Are You “Slow”?

“I, myself, was always recognized . . . as the “slow one” in the family. It was quite true, and I knew it and accepted it. Writing and spelling were always terribly difficult for me. My letters were without originality. I was . . . an extraordinarily bad speller and have remained so until this day.”
~Agatha Christie

“I was, on the whole, considerably discouraged by my school days. It was not pleasant to feel oneself so completely outclassed and left behind at the beginning of the race.”
~Sir Winston Churchill

A recent post on the ASCD Inservice blog describes “Myths That Haunt Students”. The authors reference three points from Allison Zmuda:

* They see learning that comes quickly as a sign of intelligence and learning that requires effort as a sign of their own lack of ability.
* Students think school and life are disconnected.
* They think learning is an orderly process rather than a messy, recursive, ongoing struggle. Even high-achieving students will shy away from challenging tasks and embrace routine assignments, which they find more comforting, Zmuda noted.

These are fabulous points, and I would rush to buy the book referenced, if only I had the money and the time to read it (my current reading stack would literally be a meter high, were I so foolish as to stack the volumes in one place).

When we mistake speed for ability — or rather, lack of speed for lack of ability — we misinterpret a person’s intelligence and their ability to learn. Students who have difficulty processing multiple sensory modes will frequently have problems keeping up with lectures or rapid-fire instruction. Adult students who have been out of education for some time will also have problems because they are not used to, or aware of, how nuances in phrasing can impart important distinctions in material being presented. Many students find that their unfamiliarity with the technical terminology of various disciplines gets in the way of understanding, not only in reading texts, but also in lectures, presentations, or even decoding what is being asked of them in assignments.

Sometimes we feel “slow” because we cannot see how the material relates to other things in our lives; for students who are adept at a subject, those connections are “obvious”, and they can see how to use the material. But students who are new to a subject, or who have had difficulties with it in the past, the connections between class material and practical uses are not so apparent. Sometimes students don’t even believe that there is any connection; school and work and life are all separate realms. It is important for teachers to make these connections explicitly, and provide several concrete examples. Even better, they need to ask students to come up with their own examples of when they would use the information in ordinary life. Doing this will allow the student to not only better identify the need for learning the material, and will be more able to remember the information later, but they will also have more ownership in their own learning.

Frequently secondary (and early tertiary) students will just be looking for what are the “right” answers, or what the “teacher wants”, which is something of a shallow understanding of the purpose of the learning objectives. Sometimes this results from students who are used to just being given information to memorise and regurgitate (focusing overmuch on state assessment scores can produce this).

Sometimes it results from students who were assessed at simple taxonomic levels of learning, and who don’t realise that they will eventually have to be able to do more in the way of analysis. These are the students who will shortly be complaining about how hard the teacher is, and how the exams and assignments “aren’t fair”. It may not be that the students are necessarily lazy (tho’ sometimes they are), but that they are unprepared for how higher levels of education are going to operate, and what will be expected of them, and most importantly, how to do these things. Not everyone moves from concrete to abstract thinking easily, or in different subjects.

A lot of my students have trouble with not only decoding the material, but also with putting the concepts into the context of the ideas in the chapter, and especially into the context of the whole course. They have trouble seeing how the assignments are set up to lead them through skill acquisition, and how they reflect the learning objectives. Sometimes they have trouble discerning the “hidden curriculum” of school culture, and understanding how they are supposed to initiate their own problem-solving and determining what they need, and work at broadening their learning and skills, and synthesizing seemingly disparate bits of information from different classes.

I’ve seen some teachers who feel that doing this kind of teaching is somehow beneath them — that the students should somehow magically know everything they need about how to study, and when and how to ask for assistance, and what they should be doing outside of the stated class work. I think this is nonsense.

We expect graduates to have these skills, and we expect employees to have certain job skills when we hire them. But the whole point to school (be it primary, secondary, trade school or college) is to educate students. If you’re not willing to explain to students what they need to know, and how they can learn that, and what they need to be able to do to succeed, then what are you doing in the business of teaching? Teaching is an interactive process, not merely the “sage on the stage” dispensing information.

We also need to help our students understand that learning is anything but a neat, tidy linear process. There’s frequently a lot of review, of practice, stopping to put stuff into context, more review, more practice, looking at the context again now that things make more sense, et cetera ad infinitum. In other words, it’s highly recursive, and for students with learning difficulties, even more so. When our difficulties mean that the performance is uneven because we can do something one day but not the next, it’s especially frustrating.

No one wants to believe that such difficulty is “normal”, because it feels (a) stupid and (b) implies that we’re going to be going through this stuff every time we learn something challenging. But what we often don’t see is how many other people are also going through struggles. That’s one of the benefits to study groups — we lose the mis-impression that it’s easy for everyone else.

When i’ve taken undergraduate science classes as a graduate student (making up deficiencies), everyone else thinks that I do well because it’s easy for me. Well, the concepts are easy, and I can make connections between seemingly unrelated things like nobody’s business, but the memorising is just as difficult for me, and quite often the recall is even more difficult. It doesn’t help that I already have hundreds of scientific terms in my brain, because when I’m trying to recall one, I just end up with even more near-misses. I also know from experience that those really challenging classes are usually the ones that you’re glad you’ve had (past tense), because you have to stretch yourself to acquire new skills and will have those for further classes and work.

In the end, speed is rarely the big concern. (This is also why I don’t like timed tests; if you’re not actually needing to do something fast, like a medical procedure, then it’s unnecessary.) Quite often we have unrealistic ideas about how easily or quickly “everyone else” learns, or how each of us learns. Real life stuff is actually messy. And that includes learning.

(Andrea stands up straight again, and blushing, brushes the chalk dust stripe off the back side of her dark slacks.)


