Skip to content Skip to navigation

Slow Knowing

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 

Meetings proliferate; the working day expands; time gets shorter. So much time is spent processing information, solving problems and meeting deadlines that there is none left in which to think.


Some kinds of thinking and some kinds of leadership just can't be rushed as noted in this profound excerpt from Chapter Seven, The Hare and the Tortoise, in Leading in a Culture of Change, by Michael Fullan, JOSSEY-BASS, A Wiley Company, San Francisco Copyright ? 2001 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Jossey-Bass is a registered trademark of John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Policing the Classroom

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


----------------------------- 833 words ------------------------------



When talking about leading on the edge of chaos, it may seem odd to say that what Claxton (1997) calls slow knowing becomes more important than less. Claxton provides the reason: "Recent scientific evidence shows convincingly that the more patient, less deliberate modes are particularly suited to making sense of situations that are intricate, shadowy or ill defined" (p.3).

In other words, under conditions of complex, nonlinear evolution, we need more slow knowing. "Hair brained" is about chasing relentless innovation; "tortoise mind" is about absorbing disturbances and drawing out new patterns. Entirely consistent with our previous chapter, Claxton (1997, p.214) observes:

Those who try to manage nations and corporations- ministers and executives of all persuasions- may be panicked by the escalating complexity of the situations they are attempting to control into assuming that time is the one thing they have not got. Their fallacy is to suppose that the faster things are changing, the faster and more earnestly one has to think. Under this kind of pressure [they] may be driven to adopt one shallow nostrum, one fashionable idea after another, each turning out to have promised more than it was capable of delivering. Businesses are re-engineered, hierarchies are flattened, organizations try to turn themselves into learning organizations, companies become "virtual." Meetings proliferate; the working day expands; time gets shorter. So much time is spent processing information, solving problems and meeting deadlines that there is none left in which to think. Even "intuitive thinking" itself can easily become yet another fad that fails- because the underlying mindset hasn't changed [p.214].

In referring to "hard cases" (situations of complexity), Claxton says, "One needs to be able to soak up experience of complex domains- such as human relationships- through one's pores, and to extract subtle, contingent patters that are latent within it. And to do that one needs to be able to attend to a whole range of situations patiently without comprehension; to resist the temptation to foreclose on what that experience may have to teach" (1997, p. 192).

Claxton talks about the poet John Keats's reference to "negative capability," which is the capacity to "cultivate the ability to wait- to remain attentive in the face of incomprehension" (1997, p. 174). In my lexicon, remaining attentive is to have moral purpose; incomprehension is to respect the complexities of situations that do not have easy answers. Claxton continues, "To wait in this kind of way requires a kind of inner security; the confidence that one may lose clarity and control without losing one's self. Keats's description of negative capability came in a letter to one of his brothers, following an evening spent in discussion with his friend Charles Dilke- a man who, as Keats put it, could not 'feel he had a personal identity unless he had made up his mind about everything'" (p. 174).

Beware of leaders who are always sure of themselves. Effective leaders listen attentively- you can almost hear them listening. Ineffective leaders make up their minds prematurely and, by definition, listen less thereafter. I recall a high-ranking civil servant who said about this boss, "His problem is that he is so bright that he stops listening as soon as he has understood the point." Not a very good way to build relationships or to pick up ideas that you might have missed.

Paradoxically, slow knowing doesn't have to take a long time. It is more of a disposition that can be "acquired and practiced" (Claxton, 1997, p. 214). Again, effective leaders seem to understand this. They see the bigger picture; they don't panic when things go wrong in the early stages of a major change initiative. It is not so much that they take their time, but rather that they know it takes time for things to gel. If they are attentive to the five leadership capacities in this book, they know things are happening all the time, even when there is not closure. In a sense, they take as much time as the situation will allow, and do not rush to conclusions in order to appear decisive.

To get this good itself requires time. Conger and Benjamin (1999, p. 262) suggest a ten-year rule of thumb "as the threshold time for individuals?to attain the status of expert." But we all know the difference between ten years of experience and one year of experience ten times over. Therefore, the experience must be intensive and must constantly cultivate the capacity to hone one's moral purpose and knowledge of nonlinear change process, to build relationships with diverse groups, to build knowledge, and to strive for coherence. Most organizations do not function in a manner that provides these kinds of learning experiences- just the opposite in some ways: they teach people to get better at a bad game (Block 1987). And, as tempting as it is to try, we have also learned that it is not sufficient to package this knowledge and try to teach it. For many reasons, it must be learned in context.

Claxton, G. (1997). Hare brained and tortoise mind. London: Fourth Estate.