Is it Time for a Slow Education Movement?

Have you heard of the growing “slow food movement?” Begun in Italy in 1986, it has been steadily gaining ground around the world and in the United States – even here in Rhode Island. It is a reaction to the culture of fast food that has become so ubiquitous; it urges environmental sustainability and an appreciation for food sources, preparation, and taste. In 2009, author Carl Honoré published a book called In Praise of Slowness, in which he encouraged us to question our need for speed. Why do we move through our days as if we are constantly running a race? Why are we all so obsessed with efficiency and productivity? And what are we losing out on by not slowing down to appreciate the world around us? Honoré suggests that there is value in slowing down, in emphasizing quality over quantity. He even applies this thesis to parenting, in another book called Under Pressure: Rescuing our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting. I read both of these books shortly after they were released, and I was struck by their truth.

I was reminded of them last week, when I read a very thought-provoking article by educator Shelley Wright discussing the benefits of a “slow education movement.” Rather than pushing our children to achieve at higher levels and younger ages, what if we encouraged them to gain an appreciation for learning and to follow their own interests? Currently, our schools, like much of the rest of our society, reflect the “McDonaldization” of our culture: the idea that we prize, above all else, an efficient, cost-effective way to produce a uniform, predictable product or outcome. After all, you can go to any McDonalds anywhere in the world and you can count on a Big Mac. Our education policy-makers have also subscribed to this way of thinking: they want every child to move through school at the same pace, achieving the same milestones at the same times. If a student does not fit into this box, he or she is labeled slow or academically deficient; we provide remedial instruction designed to get them back on track. Creativity and imagination are not valued in this model; after all, no one wants a creative chef at McDonalds, they just want a Big Mac they can rely on.

Slow movements don’t ask us to do everything slowly, just that we take time to savor each moment and bring intention to various tasks. They ask us to reconsider the meaning of community and to recognize the interdependence that we all have on one another. What would it look like if schools were to embrace “slow education?” Perhaps we would have classrooms that are arranged in ways other than by children’s years of birth: maybe classes organized by common interests or goals. Perhaps teachers would be facilitators, rather than directors, coaches who assist students in their quest for knowledge. As anyone with a three-year old can tell you, children are naturally inquisitive – they ask lots of questions and want to know how the world works (“But why is the sky blue?”). Maybe learning would be more personalized, and each student would be able to pursue his or her own interests while mastering necessary skills (such as reading, writing, and mathematics). Assessments might be created with input from both the teachers and the students themselves, similar to the performance reviews that many of us have at work.

All of this may sound difficult, but the fact is that the technology we now have makes an undertaking like this much more feasible than it used to be. Using “blended learning,” in which students learn through a combination of online activities and teacher guidance, it is easier than ever before for a teacher to individualize instruction and provide support for her students. Project-based learning also provides opportunities for students to explore topics of interest and hone their research and analysis skills. In fact, many schools with individualized learning plans already exist – but they tend to be classified as “alternative” schools for students who aren’t successful in traditional academic environments. Greater personalization for students often helps them to succeed; one of the leaders of this trend, Big Picture Learning, is based right here in Providence. If we know that individualization and personalized education plans can help children succeed, why wouldn’t we want that for all of our students? Why do they have to fail before they can have access to innovative programs?

A slow education movement might be just the thing we need. Businesses tell us that they want employees who are creative, analytical, and able to work effectively in teams. Do our schools currently encourage these skills? Are our high school graduates innovative problem-solvers? It’s time to slow down and stop blindly doing things the way we’ve always done them. Maybe if we take the time to thoughtfully re-evaluate our education system, and define the outcomes we want for all of our students, we can effect real change.

This post originally appeared on GoLocalProv.

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