Saturday, August 22, 2015

Dualism in Learning: Fast and Slow have Equal Value

During my recent fellowship in Peru, I learned of the Peruvian culture’s appreciation for dualism.  Man and woman. Life and death. Day and night. Light and dark.  Peruvians believe opposite values are to be acknowledged for their strengths and importance in the cycle of life. For me, the idea of dualism extends to teaching and learning.  In particular, the relationship between fast and slow acquisition of skills.

The students in our classrooms today, referred to as Generation Z students, learn faster and are tech savvy.  Comparatively they have a short attention span.  They are comfortable multi-tasking, networking and are used to the convenience of acquiring information quickly.  They can instantly send and receive messages to friends and loved ones who are in the same room or thousands of miles away.  They have high expectations for automaticity in most parts of their lives.

When considering the idea of dualism… we must emphasize to our students and parents that no matter how quickly information can be retrieved, acquiring skills may take time.  We must remember the values of both fast and slow. Not everything can be acquired quickly.  Mastering basic reading and math skills takes effort, focus, application, and yes, time.

In the last ten years or so as a 5th grade teacher, I have noticed a change in student and parent attitudes about the mastery of basic facts.  Too often parents, frustrated by their child’s lack of mastery of times tables, have expressed to me their frustrations and the idea that they have given up trying.  “Oh, yes, those times tables.  We tried those.  We just couldn’t get them memorized.”  For me, there is a connection between the nearly instantaneous retrieval of information and the lack of patience for mastering basic facts and skills.  Our Generation Z students are used to retrieving information and entertainment almost instantly, but the mastery of basic facts takes time.  Time that many in this generation have not developed patience for.  I understand that some students have learning disabilities that may interrupt the process of storing basic facts into long term memory banks.  That aside, even those students who understand the concept of multiplication and could demonstrate it using an array or other method, often struggle to master those precious multiplication facts needed to analyze and solve mathematical problems.  For the Generation Z students, I see a strong connection between the convenience of technology and the lack of patience in mastering basic facts and skills.

Staying in line with this idea of dualism… I have experienced some positive results in spite of this frustrating issue.  Often times by simply describing the conflicting ideas of automaticity and time intensive skill mastery, many of the parents in my class have become inspired to create regular blocks of time for practice at home.  Taken in by the expectation of instant information and resources themselves, parents often overlook the need to spend time playing math games, using rhymes or music, running flash cards, and connecting math used in cooking and other projects at home with their kids.  Too often parents of Generation Z students assume fact mastery will happen easily by using the newest downloaded app.  Emphasizing the benefits of making emotional connections and using verbal and kinesthetic skills with your child while practicing basic facts is very helpful to parents. By simply making them aware of the somewhat slower process of acquiring fact fluency, I have seen many parents make a renewed effort to spend more time helping their children to master those precious facts. 

Fast and slow.  The Peruvians have it right.  Both have value, but when mastering basic facts, slower is definitely more powerful.  After facts are mastered, that’s when the speed begins…