Slow Learning – allowing students to achieve mastery

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.

Related posts

Slow writing – how slowing down can improve your writing

Deliberating about practice

When independent learning meets high stakes success



11 Responses to Slow Learning – allowing students to achieve mastery

  1. Lorna says:

    This is what happens in the Irish curriculum. Some fantastic project work. Try ISTA for some contacts in schools.

  2. ryan says:

    I really like this idea and wish desperately that more schools were creative about year 9 and use it to develop deep learning habits!!!!! Go Clevedon, again!

  3. angelxas says:

    Hi there,

    I like what you’ve been saying here (and on the Guardian site, in relation to hard work – even if that message is a bit dangerous)

    Something I’ve been doing with some success is (nothing radical here, but it seems unusual these days nonetheless) is a themed on-going reading project (which includes a couple of films)

    All self-selected and it’s longitudinal. Resulting in a presentation at the end of their ‘findings’

    You probably do this stuff already, but just in case, thought I’d suggest it.

    You can see the a representative sample of a couple of my Year 11 students’ efforts here:

    along with the original task outline.

    (some of the written reports really were breathtaking. I’ll try to get some of those online too)

    Anyway – thanks for the energising commentary

    Chris Waugh

  4. angelxas says:

    My pleasure. You’re right, the written reports are needed – I’ll get on to that.

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree entirely that good things come from hard graft – I just feel at times there seems to be a public agenda that starts from the assumption that I’m not already working hard as a teacher. It irks me.


    • learningspy says:

      Chris – I’m not suggesting that you should work harder – just pointing out that that’s what’s required to be consistently outstanding. I also make quite clear that this is not possible for every lesson every day.

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  7. […] This post on Slow Learning is getting a lot of hits today for some reason…   Ah….nice post.  "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."  […]

  8. Peter Gaul says:

    Have been experimenting this year in yr 9 and 10 with a much simpler structure. Here’s a text, let’s talk about it, can you write one? It’s been absolutely liberating on every level and has allowedme to enjoy the classroom more than I have in 20 years. Showing Reluctant yr 9s the Austin the butterfly clip has transformed perceptions on what they think is possible. They are absolutely itching to redraft and have completely bypassed the notion of ‘why do I have to do it again?’ I know we need to be wary of ‘magic bullets’ but is this one?

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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