Marshmallow education

close up of woman working

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Baseline tests for 4 year-olds, designed to assess their capacity for self-regulation as a predictor of future performance, are not only culturally biased and discriminatory against poorer children, says Gordon Sturrock: they are also part of a regime that is denying the vital importance of children’s play – and their human right for that to be validated and supported by the education system.

In my recent paper with Adrian Voce, we briefly touched on the current state of our education system. Here is a vivid demonstration of the complete inability of educators (or the politicians who are driving their agenda) to understand some of the underlying implications of their essential task.

The comments that follow are drawn from an article in the Sunday Times of June 24th. The headline was ‘Tantrum Test for all 4-year olds.’ The essential focus is on the relationship between the child’s capacity to self-regulate and the consequential need to then develop self-control; measured by a test – one marshmallow now, or two if you can wait for fifteen minutes before eating the first – as evidential criteria. There are others and, were it not for the seriousness of their application, they make comedic reading.

That these tests are designed with input from Oxford University is only symptomatic of the spread of the taint: the central idea being that self-control, and the capacity to self-regulate affect, contributes to communication, language, literacy and early maths skills. This idea is part of the baseline tests being introduced by the government, nationally, by September 2020. Naturally, the biggest teaching union opposes it.

‘Teaching self-regulation’

A ‘source close to the tests’ said, ‘Whether a child can self-regulate is a very good predictor of whether they will go on to succeed in school and in life. You can teach children self-regulation by giving them exercises to do – and you can also shape the classroom environment differently for them.’ Does the notion of ‘streaming’ arise when you read those words?

Other than the marshmallow (no mention of the sugar content) predicament, this will give you some idea of the testing regime: children are given picture cards including ‘hard words’ like ‘toadstool’ or ‘saxophone’. ‘If they score highly on these tests, that is the single best predictor of performance at the age of 11.’ But against what criteria is that future performance evaluated?

The article also indicates that a parents’ group, More Than a Score, says ‘children should be allowed to learn through play.’ It is important to explain why that that statement is important and why the playwork field should also be saying it loud and clear.


The intrusion of ill thought out adult agendas in child development – particularly where they are sanctified by ‘education’ – is damaging. We are imposing, not simply an overweening, highly directive, conductive learning at a very early age, but in so doing we are also denying certain biological endowments and their flourishing. In particular, at a stage of life when it is vitally important, such tests – and the regimes that impose them – have the effect of negating the child’s right to play, which, lest we forget, is a human right.

There exists in the playspace ­– more on this later – a particular ludic curriculum. A curriculum devised, explored and cultivated by the children themselves. The eminent neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio, describes evolution as being focused on ‘co-operativity’ and ‘joint attention’. The essential grammar of these adaptive repertoires is through the management of affect. To be brief, the development of self-regulation is already embedded in the ludic curriculum. The idea that the bridging of the gap between children from ‘poorer homes and their middle-class peers’ by extending middle-class values through vocabulary tests is risible. They show a distinct cultural bias. They are redolent of a received interpretation. They are riddled with archaic class distinction. They are redundantly Darwinian.

The application of the ‘teaching’ of self-regulation in adapted classroom environments is wholly wrong-headed. Much closer attention needs to be paid to the learning environment itself. We have a profession with more than 70 years’ experience of just such places, in the adventure playground movement and its working ethos. We need to ‘re-wild’ education.

Children in more deprived environments may not thrive under certain socially prescribed measurements, but they often demonstrate highly sophisticated, adaptive, survival skills.

If picture cards from the real life-worlds of poorer children were shown, what might they demonstrate? Some of the longstanding assumptions about the ‘vocabulary deficits’ of poorer children are increasingly challenged by educational researchers. Children in more deprived environments may not thrive under certain socially prescribed measurements, but they often demonstrate highly sophisticated, adaptive survival skills.

And, what of educational outcomes and the perceived career destinations of children: predictions of ‘performance’ in a post-work, post-patriarchal society? Here’s a glimpse of the reality, from the Guardian of the 27th June, about the book, ‘Poverty Safari’ by Darren McGarvey, which has won the Orwell Book Prize. He writes:

‘The experiential reality of poverty is underemphasised and misunderstood, and what we have currently is a society with rules and laws, social cues and incentives, that work for emotionally regulated people. But, if you grew up in adversity, your whole sense of emotion and risk perception is completely different. The welfare system is based on the assumption that the threat of social humiliation is going to incentivise people, but that’s a complete misunderstanding of what the stress of poverty does to people. They just recoil; they’re frightened of everything, even if that fear expresses itself as aggression.’

Instrumentally directed

Why introduce tests that simply endorse social humiliation, that further exacerbate the issues and affects of poverty, that are instrumentally directed towards a future that every indicator shows will not come to pass? This from the political economist, Orit Gal: ‘complexity theory teaches us that major events are the manifestation of maturing and converging, underlying trends: they reflect change that has already occurred within the system.’

There are growing signs that our education system is not fit for purpose; these tests only signpost a totally irrelevant direction of travel. The truth of the matter is our children have a right to be angry. The real discussion should centre on our adult inability to self-regulate. By the age of 4, when ‘poorer’ children commence these baseline tests, they have already intuited that there are certain neural reward pathways, which they are denied. So they have created their own worlds. Our children are playing in the future tense.

If we could perceive, with their cooperation, what they envisage, then we could arrive at a crucial understanding: we can all learn from children. Simple, innit?

Gordon Sturrock

2 thoughts on “Marshmallow education

  1. janerobertstraining says:

    Good article Gordon!
    I read the Sunday Times article afterwards and I have to laugh at the notion of ‘self regulation’ for 4 year olds, when most adults probably could do with a ‘marshmallow bribe to put their ‘smart phones’ down for 15 mins!!

    Just incase you haven’t come across it, this is well worth listening too;

    About ‘ Adolesence Mental Health’

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