Friday, 12 August 2016

The Marshmallow Test and Imagination

There can be few teachers or for that matter parents who haven’t heard of or seen a version of the marshmallow test. In a famous and much repeated experiment carried out by the Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel in the 1960s and 70s, and most recently replicated on TV by Sir Robert Winston, four year olds are placed in a room by themselves with a favourite treat (originally a marshmallow), and asked to choose between eating the sweet straight away or waiting for 10-15 minutes to get two sweets. Subsequently the children are videod to see what happens.  Some unable to defer gratification eat the sweets straight away whilst others try various ways of distracting themselves – singing songs, telling stories, covering their eyes, turning their back on the sweet etc. It is a hard exercise designed to measure a child’s ability to delay gratification, an ability seen as highly desirable as an indicator of future success. And indeed, those who could resist temptation were shown in follow ups to the original study to be statistically more liable to achieve higher SAT scores, higher educational qualifications, earn more money and even have a lower body mass index. But recently a further study has lead to some new and interesting information.

Part of the original experiment included interviews with successful children to ask them how they had resisted temptation. Mischel found that many children deployed their imagination by imagining the sweet was a cloud or just a picture of a marshmallow instead of an actual edible treat.

Recently Mischel decided to repeat the test but with a difference. He decided to capitalize on the strategies that successful children had used and told the children that they could try and resist the marshmallow by using their imaginations, by pretending it wasn’t there. Low and behold most of the children were able to resist temptation and wait the required 10 minutes to get the reward of 2 marshmallows.

So what can we learn from this? Unlike the first and subsequent experiments, this time children were told to use their imaginations. Successful children did that without being told, but all children are capable of doing so. I have been banging the drum of imagination for a long time. I have argued that the young child’s imagination is the most powerful learning tool we have in the early years-7 classroom. When we use imaginative, play-based approaches in our classrooms, drawing especially on storytelling and fantasy play, children respond eagerly and naturally. If we focus our attention on the power of childrens imaginations we find the children can fully immerse in the abstractions of the fantasy world to the benefit of their development.

Rather than trying to induct children into adult ways of learning which children frequently experience as drudgery, if we allow and encourage children to use their imagination and give it free reign, the classroom is transformed into a place of deep learning arising from powerful experiences created from the children’s own ideas. Who would even dream of telling children under 7 that Father Christmas doesn’t exist? Who isn’t happy to encourage children to believe in the tooth fairy? Who hasn’t noticed that young children delight in make-believe, in fantasy, super-heroes, fairies, witches, dragons and so on. By bringing the power of the imagination into the classroom children can achieve so much more – it goes with the grain of the brain! By listening to the children who were successful at his test and applying this to all the children Mischel has at last shown us that all children are capable of finding ways to defer gratification by using their imaginations. So we don’t we adopt imaginative approaches to learning and teaching? Answers below please.


  1. Another lovely blog Sue - we have been talking about the importance of imagination rather than compliance in social care workforce development. Regards, Nick

  2. Yes. Young people on a residential this week were complaining that the few times they are invited to be creative at school are so tightly tied to marking criteria that all the joy goes out of them. This is secondary, where the cascade of fear of not "performing", from government to schools to teachers to children, is at its worst.

  3. I agree about the imagination, but why is the test even important?

  4. I agree about imagination being of strategic significance in learning.

  5. Thanks, Sue - a fascinating experiment and blog. Picking up Jason's point about the restriction of imagination - or more precisely of opportunities to exercise imagination freely in secondary schools - I wonder if you or anyone else have any thoughts about how to increase these at that level. My own thought is that storytelling might have a part to play, but not so great as with younger children, if only because secondary / subject teachers cannot so easily justify introducing stories into their lessons. (We might wish that otherwise, of course, but we have to be realistic.) Another thought I have is that it could be equally engaging and educative for them to introduce more opportunity for their students to form their own opinions. I suggest to teachers that they 'find their MoJO' in every lesson, by which I mean finding Moments of Judgement or Opinion'. I'm pretty sure this is a good strategy, and might, of course, link with your promotion of imagination, at least in the sense that to form a judgement one often needs to project oneself into another person's place. Roger

  6. HOnToger, I used to teach History in secondary schools and the Schools Council History projects were superb for imagination and story. When I worked as an EAL teacher I found lots of imaginative ways to work in geography and science using real stories and narratives. Try David Bodanis' books such as "e=MC2 - the history of a narrative. He teaches the history of ideas at Oxford. Love his approach to bringing story to serious study.