Slow Thinking in a Fast World

By Sam Graham, LSU

Waiting for a friend? Get out your phone, check Facebook. Cooking dinner? Turn on the TV. Heading to the gym? Download a podcast. Settling down to work? Good luck, here’s another email.

We’re surrounded by stimulation and always have something to do. With a smart phone in our pocket, we have an infinite and always-accessible supply of mildly interesting pictures and useless websites to keep us amused.

We never look up.  Always looking down, we risk being constantly distracted and forgetting to think deeply, ask big questions and contemplate.

We stand so close together, but we are so far apart, by Ed Yourdon

Photo used under Creative Commons from Ed Yourdon

Arguments about whether the internet and smartphones are changing the way we think and, if they do, whether this is progress or otherwise are not new. Nicholas Carr offers a pessimistic perspective in Is Google Making Us Stupid? and Steven Pinker an optimistic one in Mind Over Mass Media.

A recent survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found almost equal optimism and pessimism among tech experts’ about the future effects of internet use on the current generation growing up with constant distraction through internet use (full report (pdf), report summary).

In the survey, many predicted that changes in thinking are simply in response to operating in a different context, and this will be advantageous in the future. This view was expressed by Jonathan Grudin, a Principal Researcher at Microsoft:

The essential skills will be those of rapidly searching, browsing, assessing quality, and synthesizing the vast quantities of information. In contrast, the ability to read one thing and think hard about it for hours will not be of no consequence, but it will be of far less consequence for most people.

One anonymous respondent disagreed that deep thought would be less important and speculated that it might lead to less innovation:

Young people accustomed to a diet of quick-fix information nuggets will be less likely to undertake deep, critical analysis of issues and challenging information. Shallow choices, an expectation of instant gratification, a lack of patience, are likely to be common results, especially for those who do not have the motivation or training that will help them master this new environment. One possible outcome is stagnation in innovation.

Other sources worry that constant distraction will reduce our creativity.  Overwhelming amounts of data can make it difficult to synthesise information. In another blog post (which I have unfortunately lost track of), one academic observed that when he first marked students’ essays 20 years ago, he found himself constantly telling students to provide evidence for their thesis statements. Now, he finds himself constantly telling students to provide a thesis for all their data. With an abundance of information, students were seduced into not connecting data together to form opinions. That is, they were not thinking deeply.

Deep thinking is, I believe, more important than ever. In the developed world, we are fortunate to be rich enough to be able to ask fundamental questions about how we live on both a personal and societal level. At the same time, with the threat of large-scale and irreversible environmental damage looming, we are unfortunate enough to need to be asking these questions.

As educators, we therefore need to make sure our students can and do think deeply. But how can we do this?

1. Talk about the importance of letting go of constant stimulation.

One of my first-semester philosophy lecturers pleaded with us to make time amongst making friends, churning out essays and playing sports for contemplation. It was perhaps a futile call in the week after Freshers’ week, but it planted a seed that continues to grow.

2. Set reading lists

With little guidance as to appropriate sources, students I see in the LSU often resort to desperately skimming and scanning large quantities of information in the hopes of striking it lucky with a few relevant and seemingly-supportive sentences. Often, their understanding of the texts and analysis of them is partial.

The Citation Project has found that students in the USA generally cite from the first or second pages of academic journal articles and rely on quoting and paraphrasing single sentences rather than summarising larger ideas, indicating they hunt for facts rather than read, absorb and slowly consider their sources.

Reading lists with a limited number of core texts (1) reduces the need for students to be constantly skimming and scanning in a desperate search for relevant information and (2) indicates the importance of engaging deeply with the text.

3. Take a balanced approach to the gamification of education.

The constant stimulation in gamified learning makes contemplation difficult, so should be used as a teaching resource rather than a teaching replacement.

The gamification of learning seeks to provide extrinsic motivators to learners through giving points, displaying progress and introducing competition.

