Is schooling completely future-oriented?
What might be the boundaries presented to inquiring minds by orientation in time, place and space? The global context in the MYP “Orientation to time, place and space” presents the questions of “where” and “when,” as concepts organizing how individuals might think (IBO, 2015).
Consider a few of the recurring misunderstandings in schools:
- Teachers emphasize engagement in learning for future benefits and students do not rehearse learning in the present (because some other activity is more tempting)
- Schools emphasize future benefits of procedures such as school attendance and parents take their children away to a holiday, missing school days
- Schools emphasize focused attention during class time by asking students to put away their social media devices during the school day and students and parents do not understand why
- Parents ask their children to study and children prefer to surf Youtube or some other website during the time asked to study
What’s really at work here? In this inquiry we explore “peoples, boundaries, exchange and interaction” (from MYP: From Principles into Practice, 2015, p. 60). As we consider the misunderstandings in the bullet-pointed list above, a common conceptual thread that runs through the conflicting ideas might be orientation to time as a function of place and space.
“Orientation to time” presents multiple perspectives framing perceptions of time, and these perceptions impact how people create boundaries between present and past and future. In other words, the ways we think of time directly affect decision-making and consequent action.
The long-standing “Marshmallow Study” by Stanford professor Walter Mischel illustrates an aspect of time orientation through the action of delayed gratification. 40 years after the study, the longitudinal data suggests that children who were able to delay gratification at age 4 or 5– in effect being able to understand the long-term benefits of wait time at an early age— scored higher on achievement tests ten years later. These children also had “lower incidents of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress, better social skills reported by their parents, and generally better scores in a range of other life measures” (Clear, 2016).
In an interview with Atlantic magazine, Mischel clarified that the study was really about “achievement situations and what influences a child to reach his or her choice” (Mischel in Urist, 2014).
Ideas about time and achievement present this inquiry with the related concept of boundaries. We might ask the following questions (and other, similar ones):
- What boundaries might exist for different people, as contextual frameworks for time?
- What are some cultural orientations to time?
- What are some cultural orientations to achievement?
- What other factors might influence ideas of time and its relationship to achievement?
- How do our ideas of time and achievement influence decision making?
- Are all impulsive decisions (without a delay of gratification) a function of orientation to time?
A useful resource in this inquiry is Wittman and Butler’s Felt Time; The psychology of how we perceive time (MIT Press, 2016). In the book, Wittman and Butler discuss what they term temporal shortsightedness, temporal myopia, and provide useful studies to consider and gain some insights into the nature of orientation in time, place and space and the uses and limitations of perceptions which impact how we think of time.
The conflict between the present, past and future requires a metacognitive layer of thinking about the thinking we do in response to time boundaries. For example:
- A student may find social media updates more tempting than the present lesson on chemical bonds
- A parent may find that the class of 1986 Reunion dinner is more tempting than the back-to-school night
- A teacher may find that a collaborative dialog on authentic assessment may be less compelling than using a ‘tried and true’ test filed in a binder
- A school leader might find that waiting for teachers to learn through an implementation dip is taking too long and teachers need to just square their shoulders and make it happen
When the above ideas about time and task present themselves, and when individuals do not consider their own thinking about time, conflicts may arise.
Wittman and Butler suggest that in many cultures, delayed gratification is built in to facets of cultural decision making. For instance, retirement plans have worldwide use, wherein working adults defer monetary reward for use much later in life. The choice of long-term investments is another cross-cultural concept which uses delays in rewards for later times. Most countries’ educational systems have prolonged schooling with the idea of greater gains in knowledge and skills of future professionals and workers. In many cultures around the globe, the ability to delay reward for future benefit is a feature in social institutions.
In adults as in children, waiting for some future benefit can vary.
Wittman and Butler define temporal myopia as “stretches of time standing closer to us appear sharper than stretches of equal duration lying farther off. In this context, temporal myopia means, in essence, that we perceive the difference between today and tomorrow much more acutely than we perceive the difference between tomorrow and the day after” (Wittman and Butler, 2016, p. 7).
In studies cited, impulsive people tend to go for lesser sums of money or rewards so that they do not have to wait. This idea of impulsivity is similar to the behavior of children and adults with ADHD, which is expressed in the tendency not to recognize the value of deferred gratification, which is an orientation to the present.
When the orientation of tasks is future-oriented (do now and benefit later) as it is in school, a present orientation (do not do now and benefit now) presents a conflict.
Emotional intelligence as a factor in time orientation and waiting
Emotion plays a big role in human decisions. Psychologist Philip Zimbardo posits research on time orientation and how perceptions of time orientation influence individuals.
Zimbardo and Boyd (in Wittman and Butler, 2016) developed questionnaires, which revealed patterns in how people think about time as framework for perspectives. The researchers found that:
- People who predominantly have a present-orientation tend to take more drugs, have unprotected sex, receive more speeding tickets, and engage in other, negative risk-taking behaviors
- People who predominantly have a future-orientation tend to be averse to spontaneity and are risk-averse (for example, will not venture to try new cultural activities or sports)
- Past oriented people often reject new ways of doing things and prefer to follow past ‘traditions’ to the neglect of innovations
In brain-based studies of reward-and-time orientation studies, researchers found that adults who chose more immediate but lesser rewards (present orientation) showed high activity in the brain region called the paralimbic system, which has a strong link to emotional decision making (Wittman and Butler, 2016). However, when study participants chose to delay gratification for greater future rewards showed higher activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is an area of the brain connected to planning, decision making, and controlling impulses.
When Mischel’s study subjects were tested again 40 years after the Marshmallow Test, what they found was that people who had not excelled at delayed gratification when they were 4 or 5 showed fMRI scans that showed lower activity in the frontal cortex.
Neurologist Antonio Damasio (in Wittman and Butler, 2016) points to the influence of emotional assessment, which we learned earlier is located in the paralimbic system, on decision making. Damasio found that decisions that go against immediate gratification find value in emotional contexts. This means that for instance, weighing the values of (Choice a) watching TV now and (Choice b) going to the gym to exercise now goes through an emotional assessment. Further, Damasio suggests that emotional responses such as comfort and convenience play a great part in decisions of what people do in the present.
In the beginning of this inquiry was the question, Is education really future oriented? The suggestion is not to advocate for a future-only orientation in schools. Far from it, the gentle suggestion in this inquiry is that we pay attention to the time orientation of others and the boundaries inherent in these, so that we can presume positive intentions in our interactions and exchanges. As Jelaludin Rumi once wrote, “Out beyond the ideas of wrong and right, there is a field. I will meet you there.”
What might we find?
International Baccalaureate Organization. (2015). MYP: From principles into practice. Geneva: Author.
The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control. (2014). Sci Am Scientific American, 311(3), 92-92. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0914-92c
Wittman, M., & Butler, E. (2016). Felt time: The Psychology of How we Perceive Time (MIT Press) [Kindle iOS version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com.
Photo credit: Eastman Johnson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons