Slow Learning: Helping Children Explore the World at their own Speed

Slow Learning: Helping Children Explore the World at their own Speed

“Slow learning” is a philosophy that involves helping our children explore the world at their own speed, enjoying, questioning, and understanding the experiences encountered as well as the ones created.

By Wendy Priesnitz

There is one definition of intelligence that involves speed, results, and competition – getting the right answer to a question quickly and doing it faster than anyone else. That’s the definition used by most schools, where the term “slow learner” can be a disparaging one that, for all intents and purposes, means “dumb.” Even worse, some children who don’t fit into the school schedule get distracted or bored and are given labels such as “learning disabled.”

Teachers show that they value speed-as-intelligence by praising students who respond well to verbal cues, who can quickly come up with the “right” answer to an oral quiz, who put their hands up first, or who choose the most prescribed answers on a multiple choice test within the allotted time frame.

Unfortunately, performing well in this sort of school setting is no guarantee that one will thrive in the real world. And conversely, many successful and unquestionably “intelligent” people perform poorly in the speedy, competitive school environment. (Read Albert Einstein’s biography for a good example!)

Nevertheless, many parents buy into this definition right from their children’s birth, measuring the speed at which they master skills, and being proud when they have learned to walk, talk, or read before the neighbors’ kids have.

What’s the Hurry?

Slow learning as I define it involves exploring the world at one’s own speed, enjoying, questioning, and understanding the experiences encountered as well as the ones created. It’s not oriented towards quick results or competition with others. Rather, it involves knowing how to create hypotheses and to test them, and it promotes inquiry and dialogue. It provides time for experimenting, making what are traditionally called “mistakes,” backtracking, and experimenting some more. It also allows time for what, in a fast learning environment, is called “day dreaming” or, worse, “wasting time.”

Slow learning meanders across genres and disciplines, rather than separating knowledge up into disconnected subject areas. It’s grounded in the interests, needs, and learning style of each individual, rather than being programmed by others – either teachers or parents. And it doesn’t turn off at three o’clock in the afternoon, at the end of June, or at ages eighteen, thirty, or sixty-five.

Slow learning also understands that answers are only “right” in certain contexts and favors the personal process over the more public – and testable – product. As Harvard professor Ellen J. Langer writes in her book The Power of Mindful Learning, “If we can shed [the] outcome orientation, we may discover that the freedom to define the process is more significant than achieving an outcome that has no inherent meaning or value outside that particular setting.”

A child who is fortunate enough to have parents who protect their right to slow learning is in control. They are responsible for what they learn, when, how, and why…and they are free to choose what people and which experiences will help them on their journey.

There is no need for anyone to quiz or question or test such a child’s knowledge because their goals are their own. If and when they decide to undertake something for which they haven’t built up the prerequisite knowledge base, they will have all the necessary tools for filling that gap.

But more than that, a slow learner will be a self-directed, curious, risk taking, intrinsically motivated, innovative, nonconformist leader who will never stop learning and who sees education as a process rather than a destination to be arrived at as quickly as possible.

Learn More

Life Learning Magazine

Challenging Assumptions in Education by Wendy Priesnitz (The Alternate Press, 2000)

Embracing Slow by Wendy Priesnitz, Natural Life Magazine, May/June 2011

Wendy Priesnitz is the author of thirteen books, the editor of Life Learning Magazine, and a journalist with forty years of experience. She is also the mother of two adult daughters.