Grading and the Speed of Thought
When he was in middle school, I had a conference with my son’s math teacher. “His grades are falling because he’s not doing well on the tests,” she explained. She showed me several tests. On each there were five or six questions at the end that he had clearly never gotten to. Those left blank were marked wrong and deducted from the total grade.
“It seems like he understands things,” I said, “he’s got nearly all of the problems he’s completed correct.” “That’s true,” she said, “but he never finishes the tests.”
“Well, what’s the purpose of the test?” I asked, “is it to see if he understands the material or to see how quickly he can move through it? I mean, given that he got most of the completed problems correct, how can you assume that if he had gotten to these other problems, he would have gotten them wrong?”
“I never thought of it that way,” she said.

Fast and Slow Thinking: Malcom Gladwell and Guy Claxton
My investigations into kinesthetic teaching/learning took me into unanticipated territory. Embedded in the question “what is kinesthetic teaching/learning,” is a more basic, but perhaps more complex question: “what is learning?” Consequently, just as my investigations into kinesthetic teaching/learning began to nudge into the field of experiential learning, so also arose an urge to explore theorists who had unique perspectives on thinking, learning and knowing altogether. An thorough investigation into the variety of perspectives on learning, thinking and knowing is beyond the scope of this work. However, the alternative perspectives on learning and knowing which I got a taste of from Dewey, Gardner, von Glasersfeld and Bateson gave me an appetite for more. I found the perspectives presented in Gladwell’s Blink and Claxton’s Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind, How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less to be so inspiring, and so perfectly complimentary, that I am presenting them together here.
In his book Blink, Gladwell examines the phenomenon of rapid cognition or instantaneous knowing. Gladwell encourages us to recognize, respect, trust and deliberately cultivate the power of rapid cognition, even though it happens in a non-linear way behind the locked door of our subconscious mind, and so defies the tracking and measurement of what we like to think of as proof. It’s Gladwell’s conviction that a more universal understanding of this kind of thinking could change the way we teach, the way we learn, and the way we live.
In a crisis or a surprising situation, in the blink of an eye, we act. How we act is our implicit knowledge called into action, a product of what has been built into our circuitry for dealing with a given situation. Sometimes, as with a firefighter deciding to get his crew out of a house seconds before it collapses, our knowledge base works with us to reach the right instantaneous decision. At other times, Gladwell cites the shooting death of Amadou Diallo in the Bronx in 1999, results can be tragic, as we fall victim to our own ignorance of this mechanism of the mind in making rapid decisions. In all such cases, implicit knowing manifests into action before the conscious mind arrives on the scene.
Recent research on memory reveals that our memories are not accurate reservoirs of facts, but extremely subjective and influenced by more factors that we can be aware of, as Bateson also has pointed out. Memory, and knowing can be explicit or implicit, and Gladwell emphasizes the importance of understanding the distinctions between explicit and implicit knowing and explicit and implicit memory. Also complementary to Bateson’s work, Gladwell looks at improvisation as an example of rapid cognition in action.
Gladwell’s innovative take on this universal, yet little-examined, characteristic of the mind--the things that can happen in the blink of an eye, has given me cause to reassess many techniques which are considered a given in traditional education, for example taking notes. Gladwell explains how the process of writing things down can actually obscure certain types of information we’re trying to process or remember, making it less accessible to our conscious memories, such as with the image of a face. Research shows that trying to write a description of a face after seeing it briefly actually impairs the mind’s ability to pick the same face out of a bunch of pictures later. Something about the mental process of breaking up and analyzing the face as a collection of discrete parts interferes with our ability to recall it as a whole. If taking notes can actually interfere with our ability to effectively assimilate and process information, what other cherished habits of traditional education are at odds with learning and understanding?
In Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind, Claxton offers a counter to the modern tendency to equate more, better, and faster by asserting that there are highly valuable kinds of intelligence and ways of knowing which we may access only by thinking slowly. These types of intelligence increase when we think less. Claxton’s name for the part of the knowing mind which slow thinking allows us access to is the undermind.
Claxton wants us to understand that if we think we do not have the time for slow thinking and cultivation of the undermind, we suffer from an illusion and will ultimately lose out as we will be denying ourselves access to this valuable and unique part of human experience. Such cultivation requires a letting go of agendas and goals, which may seem counter-intuitive to those of us who equate thinking hard and fast with accomplishment and learning, as in the story above. For Claxton, learning comes of uncertainty, and must be balanced with it. Isn’t this much like Dewey’s point that the only way to prepare for the future is to attend to the present?
Claxton describes three main types of thinking. The first is faster than thought, which, although not articulated as such, seems to be the same as Gladwell’s rapid cognition. The second is what Claxton calls d-mode, d being for deliberate and also for default. D-mode is what we generally think of when we think of thinking in terms of teaching and learning in schools. D-mode is “figuring matters out, weighing up the pros and cons, constructing arguments and solving problems.” It is also linear, goal oriented, and does not acknowledge the problems of perception (this last problem is notably also addressed by Bateson and von Glasersfeld). D-mode also places importance on the answer rather than the question (a comment which seems to spring from Dewey’s influence, where the question is the more important thing), and does not value taking time for incubation.
