The use of “slow” as an indication of quality rather than speed appears to date from 1986, when Carlo Petrini, an Italian journalist, noticed a snack bar in Rome with a “fast food” sign. Turning to his friends, he remarked that he'd rather have slow food. From this observation has grown an international movement, including a slow university in Italy and a number of slow cities. Just as “cool” indicates a smart or novel event, “slow” marks out an idea worth pursuing.
For Petrini, fast food was about assembling standardised burgers from packaged ingredients with little regard for flavour or ambience. Slow food should respect culture and tradition, use sustainable ingredients of high quality, and promote lively conversation in an agreeable setting. The concept spread quickly, and by the 1990s a slow food convivium could be found in several English cities. Slow had also developed a political aspect: slow food was threatened by globalisation, supported local initiatives rather than national dispensations, and advocated individual treatment rather than bulk delivery.
In education, the first New Labour government took office in 1997 and uncritically adopted the curriculum prescribed by the previous Conservative administration under the 1988 Education Act. As in the US, there was a growing emphasis on competition and testing as the levers for school improvement: American school districts were coming under pressure to permit “charter schools” to be established alongside local schools, in order to ”raise standards”. It was no surprise when the same idea was copied by the Blair administration, under the label of “academy schools.” In both countries, these developments stemmed from the neo-liberal agenda promoted during the 1980s by President Reagan in the US and Mrs Thatcher in England. This top-down approach was driven by big business and the globalisation rhetoric, with little regard for local traditions. Essentially, we were being subjected to “fast schools”, with an impoverished curriculum driven by heavyweight politics and appealing to instinct rather than reason. But at local level, the slow-school concept had the potential to energise an alternative approach to learning, and promote a broader yet viable curriculum that looked ahead rather than backwards.
On this analysis, and given the attention paid by English politicians to American developments, I launched slow education in the journal Phi Delta Kappan
, which reaches politicians and state officials as well as university departments. It also seemed likely that the novelty of the idea would appeal more in the US than in England. Under the title “It's time to start the slow school movement,” I outlined slow education as a workable alternative to conventional strategies for school improvement. It appeared in December 2002 (1), and was followed by articles in various publications and my keynote speech to the 2004 conference of the Canadian Teachers' Federation 2004 in Ottawa. This coincided with the publication of Carl Honore's book In Praise of Slowness
which quoted extensively from my Kappan
piece. E-mails from American teachers gave warm support, but invariably regretted that current state policies ruled out reform. But there was considerable interest In Australia: the Blue Gum School in Canberra, for example, was launched in 2005 with a slow curriculum. In the UK it was a different story. My brief 2007 article in the TES had little impact: schools and teachers were struggling to make sense of the national curriculum while contending with the increasing intrusions of Ofsted.
But by 2012, slow education items on the web were attracting considerable interest, and I met Joe Harrison, an education consultant who had discovered a slow school: the Matthew Moss High School (MMHS) in Rochdale, an 11-16 comprehensive in new buildings, was running its team-taught “My World” course as a slow curriculum element. And soon I met Mike Grenier, a house master at Eton College who had come upon slow education in the literature and was keen to know more. Joe set about developing active networks of slow schools around the UK, and building and running our website
which includes access to excellent short films about MMHS and the St Silas primary school in Blackburn. Meanwhile, Mike had assembled an informal group of slow-education supporters, and arranged for the official launch of slow education at the Sunday Times
2012 festival based at Wellington College. This included a showing of the MMHS film, and in several subsequent articles in the national press, Mike explained the slow education concept and its scope. In November 2012, our presentation at the TES /IOE conference in London aroused considerable interest, and subsequently I explained the concept of slow education on the BBC's morning “Today” programme. I much appreciate Professor David Scott's support and interest in slow education, and advice and encouragement from Professor Paddy Walsh.
