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Slow Learning

What sort of reaction did you have when you read the title of this blog post? Maybe it didn’t faze you at all. Maybe you had a visceral, gut reaction coupled with an instinctual negative feeling. We give many, mostly negative, meanings to the word “slow.” In the fast paced, competition driven world we live in, to be slow, in any sense, is an unfortunate thing. If you are slow, you miss out. If you are slow, you must be stupid. At least, that’s what we’re told. Slowness is not typically part of the successful school’s lexicon.

Growing up in public school and having taught in that setting, I can attest to a culture that looks down on anything that is not learned quickly or is learned after everyone else. A vast, superficial, quickly attained knowledge is prized over a deep, slow attainment. This sort of thinking is how students who fall behind in these settings often get left behind completely. It’s how tracks develop for students who are quick learners and students who may be a bit slower.

But, there is no research that indicates that a student who learns quickly is better off in life than a student who learns more slowly (and arguably, deeply). I have never seen such a study in my research on early literacy and lifetime outcomes or from anecdotal evidence or any other source on how we teach children from a young age. 

There are, of course, real and measurable goals that a student should reach within a reasonable amount of time in their early years of school. For example, 3rd grade is generally considered the benchmark year for learning to read fluently at grade level. This is a successful outcome of good education. But, when we think about “slow” learning, we have to think beyond the outcome. What is the benefit of a 4 year old learning to read by sight words if they have no interest in reading yet and become burned out before they have even begun? To push children in such a way is painful and fruitless for most.

At The Saint Constantine School, many of my initial beliefs about best practices in the education of young children were turned on their head. Very quickly I realized I had to reexamine the way I teach reading or science or history with not just the end goal in mind. When we consider only the outcome of our teaching, we turn children into machines in which we input information to have it spit back out in some other form.

In many ways, a “slow” learning movement is similar to the Slow Food Movement. The Slow Food Movement is an international effort to promote alternatives to fast food. The movement emphasizes promotion of the use of local food sources and traditional cooking methods in an effort to preserve regional cuisine and support small businesses. The movement is all about the process – where we get our food from to how it is cooked and even how it is consumed. The product is part of the process.

When we focus less on the “product” (though always keeping it in mind), we have time as teachers to promote truly deep learning. It’s why our students may read fluently a bit later than their peers in other educational environments. It’s why they repeat a history cycle every 3 years. It’s why we encourage them in their efforts and emphasize the importance of practice. It’s why we teach dialectically, encouraging inquiry and authenticity. 

In this way, we mirror the spiritual life – the pursuit of communion with God. I cannot speedily “learn” the way to salvation.  The process lasts a lifetime and it takes a community. I have to increasingly move more slowly and deeply into the vastness of God. The best gift we give our students is an understanding of the beauty of the process of learning.  Only then can the outcome become the fruit it is meant to be.