In 1986 Italian food journalist Carlo Petrini was walking through Rome with friends. On reaching the Spanish steps they were faced with a new addition to the city’s ancient architecture – A MacDonald’s fast food restaurant had appeared, much to Petrini’s horror. He reputedly stated “There’s fast food, so why not slow food?!” and thus the Slow Food movement was born.
The Slow Food movement defines itself in opposition to fast food in which we see a mechanized production process easily replicated and scaled up across the world. In such a process local food culture is sidelined in favour of a homogenous, corporate brand. The manufacturer simply puts in the same ingredients, pushes the same buttons, turns the same handles and you get the same standardized product. With slow food however there is a celebration of local food cultures that draw upon centuries of knowledge of ingredients and how to produce them and combine them, a wide variety of complementary cooking and preparation techniques, and the social contexts and events that then give the culinary experience meaning – enjoying a meal with friends rather than a sandwich on the hoof between meetings.
We must know the children or young people with whom we work; we must understand the community the school serves; we must acknowledge the unique characters within the staff group
Perhaps you can already see how this metaphor then translates into the educational context. This translation was first suggested by Professor Maurice Holt in his 2002 article “It’s Time to Start a Slow School Movement” in the American education journal Phi Delta Kappan. Slow education emphasizes the value of a deep understanding of the local and the processes therein. We must know the children or young people with whom we work; we must understand the community the school serves; we must acknowledge the unique characters within the staff group. We must understand and nurture all these relationships in developing a positive framework for schools. Slow education understands that education is a fundamentally social experience, with relationships (peer to peer, teacher to pupil, and school to parents/community) at the very core of learning experiences. It is positive relationships which give context and meaning to learning, provide support and challenge, and which present the learner with opportunities to explore different experiences or world-views. Consequently no two schools can ever look the same. A single model for Slow Education would be to deny authentic engagement with, and deep understanding of, local context. This is not to reject ‘non-local’ influence but to acknowledge the need to understand context as part of a dynamic and purposeful educational process.
it is the personal and relational understanding, as well as the pedagogic knowledge, of the teacher knowing how and when to use what which is critical
Because Slow Education is contextually driven we need to understand how to combine the many ingredients and techniques used in pedagogy – teachers need to be flexible navigators of diverse pedagogies rather than simply guardians of sets of knowledge or ‘deliverers’ of a curriculum. The process of learning is stressed, ensuring that the learner has space and time to engage with the knowledge and skills. The process of learning is understood to be one in which the learner has agency rather than being simply a passive recipient, and the slow teacher understands when collaborative group working is appropriate, or when a formal, didactic lecture on a specific subject would be beneficial. Both of course have their place, but it is the personal and relational understanding, as well as the pedagogic knowledge, of the teacher knowing how and when to use what which is critical. Consequently although a class might all experience the same input, learning and outcomes may vary hugely. It is not standardization that is being sought, but quality.
Whilst the process is central to the experience, it is hoped the end product is part of a nutritious, balanced educational diet that can support a long and healthy life of learning. Each experience should build on the last rather than bringing momentary fast food satisfaction that is detrimental to our long-term health. Slow education then is about taking time to go deeper, to deliberate, to understand what we learn, and furthermore, to care about our learning. With time given to the context, the content and the process of education, learning experiences become richer, deeper and more meaningful.
As educational policy in the UK demands ever more data collection and target driven behaviour from schools and teachers I have found that slow education is a philosophy that many relate to, wishing as many do, that they could spend more time getting to know their children and enjoy learning with them, rather than pushing them over the next hurdle. Because of this many schools are already finding ways to ensure that children do obtain the kind of rich, balanced learning diet I describe above. There are examples of some of these on the Slow Education website. What I think is important about these examples is that they demonstrate that these principles are not just hopes that we hold on to whilst we await a sympathetic political wind, but practical, achievable aims for education in the 21st century.