Information Age Education
   Issue Number 24
August, 2009   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and produced by Ken Loge. For more information, see the end of this newsletter.

"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." (Chinese proverb.)

One of the ideas that occurred to me as I thought about the quotation is that if the person is starving, perhaps it might be best to first give the person a fish to eat, and then begin to teach the person to fish. Next, I formed an analogy with the situation of a teacher having important information and a student lacking this information. Should the teacher provide the information or should the teacher teach the student some general or specific methods on how to find, learn, and make use of information?

The student who asks, “Miss Johnson: Is this the correct answer?” is in some sense “starving” for an answer. It might be better to say the student is yearning for some immediate feedback and possible gratification from the teacher responding, “Yes.” In any case, a good teacher uses this situation as a teachable moment, and the teacher provides the student with help in learning to “fish” for (determine by himself or herself) whether the answer is correct, incomplete, or incorrect.

Both the student and the teacher face issues of immediate versus delayed gratification, and intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. Taken together, these issues are a major, ongoing challenge to all people.


Some people seem to have a very strong (sometimes overwhelming) desire to gain immediate gratification, while others are able to hold this desire in check and to appropriately deal with delayed gratification.

Quite a bit of formal education involves delayed gratification. Consider a six year old beginning to learn reading and writing. Perhaps the child thinks or feels: “It is more fun to watch a video than it is to practice reading. It is more fun to play a video game than it is to practice writing.” As adults, we desperately want the child to learning reading and writing, and we know that it will take the child a great deal of effort over a long period of time to do so. Similar comments are applicable to children learning math and other academic subjects, sports, and so on.

Parents and teachers are facing an uphill battle as computer games, television, telecommunication systems, music storage and playback devices, and social networking systems get better and better. All provide a high level of relatively quick (often, nearly instant) gratification. Moreover, many people and companies are working to make these products and services provide even better quick gratification.

Added to this is the steady barrage of advertising that most of us face. Many ads are designed to encourage quick gratification behavior.

There has been some interesting research on a type of delayed gratification of young children. There is an excellent May 18, 2009 article about gratification in The New Yorker at It describes research on the marshmallow test.

In the marshmallow test, youngsters are tested on whether they can delay eating a marshmallow (or some other "treat") in order to get two of the treats 15 minutes later. Only about 1/3 of the four-year old US children in the original research and 1/3 of the 4–6 year old Colombian children in research on children in that country were able to delay for 15 minutes. Follow-up research on the US children 15 years later indicated that all who were able to delay their gratification for 15 minutes had been quite successful as students and in other parts of their lives.

Research of this sort is continuing. One area being explored is whether teaching young children techniques to fight against giving in to immediate gratification may help them to become more successful in school and later life. A Google search of KIPP marshmallow will identify some of the research being done in the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) schools.


You know a lot about motivation—what motivates you and what does not motivate you. Think about your self-knowledge in terms of your spending the time and effort to read this Newsletter. A few readers might say, “I know Moursund and enjoy reading his writings. I read this Newsletter just for the fun of it.” Other readers might say, “My course instructor assigned this as required reading and indicated there would be a test question drawn from this reading.” Perhaps some readers might say, “I am really interested in improving myself as an educational leader. I have found that the ideas in the Newsletter help me to improve my educational leadership knowledge and skills.”

Reading for fun illustrates intrinsic motivation. Reading because it is required and will be on the test illustrates extrinsic motivation. Reading for professional purposes often illustrates a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Many parents, caregivers, and others who deal with children often use an extrinsic motivation approach when they want a child to do something. “Eat your broccoli and you can have dessert.” “Finish your homework assignment and you can watch TV or play a computer game.” “Practice the piano for 30 minutes and then you can go out and play with your friends.

In these examples, the adult offers a reward that is typically completely unrelated to the purposes or goals underlying the desired behavior. In each case, the adult has decided on a desired course of action for the child. In each case the adult attempts to bribe the child. I believe you can see that in these examples, the child is apt to be learning a behavior problem that may last a lifetime. It is a behavior problem based on expecting (requiring) extrinsic motivation. The adult actions do not contribute to the child developing intrinsic motivation.

The “I need an external motivation bribe” behavior pattern is likely to be well entrenched before the child begins formal schooling in kindergarten or the first grade. This presents a continuing problem for the education system and for the student.

As students grow in their cognitive development, they can receive explicit instruction about the ideas of gratification and motivation discussed above. Every parent and every teacher can contribute to this instruction. The instructional approach might well involve metacognition. Children can begin to learn to think about their thinking, actions, and consequences well before them begin kindergarten.

Final Remarks

The message and recommendation in this issue of the IAE Newsletter is simple. Our society is raising many children to want and to expect instant gratification and extrinsic motivation. Delayed gratification and intrinsic motivation are strongly related to success in school and to responsible adult life in our society. Remember the adage, “It takes a whole village to raise a child.” Each of us can contribute to helping children learn to deal with delayed gratification and to helping them to gain in their areas and levels of intrinsic motivation.

About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. IAE is a project of the Science Factory, a 501(c)(3) science and technology museum located in Eugene, Oregon. Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address, a Website containing free books and articles at, and the free newsletter you are now reading.

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