Weavers and Stackers: On Being a “Slow Learner”

  • The following article has been published with kind permission from Lew Mills, PhD, MFT, a Bay Area psychotherapist working with Attention Deficit in Adults.

    by Lew Mills, PhD, MFT

    I am a slow learner. I may be bright, but I have had to admit that absorbing new information sometimes takes me a long time. On the other hand, there are certain advantages to the way that I learn things. Being slow at learning new things can mean that you are learning in a different way.

    Here is a metaphor for two styles of learning. Although clearly not a scientific theory, I hope that it illustrates the difference between two learning styles, stacking and weaving, to help you optimize your own strategy.

    The Stacker is the more common way of learning. A Stacker acquires new information and stores it like a child with building blocks. If you are a stacker, you might start by grouping similar blocks together. After having accumulated a few, you might add some on the next row, stacking them on top of what you have. Knowledge is organized in a roughly categorical way, constantly building into something more elaborate.

    You could build a rather large and complex edifice in this way. It will be pretty stable, it is easy and fast to build, and it is relatively easy to find blocks when you need them. The downside is that if you are missing a few pieces, or if a piece is inserted incorrectly or removed, the structure becomes vulnerable. And curiously, if you need to move the structure, it is most likely to completely fall apart.

    For a Weaver, the way in which information is put together is entirely different. Each new piece of information is a thread, not a block. You could stack up your threads, but you wouldn’t come up with much. The threads would be prone to blow away in the slightest breeze. In order to keep and use your threads, you need to weave them together into something more substantial and weighty. This will make the information structure you create more stable, but of course it takes more time. This is a slow learning strategy.

    This strategy also requires more treads to start with, before you can begin to build anything. A Weaver may need to pick up the very same thread many times before finding a place to weave it in. There is inevitably a moment where you have a big mess of threads that are totally useless and confusing.

    So what could possibly be the advantage of this strange strategy? The main benefit is that, when it is successful, the woven information connects everything together. Each thread shows you the relationships between the different pieces of information. It may be difficult to build the huge edifices of blocks that the Stacker can create. But a strong textile of threads can eventually even be used to hold even some of the blocks that a Stacker might collect. This cloth is very strong and flexible.

    Here is the amazing benefit of the Weaver strategy: You can pick up the whole cloth and move it. Unlike the block edifice, it is independent of gravity and the foundation upon which it was built. Remarkably, you can even turn it inside out and look at the other side. Am I stretching the metaphor? (That would be a good thing to do, according to Weaver strategy! You can’t stretch a stack.) What I mean by saying that you can turn the cloth inside out and move it is that the Weaver emphasizes the relationships between bits of information. Weaving abstracts out the way things connect. These abstract patterns and relationships are enormously adaptable and can be reused in many other places.

    For example, understanding these patterns and connections can often translate across fields. A model that you learn about ecosystems may well translate into a model for understanding historical watershed events. A mathematical principle may be relevant to the structure of a foreign language. The weavings you have created are metaphors and patterns that run through everything that you know. In the most fortunate circumstances, they allow for a totally new understanding of how things in your world connect.

    Why isn’t everyone a Weaver? Well, remember, it is slow. Stacking is the primary mode that we teach children to learn throughout elementary school. Stacked learning is much easier to assess in the ever-more-popular standardized tests. A successful weaver rarely gets more acknowledgment for their efforts than oblique praise for “original thinking.” It rarely translates much into better grades or evaluations. Often young students learn to weave only because they fail at stacking.

    Ultimately, it is good to be able to do both stacking and weaving. A Weaver that cannot stack, never accumulates enough threads to even begin to put them together. A Stacker with no weaving perspective is not able to move from the first row of blocks to the more complex stacked and related structures. In a pure stacking strategy the result is a sea of blocks one layer thick covering the entire floor. We would recognize this as the strategy of a child with an autism spectrum syndrome, one who collects facts prodigiously, but cannot do very much thinking with them.

    A weaving strategy does not correlate perfectly with ADHD. But it occurs often enough that it behooves us to understand it and learn to use it wisely. It clearly has its downsides, and the brain is best off if it can master both strategies. However, if you are primarily a Weaver, know that there is something there that not everyone else can do. Apply your talents to areas where the Weaver strategy will pay off. Use the metaphors and patterns that you learn to make something new. Unlike in childhood, there are often payoffs to being an adult Weaver. Your boss has probably collected the Stacker’s block that tells her, “Encourage ‘out of the box’ thinking.” Well, you know how to do that! Dump the threads out of the box and start weaving.