The current position is that we have growing interest from schools, and a loosely-knit team of supporters which includes teachers and lecturers from several English schools and universities. Our website flourishes and has linked us with educational bodies and schools across the country. The slow education movement has international momentum, including strong support from Sir Ken Robinson, who recognises its potential as a strategy that can foster creativity and deep learning in schools. We have reached the point where the concept of slow education has moved from an idea in action to a definite presence, embodying a set of ideas and principles that can enrich school experience and form the basis of a strong comprehensive curriculum in primary and secondary schools. We hope shortly to secure funding from a charitable institution that would enable us to make slow education a formal entity, promoting its pursuit in schools and in higher education. To further this end, we hope also to establish a base at an institution of higher education from which to launch a number of initiatives: it would be a meeting point for research and development, a centre for communication and conversation between slow groups and schools, and would also enable us to extend the academic base of slow education by analysing and consolidating its practice in journals, events and schools. The following section offers a brief account of the concept and scope of slow education as currently conceived: the final section outlines the kind of issues to which the concept has given rise, and which could form the basis for academic inquiry.
SLOW EDUCATION IN ACTION
The use of “slow” to describe a form of curriculum has nothing to do with speed, just as the description of jazz as “cool” has nothing to do with temperature. In fact, an omelette or a risotto can be prepared very quickly but would definitely count as slow food: equally, when a group of pupils is working on a sustained slow-education project, ideas and suggestions emerge very quickly. The notion of slow is essentially about establishing a process
that fosters intensity and understanding and equips students to reason for themselves. An essential aim is fostering the ability to understand in depth, and the arts of deliberation
are an essential element in this. In slow education, the concept of process
is central to the way the curriculum is conceived and experienced: what is abhorrent is the notion of delivery,
and this distinguishes the slow curriculum from one driven by outcomes.
In the slow school, groupwork is prominent as students develop their understanding from materials and from comments provided by teachers. In contrast, top-down strategies require that specific topics should be addressed and examined as given concepts, so as to meet numerical targets linked to student performance. In the US, this ritualised approach to school improvement has taken root, as the result - ironically - of high-profile national initiatives. Bill Clinton endorsed “America 2000”, which aimed to make the US top internationally in maths and science by meeting predetermined targets : George W. Bush launched “No Child Left Behind”, which had a great title but the same hopeless test-based strategy. Both schemes failed dismally, and now President Obama's program, “Race to the Top.” is publicly floundering. Yet even if the targets are missed, there is a presumption that merely going through these sterile motions must be good for everyone involved.
In England, successive Blair administrations fell into the same trap: a special “delivery unit” was set up to ensure that central prescriptions reached schools, backed up by detailed Ofsted inspection. So desperate was the pressure to claim improvement that evidence of grade inflation has since emerged. The failure of this approach is implicit in applying the term “delivery” to the process and “standard” to the outcome. Delivery is important in the burger industry, but marginal to the task of extending the minds of students and generating the capacity to create new knowledge. Assessment of students in slow education, however, is implicit in the learning encounter: and informal testing by teachers has its place in those encounters to ensure that key ideas are fully grasped. But standardised testing is something else: it's unreliable and does nothing to advance student understanding. Test results always need careful interpretation. For example, the American TIMMS tests (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) assess the skills and knowledge that form the maths curriculum, and invariably give a lower rating for a country than the ingenious OECD/PISA maths tests, which are based more narrowly on the ability to apply mathematical reasoning to specified problems. Comparisons mean little if the tests are unlike. It is also of interest that Finland invariably comes near the top of the PISA results, even though its schools give no special emphasis to maths teaching. Moreover, Finland has no national school testing apparatus. In many ways, Finland's approach to schooling is suggestive of slow education. The curriculum is outlined at national level only in general terms: schools develop their own curriculum, and are free to devise their own 16-plus end-of-course exam. Finland has given teaching back to the teachers, and invested in their education rather than in costly tests and inspection. The results are impressive.
An important aspect of the slow education approach is that its emphasis on process, rather than outcomes, also reflects advanced thinking in management studies. It is not irrelevant that when the management theorist W. Edwards Deming heard about the launch of the test-based America-2000 scheme, his televised comment was unequivocal and perceptive: “It won't work. You can't do it that way!” Deming rose to prominence when invited by the Ford Motor Company to rescue it from near-disaster. Competition from Japanese cars had reduced sales, and having to fix defects in cars as they came off the production line had eaten into profits. Deming argued that the fault lay not with the workers but with management: it should fire the bean-counters, hire more engineers, and ensure that at every stage in manufacture any defect is instantly rectified. This required a cultural change, particularly for managers: but Deming argued that quality cannot be added at the end of the line - it has to be built in at every stage of production. This is totally in line with slow education: students experience the curriculum as a system, where each step takes account of their response and builds toward the desired outcome. The result is individuals with the capacity to tackle new problems in a complex world.
