Learning, slow then fast

For the past few months, I’ve taken on the habit of reading multiple books at once. One for my Mastermind group book club and one for my own enjoyment. It means it might take a little longer to finish each book, but often provides some unique connections. At the moment I am reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.

While Kahneman breaks down the way we think, both fast and slow, Coyle hones in on the way that talent is developed. (I haven’t finished either book yet, so I’ll stop there with my summaries.)

Kahneman describes our thinking as two systems – System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System 2 is more deliberate and logical. System 1 is dominant, using past experience and prior knowledge to make quick judgments that help us move through our day with ease. Because our brains are generally lazy, we rely on System 1 a little too often, and think faster than we should. This can be beneficial (i.e. hearing a crack above our head makes us look up and move away from danger), but also lead us to incorrect assumptions (i.e. the Muller-Lyon illusion, which line is longer?)


System 2 questions System 1 and makes us rethink that initial thought so that we can make better, more accurate judgments (i.e. You won’t get tricked again by the Muller-Lyon illusion and may hesitate to judge any similar problem quickly). The challenge is that it takes a good deal of time and effort to develop System 2’s abilities and our brain’s willingness to bypass System 1.

This is where Coyle’s exploration of talent comes in. My favorite term so far in this book is the Holy Shit Effect (HSE). When someone is so talented, they make something spectacularly hard look spectacularly easy, we experience the HSE. Coyle zooms in on places where the HSE is particularly prevalent, one being Meadowmount School of Music, a camp that has helped produce the likes of Yo-Yo Ma and Itzahk Perlman with their emphasis on deep practice.

Deep practice at this school asks student to slow down the music so much that it is utterly unrecognizable – one teacher’s rule: “if a passerby can recognize the song being played, it’s not being practiced slow enough.”

One student describes his experience of successful deep practice as ‘clicking in.’ “When I click in, every note is being played for a purpose. It feels like I’m building a house. It feels like, this brick goes here, that one goes there, I connect them and get a foundation. Then I add the walls, connect those. Then the roof, then the pain, then hopefully, it all hangs together.”

Drumming it out

Strangely enough, this winter I decided to buy my first drum, a cajon. I’ve always liked the idea of drums, and I like to bang on my steering wheel, so I thought buying an actual instrument and learning how to actually play an instrument at the young age of 35 was a great idea. Needless to say, it’s been a slow process, but not because I’ve been going slowly; or at least not like The Talent Code describes.

I have no idea how to read drum music yet, but a Youtube tutorial that was helping me learn included it, so I tried to read it. No matter how I tried, however, it just didn’t make sense. My brain and hands felt light years apart. As I read about the Meadowmount strategy for learning to play a song, I tested it out. I slowed it down until it was unrecognizable and then built up to a faster speed. Unfortunately, it still didn’t sound like the guy in the video. However, laying in my bed at night, reading more, I began to recall the beat and play it slowly on the side of my bed. (This also makes me think about the importance of retrieval practice.) Most importantly, I didn’t wake up my wife. Of slightly less importance, as I chunked the pieces together, I started to grasp the rhythm and my brain and hands seemed to sync up.

The next night, I took to the cajon and tried it out again. It still took some time, but I moved between slow and fast until it felt natural and I had it. It sounded almost as good as the guy in the video. Of course, my overconfidence led me to move on too quickly and attempt the next part of the tutorial (adding the bass), which took me back a step. So I slowed that part down, and worked through it, with a little success. Using the clicking in metaphor, I’ve probably only got one or two bricks, but it felt like they clicked together last night. We’ll see what tomorrow brings, but I feel much more confident going forward.

Thinking fast because I can think slow

Kahneman’s research, along with his late partner Amos Tversky, which is summarized in Thinking, Fast and Slow book has clearly influenced many other authors, but the number of connections I am making right now seems unprecedented. I am thinking of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink and Outliers, Benedict Carey’s How we learn, the conversation I had with a kindergartener yesterday, and my son at soccer practice tonight. It is clear from Kahneman’s work that we, humans, need to think both fast and slow to function in our daily lives. The more efficient we can become at both, the better off we will be.

It is also becoming clear that true learning takes on a similar pattern. While my cajon drumming has benefited from the slow down, speed up method, there are other times when it is essential to emphasize speed in learning. Countering the Meadowmount music method is Brazilian futsal, a game Coyle describes as being essential to the development of Brazilian soccer. The game is based on speed and quick touches on the ball. The more touches a player gets, with constant feedback as other players attempt to take the ball from you, the more effective those players become.

I’m sure some of those players practice slowly when they aren’t playing an opponent though. Sometimes you have go fast before you go slow and then speed up again. Some people need to work fast, while others need to slow down, and we need to give them room to do that.

Most importantly to me right now is that learning can’t occur at one pace. We often talk about differentiating learning in the classroom through various strategies. Maybe the speed at which we ask students to learn, or giving them the choice about what speed they want or need to learn, is an important part of that conversation we haven’t fully considered yet.


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