Websites like the Khan Academy have been praised for engaging students through gamification. Critics, though, say that students simply respond to recorded lectures and exercises rather than create and self-discover. While it effectively teaching procedures, it fails to teach another important element of each subject: understanding why these procedures apply and why they are important.

4. Emphasise analytic work over memorisation or simple mastery of procedure

Make assignments that require students to analyse others’ ideas and defend their own. Original thought can’t be Googled. Giving students opportunities to stop and think – indeed requiring it of them – can be a countermeasure to constant stimulation and distraction.

5. If all else fails, make them drive tractors

Peter Clague, principal of Kristin School in New Zealand, wrote that all teenagers should drive tractors instead of cars. The slow speed of a tractor wouldn’t just be safer, it would also give them time to think and look around, and the noise would mean that they couldn’t listen to music or podcasts.

Tractors might be impractical in Vietnam, so we should perhaps buy our students a worker’s three-wheeled motorbike. And maybe one for ourselves, too.

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10 responses to “Slow Thinking in a Fast World”

  1. Deiter Seifreid says :

    Fifteen years back, Guy Claxton (“Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind”) was alerting us to the importance of slow thinking. And over the next few years, as I watched a good number of students trying to juggle part-time jobs and an increasing number of (sometimes mindless) assessments, I wondered how they ever had the time to make sense of the situations that are “intricate, shadowy, ill-defined”.

    Given the increasing misuse of technology in some university classrooms, there is even less chance of employing slow thinking. Of course as teachers we can hide behind “context”. Personally, I think that’s a cop-out for those teachers who may not want to do any slow thinking themselves and use strategies that might do nothing more than entertain. (Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for the wise use of technology but I also believe that technology makes good teaching better and bad teaching worse.)

    Instead of blaming students and blaming technology, we need to look at what we are doing to promote slow thinking in this fast world. Your suggestions are a sound start (not sure where I’ll get the tractors, though!). Thanks.

    • Bart says :

      Well, for a start: maybe you will like this 3-wheeled motorbike as much as I do: Piaggio MP3 LT 400 (although maybe a bit expensive for most of Vietnamese workers).

      My personal point of view is that it doesn’t matter, as long as individuals (not only students) think, slow or not.

      However, in my professional life I know of ‘senior’ lecturers, even at a foreign university, who stick for more than 5 years to the same textbook because they themselves do not know more about the subject.
      And quite some lecturers are biased to use extrinsic motivators like video and gaming, apparently because they lack the education/training/experience what it takes to teach and to assess student’s learning by connecting to and challenge their intrinsic motivators.

      Whatever we may think about ‘thinking’, how many students learn about thinking processes? Or, and that is my real concern, how many lecturers have above average knowledge about thinking processes, if at all?
      ‘No input, no output’!

      Like you, I was lucky to study about philosophy, logic, thinking processes and the like,
      But maybe society does not feel that ‘thinking skills’ are necessary any longer, just like (quote Barack Obama) ‘no longer we give each and every soldier a bajonet’, like when I joined the army.

      Isn’t that what lecturers have to accept: society decides upon needs, not lecturers.
      Remember Bob Dylan: ‘The times they are a-changing’?
      In the near future ‘Thinking’ maybe something for the happy few, not for the mediocre mass, including your university students.

      • Sam Graham (@samgrah) says :

        I studied philosophy, politics and economics. My philosophy tutor, Ben Morison, wrote this about whether the point of studying a subject like philosophy is to learn how to think:

        “…My main aim in a tutorial is not to get the student to think properly… . I want my students to come out knowing something about Plato and Aristotle. (Only the student who has done absolutely no work during their degree could possibly find that all they could say to their tutor afterwards was ‘Thanks, you taught me how to think’.) I try to prepare my students in such a way that if they wanted to continue their studies and eventually become philosophers, they could. Of course this involves or even presupposes training the students to think for themselves, but it also means training them to understand what the philosophers they have learned about said and why they said it, and to assess the strengths and weaknesses of those positions relative to others. That, after all, is why we make them sit exams in the subjects they have been taught, and not some general intelligence or ‘thinking’ test.” (Page 45-47 here:

