Tuesday, August 18, 2015


“The better you know something, the less you remember how hard it was to learn.”  Steven Pinker, “The Sense of Style” 2014

In his book, “The Sense of Style” Steven Pinker goes into detail about “The Curse of Knowledge”. The Curse of knowledge according to Pinker is, “A difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.”

I see Pinker’s concept demonstrated over and over again in training seminars or in one-on-one teaching sessions. That is, it is difficult for the teacher to put themselves in the position of the student. It is even more difficult for the teacher to understand the learning processes of a slow learner and the method they require to learn the material. As someone who has, at times, struggled with the learning process, I wanted to take a moment to defend the slow learner. In this post I mention what you as the educator can do to assist the slow learner.

(These are simply my own “Learning Tips” which I believe are absolutely essential to helping slower learners. I’m not referring to individuals who have been legally deemed “Learning Disabled” by a psychiatrist and now receive special treatment and accommodations for their disability. I’m referring to individuals who do not fit the criteria for this label—yet receive just as much derision and contempt from society, but get none of the accommodations. In other words, I’m referring to individuals who are smart enough “To get by” (IQ’s between 90-105) but often have a difficult time deciding what they want to do in life, securing a steady, decent-paying, long-term job and/or successfully completing a college degree. It is my thought that being a slower learner makes it hard to achieve such things.)


1.  Please don’t try and reassure us by saying, “You’re thinking too hard”. THIS DOES NOT HELP!  While it may be true that we are putting a lot of mental effort into the thinking process, understand that this is the level of energy we require! Processing information takes more work for us. By parroting such a statement, you are making this assumption: that we haven’t tried the route of “not thinking so hard” before. Believe me, we have, and this hasn’t worked. Not once. In the past, when we tried making less effort and “didn’t think so hard” we were even farther away from grasping the concept. In other words, we do need to think hard and long (and many times over) to get an accurate—or near-accurate response/result on something. Telling us to “Stop thinking so hard” is not only getting old, but is dismissive and it totally misunderstands the intense mental effort that slower learners require to even keep on track, or, much more, comprehend the idea or skill.

2.  Please don’t rush over information quickly—especially when there are a lot of steps in a sequence or a lot of depth to the concept. Also, expect us to bring a pen and pad of paper to write down the directions that you are giving us. For those of us who are slower learners, we struggle with a poor working memory. We can’t temporarily hold a lot of disparate information while at the same time encode it, store it and then retrieve it as needed. We must first refer to the “step-by-step” list that we have written down. This serves as a memory cue until we have consolidated the sequence of steps into our long-term memory.

3.  Please do not tell us to “Calm down” or “Take a deep breath” as we attempt to learn something. This will be interpreted as you trying to “Control our behavior”—and will inadvertently create more anxiety which gets in the way of learning. Sometimes the mannerisms and/or behavior that we employ help us learn the process. We have enough to focus on as it is—like the specific task or concept at hand. Telling us to also “compose ourselves” in a rigid demeanor (as defined by you) is just one additional thing to bog down our memory as we are trying to learn the important task or skill.

4.  Please don’t say “Slow Down” or “Sit still” when we are completing a series of physical tasks. Notice how you always tell us to “slow down” when the task is physical but you tell us to “speed up” when the task is mental? I can’t quite articulate this conundrum other than: Sometimes, believe it or not, in order for us to keep up mentally we end up overcompensating physically; this results in our physical bodies moving more quickly and appearing to have more rapid, out-of-sync, shifting, jerky movements. Children might rock around in their chairs or have a hard time standing or sitting still as they try to learn. Adults will have their own flavor of this kind of behavior. Don’t worry! This physical response will weaken over time, especially as we master the skill. Just give us time. If you think anyone needs to slow down—well, it is probably you!

5.  When we are learning a new task, step back and let us perform it in front of you to help us consolidate the process into our memory. Please do not “Rush us along” or “Offer pointers/tips” or “Jump in and complete aspects of the process for us.” We understand that normal/fast learners have a hard time being patient, but this is critical to our long-term learning. If you want to help us consolidate a memory where we won’t have to rely on you so much for additional prompts in the future, you should let us get the general concept under our belt first. In time we can add on extra details and/or refine the technique. What we need from you is to “watch us” instead of “jumping in and taking control of the process”. You can offer a few, specific pointers after we have finished the demonstration.

6.  Do not assume that we know something without our ability to independently “Teach you the concept” or “Demonstrate the skill” back to you WITHOUT PROMPTS!

7.  Please refrain from constantly talking to us or adding on novel information as we are attempting to demonstrate the skill.  Shut up for a moment. Offering “additional pointers” is NEVER helpful as it ends up being an extra distraction that we have to filter out. We are already struggling with the general skill at hand and the fewer instructions the better. Once we have the rough idea or “template” of how to do something, THEN, and only THEN can we add on the new pieces to refine our technique. We just need to get there first.

