The Slow Speed of Thought

The Slow Speed of Thought

Recently, I was looking into buying a car. My first struggle was on whether to buy a new or used car. I went through all the pros and cons, mainly that a new car would mean a monthly finance or lease payment, while I could buy a used car for cash. So which one? How do I weigh the cost versus the fun to drive? To be frugal would mean a less exciting driving experience, and considering I had long drives to make for work, the drivability of the car was important to me. But how important? Important enough to base my decisions on Car and Driver recommendations? Or should I think more about my wallet and focus on Consumer Reports?

Then I had the issue of whether to buy a hybrid car or not. I do want to lower my carbon footprint as much as possible, but hybrid cars are quite a bit more expensive and the inventory choices in my area were abysmal. Most of the cars I was thinking about were at least 100 miles away and it wasn’t always clear if they were in transit, on the lot, or even pre-sold. A hybrid would be more a long term decision, a car that would recoup its extra cost from years of saving on gas. But would I be able to find the just-right hybrid that I would want to own for several years?

Then I had the issue of whether to buy a plug-in hybrid of even a fully electric car. The costs for these were at another level and the inventory problems were even worse. Still, maybe I could just bite the bullet and buy the ultimate car and be happy with it for many years. Now could be the best time for me to buy a dream car, especially with the possibility of federal and state tax credits. But would I want to use most of my available cash to make such a purchase? Or perhaps do half-and-half, where I could make a sizable down payment and then finance the rest.

But wasn’t I trying to avoid a monthly payment? Oh yeah, I was. Being self-employed in the Covid era meant that my income was irregular and banks weren’t very cheery about my overall financial picture. So, in thinking ahead, I wanted  to keep my expenses at a minimum for buying a house in the near future.

So I really should just buy an affordable car… unless I wanted to make use of the federal tax credits, in which case I should…

Well, you get the idea. I spent weeks deliberating on what car to purchase. I went back and forth amongst all of the various options. Sometimes one decision seemed right and then next day I’d change my mind again. I viewed hundreds of cars and just kept spinning in place, decision-less.

A car is obviously a big decision, but there are plenty of other big decisions in life where the same slow process is at work. Buying a house, moving, getting married, going to college, accepting a job, reconciling a deep wound, having children, adopting a pet, leaving a bad relationship, having surgery, and many other life-altering decisions certainly come to mind. Reflecting on all of these complications, it’s easy to see that some decisions literally take years for people make.

All of these decisions, and many more besides, require us to apply critical thinking to varying degrees, against many criteria. Here’s a list of some of the push-pull factors that go into making decisions:

  • Pros and Cons
  • Facts and Reasons
  • Costs and Budgets
  • Value and Investment
  • Aesthetics and Practicalities
  • Timing(s) and Opportunities
  • Agreements and Principles
  • Emotions and Intuitions
  • Collaborations and Compromises

The Slow Speed of Thought in the Classroom

We can see in all of this that critical thinking is a slow process. In fact, thinking in general is a slow process. Just consider about how long it takes a child to tie their shoes compared to the speed with which we can do the same task. Things like muscle memory movements, reflexes and instincts operate at much faster speeds.

Critical thinking is also very slow in the classroom. Integrating multiple viewpoints, opinions, and reasons is difficult work. It’s not unusual for a dialogue to take 50 to 70 minutes in order to reach the magical Eureka! moment of intellectual breakthrough. Socratic Seminar facilitators must be extremely patient with groups as they think slowly through complex ideas and texts.

In addition, there are other valuable ways of thinking. As it turned out, on a hunch, I finally went to the local car dealership (which never came up in my previous searches), found a car that checked all my boxes, and bought it immediately. Now I am happily driving a new car instead of deliberating in circles in front of a computer screen.


critical thinking, learning, Socratic Seminar, teaching

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