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Love or Money?

Planning your education and career in uncertain times

No one wants to be a "slow learner." It's got a bad rap. But speed learning is leaving us both financially and psychically impoverished. Slow food? Slow cities? With students of all ages experiencing anxiety and depression, maybe its time we introduced slow learning.

We recently watched The Man Who Knew Infinity, a movie about the freakishly brilliant Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. Ramanujan’s short life — he was only 32 when he died — was spent circa World War 1, when India was ruled by Britain. Most of the movie focuses on the time Ramanujan spent at Trinity College in Cambridge, England.

I’m thinking about certain scenes in the movie where Ramanujan strolls the idyllic Trinity courtyard with his mentor, G.H. Hardy. The deal is, they don’t walk, they stroll. The white dudes (and occasional brown dudes) in this movie do pretty much everything at this pace. They eat slowly. They talk slowly. They mull and contemplate and do all of those things that I grew up idealizing in a university environment.

I always got a similar sense of this leisurely pace talking to my own mentor Dr. Jim Parsons, several years ago. A baby boomer if there ever was one, Jim came to my alma mater, the University of Alberta, in a heyday of  academic hiring in the early 1970s. (White dudes again, for the record.) Sometimes he told me about early days in his department, or shot the shit with retired colleagues about a mythical time when, it seems, there was a great degree of strolling going on: activity that was directed but at the same time leisurely. Coffees were had. Projects were discussed. Office doors stood open, welcoming others to initiate conversations. Ideas grew because they were given oxygen, light and time.

Scene Change

I am listening to my lovely class of pre-service teachers give presentations on school issues. One group has chosen to study anxiety in children. As they describe symptoms and causes of the (alarmingly high) occurrences of anxiety in kids, their classmates watch and listen. They are kind of mesmerized. It quickly becomes evident in the class discussion following that they are all experiencing symptoms of anxiety. There is no strolling going on here. Instead these folks are frantically plowing through assignments, as if shovelling during one of our epic Canadian winter storms where you can’t go fast enough to keep up with the relentless snowfall.

It becomes clear to me during this class discussion that the carefully crafted (I try) architecture of the work I’ve given them is rendered almost meaningless in this onslaught. It is, like the assignments in their other classes, to be endured. To be gotten out of the way before the next round piles on. It’s tough to stroll in a snowstorm.

Speed Learning

I don’t remember going through my undergrad studies at this pace. Maybe it was because there was no internet yet, and hardly anyone had a cell phone. Maybe it was because I was nerd and got such great pleasure out of immersing myself in my studies. But hey — the thing is I could immerse myself. Being immersed in learning was an option. I don’t have the sense that this option is available to the students I teach today. There’s no time.

I first began noticing this during my master’s degree studies. Part of my work back in that day was researching cohort models for adult learners. I realized that the mantra here was “the faster the better.” Institutions competed for students on this basis. “Offering your Master of Education degree in 24 months? Heck we’ll do it in 20. We’ll compress the shit out of it.” This competition worked because it appealed to students. In my case, the target audience was practicing teachers  who were interested in learning, but also had kids at home and full-time jobs, and pay raises to anticipate once they completed their graduate degrees.

In the years that followed, I saw students I taught taking two courses in summer term, sometimes while working or taking care of kids. I did the math and told them point-blank they wouldn’t be able to complete the work assigned in my class if they were trying to do it all. It wasn’t temporally possible. But they would attempt to do it anyway. They were not atypical. It is now common to believe that we can bend the laws of physics with sheer will and determination.

As an instructor, its deeply frustrating to see your students bleary-eyed and exhausted, grinding through the ideas that you love in this “get ‘er done” fashion. You know they’re missing the best parts – that they’ll never see richness in the ideas you want to share. It’s like you wrap up this gift you think is amazing, and the person opens it, clearly doesn’t know what the hell it is, and offers an awkward thanks before shoving it in her backpack.

I wrestle with this frustration, but I’m not mad at my students. I’m mad at a world that says that everything we do has to happen at a million miles an hour. That’s how we end up with undergraduates with depression and anxiety doing class presentations on kids with depression and anxiety.

Slow Learning

We have a well-established slow food movement. There’s slow parenting. There are slow cities and slow fashion movements. Maybe we’re due for some slow learning. I teach pre-service teachers. “Don’t you want your kids to enjoy learning,” I ask? They nod. Of course. But, they’re not having any damn fun learning themselves. And they will soon be entering classrooms that subject young children to a dense curriculum and regimen of standardized learning and testing that brings them, like unwitting little frogs, to a slow boil in the water of instrumentalism.

I get that not everyone is going to bask in long hours of study as I do. But there’s more at stake here than the leisurely strolls of yore across college courtyards. We need slow learning because speed learning is taken at the expense of the mental and physical health of students of all ages. We need slow learning because the most complex problems we face in the world require wisdom, deliberation, and consensus building, none of which occur quickly or gratuitously.