Slow learning in a fast-changing and increasingly unequal world #change11

In this week’s post on, Clark Quin proposes “slow learning” as an alternative and more preferable pedagogical approach in today’s world. Quin writes: “Our formal learning approaches too often don’t follow how our brains really work.”

There are a number of things that I like in his proposal –  such as the notion of the “sage at the side” with a sack of resources and knowledge of a variety of learning trajectories who provides “just-in-time” guidance to learners as they grapple with real-life problems.  Yes. Amen. Viva.

I also like the notion of “layered learning” where “The events in your life give you a chance to use them as learning experiences, not just performance opportunities” and where “The goal is to use the events in your life as learning opportunities as much as possible (or preferable)”. Yes, I agree and I like.

I really like his reference to the work of Harold Jarche with his emphasis on learning for the exceptions to the rule or the known. When Harold writes  – “Exception-handling is becoming more important in the networked workplace. While the system handles the routine stuff, people, usually working together, deal with the exceptions. Exceptions require collaborative approaches to solve” – I nod and silently whispers – you go boy go!

I also love the critique of some online learning programmes and courses “clickety-clickety-bling-bling”. “Clicky-clicky bling-bling (CCBB) is elearning with lots of whizz and bang and clicking in an attempt to add pizzazz to dry content and to make it more engaging. But once you unwrap the sparkle, sadly, all you’re left with is a load of elearning junk “. An excellent and much needed critique.  And Quin’s notes on learning design and especially his blog on “designing for an uncertain world” had me cheering.

Quin describes slow learning as follows: “…where we start distributing our learning in ways that match the ways in which our brains work: meaningfulness, activation and reactivation, not separate but wrapped around our lives, etc.”  Yes. And: “It’s about having a long-term relationship with the learner, where we care about them, and are interested in developing them as people, not just as cogs.” Yes. “It’s a move where we care about our learners as learners, helping them with their suite of learning and problem-solving skills as well as their job-related skills”. Yes. Slow learning, according to Quin is also: “It’s a move where we care about learners as individuals, not just helping them be better, but wiser as well. It’s about using technology to use drip-irrigation over time as well as the fire hose for the moment.” Yes.

I sense a number of influences (like “cognitive apprenticeship acknowledged by Quin) or references to other movements such as the plea for “mindfulness” in business education (Mintzberg), to Socratic learning, to a return to wisdom instead of our obsession with transferable skills and employability.

And this is where I suspect his proposal for “slow learning” lacks another (critical) dimension.

Henry Giroux petitions for a return to higher education as “moral practice” (Giroux 2003: 192). Giroux (2003: 182) claims that higher education has become the ‘handmaiden’ of corporations in an “age of money and profit, [where] academic disciplines gain stature almost exclusively through their exchange value on the market, and students now rush to take courses and receive professional credentials that provide them with the cache they need to sell themselves to the higher bidder”.

I therefore celebrate the potential of “slow learning” as counter-narrative for the obsession with “passing courses” and “getting into the market” as soon as possible. I salute “slow learning” as interrupting the normative discourses breaking knowledge and learning into small digestible units that students can learn (and forget) as soon as they can and then enter the “market” as “employable”. But if “slow learning” does not also empower graduates to critique, to formulate their own opinions, to question accepted ways of seeing the world (ontologies) and accepted canons of market-dominated knowledges (epistemologies); then we are going nowhere, albeit slowly.

Despite my general support and great appreciation for the thoughts Quin poses (and those authors he refer to); I somehow cannot let go of the nagging skepticism that “slow learning” is not the missing link in the great scheme of things. “Slow learning” is not immune to perpetuating dominant discourses – albeit slowly. I can learn things “slowly” but if the learning experience is based on uncritical acceptance of the dominant discourses of the time – then education as moral practice loses its critical, organic edge – albeit slowly.

It will therefore be interesting to take a “distant reading” (proposed by Franco Moretti – see Johnson 2010:222-225) or satellite view of “slow learning” in order to see where it fits into the broader developments in learning and teaching. When one (only) approaches “slow learning” from a “close reading” it “leaves you with the idiosyncrasies” of the proposal and not a thorough understanding of “slow learning” against the broader dominant discourses of the day.

I therefore embrace “slow learning” as a contributing factor that will prepare and empower learners to contribute towards a more just and sustainable future for all. Or do I miss something?


Giroux, H.A. 2003. Selling out higher education.  Policy Futures in Education, 1(1): 179— 311.

Johnson, S. 2010. Where good ideas come from. The seven patterns of innovation. Penguin: London.

Mintzberg, H., Simons, R., & Basu, K. 2002. Beyond selfishness. MIT Sloan Management

Review, Fall: 67–74.

[Image downloaded from 6 December 2011]


About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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7 Responses to Slow learning in a fast-changing and increasingly unequal world #change11

  1. Pingback: Slow learning in a fast-changing and increasingly unequal world #change11 | Digital Delights |

  2. Pingback: Slow learning in a fast-changing and increasingly unequal world #change11 | Social e-learning network |

  3. brainysmurf says:

    Thanks for the summary of Clark’s main points. I too salute slow learning as an important counter-narrative to the notion that someone other than the learner can do a better job of figuring out what needs to be known in the present to move an inch forward into the future.

    • Brainysmurf – I think you point to an interesting tension between what learners think they need to know and what accrediting organisations like higher education institutions think they need to know… I suspect the power-relationship between learners and higher education as the guardians of knowledge and ‘truth’ is extremely complex and at times frail. Thanks for the engagement.

  4. VanessaVaile says:

    I too salute the summary – and review as well as slow learning (some days are slower than others, which is when going back over something to mull it over is especially welcome).

  5. Pingback: Doubts about Slow learning « Jenny Connected

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