8.  Please be patient and encouraging as you help us learn the skill or concept. Do not resort to ridicule—or worse—being a patronizing bigot. Make sure and offer positive feedback when we complete a task correctly.

9.  Showing your impatience towards us interferes with our learning process. We get it, we have an average or slightly below average IQ while you’re working with at least a 110. We are using different mental software than you are—what do you expect?

10.  Give us a moment to think, reevaluate and correct ourselves independently before you “Burst in with the correct answer or technique”.  We get it, you already understand the concept.  Many times we will correct our mistakes or adjust our thinking pattern if you give us a few moments. By giving us a moment to reevaluate the process on our own (without your feedback) we will better encode the concept/skill into our long-term memory. It is also rewarding to know that we have accomplished something independently; this also helps raise our confidence.

11.  Understand that we are going to interrupt you as you are teaching us something. You should ABSOLUTELY expect this! Sometimes we will need to clarify something with you ON THE SPOT and if we don’t resolve our misunderstanding at that exact moment, we will forget to mention it later. Furthermore, we will be stuck on the concept we misunderstood and not be able to move on, and follow your additional instructions.  It really comes down to a poor working memory and what we can hold. If you skate on by or suggest “Ask questions at the end” please know that we will have forgotten many of the things that we wanted to ask you about during each step of the process.  There is a reason why we occasionally interrupt—and it has nothing to do with being impolite—and everything to do with the fact that we will probably forget what we wanted to ask you by the end of the teaching session.

12.  Many slow learners are very intent on learning things and often try much, much harder than fast learners who take their learning speed for granted. We are not lazy but very earnest. Please give us the benefit of the doubt.


  1. I have had teacher who are guilty of some of the things done on this list. One of my history teachers (who knew her stuff very well) would go on the lecture in a way that was to fast to write down notes accurately. She would have slides on the board but her lecture did not go in the exact order of the slides. Frustrating when trying to look back o your notes.

    One of the things the ticks me off is when teachers give a piece of information once or twice and tell more of others things more often. The stuff they emphasis more is what you write down and focus on. Then when you are tested on the stuff, you come across something you don't recall or can think through. You miss that question. You come to the teacher and discuss this and they tell you "Oh we mention that weeks ago remember?" And I'm like in my mind, "Yeah, one time awhile back and it was note stress as a important note unlike other parts of the lecture."

    One thing teachers could do is look over their stuff and think "How could one misunderstand this information?" This should promote better teaching methods.

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Renee!

    At first, I was surprised---I wouldn't expect such an assertive and articulate person such as you to self-identify as a slow-learner.

    When I started teaching English as a 2nd language, learning one myself became imperative in order to appreciate what students must be experiencing.

    During B.Ed. studies, self-efficacy theory greatly intrigued me, as it related to what I'd call our inner dialogue. I remember the day I bet $50 to prove to one of my very first students that his belief about his ability was not only erroneous, but the primary impediment to his sense of well-being.

    Rigid belief is very much an impediment to so much it seems. Last year, I learned of quantum physicist David Bohm's notion of 'proprioception' of mind/thought---a sort of mental supervisor. In 'Bohm Dialogues' members are asked to suspend judgment and belief in order to fully explore and experience other viewpoints.

    Renee, you mentioned the importance of 'consolidating' understanding and the difficulty slow learners have with that process. It would seem that would directly relate to the lack of neural connections between various regions of the brain.

    Lately, on lunch breaks in parks, or on subway commutes, I've been studying the response of various toddlers (aged 2 to 4) to my presence here in China. Some immediately perceive me as a threat due to my towering height and foreign features and a few even cry at the mere sight of me. What's intrigues me about their behavior is the apparent lack of signs of an internal dialogue one would naturally expect were I a real threat--crying loudly and pulling frantically at its mother's clothing. Instead, the deer-in-the-headlight phenomenon they exhibit as they hide behind their mother suggests the inner dialogue---the neural connections between various brain regions, has been compromised. Perhaps we should consider such shyness a sign of poor mental health.

    My guess is the lower limbic (emotional) system is not able to communicate with the frontal cortex. When this 'inter-brain communication' functions normally at this age, the child is naturally curious and sees by my face I pose no threat.

    Could such children not only be more verbal and inquisitive at an early stage, but more emotionally stable and critical thinkers throughout their lives? And what about those in or past mid life who still cling to New Earth Christianity, like your grandfather, Renee? How afraid would he have been as a 2 year old if a smiling black man approached? Would he have hid behind his parent?