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Find the time for slow education

News | Published in TESS on 2 November, 2012 | By: Irena Barker

An approach inspired by the Slow Food movement focuses on bringing out children’s natural curiosity. Irena Barker reports

It all started with hamburgers. The opening of Italy’s first McDonald’s in Rome in the mid-1980s sparked protests that led to the birth of the Slow Food movement in 1989. Established to promote sustainable, local products over globalised mass production and fast food, it now has thousands of members and offices all over the world.

Since then, this philosophy has spread to most areas of life, and there are now groups promoting everything from Slow Gardening to Slow Travel and even Slow Sex.

British academic and former teacher Professor Maurice Holt sums up the idea in his recent paper “Slow Schools mean deep learning”: “Standards- driven education isn’t very different from a fast-food outlet, where packages of test-shaped knowledge are swallowed, but never properly digested.

“The movement for Slow Schools … seeks to promote learning in depth, rather than a debased curriculum based on goals, inspections and unreliable standards.”

The Canadian journalist Carl Honore, who has examined the whole movement for his book In Praise of Slow, explains that pressure to fit a fixed model stifles the creativity of children.

“They also don’t learn to look inside themselves to work out who they are because they are so busy trying to be what we want them to be,” he says.

There are already schools in England - many of them private - that famously espouse Slow principles. The slogan of Exeter Steiner School, for example, is “Where education is a journey, not a race”. Children are encouraged to progress at their own pace and the development of the whole child is seen as key to learning. The system is set up to nurture, rather than snuff out, children’s natural curiosity.

Montessori schools, too, focus on the independence of the child, and learning through discovery, not book drilling or instruction. The Reggio Emilia approach, also an Italian export, harnesses children’s curiosity through a self-guided curriculum.

But in the English state system - where schools can be made or broken by the proportion of 16-year-olds achieving five A* to C grades at GCSE - there often does not seem to be the time or resources for such approaches. For every teacher who wants to let their children “off the leash” to discover things for themselves, there is an Ofsted inspector hungry for results.

All-round learning

Professor Holt, at the University of Colorado in Denver, is part of a group that hopes to spread the word through a new thinktank called Slow Education. Its proponents are determined for schools of all kinds, across the public and state sector, to be able to return to Slow principles.

“It’s about making time to talk to kids, finding out what they like, what they don’t understand, what motivates them,” he says. “There are very few children who don’t have some talent but it often gets squashed by this enormous bulldozer-like machine of the standards-driven system.”

He will make a presentation on the topic, along with Eton College housemaster Mike Grenier and other founder members of the Slow Education thinktank, at this month’s London Festival of Education, an event supported by TES.

Mr Grenier has been working with Eton’s state-school partners in Windsor and Slough to help teachers introduce Slow principles to their classrooms, and even across whole schools. He has also worked in private schools, as he believes the standards-driven agenda afflicts both sectors.

“This over-regulated system is really counter-productive,” he says. “The recent events surrounding the marking of GCSEs reiterate how much the whole debate about education is about exams and assessment and how little it is about ‘Are we giving children the things they need to live in society?’”

Slow Education, he adds, is as much about an all-round philosophy and the process of learning as the content of a course: “When you talk to teachers they are very open and receptive - there’s a sigh of relief that they can talk about what motivated them to get into education in the first place.”

How it works in practice

Through his presentations, Mr Grenier aims to help whole schools reorientate their approach to education, moving away from results and content to pupil-centred learning.

He is keen to draw attention to outstanding examples of the Slow principles in practice at schools around the country.

He points to the innovative My World curriculum at Matthew Moss High School in Rochdale, which has the express purpose of enabling pupils “to exercise, and so build, their learning muscles”.

Throughout the first two years of secondary, pupils spend six hours a week - taken out of the English, humanities, science and technology timetables - pursuing knowledge, skills and understanding through enquiry-based learning.

They are given a starting point for a project and encouraged to take it wherever their own interests lead them, touching on a variety of subject areas as they move along.

For example, in one project pupils were encouraged to draw up their family trees as a starting task. By the end, one group of girls had focused on the history and construction of their houses, creating models of how they would have looked in every era since they were built.

In another project, pupils were “cast away” on a desert island after a plane crash and encouraged to look at what they thought would be important skills for survival. They ended up exploring everything from diet, shelters and settlements to the organisation of communities and political philosophy.

