Faster students are smarter students. So declared Edward Thorndike of Columbia University’s Teachers College a century ago.
You would think we are more enlightened today. Unless you looked at Mingus Union High School in Cottonwood, Ariz., where students are required to wear a red badge that “publicly identifies and shames underperforming students.” (The policy has since been dropped.)
It is patently true that “Society rewards rapid thinkers!” as my high school humanities teacher, Mr. Sabo, said many times, usually as I searched my suddenly blank mind for an answer. But faster is not always right, and it is rarely an equitable measure of performance -- or potential. Like racism and sexism, speedism (the belief that faster is better) is a contemptuous conceit that eviscerates our colleges and the souls of our most needy students.
During a recent training to develop online instruction for students with disabilities, our instructor, who was blind, demonstrated how a screen reader worked. Eyes closed, we listened and were challenged to follow the stilted robotic voice and to keep (literally) in mind where on the page we were and in what context the words were falling. After less than a minute, most of us admitted we were hopelessly lost.
“You were listening at about 80 words a minute,” our instructor said. “Seems pretty fast, doesn’t it? Well, I work at about 150 words a minute. Here’s what that sounds like.” Then he cranked up the speed to what sounded like somewhere between that old FedEx commercial and a squawking modem handshake.
You get the point. Tables turned. Now we were the slow learners. Fortunately, our instructor did not judge us.
Judgements like Thorndike’s can seem out of touch with modern sensibilities, much as the speeches of supporters of segregation in the 1940s and ’50s are cringe-worthy today. But unlike a civil rights or Me Too movement to illuminate the blind, education has not had its movement to identify and change the hegemony of speedism. But it’s time to start.
In his excellent book The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Standardization, Todd Rose provides a chilling narrative of Frederick Taylor’s fight to eliminate inefficiency in business by developing a new science of work -- with a core belief that individuality no longer mattered. However, to efficiently employ its human components, employers needed to differentiate applicants between who should be manager and who should be workers.
Enter Edward Thorndike, for whom the purpose of schools was not to educate all students to the same level, but to sort them according to their innate level of talent so they could be assigned efficiently to their proper station in life, whether eminent leader (manager) or worker or disposable outcast, and so that educational resources could be allocated accordingly. Thorndike’s guiding axiom was “Quality is more important than equality.”
Because Thorndike equated faster than average with smarter than average, he presumed the smart students would perform better when given an average allotment of time. Thus, he argued, by standardizing time for classes, homework and tests, students could be sorted and ranked based on how long it took the average student to complete a task.
Just as academic calendars still hew to our agrarian past, our teaching model is still decidedly and disturbingly based on these speedist, Taylor/Thorndike hypotheses. Those who learn best (the fastest) are rewarded. Those who muddle through can continue. Those who lag get the help we can afford until they leave or are gated out.
While time equity is essential to slow learners, it is also an issue for fast learners. How could that be? Our current educational system was designed by fast learners to advantage fast learners because, well, they are the smart ones. Right? But when fast learners are enrolled in palletized courses with peers of all learning speeds, their progress is slowed, which is frustrating and wasteful. Indeed, in top-level programs and time-critical disciplines (think emergency medicine), speed is a valid expectation and criteria. But freshman composition, what we in Georgia call a “catapult course” that dramatically impacts success in future courses, proficiency is more important than speed.
Yet speedism is most insidious for slow learners.
And, like racism and sexism, speedism is so embedded in our educational systems as to be almost unrecognizable. Consider this 2018 incident in Texas: former Texas Supreme Court justice Scott Brister, chair of a commission appointed to find ways to fund a federal mandate to improve instruction for young people with disabilities, asked members if the state should be spending education dollars “on the brightest kids or the slow learners?” He later apologized for the comment.
Even when academia tries to get it right, it can get it wrong. In its 2015 report, “The Carnegie Unit: A Century-Old Standard in a Changing Education Landscape,” the Carnegie Foundation argues that moving from the Carnegie unit as a proxy for learning to measuring actual competency is too fraught with issues to consider changing either quickly or completely. While they may be right on some points, they misstep when they note that by staying put, “at a minimum, the Carnegie unit ensures students equal time to learn.” Hopefully you can see the speedism in that statement. Equal time is not equality. Giving all students the time to achieve proficiency is equality.
Our current Taylor/Thorndike industrial, palletized, time-based, one-speed-fits-all model is unfair for any speed of learner. Fortunately, alternative models of teaching and learning are on the ascendancy. The Great Schools Partnership is leveraging proficiency-based learning, flexible learning pathways and learner-centered accountability to ensure high-quality teaching and learning is every student’s right. In this model students are held to high expectations and work until they meet them, every day. In addition, progress in K-12 is being informed by work from Competency Works and iNACOL.
In postsecondary education, the recognition is coming more slowly. But networking and guidance from projects including the Competency-Based Education Network, Every Learner Everywhere and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities are building a critical mass of innovative models that address and replace speedist hegemony with individualized, adaptive and guided learning models where failure is not an option.
In the past the system set the speed and measured students against the average. In the (not too distant) future the speed of the individual learner will be first, and no learner will be last.