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Slow Learning

Updated: Jul 16, 2020

The pressure is on teachers to identify learning objectives, introduce at least one disciplinary core idea, elaborate on it, give students time to practice it, and formatively assess it all in one class period. Then, following a carefully crafted pacing calendar, move on to another disciplinary core idea the next day. At the end of the unit and again at the end of the school year, students will take a test and do well on it. It is all very logical and neat and organized. However, it is not consistent with the nature of human growth and development.

Learning needs to be built on a model of diversity rather than conformity, students need to re-engage with ideas repeatedly at intervals and from varying angles, and they need to make more and more connections between those ideas and new ideas they learn over time. As teachers become master educators, their instruction goes beyond getting students to memorize information to getting students to apply what they’ve learned to getting students to analyze complex observations, formulate their own conclusions, and synthesize their own thoughts. This is what truly constitutes highly effective instruction.

Authentic learning that persists in our memories requires time and effort. Fast learning is like fast food. It might be efficient and easy to prepare but it doesn’t provide high-quality nourishment. That’s why our case studies are designed to facilitate conversations that last over at least two class periods, and they revisit some of the same ideas and skills utilized in other case studies. Brain research has confirmed that revisiting an idea 24 hours after it was introduced, and then revisiting it again another 2-3 times over the weeks and months that follow, creates the long-lasting neural connections that in turn create memories that persist for decades.

This reality directly confronts the values of today’s world. The pace of life today has created the expectation for instant results. If I want something, I tap a few times on a screen, and it gets delivered to my house. Most people strive for careers that provide them with lots of money for little effort or risk. Master educators are patient and invest in learning activities that allow time for true exploration, deep, thoughtful analysis, and rich classroom discussion that persists beyond the classroom and into student’s homes. The classroom experience for students in courses taught by master educators are far more interesting and feel less rushed. Students are less stressed and develop more positive relationships with their teachers, and their students perform better on externally assessed summative assessments such as AP or IB exams.

It takes a little practice, and some trial and error, to develop a teaching system that makes connections from different units repeatedly throughout the school year. The pace of instruction may appear slower at first, but more learning that persists in the minds of students is actually occuring. Celebrate diversity of thought, embrace robust debate, and model how to disagree with others in a fun and respectful manner by using phrases such as:

“Disagreement is great. It prompts us to re-analyze our conclusions deeply and revise them when the evidence points us in a different direction. That’s what we call learning!”

“I love it when I realize I am wrong, because that is evidence that I just learned something!”

“Sometimes differing perspectives are challenging to hear because they prompt an emotional response in us. It’s important to not let that emotional response cloud our thinking, and it is especially vital that we not let it interfere with our relationships with others. I have deep respect for and strong friendships with colleagues who vigorously disagree with me on issues I hold quite dear.”

“That’s a great point [Student A], what more can you add to that [Student B]?”

“Interesting. What more can you tell us about…..?”

“Why do you think that?”

“That’s a valid position to take. Now, what piece of information would lead you to take the other position?” or “What piece of information would lead you to conclude otherwise?”

“That great insight [Student A]. Now, do you have a different point of view, [Student B]?”

“There’s plenty of space for alternative viewpoints on this question. What do you think [Student C]?”

“It is our responsibility as students in pursuit of Truth to respect various conclusions, especially on this particular question which was intentionally designed to prompt robust debate and classroom discussion, so let’s have that robust discussion! But always respect those who hold differing views. Reasonable people can disagree on this question. The important thing here ultimately is not that we come to agreement, but that we explore the question deeply together.”

Remember, when students are formulating their arguments, they are engaging with the content as deeply as they can. These are precisely the moments when learning happens! When you walk into your classroom and your students are excited and already vibrantly yet respectfully discussing your case study, and having a ton of fun all the while, we think you’ll find your efforts were worthwhile.

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