By Maurice Holt, professor emeritus of education, University of Colorado, Denver.
The credit for using “slow” in a new way goes to Carlo Petrini, who started it all. Looking for a place to eat in Rome, he saw a sign for “fast food” and said to his friends, “what we need is slow food.” Not slow in the sense of taking three hours to eat seven courses; slow in the sense of producing a a good meal using decent ingredients, properly cooked and served. Then everyone feels satisfied, at ease, ready to reflect and enjoy.
This is to use “slow” in much the same way as we use “cool”. In fact, one of the meanings of “cool” in my Webster’s dictionary is “not hasty: deliberate.” So when Lester Young used cool to describe his kind of saxophone playing, the metaphor wasn’t all that great a stretch. Applied to education, a slow school looks to me like a place where learning is seen not as the forced consumption of facts, to regurgitate in multiple-choice tests, but as an experience shared between teacher and student that focuses on understanding as the main aim. So students are encouraged to ask questions, inquire further, and ultimately learn how to think for themselves.
There are many ways of doing this. I learned the basics of applied maths at the age of 14, from an uncompromising teacher who realised that we learn a lot from our mistakes providing support is available. His methods were stringent but hugely successful – not only for passing exams but in fostering a real desire to learn. It was slow education in the sense that we were invited to consider a few basic principles and work out how to apply them in different settings. After all, Newton’s three laws of motion only take up a few lines – the hard part is not stating them but using them. Facts and theories only come to life when we apply them, in discussion and reflection. Until then, they are Whitehead’s “inert knowledge.”
One advantage of home schooling is that if sensibly handled, it is not difficult to create these conditions for learning. And the emphasis given in Montessori and Steiner schooling to independence, freedom, choice and discovery is consistent with slow education. So, indeed, are the ideas of Froebel in the 19th century and the philosophy of John Dewey.
The main reason we now have to struggle to implement this approach is the competitive climate created by US and UK politicians, who assert that the aim of schooling should be high grades in exams that assess recall rather than understanding. Then, by insisting that schools compete with each other on this absurd basis, they effectively guarantee that schooling will be a a dreary and unrewarding experience for both teachers and taught. And all this is done in the belief that it is the only way a country can compete in the global economy. Well, Google is a pretty successful global competitor, but Larry Page and Sergei Brin, its joint founders and directors, independently attended Montessori schools. And making their search engine work depended as much on imaginative thinking as on technical ability. By pursuing the concept of slow education, we might just succeed in rescuing our children – and our economy – from misguided government policies. Joe Harrison is to be congratulated for setting up a site where these ideas can be discussed.