Guest Column

On Going Slowly

by BRUCE E. STORM

In recent days, I have been reading about the concept of slowing down and what that phrase can mean to how we approach our lives.

An article about the benefits of teachers talking slowly to their students prompted me to do some thinking in a more general sense about approaching life at a more reasoned pace, with increased awareness and thoughtful focus.

To get started, I plugged “slowing down” into my search engine. Not surprisingly, the identified links had to do with an apparently growing movement to bring our “rush-aholic” world under control.

One website (www.slowmovement.com) offers subpages with the titles “Slow Travel,” “Slow Cities,” “Slow Food,” “Slow Schools” and so forth. Clicking on “Slow Books” led me to a page that makes the case for getting back into pleasure reading done at a pace that provokes total enjoyment. This and the other pages invite me to do more things slowly, thoughtfully and deliberately. The payoff apparently will be a less damaging and debilitating lifestyle.

Elsewhere, I learned of “slow coaches” (www.zenhabits.net) and how, with the assistance of someone in possession of the habits and tactics for simplifying and slowing down, I can achieve such objectives as “slow schools” and “slow exercise.” It’s hard not to smile when coming across these concepts, but when you look a bit deeper and consider what is implied by the seemingly contradictory terms, something is there to take away.

The Rest Step
Phil Powers, a tour guide and experienced mountaineer, told National Public Radio in an interview a few years ago that, as the product of a frenetic household, he was prone to rushing around and “moving too quickly, missing the connection, making mistakes.” That is, until he learned from a mentor something called the rest step. As a climber he learned to rest completely and briefly in the middle of each step. Today he finds himself climbing with more vigor because of the pause in each step. Here, then, may be another example of slow exercise, where deliberateness and focus lead to enjoyment and benefits that might seem counterintuitive.

To return to what prompted my slowing--down investigation in the first place, I had read of the work of an audiology professor at Wichita State University, Ray Hull, whose research has focused on the pace of speaking and its relationship to student listening and learning. Hull’s main point is a simple one. When the listener
processes words at one rate and the speaker delivers words at a rate that is considerably more rapid, the likelihood of confusion and even total disengagement exists.

According to Hull, the average teacher speaks at a rate of close to 170 words per minute, while the average K-12 student makes sense of what is heard at a rate of only 120 words per minute. When such a gap exists, the child’s inability to process can manifest itself in a range of ways, from frequent confusion to consistently poor deportment. The processing rate increases modestly for high school students to 140 to 145 words per minute, making it altogether possible that the gap, while smaller, continues throughout the school years. The dissonance between words delivered and words heard has the potential to detract from school success.

Of course, this advice has application in my own sphere. Recently, I found myself answering a school board member’s question at a clipped pace. I suspect I did so because I was not really attending to whether anyone understood my answer. In subsequent meetings, I made a conscious effort to take a breath or two before answering and then to communicate more thoughtfully and from the desire to make myself clear. I believe the slow answer ultimately cut down on the number of follow-up questions — particularly those that were off topic or revealed a hidden agenda.

Transitioning Ourselves
One could argue that rapid delivery of information by faculty is necessary to cover all of the required curriculum, but that argument just won’t hold up. Moving slowly when new or complex work is introduced and discussed can be balanced against those instances when classroom routines or foundation knowledge are part of the mix.

Increasing the pace of teacher talk when dealing with known and easily understood material should have little or no consequence for most students and should offset those times when teacher talk needs to be measured, deliberate and focused. The more often students get it the first time, the less time teachers must spend on repetitive explanations and examples.

Who knows? Perhaps by consciously talking more slowly to our students — and to our own children, especially our young ones — we can make learning less daunting and success more attainable by some who might otherwise not connect. Of course, the real challenge is to transition ourselves from what seems an obvious proposition to actually going slowly, talking slowly, in real time.

Bruce Storm is superintendent of Regional School District 12 in Washington Depot, Conn. E-mail: stormb@region-12.org