The art of slowing down learning

Photo by Alexander Sheko

This blog post led me to a New York Times article (13 Sept. 2014) by Stephanie Rosenbloom : The art of slowing down in a museum.

There is something in this message that speaks to me about Connected Courses. Many of us have already remarked that the course is bursting and exploding with the wonderful shared information and ideas.  Mia Zamora even made sure, at the start of the course, that we acknowledged it was a guilt free zone. We were encouraged to dip in and out of things that spoke to us rather than tick off a (massive) list in a course which isn’t actually linear.

For me Connected Courses have been the most valuable and inspiring form of professional development – maybe ever. I even wished I didn’t have to sleep so I could keep learning and stay in the  conversations that were mainly happening in different timezones to mine. But at the same time I feel like a child who is overwhelmed by too much choice, and currently I’m aware that I’m running from this to that, not staying too long in case I miss out on something.

At times I feel like I’m skimming the surface; I would also like to go deeper. After all, there should be more times when I stop feverishly multi-saving to Diigo/Pinterest/Feedly and sit down to digest some things at a reflective pace.

The art of slowing down in a museum really resonated with me, and I started drawing parallels between looking at art works and reading and watching what the Connected Courses community shares.

If the average visitor spends 15 to 30 seconds in front of a work of art, according to museum researchers (as stated in the article), how does this compare with the amount of time we spend reading (and thinking about) shared blog posts or articles?  If we tweet out an article or post so quickly  that it becomes obvious we couldn’t possibly have read it properly, or at least read it deeply – and I’ve done that many times (even halfway through reading) charged by a passionate response and the desire to share – then are we being too superficial, and should we just take the time to read one thing more deeply?

Does ‘the breathless life of the Internet age conspire to make that feel normal?’ There is no doubt that our behaviour on social media is fast paced. ‘But  (as stated in the article) what’s a traveler with a long bucket list to do? Blow off the Venus de Milo to linger over a less popular lady like Diana of Versailles?’ How much breadth do we sacrifice for depth?

Professor Pawelski, who studies connections between positive psychology and the humanities, states that people who visit an art museum quickly and look at art in the same way as they might tick off a large reading list of books, see as much of art as you would if you read books by looking at their spines. He says that ‘ if you do choose to slow down — to find a piece of art that speaks to you and observe it for minutes rather than seconds — you are more likely to connect with the art, the person with whom you’re touring the galleries, maybe even yourself’.

So I’m thinking about my own behaviour in Connected Courses, and reflecting on how much I slow down for, and how deeply I’m engaging with thematic offerings. Of course, we don’t always have the luxury of unlimited time when we’re all juggling #ccourses with work and life, but it’s good to stop and reflect.

As a teacher librarian I’m like a squirrel gathering the goodies and adding to the stockpile so that I can curate best quality resources across the curriculum, or provide teachers with exactly what they want at point of need. But finding resources is only one part of my job, and I’m convinced that ‘connecting with the art’  in a way that enables me to connect with myself – metaphorically speaking – will benefit the teachers and students whose learning and teaching I support.

When Professor Pawelski asks his students to spend 20 minutes in front of a single painting,  he is confident that they will actually begin to be able to see what they’re looking at. The article also includes an interesting anecdote about Dr Julie Haizlip, a scientist and self-described left-brain thinker, who was a little skeptical about this exercise, and who confessed that she ‘had never spent 20 minutes looking at a work of art and prefers Keith Haring, Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock to Matisse, Rousseau and Picasso’. ‘Rather than check master works off a list as if on a scavenger hunt’, the exercise aimed at finding an art work that resonated with her on a personal level.

At first nothing grabbed her attention but eventually ‘she spotted a beautiful, melancholy woman with red hair like her own. It was Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting of a prostitute, “A-Montrouge” — Rosa La Rouge.’

Source: Wikimedia

“I was trying to figure out why she had such a severe look on her face,” said Dr. Haizlip. As the minutes passed, Dr. Haizlip found herself mentally writing the woman’s story, imagining that she felt trapped and unhappy — yet determined. Over her shoulder, Toulouse-Lautrec had painted a window. “There’s an escape,” Dr. Haizlip thought. “You just have to turn around and see it.”

“I was actually projecting a lot of me and what was going on in my life at that moment into that painting,” she continued. “It ended up being a moment of self-discovery.”

Dr. Haizlip had been looking for some kind of change in her professional life but wasn’t sure what. Three months after looking at the painting, she changed her practice, accepting a different position.  She said:

“There really was a window behind me that I don’t know I would have seen had I not started looking at things differently.”

We have so many interwoven responses to the weekly themes in Connected Courses – so many wonderful perspectives, and so many engaging conversations, so many ‘aha’ moments. The value of the course is the community: the human interaction.  It really isn’t  about the content as much as the energy and elucidation which comes from connections within the cohort. It’s messy, and it’s frustrating – because we can’t capture everything or follow something to its neat conclusion – but it’s exhilarating. But if we don’t stay long enough in a post, article or webinar, if we don’t grow the personal connections, we’ll miss the meaning that is ours. Reading other’s reflections is not the same as looking for our own.

And while I secretly want to read everything (and capture it forever in my carefully crafted bookmarks and boards), I know that I need to let go of wanting the whole lot in order to focus more deeply on what speaks to me, and stay for a while, playing with others in that space.

Might you miss some other works by narrowing your focus? Perhaps. But (as Professor Pawelski put it), sometimes you get more for the price of admission by opting to see less.

Vilhelm Hammershøi - interior, young woman seen from behind (1904)

20 thoughts on “The art of slowing down learning”

  1. I also discovered about the art of slowing down in relation to art – when I took Calart’s MOOC – especially the week where we were asked to ‘be with’ an artwork for an hour – and then write 300 words from the experience… I want to get my students to do it – but I am worried that the digital generation will think I am crazy if I ask them to be still for that long and by choice!

