Slowing things down

I’ve been following Doug Stowe’s blog The Wisdom of the Hands, and in one of his recent postings he linked to this article Text-Addict kids Make More Mistakes.  The basic finding is that when given a timed experimental test, kids who more frequently used cell phones for texting tended to respond more quickly to test items, but also make more mistakes.

I want to dwell on this for a bit.  I remember hearing a talk – I believe it was Lani Guiniere – about gender differences on standardized tests (if it was Ms. Guiniere, the test in question was the LSAT).  Apparently there’s a research finding that suggests that males are more likely than females to make “fast decisions with uncertain information.”  In other words, women tended to deliberate over test questions, considering answers from multiple angles, whereas men tended to answer their best educated guess and move on. With a test limited by time, failure to answer all items could penalize one’s score. (And of course, Ms. Guinier asked who we would rather have making law – fast shoot-from-the-hip types or deliberative, careful thinkers).

My third example – this one is personal.  I came of age as a computer science major and software engineer more than a decade after punched cards were the standard storage media for mainframe computers. In the “old days,” as some of my professors loved to tell it, you had to write out your programs on a deck of punched cards, carry the deck to the operator in the machine room, and then wait hours (or overnight) for your job to run.  If you’d made a coding error, then oh well! you just lost a day.

With the advent of high-speed storage (floppy disks onward) and timesharing systems (followed by personal computers), a programmer could run a program, receive instantaneous feedback on errors, and make corrections immediately. What developed as a result was a “code first, think later” mentality akin to Ms Guinier’s observation of males speeding through tests, or the Australian researcher’s claims that frequent texting is associated with higher error rates. Why bother carefully planning one’s code if you could draft a program, run it, and just clean up the “errors” one by one in real time until you got it right? (By the way, I’ve heard similar laments on the impact of word processors on the writing process, when compared to long-hand or typewriters).

I can personally attest to the tendency to want to code first, think later, at least in the early stages. What serious students learn in university (and hopefully in their careers) is to slow down, design and plan their overall approach, and systematically craft and test modules. When the size of your program grows beyond a page or two, it’s increasingly inefficient to just “hack” the code until it works. But to this day I find that deadlines and job pressures encourage shortcuts in my coding, not thinking about the bigger picture (like, how will my colleagues be able to make heads or tails of what I’ve just done when I’m on vacation).

What Doug Stowe likes about woodworking (among many other things) is that the medium forces one to slow down and contemplate next moves. A “do-over” can cost days of time, akin to the botched punched cards handed to the machine room operator. We haven’t found a way to speed up the process of woodworking, particularly because there is no “undo” button to press.

Like Doug, I believe it is important for kids to have that “aha!” moment – frequently – captured by the slogan “haste makes waste.”  In fact, I would argue that events that require an immediate shoot-from-the-hip response are quite rare in our day-to-day lives. Almost any situation can bear an extra breath or two, a pause before speaking, a second measurement before cutting into that curly maple. I wonder what the world would look like if we all learned to slow things down a notch, to think that one extra beat before acting or speaking (or changing lanes on the highway, or sending that e-mail).


One thought on “Slowing things down

  1. Pingback: Oops I did it again | The Learning Curve

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