Firstly: thank you to Joe and Mike for inviting me to contribute to this web-site. It is a pleasure and a privilege as I instantly identified with the objectives and spirit of this movement from the point when I first came across it. I hope that my context, as Director of a rather unusual educational project in China, will allow me a perspective that adds to and informs the movement in useful ways.
Our campus here in the city of Hangzhou is a satellite of the Chinese International School of Hong Kong. We take our Year 10 students away from that day school environment for a year-long residential programme up here in the mainland. Anyone familiar with, for example, the Timbertop rural campus of Geelong Grammar School will have some idea of the concept although we are somewhat more urban. The idea is that students will gain in independence and maturity as well as deepen their familiarity with Chinese language and culture through spending one year of their school experience at what is in effect a mini-boarding school catering specifically to a single year group.
I am personally very attached to the approach taken by Slow Education and I am fortunate to have a governing body and a Headmaster in Hong Kong who are sympathetic and supportive. This means that we have some genuine prospect of bringing about practices that are in line with ‘Slowness’. In particular, in a boarding context, we have the chance to influence some lifestyle and habits as well as more conventionally defined learning.
However, we face some predictable challenges. The stereotype of Hong Kong education, as for East Asia generally, as being intensive, competitive and aggressively driven by scores in standardized testing has some truth and I hope to contribute on this topic in future posts. We see the impact on our students even though we are, in so many ways and so publicly, committed to a more holistic development of the child rather than crude numerical measures of academic performance.
It is very hard to shut yourself off from the prevailing culture. Our students and their families are ambitious in many of the usual and understandable ways: they want access to elite universities and they see the world, as it certainly can appear from an East Asian perspective, as being crowded, competitive and unsympathetic.
All that is true and I hope to write more on it but it is not, as it seems to me today the main challenge I find myself facing personally in promoting a ‘Slow Education’ spirit on our own little campus. That seems, I think surprisingly, to come from within our own faculty. Much as I exhort streamlining in assessment (we follow the IB MYP), reduction and ideally elimination of homework and backing off from our students and trusting them to spend time without close supervision and direction, the staff I appointed myself keep getting in the way and often, this is especially from those who would themselves identify as being enthusiasts for things like Slow Education.
It is all for good reasons. They are worthy and passionate people determined to enrich the lives of the children here. They work hard and design activities that are planned to incredible detail; they cannot see a free afternoon without organizing an expedition, a rehearsal or an extra study-help session. My paradox as Director (my usefully vague title as Head-but-not-Head given that the Head of CIS, of which we are a part, is my admired friend and colleague Ted Faunce down in Hong Kong), is that each of these activities is intrinsically valuable, the efforts to make good things happen are laudable and praiseworthy and yet…
I would like to see us doing a lot less. I wonder why I find it hard to persuade people to do less? As an old Economics teacher I am reminded of the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ whereby each additional animal added to the pasture adds only negligible cost to the individual shepherd while bringing identifiable immediate value and yet the effect of all these marginal additions is to destroy the common resource. That common resource in this case is the lives of our students. Time management is a zero-sum game.
So here is a response to the question posed by Joe in a recent email: what would be the first thing you would do in the coming month to establish Slow Education in your school? My resolution right now is to be more assertive and directive in restraining my teachers. Less really can be more and sometimes we are our own worst enemies.
Richard Pratt is Director of CIS Hangzhou at the Chinese International School.