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Would Arne Duncan Have Eaten The Marshmallow?


The headline of this post refers to the famous experiment on self-control that tested which children could resist eating a marshmallow for five minutes. If they did, they would get a second one, and those who resisted were documented to have long-term benefits. I’ve written about how I’ve used this experiment as a lesson in my classes — see “I Like This Lesson Because It Make Me Have a Longer Temper” (Part One).

I wonder how Arne Duncan and so many other school “reformers” would have done in this test because they so often insist on quick solutions to the challenges facing many schools. They’re searching for the magic bullet, as Larry Cuban writes today in his blog.

This lack of patience has most recently been shown by the demand that principals be replaced within two years if they have not successfully “turned around” a school. Superintendents and School Boards have challenged that kind of a short time-frame.

Also, a study came out today concluding that “When faced with a choice that could yield either short-term satisfaction or longer-term benefits, people with complete information about the options generally go for the quick reward.” It may feel good to the “shaker” to quickly shake things up, but that does not necessarily mean it will result in effective long-term improvement.

Yesterday’s death of Jaime Escalante also brings to mind the numerous miracle teachers who are portrayed in the movies as quickly changing things around in their schools. However, you can read a more accurate story about the length of time it took Mr. Escalante to make those changes happen (thanks to Alice Mercer for the tip).

Yes, sometimes a situation calls for immediate change.

More often than not, however, I’m reminded of my own actions years ago:

My wife would rightly push me to clean-up the small area of dirt between the street and sidewalk in front of our house. I didn’t have the patience to plant grass there. Instead, I bought some wood chips and poured them on top of the dirt. I got immediate satisfaction from seeing how nice it looked.

However, our house was at the end of a road with a slight downward tilt, and had a storm drain in front. Every time a big rain would come, debris would float down the road and block the drain. Water would then flow over the curb and take all the nice wood chips away. The dirt space would remain.

And then I would pour some more chips there.

I knew what would eventually happen, but I liked that immediate gratification more.

I hope that Arne Duncan eventually decides to plant some grass instead of pour wood chips.

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. While reading this post, I am reminded of Holmes on Homes – which might tell you more about my television habits than anything else 🙂 His mantra is ‘Do it right the first time’. Take the time, energy and resources to focus on quality. To take the marshmallow a step further, look at the obesity epidemic in our country (and world). This is a result of the instant gratification mindset. Instead of planning our day and meals, we wait until we are ravenously hungary and need a “quick fix” to tame our roaring tummy. As a result, we consume junk. But it feels good at the time.

  2. A while ago David Brooks spoke of this Marshmallow experiment on _Charlie Rose_. A blog comment made reference to a very prescient passage regarding compliance in America from Tocqueville’s _Democracy in America Volume 2_ regarding compliance in America:

    “I think then that the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything which ever before existed in the world: our contemporaries will find no prototype of it in their memories. I am trying myself to choose an expression which will accurately convey the whole of the idea I have formed of it, but in vain; the old words “despotism” and “tyranny” are inappropriate: the thing itself is new; and since I cannot name it, I must attempt to define it. I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest – his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind; as for the rest of his fellow-citizens, he is close to them, but he sees them not – he touches them, but he feels them not; he exists but in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country. Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness: it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances – what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living? Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range, and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself…After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp, and fashioned them at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a net-work of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided: men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd…They devise a sole, tutelary, and all-powerful form of government, but elected by the people. They combine the principle of centralization and that of popular sovereignty; this gives them a respite; they console themselves for being in tutelage by the reflection that they have chosen their own guardians. Every man allows himself to be put in leading-strings, because he sees that it is not a person or a class of persons, but the people at large that holds the end of his chain. By this system the people shake off their state of dependence just long enough to select their master, and then relapse into it again. A great many persons at the present day are quite contented with this sort of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people; and they think they have done enough for the protection of individual freedom when they have surrendered it to the power of the nation at large. This does not satisfy me: the nature of him I am to obey signifies less to me than the fact of extorted obedience.”

    The _Charlie Rose_ interview:

  3. On a related note, when David Brook’s was peddling his book _The Social Animal_ on a morning talk show, he recounted a time when Walter Mischel reproduced the experiment with an Oreo cookie.

    “One day, Mischel was using an Oreo cookie. Little guy picks up the Oreo, eats out the middle, carefully puts it back, thinks he’s gonna get away with it. That kid is now a U.S. senator.”

    That is your answer to how Duncan would respond.

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