        I left university “knowing something about Plato and Aristotle”, and a few others beside, but, honestly, eight years on I only remember the broadest of concepts. (I say this knowing the risk of being labelling myself a student “who has done absolutely no work”!) However, I do see myself asking the same questions and using the same techniques as I did when I studied philosophy formally, even though these processes were never taught explicitly. (From what I have seen, this is quite different in the US, where such processes are often taught more explicitly.) Had I been only taught what various philosophers had said, I would have forgotten it and had no remnants of the philosophical thinking processes.

        My economics knowledge/thinking is similar: I remember few of the details but have decent intuition and understand the broad assumptions.

        This morning, I was reading this blog: ‘Response: Ways To Deal With ‘History Myths’ In The Classroom’ ( One of the respondents said that he found textbooks often perpetuated myths, or at least the myth that history is simple. To combat this, he has his students read primary sources and then secondary sources with competing interpretations. I like this. As information is at our finger tips (flip swipe slide!) – most of it secondary – this foundation is especially important. If students are just getting their university macroeconomics knowledge (for example) from the Gospel of Greg Mankiw and no where else, I don’t expect they’ll be in the habit of questioning Wikipedia much when they leave. Even worse if their lecturers/tutors/teachers don’t know to question the Gospel.

        I’m taking a long time coming to my point:

        I’m very uncomfortable with the idea that “‘Thinking’ maybe something for the happy few, not for the mediocre mass”. If we teach only technical skills and applied knowledge, we risk having students forget the skills and knowledge itself and not having developed any thinking processes that they can fall back on. Additionally, if we don’t teach thinking skills directly (the effectiveness of which I am skeptical of) or indirectly (as my philosophy tutor did) but teach students only how to do stuff, we risk not asking fundamental questions about our work, society and how we live our lives.

        The times, they certainly are a-changing. As I hinted in the original post, I worry that not asking these questions will lead us along the status quo which doesn’t look good ( If it’s only the “happy few”, i.e. the elite, who are trained to ask these questions, I worry even more, as only pressure – built on understanding and questioning – from the “mediocre mass” will allow/lead to any change.

    • Sam Graham (@samgrah) says :

      “Personally, I think that’s a cop-out for those teachers who may not want to do any slow thinking themselves and use strategies that might do nothing more than entertain.”

      Some questions rather than comments on what you have to say:

      Am I right in thinking that a lot of teachers feel pressure to entertain, what with ‘customer satisfaction surveys’, and thus put entertainment ahead of all else? If so, how can they get around it?

      What balance do you see between students expectations and teachers’ understanding of what is for the (long term) best?

  2. huynhngoct says :

    Very good article.

    True knowledge with strong self-realization effort comes from acknowledging what we don’t know. We can easily hastily google/wiki things out of curiosity ( it’s actually a good thing too ! ) and most of the time this (re)action came out of a natural instinctive response within the new context (ie: Google/Wiki thing immediately out of subconscious without really spend 5-10 minutes trying to recall the actual concept.

  3. Deiter Seifreid says :

    Thinking (slowly) about the different responses (and responses to responses), it strikes me that a lot of problems lie in some universities not providing their staff with adequate preparation for the teaching component of their role. In some places, we still have academics whose only knowledge of teaching and learning comes from how they were taught. And if you’ve been spoonfed for most of your university life, or your lecturer used the same notes for x years…

    Amongst other things, skillful teachers:

    1. Plan learning experiences that get students to think (fast and slow both have a place) (Bart).
    2. Engage students in meaningful learning rather than entertain to boost their ratings (and with explicit outcomes and processes, students become valuable guides and good coaches when it comes to feedback) (Sam)
    3. Help students realize there are things they know, things they know they don’t know, and things they don’t know they don’t know (huynhngoct)

    Successful researchers may be good thinkers themselves but it doesn’t follow that they will be skillful teachers.

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