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.”