Preparing Students for University … slowly

By Roy Peachey, Woldingham School

 

At the recent RGS conference, I drew on the principles of the slow movement to explore how schools can best prepare students for higher education, but the slow movement and slow education can be very easily misunderstood. Slow education is not speaking slowly or monotonously and it’s not interminable courses of study dragged out until students see sense and leave us alone. Slow education, like the slow food movement, is rather a response to modernity, to instant gratification and to omnipresent presentism. It is about breaking free from the artificial constraints of industrial and post-industrial time, from the time constraints created by and for the institutions in which students study. It insists that we give students the time they need, the time tasks take.

And, of course, the tasks we set as educators are often shaped by the needs and demands of the institutions in which we teach. The tasks I set my students are governed by the length of time our school allocates for homework, and by the (artificial) constraints of the school day, the school term and the school year.

But it needn’t be this way. Last year I visited a girls’ school in Hong Kong, where they had a cardboard cutout plane on display in their entrance hall. Why? Because students at that school, with a little help from a parent who was in the business, built a plane. A real plane. It took them seven years. It flew. It stayed up. It came down safely. But it took them seven years. Many of the students who worked on it had left before it had its maiden flight, but nonetheless they could say they helped build it.

Or to give another example closer to home: Charles Causley, who was both a poet and a primary schoolteacher, used to give his pupils a year in which to write their poems because that’s how long poetry takes. How many teachers would dare do the same today, I wonder?

But slow education is not just about the time we allow for particular tasks: it’s also grounded in how the brain works. In Elogio della Lentezza, Lamberto Maffei, Professor of Neurobiology at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, quotes French Mathematician Jacques Hadamard on the three stages of mathematical creation: preparation, incubation and illumination, a perception that ties in well with Alexis de Tocqueville’s argument almost 200 years ago that “nothing is more necessary to the cultivation of the advanced sciences or the elevated portion of the sciences than meditation.”

Hadamard’s insight is as important in our contemporary situation as it has ever been. According to Josef Pieper in Leisure the Basis of Culture, “latent anxiety” is “the mark of the world of work”. Latent anxiety, I would add, also characterises the world of education. And latent anxiety kills creative thought. This anxiety can have many causes but an essential one is the dominant model of time that has emerged from what Pieper calls a world of “total work”, time as an economic principal. In the 19th century, we began to worry that we were wasting time. In the 20th century we started to manage it. In the 21st Century we are overwhelmed by it.

By contrast, slow educators give students the time they need to develop deep knowledge. They refuse to bow down before industrial models of time. They fight back against latent anxiety. Learning a language takes years. Learning an instrument or building a plane takes years. Learning anything that isn’t superficial takes years. And yet we rush our students as if knowledge could be acquired overnight.

So how do we actually prepare students for university using the principles and practices of slow education?

As part of my crusade against instant gratification, I keep copies of Delayed Gratification, the Slow Journalism magazine, in my classroom at school. It is one of my weapons in a campaign for unintentional knowledge. I want students to stumble across it. I don’t want to set reading it as homework. Delayed Gratification is great because it deals with the news 3 months after it has happened – The Last to Breaking News is its strapline – but it’s not enough on its own. I also rescue books that libraries are offloading and have my own library that students can raid whenever they like. I deliberately pay no attention whatsoever to the curriculum and encourage idle browsing. What I want is for students to develop an interest in a topic because it’s interesting, not because it’s going to be tested.

As an English teacher, I spend a lot of my time encouraging students to read, but my focus is gradually changing. I now encourage my 6th Form students not simply to read around their subjects, but to read two or three books really deeply. Preferably slowly and preferably more than once. I don’t want them to skim over the surface of knowledge but to really savour it. I want them to enjoy books as they would slow food, rather than as they would a Big Mac, because slow food – and books read deeply – taste better.

But slow education is not just about books. Any activity that promotes delayed gratification is to be encouraged. Growing vegetables. Using butterfly kits. Developing school ponds. All these help teach students that growth takes time. And intellectual work should do the same.

Intellectual work, Gilles Lipovetsky says, is “inevitably something done with craftsmanship and love.” This is not the language we usually hear, but it points us in the direction we need to go. If we are to prepare students for the slow university, we need to rediscover the value of craftsmanship, a topic both Matthew Crawford and Richard Sennett have written about recently. We need to recover the importance of learning from the master craftsman over time. We need to recover the value of learning slowly – of refining knowledge and skills – through doing. We need to recognise teaching as a craft and we need to allow students to learn as apprentices learn.

Crucially schools and universities need to do this together. To misquote JFK, I want to ask not just what schools can do to prepare students for universities but what universities can do for us. If you are bothered by your students’ Maths or English, if you are concerned that your students can’t google effectively because they don’t know enough, if you think students aren’t prepared for undergraduate studies, then work with us in schools to change things. Work with our students so they can experience true scholarship. There’s no rush. Contrary to popular belief, we’ve got plenty of time.

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