Quick and slow learners

If I understand him correctly, Níall Beag maintains in his latest linguistic blog that there are no ‘quick’ and ‘slow’ learners, that in fact learners just appear so because of what they had already learned by the time they began school atttendance. As an example he uses himself:

He says that his parents were both teachers, his mother a stay-at-home mum. As a child, she had him playing games that involved counting before he went to school, taught him to play simple tunes on the piano, to read a little, to read the clock and on top of this spoke a very “standard” English, whereas the local way of speaking was a mixture of Scots and English.

So when he went to school, he looked “clever”, a “quick learner” and was “good at” arithmetic, the recorder, reading, telling the time and English. He concludes he was not a quick learner, just had a huge headstart, which meant he had less to learn at each step, and even when he reached high school, he was still ahead of the pack.

That’s as may be as regards himself, but I’m not convinced about the general implication. If I apply that pattern to myself, I end up with:

My mother was a civil engineer on maternal leave with my sister and believed children shouldn’t be taught beforehand what they would be taught in school, lest they’re confused with something still too subtle for their brains.* I don’t know about counting but doubt she taught me more than the boy next door, she didn’t teach me to play an instrument (she had rheumatic hands and played none herself), didn’t teach me to read, (don’t know about the clock) and though she did spoke a very “standard” Czech, so did most people in the town.**

So I hardly had a huge head start. Yet when I went to school, I looked “clever”, a “quick learner”, and was “good at” every subject except those requiring manual skills. I was among the best in class all through the primary school. And I didn’t swat, not in the primary anyway – usually, being attentive during lessons and doing my homeworks was enough for me. Even through high school I was still always in the top half.

In fact, having a head start proved an ultimate disadvantage to me in English, which I began learning as an optional subject in primary’s seventh year. In high school we all began from scratch. Sure, I was a ‘king’ to begin with, but because I had to make all but no effort whatsoever, I later found it quite hard to buckle down to really learning again, and was overtaken by a few of those who had had no English lessons in the primary. I suppose I only managed to remain among the best in the class because I simply loved languages.

And before the crazy idea that I might simply be exceptionally clever even crosses your minds – I may be a quick learner, but I’m absolutely not what is called ‘bright’. I learn quick, but only as long as I have the things I’m learning meticulously explained. But that’s an old complaint of mine worth some future blog. Let me just finish by summarizing that I believe that indeed some ‘quick/slow’ learners may only look like ones, but that that doesn’t prove the existence of ‘quick/slow’ learners is a myth.

* By the way, in this country you then began going to school at the age of six; primary school lasted eight years and high school the following four.
** It had been more than three-quarters German before the war and after the expulsion was inhabited by people (including my grandparents) from all regions of the country. Consequently, they used standard Czech as a sort of dialectal lingua franca and for their descendants it took the place of a local dialect.


Next day Níall Beag commented:
That reminds me of a Scientific American article I read a couple of years ago.
I thought I was clever and I got a bit lazy during high school, but when I got to university I was among equals… and betters. (It was a computer degree, and some people who’re into computers are reeeeeeeeally into computers.)
But going back to your case, it’s very difficult to measure the environment a child is brought up in.
The bedtime stories your mother read to you (or didn’t); the TV you watched or your parents were watching while you were sitting on the floor playing with a toy; the conversations your parents had with each other or with visitors… everything adds up as experience. Experience broadens the mind and gives you something to draw on when faced with something new.
(And you also had the advantage that you had someone to ask when you were stuck with your homework.)
I cannot conclusively disprove the notion of “fast” and “slow” learners, but I think I can demonstrate that if there is such a thing as a slow learner, it is impossible distinguish someone who is one from someone with a restricted level of base knowledge. As such, treating anyone as a slow learner risks abandoning a potentially good student.

I replied:
I can more or less agree with the impossibility of distinguishing between actual and seeming slow learners, but this cuts both ways: if it’s so very difficult to measure the environment a child is brought up in, you can’t know your schoolmates didn’t actually have a headstart over you – but you were a quicker learner…



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