Slow food and slow travel attracts praise, so why not slow learning?
I don’t consider myself a slow learner – on the contrary, I’m a bit of a sponge as far as knowledge is concerned – but I sometimes think strangers take me for a slow learner.
It’s not hard to see why. Since I travel quite a bit – advertising myself with an Australian accent – I’m accustomed to being the random extra at the wedding, the guy who doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the group. This sort of person – the ‘foreigner’ – is generally assumed to be a little slower on the uptake, someone whose brain doesn’t quite fire in the normal way. I’m also not particularly talkative or quick-witted or clever when it comes to debating or verbal sparring. Neither do I have any massive interest in popular culture, which means a great deal of conversation is off-limits to me.
Whatever the exact reason, the result is much the same. People mistake my quietness and reticence for stupidity. When a stranger does decide to talk to me, I can look forward to the loud and shouty voice, the curt reply (as if people resent wasting their time with a dimwit), and the speech slowed down to half of normal pace (as if speaking to a young child).
So I believe I have some understanding of what it must be like to be a genuine slow learner, someone who needs further time and effort to develop a skill. Apart from those of us who give the appearance of having sluggish brain power, someone could be considered a slow learner for many reasons: having a medical condition such as dyslexia, lacking interest or motivation, or simply lacking intelligence. It may not be politically correct to say such a thing, but intelligence does differ between human beings, similar to height or hair colour. Some people are just not cut out to be rocket scientists.
Regardless of why an individual might struggle to pick up new knowledge, being a slow learner is not looked upon as an appealing trait. In every classroom, there’s always a handful of students who get left behind, always treading the perilous line between rebellious charm and utter mediocrity. The modern work world makes little effort to accommodate the slow learning individual. Most job adverts specify something along the lines of ‘you must have an ability to think on your own feet’, which is basically manager-speak for ‘you must be a quick learner and not be a burden on your colleagues’.
This post is slightly different as it starts out with an extended story of slow learning – based on a real-life experience – before concluding with some general thoughts. Is it time we gave praise to the slow learner for delivering a middle finger to hectic, modern-day society?
A. Half Life
Chris was a freckled, sandy-haired boy at my high school in Queensland. He was a friendly and cheery sort of lad, rarely moaning or having anything bad to say about other people. As a result, he got on well with just about everyone at school, even counting the surly mowing man as one of his friends.
But Chris didn’t have a great number of close friends his own age. He was the perennial slow learner, someone whose friendship didn’t seem worth the effort to pursue, at least as far as the cool kids were concerned. He and his family was neither rich nor influential nor attractive nor especially interesting. Even the bullies left him well alone. He was lacking in any attribute that made him stand out from the crowd.
We both enrolled to do chemistry in Grades 11 and 12, the final two years of high school. For most of Grade 11, Chris found himself at the bottom of the class. And everybody was well aware of this.
The teacher, Mr Doyle, had a novel approach for releasing exam results. Papers were returned in the order of highest to lowest grade, which meant that everyone knew where they stood in the pecking order. Chris never seem bothered when his paper was the final one returned. In fact, it was almost as if he was expecting to be the last man standing, and was just grateful the teacher had taken the time to politely hand back his paper, as opposed to throwing it on the floor and then wiping a pair of muddy shoes over it.
Like physics and maths, chemistry was considered a ‘difficult’ subject, something that only the top achieving students would ever consider doing. So the fact that Chris had chosen chemistry took many by surprise. Even the teachers thought he was more suited to woodwork or ‘driving education’ or the dreaded ‘agricultural studies’.
But Chris had one key advantage: he enjoyed chemistry for its own sake. He was sort of kid who would have bought lab kits in museum shops and try them out at home. He relished doing all the lab-work, playing around with test tubes, Bunsen burners and previously-unexplored combinations of acids and bases. If results were based purely on enthusiasm, Chris would have excelled.
But of course the academic world doesn’t work like that. Chris struggled to memorise facts and formulae, basically the sort of stuff that is important at exam time.
I’m not exactly sure how this all started, but sometime during the first couple of months of Grade 12, I agreed to ‘tutor’ Chris in the more academic side of chemistry. During the lunch-breaks, we would go over recent lessons in fine detail, referring back to classroom notes and text books. We ended up spending most of that semester in the school library, so much so that the chief librarian – of all people – rebuked us for spending too much time indoors.
Most of these lunch-time lessons were centred around pure rote learning, of getting all those facts and formulae to stick in Chris’s head. Even though I was only 16 years old at the time – and knew little about the psychology of learning – I’d somehow picked up on Chris’s greatest area of difficulty: getting information into long-term memory. He understood the general concepts fine, but struggled to remember the detail. He knew intuitively what hydrochloric acid would do when mixed with other chemicals, but struggled to translate that knowledge into equations and formulae. An end of semester examination is less to do with the actual subject, and more to do with one’s ability to memorise and recall facts.
Nowadays, Chris would probably be diagnosed with a learning condition, and perhaps given appropriate medication to ‘cure’ him of his affliction. But this wasn’t an option in the late 1980s. Neither did we have the luxury of the online world.
