Slowly does it…

We’ve reached that time of year when the school suddenly goes quiet. The G.C.S.E. and ‘AS’ students have already left, and the Upper Sixth go this week. The frenetic activity to prepare them for their exams is done for another year. There’s still a huge amount to do, of course: the workbook for the Year 8 day-trip to Lille needs up-dating – and it’s only a month until I make the return trip to our Swiss partner school with this year’s sixth form group. And already, preparations for the new year’s teaching.

But nonetheless, there is just enough of a pause to stop and ponder the frantic rush that secondary-school life has become, and wonder whether it is either necessary or beneficial to the pupils – let alone the staff. I think what capped it for me was a year 11 student observing to me a couple of weeks ago, how fast time passes by. I remember school years going on for at least a decade when I was in my teens – and I have to admit that my reply did go along the lines of ‘Just wait until you’re my age…’

I delivered a new CPD session a couple of weeks ago on this theme, and as it was very well received,  I thought I’d review it here; the title was Slow Teaching.

The Slow Movement originated in the mid 1980’s in Italy, as a reaction against the spread of fast food. The concept has now become a fully-fledged world-wide movement, and has expanded to include slow cities, slow travel, slow money, slow parenting – and slow education. There is even a Slow Education movement.

The principle is well-explained by the Canadian journalist Carl Honoré, who did much to bring the ideas to wider attention through his book In Praise of Slow:

“It is a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better. The Slow philosophy is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace. It’s about seeking to do everything at the right speed. Savouring the hours and minutes, rather than just counting them. Doing everything as well as possible not just as fast as possible. It’s about quality over quantity in just about everything from food to parenting.”

This seems to make eminent sense to me, and not only because it would perhaps grant me the time I feel I really need – but never get – to do this job better, without going insane in the process. Slow would seem to appreciate that time spent reflecting on the last lesson and carefully planning the next is precisely what is needed – far more than the whole array of whistles and bells with which the education world seems as preoccupied as ever. It most certainly would not be time wasted – even if I were observed sipping a coffee or dare I say (given the nice weather) a kir in the process…

There is a vast amount in this idea, ranging from classical notions of education as eudaimonia (flourishing of the individual) through the much-debated ideas of 10,000 hours to mastery and Cognitive Load Theory (whereby care should be taken not to overload the working memory), to Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of Flow being the deepest, intrinsic experience one can have (which presumably can’t be hurried either) – to the need for introverts to have the time and space they need to do things their own best way.

The Slow Schools movement unfortunately seems to have been appropriated by the further reaches of the constructivist movement, although they do concede that Slow should not be a prescriptive concept. However, I can’t see anything to prevent the idea being adapted by more traditional approaches too: developing the patience needed for full command of a subject is worth emphasising whatever the approach, as is taking the time to think before writing or speaking, and developing ideas as far as they can go. Having the patience to read a text carefully for full meaning is another example. And I think the technique described here some time ago, of getting pupils to do ‘brain-only’ tests, where they have to sit and think until they have written as much as they can recall, is inherently Slow in nature.

I do wish the idea would catch on more widely; it would be good to be able to savour both the experience of really developing pupils in a considered way, rather than rushing headlong at the next set of exams – let alone a little more of the life that seems to be going past just too quickly, squeezed in round the edges of the job. It seems that even some of the pupils might agree:

When it comes to a properly-grounded education, just what exactly is the rush?

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