Is Slow Stupid?

A bird strike.

A flock of birds hits an engine at altitude, taking it out. The plane is now flying on a single engine.

What would you do?

Pilots are told to wind their clocks. Figuratively. There is an analog clock in the cockpit that is seldom used. They are taught to wind it. Meaning, take a few seconds to pause and think. In fact the saying is, “No fast hands in the cockpit.” Statistically, pilots make bad mistakes when they rush. To avoid this, they are taught to be methodical so that they don’t act rashly. In a hurry, they could choose to shut off the wrong engine, instead of the correct one. This could happen if there is no deliberation. Action, especially in a serious situation like a bird strike, must be taken slowly. Pause. Think. Then act with clarity.

That’s not what most of us are taught.

“Do it quickly!” is what we hear from parents and teachers alike.

Well, yes, we are taught to pause and think. To take our time to do things right. But there’s a general consensus on how much time something should take. For instance, school children are told that they must read clearly but are tested on the ‘correct’ speed according to the settings on a computer. This computer has been programmed to determine what the words per minute (WPM) should be, based on each grade. For instance, the first grade WPM is 80 and that of a fifth grader is 150. The rates are considered the general acceptable rates of reading.

Great, but what if you don’t.

Those who don’t read within those rates are defined as slower. If they are slower, are they stupid?

This is what Ben Orlin, a math teacher in Birmingham, England, has to say,

‘Consider slow. Its antonym is quick, or in less guarded moments, bright.
Usually, slow is used to mean “slow to understand.” It implies, “He doesn’t get it, even when everyone else does.” It says, “I’ve run out of ways to explain what an improper fraction is, and I don’t want to bore the other students with another futile attempt.”
In short, slow has become a stand-in for “a little bit stupid.”
That’s too bad. …intelligence consists of many cognitive skills, from spatial reasoning to word fluency. Slow refers to only one of these: processing speed.
When we use slow to mean dumb, we conflate speed with intellect. That’s a dangerous move. Our system of time-pressed tests and over scheduled afternoons already favors quick thinkers over deep ones. We ought to reserve the word slow for those specific students with slow processing speed, regardless of their other strengths and weaknesses.

If slow has become a stand-in for “a little bit stupid” let’s see what the word stupid means. Stupidity is defined as a lack of intelligence, understanding, reason, wit or sense. So can slow truly be a stand-in for stupid?

There is a historical figure who developed slower but could in no way be called stupid.

In my previous blog I mentioned that Einstein did not speak until he was four and did not read until he was seven, causing his teachers and parents to think he was mentally handicapped, ‘slow’ and anti-social. In later years he noted, “It is true that my parents were worried because I began to speak fairly late, so that they even consulted a doctor. I can’t say how old I was — but surely not less than three.”

As we have since learnt, Einstein was not mentally handicapped, ‘slow’ nor anti-social. His processing speed varied from others but it did not affect his intellect. He was a deep thinker. In fact, he told Nobel laureate, James Franck, that he believed that it is usually children, not adults, who reflect on space-time problems. But due to his slow development, this unfolded differently for him:

“The ordinary adult never gives a thought to space-time problems…. I, on the contrary, developed so slowly that I did not begin to wonder about space and time until I was an adult. I then delved more deeply into the problem than any other adult or child would have done.”

It would appear that he gleaned much from his slower (than socially accepted) development. He did not see it as a handicap, but as a beneficial aspect to the depth of his thinking. As he said, “I very rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I may try to express it in words afterwards.” This is in direct contrast to what many people do. As soon as a thought comes to mind, they are quick to share it. Sometimes it would have been best if they’d paused before speaking.

Pause. Think. Then act with clarity.

There is a lot of benefit to this. Research has shown that acting within time pressures limits the ability to think creatively. Instead, what’s possible is only seen through tunnel vision and not from an expansive basis. Great ideas seldom come from rushing to meet deadlines or updating social media while answering emails. They often come while we’re hiking up a mountain, quietly meditating in the still of the morning or soaking in the bathtub.

