I think we share a collective fantasy that given the right conditions we can learn and accomplish more than we are learning and accomplishing. A sense of limitlessness and expansion, just…




As if we’re standing in front of a tabletop, spread full of lego blocks and puzzle pieces, and, if we are able to get them into the right configuration, we can learn Latin, read philosophy, program in C, build a robot, find metabolic balance, enjoy Art & Movies, have children if we wish, Develop Our Potential.

It’s somehow just a matter of stacking the blocks right.

Surely there’s some truth in that. I personally am a fairly organized person and it helps. It saves me time & keeps my books in order. But there’s limits.

And primarily, our tabletop dream is a nightmarish one where, while standing at the tabletop, we have to get on a train, attend to beeping, fall asleep, remember a song, watch the cat cross the table and destroy our progress, forget something important…

Have you noticed that one of the biggest dramatic tropes of television and movies in the last, say, 5-10 years, has been the interruption? A conversation is being had, but a phone beeps. Something more urgent trumps. The characters we watch on TV can never finish anything, they are always being called away. This is actually now a plot device that drives full seasons of television.

In light of what I’ve pegged as our collective fantasy, dream-state of blocked productivity, as well as me personally being in the middle of an intense learning experience at SFPC, I’ve been thinking about different ways we learn new things, specifically around what I’m thinking of as Fast Learning and Slow Learning.

They each have different characteristics and are optimized for different situations and learners, but I’m calling them out for the reason that, since most of the time these days we do everything fast, we may default to the “go fast… oh shoot I’m behind” model even if it’s not the best for the task at hand or our own learning style.

Fast Learning goes like this:

For material M, you learn A on Monday, B on Tuesday, C on Wednesday, D on Thursday, and then prepare F, an assimilation of the earlier learnings, for Friday.

Day 1

  • Seeing what masters have made
  • becoming excited
  • understanding a small piece
  • losing a thread
  • being in a different place
  • not 100% how you go there but holding at least half a leash to the last way-station
  • maybe trying to apply something from 5 steps ago
  • getting confused
  • checking and re-checking early notes
  • maybe understanding a little “a-ha!”
  • cross-checking with others
  • conversation ensues
  • your hand is led over basic steps again
  • maybe you eke out a groove on the first few steps
  • entertaining a sense of “being behind”, maybe you perceive everyone is on A3 while you are just on A1.

Day 2

  • You’re on A1, materials were taught to A3, today starts B.
  • Similar to day 1, but depending on your aptitude / intuition / familiarity with the material you may sense either:
    • “I am falling further behind”; or
    • “This is back-clarifying and the new material gives me new perspective on yesterday’s material”.

Either way, by the end of the day, material up to B3 has been covered.

Day 3

A few options here.

  • You have made some kind of intuitive leap and understood some portion of [All of A] and [All of B]
  • You understand up to a point in [A] or [B] and then feel “You have become lost”: There is some “Next Step” that you can’t step to.

Depending on your group, teacher, experience, character, externalities, self-esteem, recent-hours-of-sleep, motivation, etc. you either:

  • Identify and take action to close that gap & catch up;
  • Stop & sit on the curb.

Fast learning is characterized by forward and back-tracking, predicated on the idea that further knowledge will back-clarify earlier knowledge, the picture will become clearer as more pieces are added, and intuitive leaps will be made. It’s optimized for big-picture understanding, exposure to a smorgasbord of samples, and the idea of “planting a seed” in a student that will motivate them to keep going. It seems to also trust the brain to make leaps when we’re not looking, like while sleeping.

We did a week of circuitry last week and I felt very lost on our first day, building circuits with copper tape. And yet, by day three, I felt very confident in my ability to build circuits with copper tape, even though I hadn’t done it in a few days. And I felt less confident in my ability to execute my newly grasped breadboard skills.

Slow Learning, Thought Experiment

I wonder about the opposite, what I’m calling Slow Learning.

Day 1

  • You are introduced to A1, that is, the first piece of the material A.
  • Read through A1 and stop at all words and concepts not understood.
  • Understand them.
    • Perhaps there is an exercise where you can bucket words that you understand but that refer to concepts that are rabbit-holes. An example would be the words the history of math. So in this first deep reading, rabbit-holes can be conceptually understood and wrapped in a placeholder. This practice avoids having to re-invent the universe to get through the first paragraph.
  • Once all the words in A1 are understood or marked as placeholders, do any exercises necessary to build A1.
  • When done, undo it.

Day 2.

  • Revisit A1.
  • Share insights, complexities and questions from Day 1.
  • Start from the beginning and do the exact same work as the day before.

Some students may find this easy and that they’ve already “got it”. At this point, these students can be enlisted to teach. This will expose their own material uncertainties, solidify their knowledge, practice empathy.

Day 3.

  • Throw away A from Day 2.
  • Re-do A.
  • Repeat the “those who know, teach” portion.
  • Continue to explore empathy and teaching methods. Enlist new “a-ha” students into the teaching.
  • Explore new metaphors, a-ha moments, questions, deepenings re A.

The Trick

The only thing done, and re-done all week is A. By the end of the week everyone deeply understands A, and only A, exhaustively, and nothing else.

Slow-learning is optimized for full-body understanding and foundational learning. It takes the element of speed out of the process and, theoretically, builds self-trust and self-intuition models through destroying and knowing you can re-build. It highlights different learning methodologies and learning styles. The risk (and it is a risk these days): one feels bored.

Had I last week done nothing but build and rebuild copper-tape circuits, would I have been better prepared for breadboarding? Would I have understood the current step and the next step more, or less?

The Question.

Are students more, or less, prepared to learn B (and or anything else, forever) by going through Slow Learning or Fast Learning processes.

Me, personally

I am drawn to slow learning but feel a sense of weirdly displaced guilt if not trying to go fast. This is the free-floating productivity guilt of the new millenium, where you are always “too busy”, “overwhelmed”, “so much to do”, etcetera.

I have fantasies that I can be like Ron Resch, this mind-blowing paper-folding artist who spent months and then years and then decades folding paper into simple triangles until he had mastered everything about the form and there was no option but to go further.

Or Henry Sugar, the fictional Roald Dahl character who spent all of his focus learning to see with his eyes bandaged shut by the practice of meditating while staring into the heart of a candle-flame. In Henry’s case, he embarked on his journey out of greed (do this & win at cards), but mastering the simple meditative task changed him.

Our paper-folder Resch didn’t seem troubled by ulterior motives like winning at the casino, he simply enjoyed folding triangles until, at the end of the video, he has the most complex and beautiful shapes imaginable.

Which raises an interesting question: regardless of your motivation heading in, can one task transform you?


  • What do you lose if you only do one thing?
  • What do you gain?
  • Is it really a loss? (This is not a trick question, though it sounds like one).


  • Slow Learning is transformational for individuals and groups
  • Fast learning is for presenting materials intended to be revisited and cross-tracked.
  • There are probably types of learners / learning styles that fit better in each category. What are they? What are you?