If… “Self-discipline predicted academic performance more robustly than IQ” …then what will you change in your school?

Have you heard these statements?

A parent may say “I like Mr X for my son’s teacher, he is a good disciplinarian.”

What about this advice to a new teacher: “Don’t smile for the first month, and you will be able to discipline them for the year.”

One of our greatest responsibilities as educators is to create an environment where self-discipline can flourish, and in so doing, provide life long benefits for our students.

What matters in building self confidence:

  • Students need to develop self-discipline as a life long habit
  • Willpower acts like a muscle that strengthens self-discipline
  • Stressful and discouraging situations drain willpower
  • Willpower is fuelled by warmth, kindness and appreciation

A disciplinarian-style teacher might have a quiet classroom, with well-behaved students, when they are contained within that environment, but it doesn’t help them in the long-term if they aren’t given the opportunity to become intrinsically motivated and drive their own learning:

Self-discipline predicted academic performance more robustly than IQ.
(Duckworth and Seligman – See notes”)

Martin Seligman and fellow researcher Angela Duckworth made this finding in their 2004 research in a longitudinal study of 140 eighth-grade students. The research discovered that under achievement was a failure to exercise self-discipline and that students who displayed greater self-discipline had fewer absences, spent more time on self-directed work and watched less TV.

The traditional models of education, that support passive learning and teacher as keeper of content may focus on extrinsically applied discipline within that particular context, but this isn’t the same as ‘self-discipline’. Willpower is the habit for success and the fuel for self-discipline.

Mark Muraven, Associate Professor of Psychology, University at Albany, NY State conducted research into willpower and came up with some interesting findings (see Notes for more information). He discovered that willpower can get used up like fuel and that treating people with warmth and consideration actually builds willpower stamina.

Muraven says in The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business (Duhigg, 2012).

When people are asked to do something that takes self-control, they think they are doing it for personal reasons – if they feel there is a choice or something they enjoy because it helps someone else – it’s much less taxing. If they feel they have no autonomy, if they are just following orders, their willpower muscles get tired much faster… when the students were treated like cogs, rather than people, it took a lot more willpower.

Many parents prefer a school or a particular teacher because of a reputation for keeping students in line, for attention to rules and regulation, and providing lots of homework. They will often say “they have good discipline” – but is it the right type of discipline. Self-discipline can look messy and it can be used as an excuse for accepting rowdy behaviour, but when used effectively it is a powerful tool that sets up our young people for success later in life.


References and Notes:

Duckworth and Selgman “Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance of Adolescents” 2004 http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~duckwort/images/PsychologicalScienceDec2005.pdf

Muraven’s research, from The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business (Duhigg, 2012).

1. Cookies and Radishes: Two groups of students were asked only to eat the food assigned to them – cookies or radishes. You can imagine, the cookie eaters were in heaven and radish eaters in agony. After this they were each given a difficult puzzle to complete. The cookie-eaters with their unused reservoirs of willpower were relaxed, they persevered, tried different approaches to completing the puzzle. The radish-eaters, on the other hand, had their willpower thoroughly taxed. They became frustrated and started to complain about the puzzle

2. Just Cookies: Again, there were two groups of students, each with a plate of warm cookies in front of them this time, but the instructions were different. The first group were treated kindly, “We ask that you please don’t eat the cookies. Is that OK?” The researcher then explained the project goals and requested feedback on the experiment and thanked them for contributing their time.

The second group were treated more rudely, “You must not eat the cookies. We’ll start now.” They weren’t given an explanation of the goals, appreciated nor was there any interest in feedback on the experiment.

Each group had to ignore the cookies for 5 minutes after the researcher left the room. Non one gave into temptation. Then the participants were given a computer task. The first group did well on computer task. They were able to maintain focus for the 12 minutes, they had willpower to spare. However, the second group were tired and less-focused. Their willpower muscle had been fatigued by the instructions.

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