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Adapt or Resist? Teaching in the Instant Gratification Age

A young girl against a yellow background points impatiently at her smart watch.

Delaying a student's gratification may be a key benefit to their learning process.

It's not easy being a teacher in the era of technology and instant gratification. Your abilities as an educator are no longer compared solely to those of your colleagues but to the effectiveness of digital platforms like YouTube and Instagram, too.

Trust us: you're not the only teacher that's had a student ask why they have to learn in the classroom something they can learn on YouTube in four minutes. This line of questioning leaves a lot of teachers wondering what they should do.

Further Reading: What It Means When a Student Fails

Let's look at how, why, and when teachers should adapt to the unique challenges of technology and instant gratification.

What Does Science Say?

Research has established that delaying gratification is a learned and practiced skill. Stanford University's infamous 1972 marshmallow experiment forms the basis for much of what we know about gratification and self-control. According to the American Psychological Association, the experiment found that children (or adults) who can delay gratification process information with their thinking brain. Children who succumb to quick pleasure rely more on emotion, which explains why kids sometimes reach for the cookie or Google answers without doing the work. It's the option that feels best to them.

 

A 2016 study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that students who can delay gratification have better working memories and can more easily adjust when situations change. These skills tend to follow kids well into adulthood.

But while plenty of stereotypes exist about the attention spans of kids today, it's not as bad as you might think. In fact, the American Psychological Association says that today's kids might actually have better attention spans than kids did in the 1950s and '60s.

Resist or Accommodate?

More than anything else, teachers want to do what's best for their students. Many teachers honestly don't know whether they should resist the trend toward fast-paced learning or adjust their style to accommodate student preferences.

The likely answer is some combination of the two.

Looking at the science, it's clear that kids benefit from learning how to delay gratification. But in a world where answers lie at our fingertips, resistance to fast-paced, new-age learning just isn't practical.

Knowing When to Delay Gratification

When is delaying gratification in the classroom appropriate? It depends on the topic you're teaching. In language arts, for example, even the world's best four-minute video can't teach a student the finer points of proper composition, for example. That requires time, practice, and development. Likewise, physical education teachers can't effectively teach kids about lifelong fitness by taking shortcuts.

You can take a more philosophical approach that spans all subjects, though. Here are some instances in which a quick payoff might be detrimental:

  • When teaching is formulaic and taking a shortcut actually creates more work.
  • When the lesson is tactile and watching a video on the screen detracts from the learning experience.
  • When a quicker, easier solution sacrifices the integrity of the project or assignment.
  • When a longer lesson helps develop important life skills.

These are not rules; they're merely guidelines. Meeting your students where they are and accommodating how they think and learn is critical—so long as it helps them develop.

How to Adapt to Students' Needs

Meeting every need of every student in every way is impossible. Railing against technology in the digital age is equally unfruitful. If your students are used to instant gratification, you can adapt to their needs while also showing them the benefits of other ways of learning.

  • Explain the "why" before the lesson. When a student knows why the long road is the fastest way home (as opposed to taking shortcuts), they're far more likely to engage.
  • Tie in life skills. Lessons on character-building, patience, perseverance, and grit can all be tied into effective decision-making. Teach your students to connect the material to their life skills.
  • Use resources that students are used to. It's easy to vilify platforms like YouTube, but there's no denying that it engages kids. Using YouTube or other popular resources for some lessons—not all, but some—helps show your students when it's appropriate to get quick answers and when it's not. You'll also score some points for being hip.

Each of these tweaks could help make longer lessons more palatable.

Focus on Long-Term Growth

The longer you work in a school, the more you can appreciate the long game. Focusing solely on students' daily behavior sets you both up for failure. It's exhausting, and the pushback isn't worth it.

That's why playing the long game when it comes to instant gratification is important. Your job isn't to uproot your students' habits or judge their learning preferences; it's to help them leave your classroom with something valuable.

Further Reading: How to Regain Classroom Control When Students Are Loud and Unruly

Identify the lessons or understandings that can't be learned from a video or a Google search. Set goals around what's most important to the subject, then share those objectives with your students. Stick to your guns and be stern when you have to, but don't be afraid of taking the path of least resistance, either. Help your students see how learning—whether its through instant answers or long-term rewards—can be gratifying.