Teaching Tuesday: Pace and Teaching

If you pay attention to quality teaching articles online, then you’ve undoubtedly lingered over Jennifer Roberts’ recent piece in Harvard Magazine. She describes – in a remarkably SoTL free article – how she encourages students to slow down and look carefully at a work of art. She introduces the idea of deceleration as a tonic against the immediacy and spontaneity of the modern world. Invariably the technology is to blame for the distracted and impatient state of our undergraduate students, and Roberts suggested that making students slow down to contemplate a work of art for three hours can serve to train students to focus their attention on details and to see things that we tend to miss in our fast-paced world.

In a couple of recent interviews, anthropologist Tim Ingold reminds us that modern technology – including the tyranny of the keyboard – carries with it risks to how we create and see the world. He prefers to write by hand and requires his students to do so. For Ingold, handwriting has an aesthetic value that challenges the homogenized, regular world of typed work.

Both of these scholars are encouraging our students to slow down and become more aware of their experiences, and this is surely commendable. At the same time, both of the techniques these scholars employ to encourage students to decelerate and become more patient with how they experience the world are not singular discrete actions, but processes embedded within a much larger and complex learning environment. Learning from a painting over three hours is not something that most students are prepared to do. To make this a meaningful exercise, students have internalized a series of little acts of viewing that they can repeat for a sustained period of time. For students to benefit from an exercise in handwriting they have to know how to produce a handwritten text. This involves additional steps of planning, composing, and revising that most students raised in the computer era have not internalized.

Putting aside the issues of who has 3 hours to do anything in this world, I do think that the skills associated with careful and patient observation are scalable to real world situations. Sustained iterative engagements with texts, objects, and problems is a learned skill.

(I’m profoundly skeptical of approaches that imply students can learn complex skills “on their own”.)  

I have thought rather informally about some of the issues of that Ingold and Roberts sought to explode in their methods in my own classes. I agree with them that the pace of the class and of any given activity is an important component of student engagement. My approach was, however, has been the opposite of Roberts’ but I’d like to think had a similar goal. Instead of slowing the student engagement with the course material down, I have worked to speed it up. As I have blogged about in the past, I took some inspiration from Chip Kelly’s uptempo football practices at the University of Oregon. Instead of walking players slowly and deliberately though formations and plays, he taught his offense almost entirely at game speed. When players required additional coaching, he would rotate the player out of the drill and substitute another play in at that position allowing the drills to continue at top speed. Kelly’s system encouraged players to think quickly, to adapt, and to build conditioning at game pace. While this might appear completely opposite to Roberts’ deliberate and patient observation, I’d argue that both methods use pace to make their charges more away of how they engage the world.

To make this happen in my classes, I’ve worked to break assignments into smaller parts and to compress the time allowed for these short assignments as a way to keep students on task. By keeping the class “up tempo” I attempt to drive out the opportunity for distractions. Some of my colleagues complain that students surf the net, Facebook, or text during class. My usual response is to ask why the students have time to do things like that.  

Like so much in teaching, I suspect putting students in a place to think consciously about how they engage their own learning is more important than how they actually learn. Being conscious of how we pace learning and alternating between rapid exercises and sustained activities that draw upon these same techniques provides a disciplined environment  


  1. I have to say that I get very impatient with the constant assertion that technology is to blame for anything and everything that we find lacking in our students. It’s such a lazy argument yet it gets deployed constantly. I mean, is pen and paper not technology? Or is that how God intended us to write?

    After all, as Thamus pointed out, writing “will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory” (Plato, Phaedrus 275a).


  2. I like the truly like the “decelerating” part of the piece, and am quite sure that for many of us, writing by hand is a different cognitive and creative process than writing by keyboard. That said, the pedagogy part seems a bit off. Three hours of staring at a painting is more likely to yield a trance for 2.5 hrs, insights for 0.5 hours. 30 minutes looking at one painting is a great deal of time. When was the last time you looked at a painting for more than 2 minutes? If they were required to draw the piece, that might slow them down. It reminds me of doing a jigsaw puzzle with smaller children. 10 minutes chunks = progress. 30 minute chunks =same amount of progress plus hatred of puzzles.


  3. I like the idea of teaching patience, it also fits well with the need to get people to walk through the woods/meadow/park and enjoy the outdoors more often.


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