  2. Thank you for this lovely post. I agree with you with you about the tensions between skidding across the surface and diving deep in abundant learning space like MOOCs.
    Thanks for telling me about the links to ‘slowing down in a museum’. It made me think about my own experience in the Manchester City Art Gallery that I visit a couple of times a year. There is one painting that I always look out for http://manchestergalleries.org/the-collections/search-the-collection/display.php-EMUSESSID=c6d034b7984fe7c69b7ac9788c1c06ae&irn=654.html I first saw it over 40 years ago when I was a student in Manchester. I knew nothing of its history or the poem by Byron but the story it conjured up for me has haunted me ever since. I read it as Manfred having decided to jump then changing his mind too late which (just about) fits in with the artist’s take if not the poet’s. I am now wondering what my reading says about me;) On my last visit, I realised that the picture was not on display and found the link above to show my companion on my phone in the coffee bar. So my interpretation was slow then some learning came very fast.
    Another exhibit in the gallery was a moving picture that required patience to see anything other than a still life – I love it. http://www.moving-picture.com/work/rob-nick-carter-transforming
    Thanks Tania – this blog is a lovely slow space.

    1. Frances, thanks so much for sharing these two stories with me. I love the fact that a painting or artwork of any kind can be burned into your visual memory and stay the same, but our interpretation is free to develop and change. I’m wondering if there are any art works that have stayed with me as your examples have for you – I will think about it. I have never seen the Rob and Nick Carter, Transforming. It will be the next inspiration in my art blog for our students.
      I wonder how many paintings have been inspired by poetry and whether they have been collected by anyone.
      These things will slow me down and prevent me from keeping up with the pace of our course units but it’s worth it. Thanks, Frances.

        1. I’m not sure why, Frances, but I can see the image which goes black when I press play. I wonder if it’s a problem with my own settings.

          1. The link (which is to a video on flickr) worked OK for on my desktop and on my phone. Maybe it’s to do with the video player you have installed on the device you were using. Obviously the video would work on my Samsung Note because I used it to take the video;) If you email me I can send you the file.

  3. Having dived into Connected Courses late, I was a little overwhelmed by the volume of resources and activities. Your blogpost is so timely! The NYT article is spot on about museum visitors’ behaviors. How do you think it will go down with your students if you try this on them and give them an art piece to see-think-wonder about?

    1. I think that I am still feeling overwhelmed but in a good way. Yes, I was thinking the same thing – how could I apply the museum visit and slow art to my students. I could do it literally with a work of art – that would be interesting. Or I could translate it to something else – not sure what yet. Let me know if you have an idea, and thanks for dropping by.

  4. Tania, looooved this post, and strangely found myself reading it more slowly than i normally would! I actually kept it for my “special time” for reading uninterrupted (err 1am) and am happy I did. The analogies, the examples, the quotes – love everything about this post and it’s got me thinking because i was just going thru this “less is more in the age of abundance” phase where i’m trying to figure out how i’m doing it – but yeah, definitely

    You know what? I wish faculty would do this with course readings and have written about this: give the students a small number of really good readings and have them engage deeply and use and reuse and analyze and critique; rather than the usual large number of readings they will skim and possibly forget.

    The only way i make sure i am not being toooo superficial in MOOCs is to blog about what’s valuable rather than just tweet it out. Comment on a blogpost rather than click “like”. And save some goodies i want to deeply engage with for special time. Thanks for making my night 🙂

    1. Haha, my subliminal influence on people to be slower than usual. You know, that article came from Connected Courses. At the moment everything does. I’m completely immersed and loving it.
      I agree with you about too many readings at the expense of deeper understanding in faculties. My younger son is doing second year (Bachelor of Music) and is spending most of his time trying to ‘get reading done’ for the breadth subjects (non-music subjects which are compulsory) and hardly any time on music – which is what he loves and, after all, is the point of the course. I agree with breadth but not when the quality of learning is so superficial.

      Yes, I am also trying to comment and blog instead of saving to Diigo/Pinterest and like. Lovely chatting as always. Hope you get enough sleep although I doubt it.

  5. Tania, this has really struck a chord within me. The questions you asked here are important questions! I will certainly come back to read this again and again, for I have the feeling that it is just beginning to sink in… I think more will come out of the interplay of your words and my inner mess… Yes, so much to learn, so little time. And yes, maybe learning how to come to terms with the fact that we will not be able to take it all in, overcoming the fomo, is an art, after all.
    I am truly greatful that you wrote this post.
    Thank you.
    Best,
    C.

  6. I, too, found myself slowing down to read this! Reminds me of a PD we had where we were taught “mindful eating.” We had to spend two minutes eating a piece of really good chocolate – it could not disappear down our throats until the two minutes were up. It was amazing the nuances of flavor we detected by savoring and slowing down. There’s so much really good chocolate in Connected Courses that it is hard to slow down, for fear of missing it. But we must also savor, in order to truly see depth and nuance. Great post and thank you for the reminder to.slow.down.

    1. The slow chocolate eating exercise is powerful. If you scoff down the chocolate, maybe even the whole block, not only have you not savoured it properly but you’d feel too full and possibly sick. When you think about it, it helps you not to feel guilty. When you feel guilty about not keeping up with all the offerings of #ccourses you feel unsettled because you don’t know where to start, and you might read without stopping to think. I really hate that feeling of furtively skimming too many things at once; it undermines my self confidence. I can see that kind of behaviour in students who have too many things to read/write in an unrealistic time frame. I dream of a slower paced education with time to slow down and savour. Thanks for dropping by for a chat, Susan.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *