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Researchers looking at education problems and conducting field experiments – twenty years ago, this would have been unusual for economists. Today it is quite normal. Economics has been revolutionized in recent decades, and the Department of Economics at UZH has been at the forefront of this development.
In recent times, economists have not only dealt with classical economic issues such as inflation, growth, taxes, exchange rates and unemployment figures, but also with neuroscience, health, and education. "Economics is a now universal behavioral science that has something to say wherever human behavior plays a role," says Ernst Fehr, who has played a key role in this development. Fehr and colleagues at the University of Mainz recently conducted a field experiment on education in schools in Germany. The question was whether children’s learning success can be fostered and improved with targeted self-regulation training.
Much of the evidence from research suggests that self-regulatory skills not only make people more successful, but also ensure that they are healthier and better educated. "Whatever I do in my life, if I am a self-regulated person, I will do it better on average than those who are not," says Ernst Fehr. Self-regulation refers to a whole bundle of skills, such as setting goals, pursuing them with perseverance, and not giving up immediately if something doesn't work out right away. But it also means the ability to control one's feelings, impulses, and attention. Even small children can do this to a certain extent. This was demonstrated, among other things, by the now legendary marshmallow experiment conducted by personality psychologist Walter Mischel in the 1970s. In the experiment, children as young as four managed to suppress their impulses and stare at a highly desirable, sugary marshmallow for several minutes without devouring it immediately. The agreement was that if the experimenter returned and the sweet was still on the table, the child would get a second one. Many children were unable to do this.
As it turned out, the early ability to self-regulate has long-term consequences. Follow-up studies, conducted by researchers led by Walter Mischel twenty years later, made it clear that the young adults who had been able to self-regulate well as four-year-olds were better educated and had better social relationships than those who "failed" the marshmallow test.
A large-scale study by the American psychologist Terrie Moffit in 2011 confirms this finding. Moffit examined the development of 1000 children from birth to the age of 32. She found that children with good self-direction are not only more successful in school and at work, but also use drugs less often, have better control of their finances, and are less prone to delinquency.
As influential as the ability to self-regulate is for children's development, it is not specifically promoted at school. Ernst Fehr and his colleagues at the University of Mainz therefore wanted to know whether this skill can be successfully practiced in the classroom with six- to seven-year-old school children. For this, the scientists developed a training sequence that teachers in schools in Mainz could integrate into their lessons. They used a method developed by the two psychologists Gabrielle Oettingen and Peter Gollwitzer called the MCII strategy (Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions). "We adapted this abstract concept so that it works for training six- to seven-year-old children," says Fehr.
500 primary school students from thirty classes thus trained themselves in a playful way to set goals - for example, to read for ten minutes every day. They identified the obstacles that prevented them from achieving this goal – perhaps because the TV is always on at home – and then derived "when-then" rules that they could apply when they encountered this obstacle. For example: when the TV is on and I want to read, then I ask my parents to turn it off. Their role model was Hurdy, a cartoon-style ball. He showed the students how he finally succeeded in reaching his goal and rolling up the mountain – all the way to the top.
Only five lessons were spent on learning the technique, after which the training was applied to reading instruction. Despite this relatively short time, the intervention had positive long-term effects. One year later, for example, the researchers found that the students were able to read significantly better than a control group that did not take part in the training. Moreover, the students in the training group generally made fewer careless errors. In addition, they had better impulse control and, three years later, were 15 percentage points more likely to go to high school than children in the control group. "It's amazing," says Ernst Fehr. "The increase in self-regulation causes children to take more responsibility for their own learning, set their own goals and actively work to achieve them."
For this reason, Fehr now advocates the inclusion of self-regulation techniques in the curriculum at teacher training colleges, so that trainee teachers can later apply them in the classroom. And he makes a general case for more early intervention in education. "We should invest more in early childhood education," Fehr says, "because it yields longer-term gains for society and enables more equal opportunities."