Not so fast

21st January 2005 at 00:00
Too much testing is like junk food to the world of education. We need a slow-school movement, argues Maurice Holt

What drives the school system? Teachers bring high ideals into their profession but find themselves mired in a climate of performance measurement and control where the ultimate need is to deliver the numbers : the tests, the targets, the league tables. These contrivances of standards-led education determine a school's very survival.

We seem to have forgotten that schools can function extremely well, with attentive pupils and contented parents, without extrinsic standards and managerial accountability. Indeed, the idea of driving education through standardised outcomes is at odds with the nature of education, since the concept of a numerical standard only makes sense when applied to deterministic processes. Let's take a practical example: to make a reliable crankshaft, you must define its diameter within precise limits - these constitute the standards. The manufacturing process can be improved accordingly, since this is a technical problem. Given the end, the means can be provided.

The process of education is much more complicated. Teachers have some purpose in view, but use a variety of approaches to reach it - the means and ends interact in a complex, adventitious fashion, as teachers seek the best course of action for each class and each pupil. It is not a matter of compliance with a recipe; learning deepens as inquiry moves forward.

The basic curriculum problem is not technical, but moral - what schools need is not imposed standards, but autonomy, so that teachers can develop the curriculum in consultation with parents and create a more spacious climate of invention and improvement. We need a new metaphor to support and nourish this approach.

The idea of nourishment reminds us that as education is to the mind, so is food to the body. Back in the 1980s, the founders of the slow-food movement argued that a diet of chips and chicken nuggets was inherently defective.

The emphasis should be not on ready-to-eat products, but on practice - on choosing sound ingredients, respecting tradition, discussing possibilities, and preparing an enticing meal. The process is reflective, seeking the best outcome.

Standards-led schooling is like fast food. Schools are decontextualised, cranking out credentialled pupils like uniform burgers. And the more mechanistic the activity, the easier it is to replace teachers with assistants.

Inventing the slow school is the obvious response, bearing in mind that slow is not to be taken literally: jazz can be hot, yet cool. A slow school gives pupils the opportunity to discuss, argue, reflect, and come to know themselves and the world they will inherit. It's demanding but absorbing; understanding and intensity of engagement are more important than coverage and recall.

Instead of formal assessment, the slow school values teacher monitoring; instead of prescription, it values deliberation about curriculum problems, thus providing narrative accountability - much more informative for parents than centrally compiled statistics of dubious worth.

Slow education is attracting interest from Canada, Australia and the US as the false promise of standards becomes daily more apparent. It is an idea whose time has come.

Maurice Holt is emeritus professor of education, University of Colorado, Denver E-mail:

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