Tag Archives: time pressure

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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A tale of two cities: urban regeneration in Reading and Luton.

By Alina Congreve (University of Hertfordshire)

When I started work at Reading University, I took over the urban regeneration module that urgently needed refreshing. Coursework involved students writing essays to answer questions such as ‘Shall we build the channel tunnel rail link?’. The course was run twice with quite small numbers, in one term for third-year undergraduate students and in the other for MSc students. Most of the students who selected the option did so because it had a reputation for being easy. I took a decisions to run the module once and run it well, combining the third-year and MSc groups.

In trying to design new, engaging coursework I set up a meeting with the head of regeneration at the Borough Council. After a very shaky start to our meeting he mentioned two projects that he was thinking of paying commercial consultants to do with a budget of about £30,000. I offered to do them both for £7,000 with my students. The projects involved students working in two low-income neighbourhoods, collecting information and ideas from local residents to support neighbourhood plans. Once someone is paying you for work you have to do it, so I used the money to pay a regeneration practitioner to mentor the students. They were expected to complete stages of work by set milestones and the regeneration practitioner met with them several times as they reported back on progress.

Community facilities at Amersham Road

The students worked in teams and when in the community they were always in groups of two or more. Within their teams they had their own specific brief, to minimize the risk of a student free riding on others efforts. Students liked the combination of team-work and individual effort being rewarded. They learnt a lot about young people in those neighbourhoods who had very different experiences from them, including those who had turned down training and apprenticeship because their family needed them to earn money. They ran focus groups, talking to older people who travelled into the city centre to get groceries because they were intimidated at their local shopping parade with fears about their safety.

TwoCities image

The students identified the way youth provision did not cater for 8-12 year olds, leading to them being drawn into trouble at an early age. They also provided innovative solutions and came up with fresh ideas to draw in private sector support. They approached large Reading based employers based in the town and suggested schemes where staff working in IT could volunteer one day a month to help older residents improve their skills. They also suggested improved timings to local bus services so residents were not so cut off from employment. These were were taken up by the bus operator. Students presented their findings at the end of the module to the Council and community representatives.

Starting at Hertfordshire with a new MSc planning course, only a small number of students signed up to the regeneration optional module. Concerned the group was too small for the students to have a good learning experience, I approached a colleague who ran the Tourism and Hospitality Management MSc After some discussion she allowed the regeneration module as an option on her programme. It took time to build up contacts and networks that I had developed at Reading. Hatfield has been subject to an excessive number of student projects that have added little value to the problems of the town. Looking a bit further afield I heard about the work of Luton Culture, a third sector organization that runs that arts, museums and community facilities. In the town centre an arts venue, the library theatre, had been almost unused for 18 months. There were ambitious plans to re-open the venue with a lively programme of theatre, comedy and music. There were a number of ideas Luton Culture staff would like to explore, but were stretched for time. These included: creating links between users of the library and the theatre; introducing a loyalty card; working with schools; and creating a volunteering programme for young people. The students carried out desk research and contacted other arts venues by phone and email. Whilst half the lecture content was delivered by a regeneration practitioner and half by me, there was no budget this time for practitioner mentoring. With the smaller group (15 students) this was feasible but it would be much more challenging with two or three times that number.

A key feature to the success of both projects was the commitment and support of staff at Reading Borough Council and Luton Culture. They were able to provide information, contacts and other practical support, such as local venues for meetings, that meant the students could get off to a quick start. They also provided an enthusiastic audience for the students work, ensuring that their first experience of delivering work to a client was a positive one.

So, was is the benefit for the University? Or to put it another way, how can you persuade your head of department you should be spending time on this? A key hook is positive local press coverage. In many university towns there is a lot of negative publicity about students, often focused on rowdy behavior and untidy front gardens. To have a story in the local media about students making a positive contribution to the town can start to change that. Some universities have community awards for students who make a significant contribution to the community, and winning or being shortlisted for awards is good for the department. Professional bodies are keen for both staff and students to be engaged with real world problems and this type of project can provide evidence of that engagement. From a personal point of view it can also help your own career development, engaging with senior figures in local government and giving interviews to the media.

So what are the challenges? Surprisingly, few come from the students. A few students are initially skeptical, but this can be largely overcome if you open the module in the right way. This is going to be challenging but it is going to be interesting and it will look great on your CV. One challenge is time pressure, and while English universities have professional staff whose role includes engagement or work placements, the scope varies widely. You will get very different levels of practical assistance depending on where you are. Local authority budget cuts have put pressure on funds and getting even small amounts of money to pay for additional support is more challenging than five years ago. The biggest barrier I currently face is the university ethics procedures. This can take 6-8 weeks for even a simple questionnaire or focus group with residents to be approved. As a result I have had to adapt so that the projects are carried out without the need for ethics approval. We still have quite a bit to learn in making these kind of projects a regular part of students learning rather than the exception.