The third type of thinking is what Claxton’s book Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind is about, the thinking of the undermind. This kind of thinking is slow, meandering, contemplative, meditative. It is not goal-oriented and, like a good night’s sleep, it cannot be rushed or forced (and Claxton cites an old saying: “sleep quickly, we need the pillows”). In Claxton’s estimation, we benefit from daily cultivating this kind of thinking.
In many ways. this book shows the flip side of the material Gladwell presents in Blink. The very same points are made in many cases, such as the power of the subconscious and the tendency the conscious mind has to make up explanations for things when we otherwise can’t explain a decision. I believe that in Blink the focus is to recognize and respect the result of the development of the undermind presented in Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind, results which become evident through events of rapid cognition.
I was fascinated to find that studies cited to bolster Claxton’s position are often identical or similar to those Gladwell uses in Blink. This includes studies which indicate that introducing language into learning can sometimes actually interfere with the learning process, and studies of situations in which the conscious mind cannot become aware of the knowledge which testing indicates it is indeed accessing. This is almost the inverse of von Glaserfeld’s point that testing which indicates that something had been learned may not indicate whether or not it has been understood. In this case, testing indicates that information has been assimilated to the point of usefulness, even though the conscious mind is not aware of the fact, another hint of how testing the conscious mind may in some cases be lacking in validity. This also reminds me of Bateson’s comment that “Not only do we not know what we know, we don’t know what we teach.”
Why doesn’t traditional education value learning through not only D-mode but also by the undermind? Phrases from our cultural wisdom, such as “let it soak in,” “mull it over,” “sleep on it,” and “put it on the back burner,” appear to support the argument that slow thinking is indeed an important and essential component of natural learning. Here I’m reminded of Bateson and Dewey and their spiraling path to learning, as well as von Glasersfeld’s perspective that time for reflection is essential to understanding.
In fact, there are many points relevant to the nature of knowing and learning here. The distinction between implicit knowledge and explicit, for example. Confidence seems to rely on explicit know-how, even when it’s clear that implicit knowledge is present. Why is this so? Sadly, the assumption that traditional education relies on is that explicit knowledge implies implicit, and that knowing how to talk and write about something implies understanding (although as von Glasersfeld points out, they are not the same). It’s our implicit knowledge that we use to operate, to improvise as Bateson might say, in our daily lives.
Claxton has written extensively about education and the brain. He is straightforward and clear in his expression, perhaps an influence from his training in Buddhist philosophy. Many forms of Buddhism employ the concept of “choiceless awareness” in meditation, and I wonder if this may have been a seed for Claxton’s “slow thinking.”
As von Glasersfeld distinguishes knowing from understanding, Claxton distinguishes knowledge from wisdom. He’s an advocate of lifelong learning and points out that in a fast-moving and changing world, we need to focus on teaching people to learn, not to know. This reminds me of the philosophy of Hampshire College, where I did my undergraduate work, which requires students to demonstrate an understanding of “modes of inquiry” of different branches on the tree of knowledge and uses as its motto non satis scire: to know is not enough.
Claxton says that as a culture we have forgotten how our minds work. He discusses the politics of calculative versus meditative thinking. He says there are problems with assuming that technology skills of today will help us tomorrow, a point I remember trying to explain to parents and fellow educators alike when I was teaching computer one year. What’s needed in education and in life, Claxton says, are creative responses to changing conditions, and here I’m reminded of Bateson’s and Gladwell’s discussions of the importance and the mechanics of improvisation.
Why is the undermind unrecognized, trivialized, and virtually absent in conventional education? Is it because it has gone unrewarded throughout our culture? Claxton says the confusion of thinking that book learning and formal training can and should be used for acquiring all knowledge reflects a deep confusion about the nature of learning and knowing. I agree, and I make a connection between this statement and von Glasersfeld’s call to educators to clarify the distinction between teaching and training.
What is Claxton telling us, why is it important, and how does it relate to the philosophy of teaching and learning? In flying from Maine to Georgia you may have covered the same ground, but you will not have the same experience as you will hiking the entire Appalachian trail. This is more in the realm of “the path is the goal:”
It is not just that the slow ways of knowing exist and are useful, it is that our culture has come to ignore and undervalue them, to treat them as marginal or merely recreational, and in so doing has foreclosed on areas of our psychological resources that we need. .... (we have) lost touch with the value of contemplation. Only active thinking is regarded as productive.(1999, p. 4)

Gladwell posits a similar situation when it comes to rapid cognition: we undervalue it and think of it as marginal. Even when we are clearly making use of it, we so much like to think that our decisions are “well considered” that we will claim to have arrived at a decision only after careful consideration when in truth we have reached it immediately, intuitively, and without conscious access to the mechanism behind the thought. Claxton expresses this by saying: “D-mode values explanation over observation” (1999) and here we can once again link back to Bateson’s observation and participation.
Common to both Gladwell and Claxton is the “less is more” philosophy. We also know of this from Lao Tze, whose novice adds something new every day but whose master everyday takes something away, and from Pascal, who, given more time, would have written a shorter letter. I think there is a connection here with an illusion of traditional education, that is, if I write a twenty page paper on something, can it be assumed that I have five times the understanding of one who’s written a four page paper?

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