School should be a pause button for fast-paced pupils’

Kevin Stannard gdst TES

Social media doesn’t allow time for reflection – schools need to insert this into pupils’ lives, says Kevin Stannard


I recently read about the slow education movement. This is an analogue of the slow-food movement, opposing the practice of feeding students a continuous diet of pre-processed products in the form of syllabus content.

Slow education doesn’t promote student-led, discovery learning or anything that educational Adullamites would disapprove of. It simply wants to replace breadth with depth, to replace skating with diving. It advocates less time spent racing through content-crammed curricula, and more time spent on fewer topics, where engagement in the learning process is of intrinsic value.

It’s the difference between researching a recipe, shopping for ingredients, cooking and enjoying a meal on the one hand, and ordering online and awaiting Uber Eats on the other.


A crammed curriculum

The rationale for slow education comes from the conviction that the curriculum is sated with content. The need to deliver exam results leads to teachers feeling obligated to cover everything, at the cost of depth and engagement. The implication is that, if curricula were less packed, there’d be room for deeper and more engaging learning.

But while the volume of freight carried in the curriculum is an issue – not least in the sciences – it’s not the only thing encouraging teachers to press more heavily on the educational accelerator.

Ironically, in some respects, the pace of learning in schools appears glacial in its slowness, even more so after Gove’s exam reforms. Exam courses typically take two years. After the exams, there’s almost two months’ delay before the results, and if you want to retake you have to take the whole thing again, waiting a year for the privilege.


Breakneck speed

In every other aspect of the life-world of the average teenager, things are done at breakneck speed: welcome to Instanticity, population 2.9 billion(an estimate of the number of active social media users worldwide).

An article by Jonathan Rauch in this month’s Atlantic magazine points to the dangers inherent in the speed-up of social life that is forced and facilitated by the internet and social media.

He worries that the internet lacks friction: built for instantaneous communication, the absence of even brief delays allows the intrusion of misinformation, malware, phishing, and the worldwide instant availability of videos of shootings. And it feeds fomo.

Friction, Rauch says – even a short space between posting and publication – would buy time: time for a little reflection, a bit of fact-checking, a filter.


Pause button

Rauch is calling for a solution in social space to Thinking Fast and Slow’s Daniel Kahneman’s identification of the need to put some distance between stimulus and response, in order to allow the second (more reflective and rational) cognitive system to kick in and moderate the snap judgements of our first cognitive system.

Much of life is now lived at pace, with speedy responses but with little deep thought. The pace in evidence in school is often simply the result of the need to get through content as fast as possible, but also of the need to show short-term progress for all pupils.

However, schools can usefully serve as a pause button, providing the friction that everyone needs to slow things down a bit. It’s not only about reducing the volume of content; it’s also about making space for depth, deliberation and discussion.

Digital technology has a constructive role to play in this, but only when schools reject the pressure to become facile facsimiles of the “real” world, mistaking pace for progress and productivity.

Kevin Stannard is director of innovation and learning at the Girls’ Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1