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In Praise of Slow Learning (and Teaching)

 Our kids are taught too much. Which very often means they don’t learn enough. The more able manage a shallow grasp of lots of things, whilst the less able grasp little of much at all. And as time has progressed, I can’t help but wonder if it is our very definition of progress that creates the problem.

Coming through my teacher training, terms like ‘pace’ and ‘progress’ were the ever present dictums that shaped our teaching and informed our observations. Lessons had to be snappy, tasks swiftly completed, and pupils whisked on to the next chunk of learning without honest reflection on whether they had truly mastered the stage they were at. That the kids were learning, able to show that they were learning – these were the indicators of a successful lesson. Every minute was for learning, all learning should be moving forward, there could be no rest.

Of course, there was to be a narrative thread linking all this learning together into a coherent whole – this being as true for the sixty minute lesson as it was for short-, mid- and long-term planning. In that sense, every lesson was a stand-alone set piece, linking to the last lesson and the next, but careful never to step on the toes of either. That would be repetition, and repetition is bad, lacking challenge and failing to engage pupils. This, after all, is what ‘progress’ is all about – moving forward, always moving forward, learning new things, becoming better educated.

I’m not sure there is too much to argue with this – it certainly makes sense and sounds desirable – but as time has worn on there exists a quiet, nagging doubt that this is not delivering outcomes we should desire, and might in fact be an obstacle to them. The danger seems clear: in the determination to show progress, because this is how we judge ourselves and are judged as teachers, do we give pupils too little time to master one thing before whisking them along to the next?

Asking such questions may seem indulgent – if progress is good, and grades are good, then why rock the boat? Well, simply this: why, despite all their progress, and their impressive levels, do pupils just seem to know less? The renewed focus on a knowledge curriculum might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the fact that such a call has become commonplace is itself instructive. And I’m yet to meet many teachers who do not think it important for pupils to know the basic vocabulary and canon of core knowledge for their subject. Yet if that has gone, and I think it undoubtedly has, then we are duty bound to ask why that might be.

Which leads us back to that point about teacher training. Perhaps these accounts of pace and progress that have followed me round ever since my training years have meant that I, we, have been less inclined to offer sufficient opportunities for that important feature of learning: practice. And here there is much to be learned from our colleagues in the Maths departments. If practice helps us know, and knowing helps us understand, and understanding help us learn, then why should that be any different in any of my subjects? I teach RE, History, Psychology and Philosophy – for every one of them, getting the first clause of that formula right is just as key as it is for Maths.

Which means we might just need to slow down a bit – to stop, take stock, to practice. Indeed, perhaps we need to stop adorning schemes of work with great leaps and jumps that undoubtedly impress outside eyes but which we must question honestly: are these for the inflation of ourselves or our pupils? It might also mean building in mastery of knowledge and practice explicitly into our teaching, which will take an effort of the will, programmed as we all are to impress by getting pupils to as high a level as possible as quickly as possible. 

But it needs to be built on firm foundations. What they know, they need to know well. So that, measured in terms of breadth, perhaps our pupils should study less. Since this might help them know more. Which is precisely the case for slow teaching.