Of all the sessions I attended at The Festival of Education on Saturday the one I was most looking forward to (and most disappointed by) was entitled Slow Education: making time for deeper learning. Disappointed because I had high hopes and because…well, the presenters didn’t really say anything interesting or useful. They rehashed Maurice Holt’s manifesto on The Nature and Purpose of Education (even to the point of using the same slow food metaphor) and didn’t really add much else. Admittedly that may be because they didn’t have much time and had to rush. Oh! the irony.

What was I hoping for? Well, having read Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence, I’ve been thinking a lot about Project Based Learning and how I might go about implementing it in my new school. The idea is that if students are given time, resources and lots of feedback they can produce beautifully presented work of breathtaking complexity. Also, Guy Claxton’s book Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind suggests that when given time, the human brain is capable of some surprising things. He maintains that often we don’t know what we know. Stress makes the brain reduce in on itself and we fail to get at the good stuff buried beneath the surface. As with all Claxton’s stuff, I’m somewhat skeptical. But this does kinda ring true.

Education is generally focussed on outcomes. Whether these are GCSEs, O levels, SATs or diplomas, basically we’re mostly interested in what students achieve. Or, more correctly, what a certificate says they’ve achieved. Earlier in the day I’d listened to the wonderfully avuncular Mick Waters urging us not to let ‘the bean counters’ win. He said that teachers neglect what’s going on in the real world because they ‘haven’t got time’ to fit it in to their packed curricula. He said he spoken to a physics teacher about how he’d used the transit of venus in his lessons. “I didn’t,” the anonymous teacher replied. “It’s not on the course.” Quite.

Never mind, we’ll do it next year

The point that Mick was making is that we’re all so busy assessing that we neglect some rather obvious opportunities for learning. We’re travelling so fast that what’s actually going on in the world zooms past and before you know it your class is sitting an exam for which you’ve prepared them thoroughly about to embark on a life for which you haven’t.

Now, we could argue about what education is and what it’s for but I’m happy to accept that it’s a combination of offering up the very best that has been thought and learnt over human history and preparing young people to be civilized and productive members of society. You may disagree but honestly, I’ve heard all the arguments and I just don’t care.

So, where does that leave slow learning?

What I’d like to do is put together a ‘slow’ programme for Year 9 as preparation for their GCSE (O level?) English studies in years 10 and 11. Year 9 is a funny old year. In the past it was spent preparing for the unlamented Key Stage 3 SATs and since then it has either been a bit more of what’s happened in Years 7 and 8 (demotiving to say the least) or an early start to the exam treadmill (better, but not exactly riveting.) This latter option is frowned on by the current administration with their deep mistrust of early entry.

Instead, I’d like Year 9 students to pursue projects where they get to focus on extended reading and writing and are given time to draft and redraft until they have achieved a certain level of mastery of these skills and until they have produced a body of work of which they can be rightly proud.

I think that with the help of Ron Berger, Carol Dweck and the good folk of Twitter I may just be able to make it happen.

It’s a long shot, but it might just work.

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