Thursday, February 13, 2014

Why schools shouldn't eliminate junk food

Thinking Chapter 3: The Lazy Controller, part 2

One of my former colleagues used to meet her advisory group students before they headed in for dreaded standardized exams. She'd hand each a packet of snacks -- candy bars, a juice drink, maybe a piece of fruit. Needless to say, her students loved her. She said she wanted to make sure each of them had some food, knowing full well that students freak out on exam days and forget things like breakfast. Turns out she was also probably helping them get higher scores.

According to Kahneman, research has shown "conclusively" that tasks like the SAT and ACT drain people. "[A]n effort of will or self-control is tiring; if you have had to force yourself to do something, you are less willing or less able to exert self-control when the next challenge comes around. The phenomenon has been named ego depletion" (41-42). If you think about it, sitting in place for many hours bubbling in Scranton pages is an unbelievable effort of will and self-control for most teens. Furthermore, "[a]fter exerting self-control in one task, you do not feel like making an effort in another." This explains why many students start strong and noticeably slow down during an exam (proctor one of the exams and you'll see). It turns out that the nervous system, especially when involved in effortful mental activity, consumes glucose: "When you are actively involved in difficult cognitive reasoning or engaged in a task that requires self-control, your blood glucose level drops" (43). Researchers have also confirmed that "the effects of ego depletion could be undone by ingesting glucose."

The implications of this go beyond having students eat a candy bar during a break in the exam. Teachers marking papers also suffer ego depletion. A study found that judges were most likely to grant parole immediately after a food break and least likely immediately before a break. Were the judges simply being nice because they felt content after a meal, or were they harsh because they were hungry? In either case, these findings point to the importance of taking many breaks while marking papers.

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