In our American culture, we learn early that those who work quickly and finish first get the prize. This has not only been the guiding principle in the sphere of business, but in our education system as well. As a clinician, and a learning consultant who worked with the Department of Education for decades, I have long wondered whether fewer children would be in danger of being ‘left behind’ if we were not trying to get them wherever they are supposed to go in such a great hurry.
During my many years of leading EQ workshops for students, the number of participants diagnosed with ADHD grew disproportionately to the steady size of the workshop populations, sometimes amounting to half of all those enrolled. In addition to being diagnosed with and medicated for attention disorders, many more students now seek what is commonplace shorthand from the New York State Department of Education: a “504” accommodation plan. Those in receipt of this coveted allowance receive permission for extended time to take a timed test or complete a pile of nightly homework. The rise in need for these allowances, including in my own family, occurred when standardized testing – and teaching toward preparation for these tests – became the dominant feature of the learning experience at school. Principals were pressured to pressure their teachers, who in turn pressured students, and their parents, to make sure that learning was happening as quickly as possible. Those families that could afford tutors to help maintain this lightening speed were able to thrive – though at a cost to vital relaxation time. Those who could not keep up financially, or even emotionally, began to slip shamefully behind.
The resulting shame tracked with these students through subsequent years of schooling, where it was not uncommon for bright children to think of themselves as ‘slow’. These young learners often found themselves being given prescriptions for focusing drugs, like Ritalin and Adderall, the long term effect of which will tell its story in later years and future generations. The Center for Disease Control reported earlier this year that 11% of children between 4-17 had received an ADHD diagnosis at some point, more than double the percentage from twenty years ago, and this rise is often being attributed to the way in which we are “schooling our kids.” Rather than changing this schooling, however, we are, in effect, drugging our kids in order to do well on competitive tests; something we would penalize in our Olympic athletes.
It is not surprising that in a culture that privileges productivity above all else, we have created a generation of learners who now suffer deep shame about the fact that they are too slow. But what, if anything, that achieves excellence - writing a great book, developing a great invention, making a great change in a social system - was ever done quickly? Being able to rattle off elements on the Periodic Table at top speed is not a predictor of a future Nobel Peace prize recipient, nor does quickly memorizing a list of SAT vocabulary words without error foreshadow the next William Shakespeare or Virginia Woolf. More importantly, being the first to solve a math problem will certainly not predict that you will be an attuned parent, or spouse, or manager. It will not predict that you will take good care of your planet, or even your body. It will assure only that you will continue to mistake speed for quality of experience, as if the first one to complete their lives…will have won.
Attempts to cover too much ground too quickly fail those learners with sensitive temperaments who seize up and slow down in situations of being judged and graded. Ironically, these are the very kind of sensitive youngsters who could become compassionate leaders. Similarly, timed rote repetition is crippling to creative thinkers who tend to resist thinking ‘inside the box,’ yet these are the very kind of entrepreneurial thinkers that our future economy will depend upon. Racing also penalizes learners who are deeper thinkers, not given to a proclivity for fast memorization; let’s not forget that Daniel Goleman, in his seminal book on emotional intelligence, stated that memorization is “the opposite of learning.” We need to begin teaching in real time, the time it really takes to transform a learner – and learning is indeed an act of transformation. It is ironic that in our attempts to right the overcorrection that was “No Child Left Behind,” our new paradigm is framed as a race to the top.
In racing, we are crushing the spirits of our youth by asking them to work all day at school, and then to hold a job each night completing homework, not to mention that many kids also need to work most of the weekend if they hope to get a promotion at the end of the year. We are turning our children into a labor force medicated into submission, and marching ever more quickly toward a toxic world in which they will likely face challenging job prospects and a fragile ecology, and they will have gained no emotional skills along the way with which to cope with any of that. With our predilection for pharmaceutical solutions, I fear that we are also teaching them that they can always take an anti-depressant if the racing depletes them, or a sleep aid to slow them down at night.
And if they can slow down long enough, they might actually notice that someone has stolen their capacity for being mindfully present to themselves and their lives, and that they better do whatever it takes to get it back. We healers, educators, and parents can help them in this effort by striving for depth and not speed. Many colleges and secondary schools (see here and here) are now asking students to study one subject or complete only one project with profound excellence, over an extended period of time; in so doing they can learn everything they need to know about achieving excellence in anything. Their teachers might even be able to slow down long enough to enjoy guiding them to this glorious and mindful knowing.