Take More Time, Cover Less Ground

Often, the ideas that are most meaningful to me have multiple levels. Perhaps that is a function of aging. As the years go by, it seems more important to spend available energy and time thinking about things that are meaningful. Perhaps it is because leveled thinking appeals to my fascination with creativity, metaphor, and stretching my thoughts into new corners. Whatever the cause, I recently found one of those multi-level phrases catching my attention at a streaming concert by one of my favorite folk singers, Carrie Newcomer.  And each level relates in some way to creativity!

The song that struck me was based on a quote by Thomas Merton, a Trappiest monk, writer, theologian, and mystic, “Take more time, cover less ground.” I haven’t been able to find the context for the quote beyond being attributed to Thomas Merton, and perhaps it is for the best, since it leaves the thought-space around it wide open for me to explore.

My first notion, not surprisingly, was physical. I’ve been walking a lot, these pandemic years. I walk in my neighborhood and nearby parks, seldom venturing too far from my established route. It is easy to plug in my headphones and stride briskly down the street, virtually unaware of my surroundings but adding up those minutes of cardio. I need the cardio, to be sure, but I also need my surroundings. I live in Michigan, where the seasons change, and the nearby woods bring sights and sounds that shift with the months. If I don’t look now, I’ll miss the emerging golden light of late autumn days. I know that being open to the world around me—the ideas and the awe of it—is important for creativity, but it is important for my soul, too. So, at least sometimes, I try to slow down my walking.

But not all slowing is physical. In her video, Carrie Newcomer talks about slowing down the pace of our rapid-fire lives. She suggests, as she does in her song, that we aren’t always served well by our frantic pace of multi-tasking. Like the landscape, we can let ideas rush by unnoticed. Perhaps we’d do better to be more open and present to a given moment, a given thought,  before racing on to the next one. That’s a good lesson for me, as I try to figure out what retirement looks like. I don’t have to sprint from research article to research article or lesson prep to lesson prep. Sometimes, at least, I can afford the time to stop and think. And that matters for creativity, too. When I pause and give my brain time to just stop a bit, new ideas come. However incubation works, just slowing down is a piece of it.

Finally, the other idea that struck me while listening to “Take More Time, Cover Less Ground,” was that it sounded like really good advice for curriculum design. I’m guessing that neither the theologian author or the mid-western song writer who brought me the phrase ever intended it as a suggestion for teachers or curriculum directors, but it should be. Perhaps more than ever now, with the news—and sometimes administrators—beating a constant drum about learning loss during the pandemic, it can be easy to think that the solution all educational problems is more content, presented faster. No time for reflection, breaks or (heaven forbid!) play—that image of education entails cramming information into young heads like overfull suitcases. Such images can be popular with politicians, but teachers know that isn’t the way education works. Students can memorize mountains of information for today’s test, but it’s all gone by tomorrow. And so, what good is it? Long term learning is meaningful. It requires finding the big ideas that allow the facts to make sense and reflecting in ways that allow our brains to find meaning and connection. In the end, fewer big ideas that stay with us are more valuable than the vanishing piles of facts. Less can be more. Take more time, cover less ground. Yes, Carrie, I think so.

If you’d like to hear the song, you can find it here (at least for the moment), or just search for the title. Enjoy!

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