  1. Renee Moore said,

    21 May 2008 at 15:39

    Andrea and the previous commentators—Amen and Amen. As a teacher and mother, I have fought long hard battles over trying to force children to move through learning in some irrational, lockstep pattern, set to a alarm clock we call “grade levels.”

  2. Barbara said,

    18 May 2008 at 22:31

    for NOT accepting differences

  3. Barbara said,

    18 May 2008 at 21:59

    Norah expressed very well one of the (many) problems of elementary and secondary education in our culture. There is an assembly-line mentality which treats each student as a same-sized widget to be passed along, treated at intervals with the same robotic stamp only to be dumped out at the end with a minimum of preparation for the real world. (Yes, there are pockets of better education.)

    Nora’s experience emphasizes the rigidity of the current system for accepting the differences among all children. Nora’s experience also illustrates the importance and effects of a nurturing home and family life.

    Andrea, intelligence IS speed as it is defined in our society. Do you propose a different educational performance measurement? Speed is the same measurement for success in commerce (employment). Those who work faster and correctly earn more. Here, too, if the individual talents of children were guided toward a rewarding employment, well, we wouldn’t be complaining here, would we?

    It’s not that the standard (intelligence defined as speed) is wrong. I complain that the standard is used to make people feel less worthy. If the underpinning approach was “all are valued”, as they are and have the potential to become, then measures other than speed could be used.
    Oh. That’s called an IEP. Oh. But first you have to say that a child does not belong on the assembly line. Oh.

    (Your May 18 post is already up as I write this.) The message that your child is not like others is extremely difficult for some parents. Those parents who use words that are less-than-accepting of their own children require a little acceptance themselves. Surely they have been at the mercy of judgemental references in their own lives (learned behavior). But there is a real, core emotional need to be like others in our community. Those parents need time to get-to-acceptance of their child’s differences. When charlatans take advantage of them with cures, well, they continue the pejoratives. I blame the media that published the story also. The media sells this crap and profits from it. In that case, I see the parents as victims also.

    I encourage your suggestion to intervene with the parent at the time the remarks are made for effectively changing society incrementally or one person at a time. That kind of intervention is best done by someone who can quickly assess the situation and the parent making the remark and come-up with a non-threatening, non-escalating, reassuring and informative – or perfect remark. Converting a parent to acceptance of their child must be done by an intelligent person whose talents are in social understanding, emotional development and behavior.

  4. pennylrichardsca said,

    17 May 2008 at 13:26

    Thank you for this. Some parents are so hellbent on raising Jeopardy contestants! I don’t want my kid to learn to answer trivial questions quickly; I want her to learn to ask important questions, with deliberation. I like doing art lessons with schoolkids, precisely because that’s one place where a “messy, recursive, ongoing struggle” is expected and excused.

  5. Norah said,

    17 May 2008 at 8:50

    and that’s gifted, not giften

  6. Norah said,

    17 May 2008 at 8:49

    As someone who learned some things quickly and nearly effortlessly, but who spent all her time crunching away on other subjects without ever getting anywhere, I have had some teachers consider me giften, and others consider me a complete idiot, depending on what they taught.

    I never felt stupid, but I gave up on certain subjects and just dropped them to concentrate on things I already had some talent for.

    People always told me “you just need to *study*” without ever teaching me how (nevermind that even if I knew how, for certain subjects I would still have needed a lot of extra help). I remember everyone just ‘explaining’ the same thing over and over, but I wasn’t going to suddenly understand just because they kept repeating it. I thought I was not supposed to ask for assistance (in weak subjects), because no one else ever seemed to do that either. I survived school by copying what everyone else did, because I had no clue on my own as to what I was supposed to be doing (in every way, not just regarding subjects). Even when I did ask for assistance (at the prompting of parents because it was just so obvious that I would fail otherwise), I did not receive the assistance I needed. Which re-affirmed to me that asking for assistance was totally useless. By now I know it’s not, but by now I’m no longer in school.

    School did leave me discouraged, though. I was understimulated at things I had talent for and lagged behind in other things and did not receive the help I needed. University was the opposite. I’ve never had that much fun learning in a school-like environment before and am still sad that it’s over. Almost all the stuff I used to truly enjoy learning I just picked up at home, from books, TV or computer.

  7. Adelaide said,

    17 May 2008 at 7:53

    I learnt as much about the in-service comments (from the original blog to which you linked!) as anything that you yourself responded to and distilled and presented to us the readers. It really is pervasive across a range of subjects (like maths, English/languages and arts).

    I like the challenging classes you describe in this blog as well.

    The initial quotes from Christie and Churchill are very enlightening, especially for someone like me who is quick in her learning. (Their families must have been objectively and subjectively clever and motivating!) Perhaps it’s a British thing to underrate your abilities in this area, or at least to have a more ‘realistic’ (‘pessimistic’/’chloeric’) view of the big picture?

    An essayist called Bill Long writes long and hard about this sort of thing and related experiences/phenomena (his specialist subjects include Homer, Shakespeare, the law, the book of Job). Type in ‘learning’ in his site and you get 757 references. Now evaulating them to see whether they are useful is another thing altogether! (

    A great quote from my learning days (every day should be a learning day!) was “The system is not out to get you” – I am referencing your reference to how the assignments are scaffolded (Vygotsky/Bloom style or whatever overarching method is used). It was immensely reassuring to me before taking my final examinations, in getting into the training mindset needed.

    There’s sort of an opposite teaching strategy to ‘sage on the stage’, isn’t there?

  8. wheelchairdancer said,

    17 May 2008 at 6:04

    Yes, yes, yes.


  9. Beth Nixon said,

    17 May 2008 at 1:28

    thank you . . . many points here that I need to re-read and remind myself for upcoming challenges.

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