Relearning the Lost Skill of Patience

Students need to learn the value of slowing down and focusing on one task at a time—and teachers can help them do it.

This weekend, my son undertook his weekly backpack cleanout, dumping wadded papers, overdue permission slips, graded homework, and some ghastly lunch remnants on our living room floor. He handed me the pile of papers he thought I’d want to see, and there, in his wadded homework, my professional and personal life collided.

One of his assignments asked him to select the proper meaning of a word in a sentence such as:

They could see the school from the glass-bottom boat.

a. a place for learning           b. a group of fish

He’d selected, “a.” When I asked him why he picked “a,” he admitted that once he read the entire sentence, he knew the right answer, but he was eager to get it over with.

This childish impatience—this rush to get the answer before really thinking through the question—appears in our adult world, too. It's in the online readers who comment without finishing whole articles, in pundits who speak in soundbytes. It’s everywhere. Fortunately, though, it has a cure, and teachers can help administer it.

The answer lies in teaching methods that stress patience, critical thinking, and a delayed response based on deep  and meaningful contemplation. In the current issue of Harvard Magazine, humanities professor Jennifer L. Roberts describes her teaching methodology in the article, “The Power of Patience.” Roberts has made a pedagogical move toward teaching that engineers, “in a conscientious and explicit way, the pace and tempo of the learning experiences.” As part of that effort, she has purposefully shifted her assignments toward work that requires her students to slow down and gives them opportunities “to engage in deceleration, patience, and immersive attention.”

I would argue that these are the kind of practices that now most need to be actively engineered by faculty, because they are simply no longer available “in nature,” as it were. Every external pressure, social and technological, is pushing students in the other direction, toward immediacy, rapidity, and spontaneity—and against this other kind of opportunity. I want to give them the permission and the structures to slow down.”

Roberts describes a recent assignment, one designed to engage her students in immersion and sustained engagement rather than superficial memorization for a test.  She asks her students to write a research paper based on one work of art. The first step in that assignment is to spend “a painfully long time looking at that object,” in this case, three full hours. “The time span,” she explains, “is explicitly designed to seem excessive,” and “crucial to the exercise is the museum or archive setting, which removes the student from his or her everyday surroundings and distractions.”

Her intention is to show students that extended attention reveals nuances and details unavailable to the casual student or rushed museum-goer. She notes that “just because you have looked at [a painting] does not mean that you have seen it. Just because something is available instantly to vision does not mean that it is available instantly to consciousness. Or, in slightly more general terms: access is not synonymous with learning. What turns access into learning is time and strategic patience.”

Access is not synonymous with learning. This is the line that leapt out at me, the line I’d love to see teachers run with as they apply professor Roberts’ view to the study of literature, science, and math. To teach students that answers don’t always come easily and require time to emerge from the noise. In recent discussions with teachers about the challenges of teaching novel-length texts in classrooms, I found that many teachers have abandoned the use of novels in their classrooms altogether. Many teachers, in an effort to ease homework loads and make way for more time dedicated to problem- or project-based learning, have decided to opt for shorter works such as short stories and essays. Teachers may replace the novel with short stories intended to truncate the experience of reading and the application of Freytag’s Pyramid to a one-hour class, but no matter how brilliant the story, it does not replicate the experience, the journey, of a novel. The answers may not lie on page two, but that’s a good thing. The experience of reading Great Expectations is fulfilling in part because of the wait for answers. My students clamor to know who Pip’s benefactor is and whether or not he will end up with Estella, but when we find out together, after weeks of travel along Pip’s journey, the answers are just that much more delicious.

We can ease our students back into the skill of patience by asking them to stick with stories that don’t answer all their questions on page one. When I sense one of my students may be frustrated by the relatively slow pace and unanswered mysteries of Great Expectations, I hand them David Almond’s book Skellig, as a way to help them have more ease with not knowing. The ambiguity of this magical creature, and the reality that it has to be okay that we don’t know what it is or where it came from will help them deal with the ambiguity of Dickens’ détente between Estella and Pip.

Another project that’s been a great success in giving students the permission and structure to slow down is the forensics unit devised by teachers John Phipps and Casey Milender and executed by the ninth-grade Hanover High School science teachers. This month-long unit metes out information over weeks, requiring students to analyze a crime scene, collect data, and think critically about that data over at least a month before they arrive at their final answers. As Milender describes it, “The combination of the quick answers they find in a day, such as in a luminol lab and a blood typing lab, and the more complex answers that take weeks, such as the blood spatter analysis based on geometry, give the kids gratification during the project, but they really can’t draw the larger conclusions until the end, when they put all these pieces together.” My older son has been wrestling with the challenges of this unit, and the sustained patience, engagement, and curiosity I’ve overheard in my carpool have been a wonder to behold. These teachers understand that science is not a field that delivers quick answers, and through this project, they arm students with both the practical skills and the intellectual patience to quiet their minds and reject quick conclusions until all the evidence is in.

If this comfort with delayed gratification and unknowns extends to their ability to embrace intellectual intangibles as imaginary numbers, dark matter, and the curvature of space, then they will be more confident and brave thinkers as they move into the world.

When I hand my students novels and other projects that require close analysis, critical thinking, and patience, I challenge them to rise above the the basic skills of word recognition and reading comprehension. I am asking them to wait. To keep reading, keep listening. To be patient and formulate their opinions based on all the evidence, and then comment on what they see and hear armed with more than a sound bite, a title, or a tweet. To spend the time and have the patience to do more than look at the world, but to see it.