Rather than being forced to produce work in a rush - covering a syllabus bit by bit - children are given the chance to take their time. They are encouraged to talk about their work, and at the end of their investigations, which can last up to half a term, they have university- style vivas.

“Instead of the teacher giving you a book, it’s the kids deciding what they need to know and how they can find it out,” says headteacher Andrew Raymer.

“The teacher isn’t saying, ‘Next you have got to do this’. The teacher helps them to understand and look at their own learning.”

A brochure outlining the principles of the My World curriculum warns that its techniques can be “challenging and uncomfortable” and actually harder work than the way in which classrooms are traditionally run. For example, teachers have to allow pupils to fail in order to learn, it says.

Third-years are encouraged to carry out a level 2 Extended Project Qualification, worth half a GCSE. Thereafter, no hours are dedicated to My World, as pupils are preparing for exams, but Mr Raymer says that by then they have a solid foundation to build on.

“It does prepare them better for what’s ahead in terms of GCSE,” he says.

“The pupils know what they are trying to achieve and why; most learners appreciate that it’s a means to an end.

“Pupils are much more able to organise and take control of their learning, and able to discuss their learning, even if it isn’t a particularly interesting GCSE course. The more autonomy you have, the more motivated you are.”

Not an ‘anything goes’ model

The Slow Education movement also embraces more than enquiry-led reflective learning. One key aspect of the philosophy is the importance of nurturing the well-being that is vital for motivating pupils and improving their academic performance.

Ian Morris - who runs the now famous well-being programme (popularly known as “happiness lessons”) at the private Wellington College and its state partner the Wellington Academy in Wiltshire - has joined the Slow Education thinktank.

The involvement of schools such as Eton and Wellington might lead some to make the same criticism of Slow Education as they do of happiness lessons - that such approaches are only effective with middle-class pupils who are well-supported at home and so are guaranteed already to have the education basics covered.

But Mr Raymer, himself the head of a comprehensive, says it is “rubbish that this kind of thing is only possible in middle-class schools”.

“We are under as much pressure as anybody. We have well above average deprivation levels - we don’t have any special advantage, other than the fact that we’ve been doing this for a long time,” he says. “It takes time and genuine intent.”

A workshop on ways to deliver Slow Education is being held at the London Festival of Education on 17 November. For tickets to the festival, organised by TES and the Institute of Education, visit londonfestivalofeducation.com

WHAT IS SLOW EDUCATION?

Slow Education has emerged as a reaction to the constraints of the English national curriculum introduced in 1988 and the standards-driven agenda that has since developed.

Proponents say it has resulted in “fast schools”, with education becoming little more than the imparting of specified content in a particular order, which is then assessed to produce a “result”.

That works, they argue, only if you believe the purpose of schooling is to deliver the knowledge and skills that the economy requires in the most efficient manner.

Slow Education calls for a “less is more” attitude. Pupils should be allowed to pursue their own interests, become absorbed in their work, care about it and reflect on it - all without the pressure of exams and targets.

In his 2002 paper “It’s time to start the slow school movement”, Maurice Holt writes: “Better to eat one portion of grilled halibut than three king-sized burgers. Better to examine in detail the reasons why Sir Thomas More chose martyrdom or why Alexander Hamilton (a Founding Father of the US) argued for a strong federal government than to memorise the kings of England or the capitals of the states of the union.

“The slow school is a place where understanding matters more than coverage; one takes time to see what Newton’s concepts of mass and force might imply, to appreciate their abstract nature and the intellectual leap they represent.”

But supporters of Slow Education are keen not to dictate how teachers should teach.

“There ought not to be a canonical slow school, any more than there can be standardised slow food. Commonality of approach does not imply uniformity of practice,” Professor Holt writes.

REFERENCES

- Holt, M. “Slow Schools mean deep learning” (2012). bit.ly/Lqe8yo

- Holt, M. (2002). “It’s time to start the slow school movement”. Phi Delta Kappan 84(4): 264-71. bit.ly/Rcou2Y

- What is the My World Curriculum at Matthew Moss High School? Matthew Moss High School, Rochdale bitly.com/YiUcjt

- Honore, C. In Praise of Slow: how a worldwide movement is challenging the cult of speed (Orion, 2005).


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