Slow Education to China: Going ‘Beyond’. By Richard Pratt.

In an exchange of emails with my sister in the UK I tried to describe a recent ‘Slow Education’ inspired initiative we have undertaken here at the Hangzhou campus of the Chinese International School.  “Basically”, I ended up writing, “we cancelled classes for three weeks and told the kids they could do what they liked.”  Her reply, typical I suspect of sisters generally was, “So…. You don’t teach, and the kids do as they like? What’s your job again?”

That was a little unfair.  At the end of a three-week period in which I feel elated at the experience of slowness, freedom and democracy in a school setting I am also astonishingly tired.  ‘Beyond’ is briefly summarised as being a period of concentrated endeavour in which we try to create the circumstances in which students have opportunity to reach elevated levels of achievement in relation to work that they have identified as being of meaning to themselves, to be in some way related to place and to have potential value ‘beyond’ the school setting.  This process has been undertaken with Year 10 students (ie aged 14 to 15) in a school where the curriculum is ordinarily the IB Mid-years Programme.

It consists of two periods of nine days, separated by a rest day, during which students work on one project, continued through the eighteen days, or two separate projects; there is an interim exhibition in the mid-point and a final exhibition at the end.  All students work alongside a faculty member and can either work with that mentor throughout or switch at the mid-point.  Both operations are built around a period of fieldwork in a town away from Hangzhou.  The guiding values, generated in a whole school process including the Hong Kong campus, are that the learning should be (i) dual language; (ii) authentic, relevant and real world; (iii) personalised; (iv) explore multiple pathways to learning and (v) construct and be constructed through meaningful relationships.  It works.  Really.

To take a few brief examples of the projects undertaken by students, there has been a business start-up, construction of an automobile from scratch, various creative writing and film-making projects; novels have been started and collections of short stories established; there has been choreography, painting and jewellery-making.  One group of three students interviewed seniors at a local elderly care home to identify a need and have been manufacturing a robotic device to help with the chore of carrying groceries up stairs in apartment buildings without elevators.  Some students have set about campaigning and promoting social change, for example through a report to local government in a small Chinese town on disability rights or a high profile awareness campaign on breast cancer.  Others have absorbed themselves in composing music or worked in restaurant kitchens to research and then prepare innovative dishes.

Some drifted a bit at times but in the end, everybody did something more or less worthwhile and student feedback has been hugely rewarding.  “The best thing I have ever done” becoming almost commonplace (although never unwelcome!).  Perhaps a mundane but revealing indicator has been reports from boarding staff that computer gaming has greatly diminished among students as they use their free time planning and talking about their projects.  Students have completed written assignments of many thousands of words, in one case as many as 35,000, without any requirement from anybody of what they should do.  It has been a source of amusement that, as an English teacher in my present role, I have been reading through chapters of novels of several thousand words each written by students who would have imploded with stress if I had set them an assignment, to be graded, of a tiny fraction of what they have done voluntarily.

Above all, the objective of promoting self-knowledge has been advanced in ways that we could not have dared hope possible.  Albert Bandura’s concept of ‘self-efficacy’, the extent or strength of one’s belief in one’s own ability to complete tasks and reach goals, needs to be at the heart of what we try to develop in our students in schools.  In an emotional speech at the end of our ‘Beyond live’ exhibition event a student from the project that constructed a terrifyingly efficient beach-buggy type vehicle, and who would not mind me noting here has had an indifferent relationship with school at times, an accomplished sportsman often written off unfairly and inaccurately as an academic struggler, remarked: “I can make a car…what else can I do?”.

What of our parent body?  The notorious Hong Kong ‘tiger mums’?  Surely, the notion that we would cancel classes and give our students space to pursue individual passions would cause something of an uproar?  I have only been aware of support and trust.  One or two have admitted they were unsure at the start but they had the kindness and confidence to keep their anxieties amongst themselves.  Feedback now is wholly positive.  A selection of quotes would read rather like the poster for a West End show but this is a typical example, from a father: “We wish to thank you and your colleagues for bringing about an educational institute where children enjoy and excel in learning, where grades aren’t a big concern”.  Our governors and our colleagues down in Hong Kong have expressed enthusiastic support and a note of pride to be associated with a school that can do this type of thing.

What of the teachers?  How to answer my sister’s question: what do they do?  The answer is that they do a lot.  It is harder work than you might think from this apparently anarchistic philosophy.  We are developing an ‘Advanced Learner’ model of teacher practice in which the teachers are working alongside the students on the same or related projects of their own, sharing the experience, modeling learning and trying to find that sweet spot between on the one hand, intervening to finish the task and promoting learned helplessness and on the other, and unhelpful hands-off style.  Of course we have had colleagues drawn in the direction of both poles, genuinely from the best of motives, and the balance is as ever different for different students, or for the same student at different times.  On the whole, though, this model of practice is not a difficult adaptation, the centre of gravity of practice seems to be about right and you’ll just have to take my word for it, it is the most rewarding experience of working as a ‘teacher’ that I can identify after a quarter of a century in the profession.

We have a short film in production to share the experience more widely and those interested can see how we used twitter to share the experienced with our community at #HZbeyond  There is further writing on the experience on our web-site http://www.cis.edu.hk/hangzhou-cis  Anyone who would like more detail about ‘Beyond’ and the educational advantages of taking time out to achieve more by doing less is very welcome to get in touch at rpratt@cis.edu.hk

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