243. Speed

In our culture, speed is usually seen as a good thing. We have fast food, instamatic cameras, quick-drying glue, and so on. If a child learns something faster than other children, the child is considered to have superior intelligence. One night I was stopped by the police for travelling thirty-five miles per hour in a fifty mile per hour zone. I wasn’t obstructing traffic; there were two lanes, and there weren’t any other cars around (except for the police car). I guess it’s just that it’s assumed that people will travel as quickly as they’re allowed to, and the officer just
wanted to make sure I was sober and okay. I was; I just felt good and wanted to savor the night. Besides, what’s the rush?
In most of the work children do in school – especially in math – there are children who firmly believe that the best way to perform is to get work done before other people. The quality of the work is important, too, but to these children, speed is far more important than accuracy, neatness, thoughtfulness, or anything else. Some of these children can work quickly, neatly, accurately, and even thoughtfully at the same time. Most do better work when they slow down, but they don’t want to slow down, because slowness is too often seen as a sign of inferiority.
I usually work slowly. I can compute quickly, but I don’t compute much; most of the work I do involves words, and I like to take my time with words, making sure I’m saying precisely what I want to say. I watch children write in school, and there’s a tendency for children to apply the speed criterion in writing – a child who fills up a page faster than other children is seen by other children as a talented writer. A child who searches for the right word, and thereby takes longer, is assumed by other children (and sometimes by himself/herself) to be less intelligent.
As a teacher, I often tried to counteract this pattern. Children who finished tasks before other children had a tendency to let everyone know they were done; their self-esteem was boosted by their speed, and by their ability to impress other children with their speed. I tried hard to arrange situations wherein these children could still find ways to feel proud of themselves, but not so much because of their speed. And I tried to make sure other children, who worked more slowly, didn’t end up with a self-esteem deficit. It can feel terrible to see someone else finish work when you’re only half done.
And so I tried to stagger children’s tasks so that children who worked quickly were not as conspicuous. As often as possible, I tried to plan lessons and activities in which speed was not such a detectable factor. But it would have helped if we, as a culture, emphasized quality and thought a little more, and speed a little less.

Comments are closed.