Slow Education – a personal experience. By Amy Johnston

During the academic year 2009-10, I had the opportunity of leading on a school project in collaboration with Creative Partnerships. We had already used funding from the initiative to bring a number of visual artists into school and had incorporated their work into our development of a creative, child-led, skills based curriculum based on Jim Rose’s review findings:

For the Summer terms, the vision was more ambitious. With a catchment area drawn from two very diverse communities, our aim was to bring the school community together in a way that valued the contributions of each. Working alongside Tina Muir from Patchwork Theatre, we took the children from Years 2-6 off timetable and brought them together in one, large scale collaborative project. Together, we researched the background stories of a housing estate built on an abandoned military air base and a tiny rural village that had once lost many of its poorest members when a ship bound for the colonies had been wrecked just off Australia.

The final result was to be a theatre production scripted, choreographed and staged by the children and performed in one of the old military buildings. The amount of work required to put on a stage production in 12 weeks was enormous and the children quickly realised that the tasks they were carrying out were very ‘real’ and completely essential to the success of the project as a whole. So often we aim to set up ‘meaningful’ or ‘real-life’ learning experiences for our children. Yet these are largely tokenistic if they truly have no real life outcome. Children can tell the difference. They respond entirely differently when their work has true purpose.

Once planning teams (comprising adults and children) had drawn up plans for the production, the required sequence of events that would lead up to it was determined. The range of tasks was remarkable. Interviews and site visits were required together with hours of background research into the stories to be incorporated. Scripts, props, costumes and sets had to be planned, designed made, tested and adapted. The children used audio visual film making in one part of the show, physical theatre and dance in another. The entire event was extended to include a gallery installation piece to be left in the performance space for visitors to respond to after the event.

It was during this term that I really witnessed what I would describe as Slow Education in practise. It was a familiar experience from my many years working in an Early Years role but was not something I had seen happening in such a consistent and sustained manner with older primary children. Each day, little groups of children would gather. The planning boards were checked and tasks allocated. Debating skills rose to the fore. Once the children had set out on a task, they continued with it until it was completed. Their concentration was palpable. Behaviour management was not an issue. One day a group of Year 3 pupils, many of whom could be said to have exhibited ‘challenging behaviours’ in the past, sat together armed with sharp sticks, complicated patterns and glue guns in order to build a fleet of spitfires for use as props. Unlike the story they were telling – no one died.

It was evidence of what Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, famously called “Flow;” the children were absolutely engaged. They fully understood the requirements of the end product because they had set them. Self-assessment became easy and valid. Either the wing stayed on the biplane during use, or it didn’t. The interview went well or it didn’t. Reasons were sought, improvements were made. The commitment from leadership teams, parents and staff members shifted from an agreement in principle to, in some cases, near evangelism as the effects on pupil motivation became more marked.

Throughout this time, the teachers had a lot to struggle with. Whilst maths opportunities arose every day (and many of these were rich, investigation based practical applications of maths) these opportunities didn’t necessarily tie in with what the curriculum stated the children should be learning during any given week. The same went for science. The children learned about projecting film on to back drops and an enormous number of practical applications of physics. There were also many chances to link small investigations to the topics covered in the play itself but a continued attempt at this type of education would require immensely careful planning for continuity . The Year 6 pupils were taken aside for sessions linked to their end of year assessments, though not without protest.

There was also a need to determine what the role of the teacher would be during class time. Some sessions were delivered to a whole class in year groups, as previously. When this wasn’t going on, children worked, often in mixed age groups, on developing particular skills they needed to use, with the teacher facilitating. Theatre sessions were run by the Creative Partner in collaboration with the teachers so that their teaching skills improved. Sometimes, the children proved more skilled in a certain area than the teacher – in which case, they took over the group! It was necessary to strike a balance during group time. Tempting as it was to use the time that the children were practically engaged with an activity to ‘pull out’ individuals for extra maths or English support, an attempt was made to split teacher time between activities from different subject areas. The art needed to be as well taught as the maths, neither should have a greater value placed on it. This did not necessarily translate into practise. The demands of levelling and target setting were still present, after all.

Yet it was during this term when many children who had not perhaps been considered (by themselves or others) to be ‘academic’ had their chance to shine. Unsurprisingly, the confidence afforded by being trusted to carry and set up valuable lighting rigs began to spill into more traditional subject areas. ‘Reluctant’ writers were keen to convey their findings after interviewing ex-servicemen. Most significantly, the days were not broken into false ‘chunks’ break times were soon abandoned by large numbers of children who were more keen to continue working than to stop. More hassles for staff as playground rotas had to become shifts to allow teachers a coffee and toilet break!

Most striking of all was the day of the final show. Our head teacher called in to the venue during the morning. She later commented that it had been difficult to spot where any of the teachers were. By that point, it wasn’t really relevant where the paid teachers were. The show had to go on, the audience was due in only a matter of hours and everyone was too busy to look up from their very real work. Whilst the performance itself was breath taking, it was the weeks of build-up that cemented for me the value, the necessity of Slow Learning in classrooms. Having worked in that creative, immersive way, doing otherwise seems nonsensical.

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