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Today we launch the concept of the Slow School.

By Mike Grenier, Joe Harrison, Professor Maurice Holt, Ian Morris and James Stanforth.

Today we are launching the concept of the Slow School. We believe that Western liberal societies need to remind themselves of what education is for; how this education can be enacted in practice; how it can be acceptable to the public, including parents, businesses, communities and politicians; and how it can be accountable.

Some of you may have heard of the Slow Food Movement and the metaphor from this Italian counter-cultural group can be defined as follows:

Slow food expresses a philosophical position: eating is more than simply taking nutrients on board, and life is about more than rushed meals

Slow food draws upon tradition and character- eating well respects culinary knowledge and recognises that eating is a social activity that brings its own benefits

Slow food recognises that a respect for tradition honours complexity- most sauces have familiar ingredients but it is how they are combined and cooked that vitally influences the result

Slow food is about moral choices: it is better to have laws that protect rare varieties of produce; it is better to take time to judge, to taste, to digest and to reflect on the nature of ‘quiet material pleasure’; it is better to produce at a local, ethically sound and environmentally sensitive level.

Slow Schools can echo this extended metaphor: they represent a philosophical position, they recognise the importance of tradition and character, they embrace complexity, and they value the local, the cooperative and the sustainable.

Slow is deep and meaningful

Slow is inquisitive and curious

Slow is patient and measured

Slow lasts- it is about the long term

Slow understands the true tempo and pace of human development

The movement for slow schools and slow education has faith in the capacities of teachers and heads, and seeks to promote learning in depth, rather than a debased curriculum based on goals, inspections and unreliable standards. We deplore the excessive use of crude tests, currently undermining English and American education: we take comfort from the remarkable success of Finland. And we recognise, above all, the vital importance of the interaction between teacher and student. We affirm, with Michael Oakeshott, that teaching must be seen “not as passing on something to be received … but as setting on foot the cultivation of a mind.” (9) The quality of the engagement between teacher and learner is supreme, and it lies at the heart of the slow school.

Since I left school in 1988, a year of significant resonance for those of you interested in the National Curriculum, the evolution of a process driven, industrialised model of education that is driven by a desire to drive up narrowly defined standards has occurred with frightening speed. What has failed the West in the industrial world is failing it in the world of education: more testing, a relentlessly faster day and little time allowed or spent considering the long term purpose of a liberal Western education have led to the demoralisation and demotivation of thousands of pupils, teachers and parents.

Clumsy forms of measurement and short term goal setting, combined with the politician’s insatiable appetite for new initiatives, mean that education has become fast food: low in nutrients, easily digested but ultimately bad for your health. Convenience has replaced value.

This problem affects the whole spectrum of the educational world in this country which is why I am joined here by teachers from leading independent schools and a consultant who has worked in schools in the most deprived areas of the North West. We aim to provide insights into how slow schooling can improve the experience of children across the country and ultimately help young people develop the habits, dispositions and characters to contribute meaningfully to society at large, to their local communities, to their families-both now and in the future- and also to sustain their own personal well-being.

Now for some basic science: it takes a long time for beings to become human; we develop slowly because we have complex brains; we take a long time to become independent. As the brain develops, grows, remodels itself, so education and schooling must take this into account: the immediate gratification demanded by the limbic system needs to be carefully counter-balanced by training for the deeper, pre-frontal areas. Parenting and teaching have to be patient and carefully managed so that the individual can flourish; early years matter: slow food means careful prepping; slow schooling is much the same. Tough cuts need marinating and slow cooking; difficult and complex ideas require the same method. Time spent on speaking, reading, playing, creating and learning to think in the first six years will make a significant difference to social mobility, another tough cut that the political establishment is trying to get its teeth into.

To shift metaphors, we need to prepare the ground so that there is a good crop: the Pastoral tradition can teach the post industrial world a great deal, too.

Schools, homes and communities need to slow down- more quality, less quantity; slow and steady wins the race; you can’t hurry love. We believe that a Slower way of living will lead to lives better lived; to stronger and stabler families and relationships; to more moments of Flow and better motivation; higher esteem and more self-efficacy; greater perseverance and resilience. As Confucius said, ‘ It doesn’t matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop.’ Slow schools modulate their tempo: slow does not mean lazy nor lacking in dynamism, stretch and ambition- students meet optimal challenges and find ways to develop what Carol Dweck calls a growth mindset.

Slow schools understand that promoting and teaching well-being will lead to better experiences for teachers, pupils and parents. Slow means integrating and rinsing an ethical approach through the system: slow schools are compassionate, loving and respectful; they recognise difference and celebrate individuality; they know the value of community and shared goals; they provide family, support and advice to sometimes very bewildered and unstable young people.

Slow schools also recognise, as they have done in Finland, that teachers need time: more time in the working week to reflect on practice, to review performance, to share and collaborate with colleagues. More time for professional development. And more time to interact with colleagues in very different schools.

Slow schools can teach the child and adolescent when and how to think fast and slow, to use Daniel Kahneman’s concept: how to gain mastery of the drives and passions that seek instant gratification and immediate reward. Slow can help students make good decisions about what is best for them and others emotionally, morally and psychologically. Slow is relevant more than ever at a time when youth unemployment is at a terrifyingly high level and when society is beginning to learn about the exploitation of young people, their vulnerability to addiction, to sexualisation, to pornography, to the Internet and the modern media and advertisers.

We agree with Guy Claxton’s view in ‘Building Learning Power’ in which he states he ‘is a little sceptical about the current obsessions with speed and ICT. Clever machines certainly aid some kinds of learning but it is our view that they will never replace the collaborative and contagious learning that lies at the heart of learning to learn.’ That was written 10 years ago and the advances in ICT mean that it is time to take stock and to consider just how deeply our students and schools understand how technology can be used. Learning to programme, designing computers and applications, using the Internet as a tool is what we believe is important; it is also necessary for adults and businesses to engage students in progressive and innovative ICT development.

In the words of Maurice Holt ‘ the slow school is an eclectic proposal- it offers a rallying point, a source of ideas and a guide to public action which could pave the way to a revival of liberal education. It offers an escape from the tyranny of numbers as the measure of educational value, and it restores the notion of a broad curriculum driven by a deliberative process that involves teachers, students and parents. It values conduct and understanding, method and process, more than the pursuit of standards.’

2 Responses to Today we launch the concept of the Slow School.

  1. Melinda Blackwell on July 12, 2012 at 5:32 am

    Brilliant! Perfect analogy that many folks will “get”. I left the public school classroom (high school teacher) several years ago to create a place for authentic learning for “at-risk” youth. I LOVE the marketing concept of Slow School! Thank yo so much for this inspiring piece.

  2. Richard Wisnesky on July 17, 2012 at 7:53 pm

    My eldest son at 19 (11 years ago) describe his schooling as follows.
    “We’re not taught to pursue things but alternately encouraged only to know things to achieve a certification in standards. I passed through the system and passively involved myself in its few redeeming areas.” Our New Zealand model is constantly undermined by the exact features mentioned in this article.

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