Dr Anita Mortlock, Victoria University of Wellington
‘Slow Education’ is more than just slowing down. It is an educational approach that seeks to achieve healthy relational bonds between and across people, as well as connectedness to the local and wider environment. It asks us to pause before we buy something for use in our teaching and to instead consider whether we might make do with the resources that we have on hand. In addition, it asks us to build our own skills and capacities to meet these ends. It prioritises care, quality, and enjoyment.
Slow Education (or slow pedagogy) is an offshoot of the International Slow Movement. It’s a relative newcomer to our kete of educational philosophies and pedagogies, but it resonates with other kaupapa like sustainability, mindfulness, wellbeing and holistic education. These themes can seem counter-cultural in an era of fast-paced, assessment-driven, cram-in-as-much-as-you-can education (and life!), but these historical pedagogical ideas have much to offer in our modern world. This blog post explores the Slow Education movement through three examples of practice.
Origins of Slow
The Slow Movement originated in Italy in 1986 when Carlo Petrini organised protests against the opening of a fast-food restaurant. He criticised ‘fast’ food for promoting disconnection, standardisation, and unsustainable farming, production and packaging practices. Petrini also feared the loss of traditional convivial shared eating practices
Out of these protests, a Slow Manifesto developed. The movement gathered momentum and spread around the globe, including to Aotearoa. “Slow” has now branched out beyond food into many areas of life including clothes and education, and in all cases is seen as a form of slow and mindful living.
So what about ‘Slow Education?’
Slow Education is a thoughtful, value-driven, intentional approach to education. Slow Education seeks to be transformative, socially just, environmentally sustainable, and diverse, with education in each school or ECE setting reflecting the positive qualities of that unique context. The emphasis within Slow Education is on learners’ and communities’ collaboration, creative and deep-critical thinking, autonomy, and self-knowledge. An additional facet is slowing down enough to take pleasure in these things.
Slow Education is thus a clear challenge to the neoliberal approaches to education that currently dominate in Western countries – approaches that encourage competition, standardization, commodification, and commercialization. Slow Education is not just about preparing children to be economic assets in a global knowledge economy; Slow Education takes a broader view and seeks to foster each child’s full inner capacities, equipping them for an unknowable future.
The rest of this blog post highlights three instructional practices that, in my view, align well with the Slow Education philosophy:
- Privileging of deep relationships
- Connections to the natural world
- Loose parts play
Privileging of deep relationships
Much has been said about the importance of primary caregiving relationships for children in early childhood settings – so that instead of moving between staff for different activities, children have a consistent caregiver with whom they can bond deeply. Less, however, has been said about what this looks like once children reach school. Typically, children in New Zealand primary and intermediate schools get a new teacher each year, with perhaps a few extra ‘specialist’ teachers visiting for subjects like music or technology; by secondary, each subject is taught by a different teacher and perhaps a small amount of time each day (or week) is spent with a homeroom teacher responsible for pastoral care. The advent of innovative learning environments means that even primary school students are starting to be in settings where their education is shared by more than one teacher – with the advantages and disadvantages of this model not yet clearly understood.
Contrast this with the ‘Slower’ approach taken in Steiner educational settings, which typically keep children and their teacher together as a single cohort right across a child’s schooling. In the Steiner philosophy, bonds between people are seen as an integral part of the curriculum. By staying together, children get to experience conflict and resolution with the same group of people over many years, potentially enabling a deep understanding of those others and self. In addition, their teacher gets to see each child’s development and progress over time and build stronger relational bonds to individual children’s families, enhancing an in-depth understanding of each child in time and place. The teacher works hard to understand a child in his or her entirety to support this process. Moreover, prioritising practices such as morning circle, where the children and teacher greet the day with a shared chant, poem, blessing, or waiata potentially fosters togetherness and synchrony.
Connections to the natural world
Children’s relationships with the natural world are integral to their well-being, to their cultural identity, and to the wellbeing of the environment. There are many pedagogies in Aotearoa now where children are encouraged to slow down and observe nature, to experience it, and to become absorbed in that experience. Activities that foster children’s connection to the natural world also reflect the values of Slow Education because it connects individuals to what is unique about the location they find themselves within. Healthful connections with nature have been associated with appreciation, pleasure, and de-stressing. They have also been associated with mindfuness. Finally, the connection to the natural world can help learners value it and develop a sustainable mindset; in other words, the impact of consumerism is brought sharply into focus when we connect to the wonder of nature and realise that certain habitats can come under threat through defoliation or litter. Some current nature-based pedagogies include Forest Kindergartens. Even creating seasonal tables like the one below can cue learners into what is happening in the world outside.
Loose parts is a pedagogical approach in which children are not given ready-made toys or resources but rather are provided with a rich collection of loose materials. Older children will be given tools in order to build their own toys; playground equipment might be a collection of planks, boxes, wheels, and so forth so that children can create their own structures. Indoors, loose parts might include bottle tops, wood rounds, string, and other such materials. Loose-parts play has been popular since the 1970s with Simon Nicholson’s work on creativity, and possibly even before that with Sørenson’s (1943) work on junk playgrounds. It is becoming increasingly common in ECE and in NZ primary schools with the growing onset of maker-spaces and play-based learning.
Loose parts have arguably become increasingly relevant to sustainability and to slow education. This approach calls on us to use repurposed and found materials in the local environment rather than anything bought in a shop or from a catalogue. The location in which loose parts materials are found is a critical factor as it implies that children will be enabled to explore things that have cultural relevance. Moreover, it takes the onus off imported toys and materials and the environmental damage that occurs as a consequence.
The loose parts approach connects with slow pedagogy because it allows children to follow the slow process from ‘exploration to idea to design to making to use.’ Children have opportunities to foster their innovative thinking, explore the affordances of materials and tools, and increasingly build self-capacity in making, fixing, and creating things. These things all take time but are crucial to our sense of self-reliance. If children are given time to do this frequently, as adults there might be less reliance on others to fix things or they might need to buy fewer products because they can make them themselves. Because of the potential for children to combine materials in creative ways and discover innovative uses for things, loose-parts play has much to offer children in helping them construct new uses for old things. This is crucial in a world where corporations and consumers use more resources to make new products than the planet can sustain.
After a recent talk about Slow Education; a teacher noted that in our fast-paced, over-loaded teaching world, we do not always have time to enjoy what we are teaching, let alone to enjoy the very people that we teach. Despite this, many of us would profess to value learner-centred pedagogies – but our busy days force us to timetable everything rather than allow learners to follow something from beginning to end with mindfulness. In addition, a focus on outcomes can detract from simply learning about something because we love it. Relationships are also something that we often say we value in education – and yet we have so little time to give to them. I believe that principles of slow education could have appeal to many of us. Perhaps we each need to take time in our busy schedules to find out more about them and to challenge systems and habits that prohibit our abilities to slow down.
Anita Mortlock teaches at Victoria University of Wellington. Her primary research interest is in the social environment of educational settings and how official ways of being intersect with peer culture to enable a sense of peaceable group cohesion and togetherness.