Slow Education Down Under: The Slow Education Movement at Blue Gum Community School. By Dr Stephen Smith

In a constantly changing world overwhelmingly dominated by technology and ever-increasing complexity, schooling systems continually face challenges as they seek to address such ‘big picture’ questions as what is the purpose of education, what it means to ‘educate’, how children learn (best), what children should learn which will prepare them for their futures and how they should best engage in the learning process. The ways in which members of a community are educated and the processes and practices by which knowledge and skills are imparted are significantly influenced by contemporary ideological, political, social, cultural, economic, philosophical and psychological trends, all of which have an impact upon the content, delivery and desired goals and outcomes of education.

Most recently, the exponential increase in technological and technical advances, the relative ease and access to information globally, and increasing demands and expectations placed on learners, require the development of effective teaching strategies and methods for learning effectiveness in the development and delivery of a system of education which is meaningful and where the knowledge and skills learned are relevant for one’s successful ‘navigation’ through the world today. The achievement of such aims has increasingly taken the form of increased teacher and student accountability, increased assessment and the introduction of standardised testing at what, some might argue, is the expense of problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity. To counteract this perception of education, Noam Chomsky,  supporting John Dewey’s ([1916], 1968) strongly-held belief that students thrive in an environment where they are allowed to experience and interact with the curriculum, and where students should have the opportunity to take part in their own learning, advocates that ‘The goal of education [should be to] develop, not only the capacity but also the desire to gain the information that you need in what you’re interested in and what you want to pursue’ (2013). Further to this, Huang (2014, 33) argues in favour of a broader concept of education which ‘supports the idea that education should empower people in becoming critical, autonomous but also happy and satisfied rather than passive and economically useful people who blindly believe what authorities tell them’.

Educationalist, Sir Ken Robinson, speaking at a TED talk in 2010, argues that our current educational paradigm is essentially an ‘industrial’ or ‘manufacturing’ model, which he likens to that of fast food production, based on concepts of linearity, conformity, standardisation and ‘batching’ of people. Robinson advocates for a ‘revolution’ of the current systems in favour of a model which is based on the principles of what he describes as an ‘agricultural’ paradigm which acknowledges human ‘flourishing’, not as a mechanical process but as an organic process where teachers, educators and institutions create the conditions under which human beings are given the knowledge and skills which will allow them to flourish. To challenge what we have taken for granted as providing the most comprehensive system of education and to overturn it in favour of something more customised for local circumstances means much more than simple educational reform.

Ever since the introduction of mainstream, public education in the first half of the nineteenth century (Raywidd, 1999), ‘alternative’ models of schooling and different approaches to teaching and learning have co-existed alongside its state-provided counterpart. It was not until the 1960s and 1970s, however, that ‘alternative’ education grew into a widespread social movement and it was then that writers such as Ivan Illich, A.S.Neill and Hartmut von Hentig in Europe, John Holt, Jonathan Kozol, Henry Giroux and Herbert Kohl in the United States and Paulo Freire in Brazil questioned the values and methods of public schooling.

With the beginning of the 21st century, there has been an increasing groundswell calling for innovative educational projects involving a range of educational approaches that encourage collaborative, participatory and personalised teaching practices and processes developed in non-traditional school settings. John Howlett, in his recent (2013) book on the history of progressive education in the UK and Europe argues against the use of labels such as ‘democratic’, ‘autonomous’, ‘free’, ‘progressive’ and ‘child-centred’ in an attempt to indicate an other way (Lees, 2014, 1) as misleading. I present a discussion of ‘Slow Education’, a term used to describe an emerging philosophical movement and approach to teaching and learning which allows students ‘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’ (Barker, 2012). In an educational context, ‘slow’ describes a holistic, creative and broad-based transformational approach to teaching and learning (Honoré in Gordon, 2013), ‘a process that fosters intensity and understanding and equips students to reason for themselves’ rather than outcomes (Holt, 2014b).

The ‘Slow Education Movement’ has emerged in England as a reaction to the constraints of the English national curriculum introduced in 1988 and the standards- and outcomes-driven programs which have developed as a result (Barker, 2012). Proponents of ‘Slow Education’ (Grenier, 2013a, 2013b; Holt, 2002, 2012, 2014a; Honoré, 2004, for example) argue against the current narrowing of the purpose of education which is dominated by the neoliberal ideology which emphasises outcomes to deliver knowledge and skills to potential workers in order to satisfy the requirements of the economy. ‘Slow Education’ is grounded in adaptive, non-standards based approaches to teaching and learning, conducted in an environment which afford students greater autonomy, responsibility, and a high degree of personal accountability to become self-reflecting, critical and effective individuals, ‘happy, pleased and eventually ready to take their next steps in life’ (Huang, 2014:62).

The paper turns to a detailed examination of the Blue Gum Community School (BGCS), in Canberra, ACT, Australia, which has gained recent international attention on the ‘Slow Education’ website (www.sloweducation.co.uk) where it has been flagged as one of the world’s educational institutions to have embraced and evolved many of the ethos, tenets and principles ascribed to the Slow Education movement.

 

Background information regarding the motives for the establishment of BGCS is detailed, as is the overriding philosophy and pedagogical principles which view each and every child/student as a highly competent, capable individual who learns best through deep extended learning experiences and in the exploration of individual and community interests for knowledge-gaining and meaning-making.

A lengthy, open-ended interview was conducted with three key members of the school—the Executive Director and was introduced to the Education Directors of the Primary School and Middle/High School. Here I gained a deeper understanding of the history of the school and reasons for its foundation, its philosophical, its structure and operation and its perceived successes as a non-traditional educational institution. I also had the opportunity to experience some ‘working’ classrooms which bore little resemblance to the more formal structure of traditional classrooms, where students were engaged in their learning tasks and observed what they were doing and how they were going about their classroom business.

The role of the teacher at BGCS is discussed in some detail. Teachers closely observe and get to know their students very well and learn how each one interacts, responds and learns best. They see it very much their social and pedagogical responsibility to  instil in students a strong sense of their own capacities and target areas such as student risk-taking, perseverance, to be open to innovation and creativity, to make effective judgements and to critically assess their own and others’ work.

At all levels of the education process, students develop ‘a sense of community where all members have a sense of belonging’, both within the school, establishing ‘an extended community through a mentoring relationship with younger classes’, as well as carrying out action research projects within the broader Canberra community.

A strong belief of the ‘Slow Education’ movement is that there is no single way to approach education but that the methods and strategies employed in each iteration of a ‘slow school’ should reflect the school’s mission, vision, how it defines itself within the concept, and its social, cultural, historical and local community context.  It is clear that the philosophical and pedagogical foundations which inform the educational process at Blue Gum Community School very positively reflect the tenets of the ‘Slow Education Movement’.

 

Stephen J. Smith

School of Humanities & Social Science

University of Newcastle, Australia

stephen.j.smith@newcastle.edu.au

1 comment for “Slow Education Down Under: The Slow Education Movement at Blue Gum Community School. By Dr Stephen Smith

  1. February 11, 2016 at 11:26 am

    Right now, I truly question whether most students are learning anything other than how to do school, or that they re not academic. If we get serious about slowing down education, however, we have the possibility of educating kids in a way that helps them to develop into people who are happy, healthy and humane.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *