Jeremy Côté


Are you slow at what you do?

This is a bit of a trick question. After all, what does “slow” even mean? The reality is that speed is relative. If you don’t have something to compare yourself too, it’s difficult to talk about speed.

However, it’s equally easy to forget that speed is a relative quantity. In other words, we often declare things like, “I’m so slow!”, forgetting that this doesn’t mean anything in the abstract. You need to define a reference point before you can make this claim.

I was thinking about this in the context of how enthusiastic students are about school. For most of my life, I’ve been in the “faster” portion of the class. If you compared me to my classmates, I would be quicker and get my work done in less time than the others. This was a signal that my understanding was a bit better than the average student. As such, I became use to having this perspective. It seemed strange to me when I saw others struggling, because it was all so straightforward! I wasn’t looking down on them. If anything, I was puzzled as to why they had trouble and I didn’t.

Fast-forward to later in my life, and I find myself on the other side of the divide. Despite still being good in my studies, I am on the slower side in my classes. I can practically hear the brains of my classmates whirring, while mine is still spinning up. It’s quite bewildering.

The feeling that you get when you are slow relative to those around you though, that’s not a good one. It feels like you are missing some key thing that everyone else has. It’s like you are in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing.

The experience of being on the other side of this “speed scale” has shed enormous light on my thinking about those who struggle at school, particularly in fields like mathematics. When people struggle, it’s tempting to ascribe some sort of reason that is linked to a personal failing. The person is doing bad because they made bad decisions, or they didn’t take the time to study. Rarely do we think about the steps the person did take to improve.

Not only that, the subject of mathematics (and science, to some extent) can really exacerbate small changes. I like to think of it in terms of a race. When it seems like a person is behind, you might think they started further back from the start line than the others. However, the real trouble is that they were behind and began at the bottom of the hill, while the others started at the top. When the race started, not only were they behind, but the gap only widened.

I think about this now in terms of my tutoring. When I will work with another student, I don’t want to project the message that they aren’t good enough if they are slow at the beginning. Mathematics is a subject that builds upon itself. As such, if you miss the beginning, there is a lot of inertia before things get easier. Without the right kind of support, this can be immensely frustrating. Therefore, I want to take as many steps as I can to provide support to these students.

We all struggle with mathematics in one way or another. Being in a group that continually reminds you how slow you are isn’t a great environment for learning. Sure, it can push you to be better, but after a certain point it makes you feel like you’re not good enough. Therefore, it might be worth finding a different environment.

Slow is relative. Comparing yourself to the wrong reference point is a recipe for frustration (and eventually quitting). Find your group, and learn mathematics with others who are at your level. Doing so will be a much more pleasurable experience.

As for me, I will carry this knowledge in all of my interactions with other students. We are each on our own journey, so we need to be careful when comparing.