive academic behaviours, perseverance, mindsets and social skills in addition to specifically teaching learning strategies such as Visible Learning and Visible Thinking.

With this goal in mind, and despite wages and the cost of white denim jeans having changed dramatically over the years, I would also encourage parents to teach their children the difference between needs versus wants, and the notion of saving up for special items.

If we can succeed at this small task, then we have every chance of changing the IGG to an EGG (extremely grateful generation).

The writer, Dr Deborah Priest, is principal of the Australian International School Malaysia.

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