The greatest thinkers in history knew the value of doing things a little slower. Milan Kundera, author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, spoke about “the wisdom of slowness.” He famously said, “The degree of slowness is directionally proportional to the intensity of memory. The degree of speed is directionally proportional to the intensity of forgetting.” Albert Einstein spent hours just staring into space in his office at Princeton University. It is said that Charles Darwin described himself thus, “At no time am I a quick thinker or writer: whatever I have done in science has solely been by long pondering, patience, and industry.” When Isaac Newton was asked how he discovered the law of universal gravitation, he answered:

“By thinking on it continually. I keep the subject constantly before me and wait till the first dawnings open slowly, by little and little, into a full and clear light.

All these geniuses had one thing in common — they questioned deeply and thought critically.

But this way of thinking, reasoning and pondering, is often discouraged in the place where it should thrive — school.

When a child wanders in thought during the school hour he’s called ‘distracted’ or may be diagnosed with ADD (attention deficit disorder). If she takes longer to complete a task (but does it correctly) she’s called ‘slow.’ The public school system is not geared towards deep thinking. As Einstein noted, it’s about taking tests and being graded. Not much has changed.

In fact, standardized tests have put a real damper on critical thinking. Test output is the only measurement of intelligence. And if a child falls outside of the confines of these measurements they are labeled as ‘a little bit stupid.’ Not all children understand material in the same way, at the same pace. But public schools can only teach in ‘one way.’ It’s difficult to cater to every child’s needs when you have close to 30 students in one classroom. Every child is brilliant. If schools did what Einstein had yearned for during his schooling, namely, learning what he wanted to know, rather than learning ‘for the exam’ our whole world would be transformed.

America’s beloved President, Abraham Lincoln, did just that. He only had about 18 months of formal schooling when he was young. He was basically self-educated. Being an avid reader he taught himself what he needed to know. For instance, when he wanted to be a lawyer, he studied law on his own and became a lawyer. He practiced law without a degree. On top of all his accomplishments he had a patent for a device he invented to free steamboats that ran aground.

If children were allowed to deeply study what they were drawn to, new industries, inventions, careers would develop and transform our world. Einstein said, “The aim [of education] must be the training of independently acting and thinking individuals who, however, see in the service to the community their highest life problem.”

The classroom may not encourage this in our children. But as parents and those who interact with children, we can do so. The over-scheduled culture we have adopted for kids leads to more of the same. We should carve out time for children to be inquisitive, imaginative, dream and explore unique concepts. And give them the freedom to do so at their own pace, in their own time. This would allow these geniuses to alter our world in ways that we never could have imagined.

Google encourages its employees to practice elements of slowness at work. Imagine that! Its staff is encouraged to devote 20 percent of their time to personal projects. The aim is to allow creative ideas to flow without being hampered by deadlines or targets. Carl Honore, on his Huffpost blog explains:

The idea is that Google employees can tackle problems that really interest them at their own pace, free to think deeply, pursue hunches and flights of fancy, make mistakes, meander down dead ends that may ultimately illuminate a better route forward.
And it seems to work. Many of Google’s most innovative products, from Gmail to AdSense, have grown from projects hatched during 20 percent time.

This “free time” has clearly not been a waste of time for Google. Taking a slower approach has garnered personal and professional results for the company and its employees. Many schools have a similar concept in the latter part of Friday afternoons. But what if this concept was an integral part of the curricula?

Those who think critically may do so outside of societal norms but they always reach a result.

Being slow does not mean that one fails to act. When an idea comes to mind, one must act immediately. Einstein knew the benefit of this. He said, “Computers are incredibly fast, accurate, and stupid. Human beings are incredibly slow, inaccurate, and brilliant. Together they are powerful beyond imagination.” Andrew Jackson, the seventh US President, put it this way, “Take time to deliberate; but when the time for action arrives, stop thinking and go in.”

Once the pilot has taken the time to pause and think, she acts with exactitude to handle the emergency. The time she took to reason out her next step was not an intellectual vacuity. It was clear reasoning that allowed her to act with precision.

Pause. Think. Then act with clarity.

Is slow stupid?

“I am a slow walker, but I never walk back,” replies Abraham Lincoln.