Patience is the missing 21st-century skill

The 21st century skill students lack is patience, writes cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham.

We oldsters grew up with “fewer sources of distraction and entertainment,” he writes. The TV had four channels. “Digital natives” can avoid even mild boredom, most of the time. They never learn that patience brings rewards.

Jennifer Roberts, a Harvard art and architecture professor, tells students to select a painting in a Boston museum, study it for three hours and write a paper on it.
Cover edit 3
The duration is “meant to seem excessive,” Roberts says. She wants students to think they’ve seen all there is to see, keep looking and see more.

As part of a book she was writing on 18th century American painter John Singleton Copley, she studied at length the painting A Boy With a Flying Squirrel.

Despite her experience, it took time before “she noticed that the shape of the white ruff on the squirrel matches the shape of the boy’s ear, and is echoed again in the fold of the curtain over his left shoulder.”

Students “need to feel the pleasure of discovering that something you thought you had figured out actually has layers that you had not appreciated,” Willingham writes.

Boring is bad, responds Tim Holt. He accuses Willingham of shouting, Get off my lawn, you damn kids.

About Joanne


  1. Yep, learning new things takes time. The problem is that information is getting disseminated in shorter formats (reduced to 140 characters, see Twitter for details) and people would rather watch a 5 minute video than read a 50 page book. It’s an impatient world and people have stopped thinking for themselves. I’m really not sure what the answer is, but I guess the pendulum will swing back again one day.

  2. ?? Many of these children have sat through years of public school waiting for their included classmates to catch up, and the teachers to get to more than basic material. And they are accused of not having patience? Theory needs to meet reality.

    • It’s not just the included kids; it’s all the kids who are significantly below the kids at the top. They may be average and performing on grade level, but that’s little comfort for kids who are significantly above grade level.

  3. We are constantly fed the message that quick is good (faster broadband, quicker travel, shorter wait times etc) so I think it is no surprise that we are no longer prepared to have patience and wait.