At the heart of teaching is a paradox: pupils go to school to learn so that their future selves will benefit from a happier, healthier, more prosperous life. However, we don't incentivise learning from what the future will bring; rather, we offer them current rewards such as the positive glow earned from completing a difficult task or making their parents (or their teachers) proud.
When the short-term rewards aren't enough to keep someone engaged in education, I have tried to encourage with the thought of future benefits. Unfortunately, hearing that if you continue to struggle through a grammar exercise now, you will earn more money and do an interesting job in the future doesn't really work. The journey's end is too far down the road to make these small steps worthwhile.
Yet psychologists at Princeton University have discovered that this approach does have validity. Thinking about our future selves can positively influence our behaviour in the present. The catch is that you need to have a physical image of how you might look in the future for this to work. For example, if you are fighting the temptation to eat a whole box of deliciously sticky doughnuts, looking at a picture of your face in 10 years' time will help you to make the right choice – in this case, to not to eat all the cakes.
Ageing apps help pupils to 'see' their futures
Luckily, apps now exist that can prematurely age a photo of your face to give you an idea of what you might look like in the future. AgingBooth is one of a number of free apps available to download and can be used on a class set of iPads. The idea is for pupils to take a passport-style picture of themselves and then apply an ageing app to see how they might look at some point in their future. This is then followed by a discussion about what job they might have, where they could be studying or where they might live when they reach the age of themselves in the picture.
You can then return to the idea of future selves when the class is about to undertake a difficult piece of work or needs motivation to finish a task. The images can be quickly accessed to reinforce the idea that pupils are working towards their future.
Similarly, if someone is losing focus and is looking for a way to cause a disruption in the classroom, I ask them to get their phone out and look at their aged picture and imagine how their adult self would want them to behave.
This is a work in progress and very unscientific, but the pupils "get" the concept and the early signs are that it is having a positive impact on their attitudes to work and their behaviour in the short term.
Gordon Cairns is a teacher of English in Scotland
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