If you want to achieve big things, do this.

In the 1960’s and then in the 1970’s, an experiment was conducted at Stanford University, which is now famously called the Marshmallow Experiment. Quoting Wikipedia:

They presented four-year-olds with a marshmallow and told the children that they had two options: (1) ring a bell at any point to summon the experimenter and eat the marshmallow, or (2) wait until the experimenter returned about 15 minutes later, and earn two marshmallows instead. The message was: “small reward now, bigger reward later.”

Many kids gave in to the temptation and ate the marshmallow and others waited for 15 minutes and earned two. The kids that participated in the experiment were monitored for the rest of their lives (and in fact are being monitored even now) and it was found that the kids that did manage to wait for 15 minutes have been consistently doing better than the ones that didn’t in almost all aspects of life. Quoting Wikipedia again:

The children who waited longer, when re-evaluated as teenagers and adults, demonstrated a striking array of advantages over their peers. As teenagers, they had higher SAT scores, social competence, self-assuredness and self-worth, and were rated by their parents as more mature, better able to cope with stress, more likely to plan ahead, and more likely to use reason. They were less likely to have conduct disorders or high levels of impulsivity, aggressiveness and hyperactivity. As adults, the high delayers were less likely to have drug problems or other addictive behaviors, get divorced, or be overweight. Each minute that a preschooler was able to delay gratification translated to a.2% reduction in Body Mass Index 30 years later.

It is amazing how one skill has been found to be associated with so many good things in life. On the other hand, it also makes sense if one thinks about it for a while.

It happens way too often in life that we want to get something but we do not want to go through the procedure required for getting it. For example, people like cleanliness, but do not like cleaning; they like to be healthy but do not like exercising or controlling their diet or regularly visiting the doctor; they like to get good grades in exams but not the studying required to get them; and the list goes on.

Most people end up acting upon their immediate whims instead of what’s good for them in the long run. This is exactly the case of preferring a small reward now over a bigger reward in the future.

It makes sense to do that if you live in 10,000 B.C. where any long term plan could be unexpectedly foiled by being killed by a lion. However, in today’s world, where at least statistically speaking, life is much more certain than it used to be, it is clear that people who act based on long term plans will do better than those who don’t.

You should thus prefer bigger rewards in future over small ones now, because most likely, very soon you will be in the future facing the consequences of the decisions you took in the past.

Exactly how to do that is a different issue and I will discuss that in a future article. Right now I feel like watching the T.V. for a while.

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013. Written by admin. No comments.

Every Student is Unique. And smart.

The traditional model of education does not support learning at one’s own pace. Almost all the teaching is done in classrooms where the teacher tries to go at a pace that is suitable for the average student. Moreover, the sequence of topics to cover and how much time to spend on each is decided without much consultation with the students. So for example, a student who had difficulties understanding the topic covered in the first lecture, will probably be left behind the rest of the class for the entire term.

The rise of the internet has led to reforms in the education systems worldwide and the above flaws are being gradually fixed. There is excellent quality study material available for many subjects online, often for free, and students wanting to learn them can do so at their own pace. One of the most exciting features that has emerged as a result of this is explained around the 13:30 mark in this video:

The speaker is Salman Khan (no relations with the Bollywood actor), who is the founder of Khan Academy that has been doing some excellent work in the emerging field of online education. Khan Academy provides video lectures and exercise problems for a wide range of topics online. Not only that, they also have systems for meticulously measuring the progress of the students who are trying to learn the material.

As mentioned in the video, they tried implementing their system in a school for pre-high school kids and observed a very interesting phenomenon. At any given moment, there were kids that performed really well and others that did not, which of course, was normal. However, just a few days later, the slow performers suddenly seemed to accelerate and overtake the students who appeared “gifted” in the first few days! And this wasn’t a one time event! It kept repeating over and over. The reason was just one simple fact: the pace at which a student wanted to learn a certain topic was decided by him and not the class teacher. Thus sometimes a student would get stuck with a concept because he wasn’t good at it and thus be left behind the rest of the class. But during this time, unlike the traditional teaching system, he was not forced to trudge along with the rest of the class. He was left free to go over the lessons as many times as he wanted to and understand the concept in his own way. But once this phase was over and he hit a streak of lessons that he was strong at, he would accelerate and go past the rest of the students.

The concepts that one person finds difficult to grasp might be easy for someone else. And similarly, the easy concepts for one might be hard for the others. The traditional classroom based teaching just does not take this principle into account at all.

Every student is good at something. It just needs figuring out what that thing is. But once that is done, the student will be able to make an accelerated progress and leave everyone else behind.

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012. Written by admin. No comments.

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