Eight weeks passed by, and then it was time for the end-of-semester exam. We spent the last couple of days before the exam reviewing material more thoroughly than usual, so much so that when the actual exam took place, Chris walked out in a buoyant mood, an unknown sensation for him after sitting an exam. Because he’d known the material well, he felt confident that this was one assessment where he wouldn’t find himself at the bottom of the class.
So when the rather grumpy Mr Doyle walked into the classroom a couple of days later, a stack of marked papers in his hands, we all sunk into a deeper silence than usual.
Mr Doyle tackled his pile in the usual customary way. The first paper was withdrawn… and given to the Running Mutty’s main rival in the class. Eighteen and a half out of twenty.
The second paper was delivered… to the Running Mutty himself. Eighteen out of twenty.
Nothing unusual so far. The two of us had traded first and second place for the entire duration of the class. Daylight separated us from third place.
Then the third paper was plucked from the pile. With a faint smile – Mr Doyle was not really the smiling sort – he placed the paper on Chris’s desk. Fourteen out of twenty.
The class was taken aback at this point. Surely Doyle had stuffed up and given the paper back to the wrong student. When it became clear this wasn’t the case, someone else suggested that Chris had managed to ‘fluke’ the exam. But this wasn’t a multiple choice exam. It wasn’t the sort of assessment you could pass through blind chance.
Everyone had to accept that Chris had managed to put in the best exam performance of his life. He had moved an unheard of fifteen places up the ladder, from 18thplace to 3rdplace. Of course, Chris being as he was, humbly accepted the result without fanfare. There was no wild celebration, no pumped fists, just a quiet acknowledgement of a result well earnt.
As for the junior Running Mutty, he too was feeling fairly smug. He’d managed to do something that no teacher had managed to do. And they’d had eleven years to try.
Chris mumbled his thanks in my direction, not exactly sure how to respond (as we were both from a modest, ‘working class’ background, expressions of gratitude or praise did not come easily). Trying to change the conversation to something more practical, Chris said he was keenly looking forward to another semester of chemistry sessions. But I had to be honest and admit that I was done with the tutoring. The chief librarian was right. It was time to get outside and play some cricket during the lunch break.
Thus our lunch-time tutorials had drawn to a close. For Chris, chemistry returned to being just another subject he had to battle his way through, largely on his own. While he never found himself right back at the very bottom of the class, his final semester result hovered towards the lower end of the spectrum, around 14th to 15thplace.
But he never complained, steadfast right to the end.
B. When All is Said and Marked
I could feel bad about the Chris situation – knowing our lunch-time tutorials were only the tip of the iceberg – but I know it’s not my fault. I wasn’t trained to tutor kids my own age.
I also accept it wasn’t the fault of the teachers either. Those who work in the public school system are famously overworked and underpaid. (They also famously and happily announce this fact in their social media posts). I am sure many teachers wish they had the time and the energy to carry out extra tuition.
The public education system tries its best, but everyone is more or less a victim in the push towards conformity and cost-cutting. The system works on the basis that overall results are more important than what any one individual could achieve. Given a choice, it’s better to use your limited resources and raise an entire class by 10% on average, rather than one person alone by 50%. (Maths and statistics at least taught us that.)
This, of course, is bad news for Chris and all the other ‘slow learners. These people are not necessarily lacking in intelligence or commitment, but just need extra time or different approaches to properly digest a subject. Humans are surprisingly malleable when given the chance. Most people are capable of doing any job you require of them, provided you supply them with the appropriate tools for their favoured learning type.
Some people prefer classroom learning, others prefer one-on-one sessions around a desk or a monitor. Others prefer to study in their own time away from the office, others like listening to online video tutorials, others like to ‘shadow’ a more experienced worker, while others again insist the only way to learn is to just get stuck in and do the actual work, learning as you go along. Some people might take one hour, others might take one day.
Abraham Lincoln once famously made the following observation about himself: ‘I am slow to learn and slow to forget that which I have learned.’ Provided the ‘slow learner’ gets the chance to work at their optimal pace – savouring the leisurely canal boat as opposed to racing forth on the speedboat – perhaps it’s the ‘quick learners’ who are the ones missing out, not giving themselves enough time to percolate the material through their brains.
When you stick to the rigid academic way of knowledge transfer – material delivered by an expert in a classroom-like situation, further study performed mostly in solitude, exams based on instant recall of factual details along with high levels of stress – you are greatly restricting the joy of learning to a small subset of the population. For that matter, how often do we even hear the phrase ‘joy of learning’? It’s more likely to be ‘dread of learning’.
And that brings me back to someone who enjoyed chemistry to such an extent that he even hung around the class afterwards. To help the teachers clean up the lab benches.
I don’t really know what happened to Chris. We drifted apart slowly and inevitably, not having the benefit of social media to keep tabs on one another. I’ve heard nothing about him for at least twenty-five years.
On the rare occasion that I would bump into someone else from high school, Chris barely registered as a thought in the mind of the other person, so I’m left to my own imagination to wonder what became of him. I’d like to think his little burst of scholastic achievement inspired him to enter a field related to chemistry. But I honestly don’t know. He might be dressed in a lab coat and working in a research laboratory somewhere; he might equally be working as the mowing man. At the same high school for that matter.
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