ISSUES FOR RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT
1. The student/teacher encounter:
The entire slow approach is built on the way this encounter illuminates the student's understanding. Teachers work together to develop resources for learning, with variations to deal with different students. Thus an item on public meetings in the classical Greek city-state might involve breaking the class into four or five groups, each discussing some proposition prior to a vote. In maths, a defective solution to a problem might be presented and analysed. The conversation will be lightly directed by the teacher, who will form a view of each student's response which can be recorded on an internal card if required. An assessment is thus derived from an incidental encounter. This is not a case of “assessment for learning”, but of assessment derived from interactions where learning is paramount and the assessment is incidental and optional.
2. Curriculum design:
At a general level, the school's task is to design a curriculum that makes the best use of the talents of its staff. Collaboration between teachers generates new ideas and helps the school develop its distinctive character. Working in teams optimises effort and promotes supportive collaboration. Grouping subjects can make the best use of staff and provide the richest encounters for students: this may require teachers to reappraise their approach. For instance, English, history, and geography can be combined in a humanities programme, possibly with religious education included. This combination can be a powerhouse of learning, but for the English department, could such an approach deal with both literature and language? Or might English also be linked with music and drama, in an expressive arts programme? In science, is it really necessary to treat physics, chemistry and biology to GCSE level as separate entities? There is in fact an excellent double-subject science curriculum (developed by the Schools Council, a useful body terminated in 1984 by Mrs Thatcher) which covers all three subjects adequately to GCSE level and forms a sound basis for advanced study. This frees up curriculum space to permit greater depth and breadth. A special plea is needed for drama in the curriculum: it helps students discover themselves, explore their relations with others, and learn how to avoid conflict and promote understanding. It gives adolescents confidence and stabilises their relationships outside school.
3. School Management structures:
Line management has become the default choice of government since the 1988 Act, and particularly so since the coalition has greatly extended the remit of Ofsted. The excitement and fulfilment of teaching and learning have given way to compliance and routine. Hence the increase in the number of deputy and assistant heads, the growth of “senior management teams”, the pressure for uniformity and the tendency for the school to become a citadel rather than an accessible part of the community. In particular, the pressure to provide, at short notice, numerical data of doubtful significance on the performance of students is intrusive: and we now know that this style of management simply doesn't work. As Deming has remarked, cooperation is always better than competition, which is inevitably wasteful and counter-productive.
Examples of more civilised management styles suited to intellectual activity and creative thinking are not hard to find in the business world. The government has correctly recognised that students should learn how to write computer code, but fails to see that using code to invent new devices requires sympathetic management that can recognise fresh possibilities. The slow school advocates forms of learning which foster the imagination, encourage creative thinking, and avoid premature assumptions about human capabilities.
Nothing more clearly exposes the limitations of Ofsted thinking than its invention of the “coasting” school, and the related decision that a school cannot just be satisfactory: it must always be pursuing some exalted new Ofsted-approved state. The whole point of efficient management is that the system, if properly conceived, will continue to function unless some fresh event requires a new appraisal. Change for its own sake is always disruptive: Deming called it “tampering”: Ofsted, as currently conceived, is an ideal vehicle for encouraging tampering, and it has made a virtue of doing so. Hence teachers feel they are part of a transitory operation, where nothing is for certain. There is no need to create such instability - which spreads from teachers to students and promotes a loss of confidence. Slow education creates the conditions under which the curriculum functions as a system, and reviewing its functions is part of that system. In doing so, teachers find common ground and invent new strategies.
Liberated from the monster it has created, an enlightened government could return to the eminently sensible concept of Her Majesty's Inspectors. By establishing an independent inspectorate whose judgements are free from government intervention, a relatively small number of experienced professionals can use random sampling to keep schools under review, and collaborate in producing guidance statements. This is not inspection in the minatory sense favoured by Ofsted, which Deming abominated: it is an economical yet perceptive form of appraisal which provides politicians with useful insights and encourages schools to do their best. All these issues emerge from a consideration of the slow-school proposal, and would benefit from further analysis. Currently, we have a school system driven by conformity in search of right answers: slow education promotes creativity and a fresh approach.