It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.

-Albert Einstein

I’m sitting with 14-year-old Emma; we’re doing her algebra homework side by side. We started at the same time, but I’m on problem #3 and she’s already on #8.

Does that surprise you? After all, I’m the math tutor who has been doing this stuff for decades. And I’m not purposely trying to work slowly. Emma really is mentally faster than me.

I’m used to this by now. I work with many teens with super-high IQs who process information at lightening speed. Why on earth do they need a tutor?

Emma glances over at my paper. My work is in neat columns. All the steps are written out. Emma sees that her answers differ from mine on problems #1 and #3. She notices that she’s dropped a negative sign in problem #1. And she left out part of the equation in problem #3 because she didn’t bother to write it down; she was “doing it in her head.”

She goes back and fixes her errors; by now I’m on problem #6.

Often, tutoring isn’t about teaching academic content; it’s about getting kids to slow down, be more careful and be more persistent. The fancy name for this is executive function: the ability to focus, stay on task, remember and use new information, plan, revise and rein in impulsiveness. Bright kids often work speedily but sloppily, and they often give up quickly.

The book made a mistake! declares 16-year-old William. This problem can’t be solved!

I glance at the text. Did you try factoring?

He had not. And, bright as William is, factoring hadn’t occurred to him. He tried the one technique that came to his mind, and when that didn’t work, he immediately gave up.

And then, William couldn’t recall the correct factoring pattern (which I then retaught him), likely because he never did do all the factoring homework his teacher had assigned when the class was learning this skill a few weeks ago. William had felt he “got it” within only a few examples, and so he hadn’t seen the point in completing the whole worksheet. He didn’t realize that even someone as talented as he is needs to over-practice in order to gain permanent fluency in a skill.

In Flourish, Martin Seligman explains that speedy thinking is only one component of high achievement:

What speed does is give you extra time to carry out the nonautomatic parts of the task. The second component of intelligence and achievement is slowness and what you do with all that extra time that being fast affords you. (p 110).

Many of my students need to learn to use that extra time to check their work, reread the question, try alternate solutions and practice more.

[photo of Foucault’s Pendulum, The Pantheon, Paris]