Learning Can Take Time

While reading this excellent article in Mind/Shift, I came across a powerful quote from author and engineering professor Barbara Oakley: "...you have to inoculate learners against the idea that they are stupid if they cannot figure things out first off. You have to teach them that faster is not always better."


I see this all the time, both when I am teaching students a new skill and when I'm helping them hone a skill they haven't yet mastered. Their self-talk is often quite negative and global: "I'm bad at math," "I will never understand this," or "I hate writing. I want to do something else."


There is an insidious belief floating around that if we can't learn something quickly, we must not be good at it, and worse still, that we are somehow intellectually inferior to those who can pick it up rapidly.


Neither of those things are true.


In the article, Oakley talks about a brilliant metaphor that can help learners understand that learning is sometimes a slow process, and that slowness is actually a virtue. She has called it race car brain vs. hiker brain.


She explains, "There’s a race car brain and a hiker brain. They both get to the finish line, but not at the same time. The race car brain gets there really fast, but everything goes by in a blur. The hiker brain takes time. It hears birds singing, sees the rabbit trails, feels the leaves. It’s a very different experience and, in some ways, much richer and deeper. You don’t need to be a super swift learner. In fact, sometimes you can learn more deeply by going slowly."


The key, Oakley says, is to move back and forth between race car brain and hiker brain. The racer brain is the one that is focused and can move quickly to integrate concepts. But some learning requires hiker brain, which has a more diffuse quality. This is the kind of thinking you do when daydreaming, taking a shower, or going for a long walk. It happens in the background and goes deeper, helping you understand what you are learning.


Here I am again, advocating for down time, daydreaming, and plenty of sleep, because those are times when the hiking brain helps students integrate and understand what they are learning.


I highly recommend reading the entire article to discover even more gems about the learning brain.​