Assessment - For lifelong results, pay close attention

15th November 2013 at 00:00
Hone children's focus to ensure their success, psychologist says

Measuring children's ability to focus their attention on one activity or subject is a much more effective way of predicting success in later life than exam performance, according to a leading psychologist and science writer.

Daniel Goleman, the international best-selling US writer who popularised the notion of "emotional intelligence" as a counterbalance to IQ, insisted that schools could teach children to focus effectively, ensuring academic, employment and financial success.

"Exam scores are terrible predictors of how well a child will do in life," Dr Goleman told TESS. "Cognitive control - which is essentially the ability to keep your mind on one chosen thing and resist other temptations - is a much better predictor."

Dr Goleman argued that such focus could be taught effectively in schools. "What the science shows is that attention is a mental muscle," he said. "And that it can be strengthened with the proper exercise, just like any muscle.

"So I would advocate a supplementary training - supplementary to the standard academics - which strengthens the skills that children need, both to do well at school and to do well in life."

In his new book, Focus: the hidden driver of excellence, which explores the science of attention, Dr Goleman refers to the famous 1960s study in which US psychologist Walter Mischel, then at Stanford University, left children alone in a room with a marshmallow. If they were able to resist the marshmallow for 15 minutes, they were rewarded with two when the researcher re-entered the room.

A series of follow-up studies revealed that those children who were able to delay gratification for 15 minutes were far more likely to be successful in later life than those who succumbed to temptation and ate the marshmallow.

The book also cites another academic study, conducted in New Zealand over several decades. This found that children who demonstrated strong cognitive control in childhood were more successful in adult life than their peers who had shorter attention spans.

"That was astounding to me," said Dr Goleman, who co-founded the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, now at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Cognitive control - which is sometimes called 'grit' or 'conscientiousness' - predicted how they were doing, better than IQ and better than the wealth of the family they grew up in.

"It's a way of levelling the class field. People with strong cognitive control end up using what ability they have far better than those who have weak cognitive control."

One way to teach this control to children is through meditation, according to Dr Goleman; another is to focus on social and emotional well-being. Such techniques would give children the skills to manage emotional difficulties in their lives, so that they do not become sources of distraction, he said.

Several schools already offer meditation as part of the timetable. At Krishna Avanti Primary School in Leicester, England, children sit in silence after lunchtime every day. "They have five minutes to calm down, get rid of their angst, get ready for what they have to do," principal Yvonne Waring said. "Five minutes and they're ready to learn, ready to do their next task. It's an amazing thing to see."

Robert Plomin, professor of behavioural genetics at King's College London, has said that genetics could account for up to 70 per cent of a child's cognitive abilities.

Dr Goleman argued that Professor Plomin's research relied on exam scores as a measure of outcome, and said that scores could be improved through judicious application of cognitive-control training.

But Professor Plomin told TESS that the two theories were not contradictory. "It's a fundamental misinterpretation to assume that if genetics is important, there's nothing you can do about it," he said.

"You can get children to improve in lots of different ways. You could give them extra training. You could offer them a lot of money. You could hold a gun to their head. If we all had training, we could get very much better."

The wider idea of promoting "positive psychology" in schools was discussed at a conference hosted at Wellington College in Berkshire, England, last month. The private school has become well-known for offering "happiness lessons". The conference heard from academics from around the world who want government policy generally - not just in education - to focus more on promoting well-being.

But Toby Young, founder of the West London Free School, has described the idea of happiness lessons as having "the whiff of snake oil about it".

An interview with Daniel Goleman will appear in TESS next week.

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