Slow Teaching

This summer, I’ve been raising caterpillars in my backyard garden. It’s a slow business. Every day, there is quiet, incremental change. Day to day, the caterpillars look mostly the same. But over the course of weeks, a new Monarch caterpillar, only a quarter of an eyelash long, grows to the size of a woman’s pinky finger.

3-day old Monarch caterpillars
Monarch caterpillar, fully grown

The slowness of it all, the waiting, makes the emergence of the butterfly that much more magnificent. Of course, you could just Google it. I’d bet you could find a dozen videos of eclosure quicker than you could read this paragraph. But it’s different to experience it in person, after the watching and the waiting. It’s a moment that is pure magic because it cannot be rushed, and because it is so fleeting. Today a newborn butterfly walked across my hand. A few hours later, she flew away for good.

Once I started raising butterflies, I had the thought: Why isn’t everyone doing this? But then it occurred to me that I have a taste for slowness that not everyone shares. It’s why I love little dogs so much: They are always up for a midday cuddle, preferably with a nap included. In an email conversation with my new friend Julie Schell, an education support teacher in Canada, she said she “wondered if we should be looking at ways to create ‘slow’ education, in the same way the Slow Movement has touched food, fashion, and film.” Her comment got me thinking: In our high-speed, fast-paced world, could we bring back slowness as a value — for ourselves, and in our teaching?

Julie’s remark made me realize how much we rush as teachers. I think we feel that if our classes are not brimming with activity and assignments, then our students will be bored. Many of us who consider ourselves innovative teachers fear boredom more than anything. We will NOT be that boring, droning teacher with the monotone voice. Instead, we will talk fast! And move fast! We will pile work upon our students so that they are busy! And engaged! The last thing we want is for our students to have nothing to do.

And yet. I think about what happens in the summer, when I have “nothing to do.” Instead of skim-reading to get through my workload, I read slowly, soaking up every word. I notice the sky. I appreciate a walk around the block with my dogs, which can easily take over an hour. It’s hard to break the habit of wanting to “get stuff done.” Even in the summer, my tendency is to want to rush. To make lists. To feel the tug of things that need doing, but don’t really need doing. It makes me wonder, has school trained me to be that way? And what would happen if school were different?

What would happen if we slowed down as teachers? If we took a long breath before speaking? Last semester, I tried introducing more silence into my classes. We did silent meditations and silent writing, even silent group work through an activity called “Chalk Talk” from Making Thinking Visible by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison. I was surprised by how willing my students were to be silent. When I made space for written reflection, they used the time well. And that made me feel guilty for having spent so many years filling up my students’ time with activity. I had been so afraid of my students being bored that I hadn’t given them ample time to just think, and wonder, and figure some things out for themselves.

In the years that my mother was a high school literacy coach, she used to say that content area teachers felt they didn’t have enough time to help their students with reading. The teachers felt they had “so much to cover” that they couldn’t afford the time it took to give students a lesson in how to read better. I hear the same thing among teachers at the community college where I teach. They would like to help their students read better, or write a better essay, but there’s just no time for it! Fourteen chapters to cover in sixteen weeks, plus midterms!

I think it’s time we rethink the idea of education as “covering topics.” If we’re really being honest, our students probably remember very little of what we teach, content-wise. When I think back on my college days, I remember the Urban Studies TA with the John Lennon glasses and the long blonde braid who said that the only reason not to ban all weapons was because we might have to overthrow our own government. I remember the poetry teacher wearing the elbow-patched tweed who, with class input, wrote a heartbreaking ode to Kristi Yamaguchi on the blackboard.

OK, so I’m kind of old now, but that’s literally all I remember. Mostly, we remember experiences, not facts. We remember encountering a completely new idea. We remember feeling inspired. There’s nothing to “cover” in education. There are only things to uncover, to discover. And discovery is not a fast process.

The slow food movement is about appreciating the time it takes to grow and prepare food. Perhaps slow education would share the same tenet. Instead of moving mindlessly through “material” to get to the exam, we would relish the process of learning. We would savor what we teach and not rush through it, trying to cram more in. Slow teaching would embrace silence and wonder.

This may be controversial, but I would argue that it can’t be done through technology. Technology moves us too quickly to the end result. It shows us the butterfly emerging without the 35 days of waiting. Yes, it’s true, in today’s world, no one wants to wait. We want to change the channel. We want to fast forward. But do we really want life to be all about skipping ahead? Is that what we want for our students? Instead, I’m envisioning my students knowing how to spend a long, lazy summer day. Not on their phone. Not marking off stuff on their to-do list. Not rushing through a mountain of too much homework. Instead, playing with their kids. Drawing. Noticing a plant that needs some water. Watching a butterfly arrive, briefly, then fly off into the wide blue sky.

4 thoughts on “Slow Teaching”

  • I’m liking your blog. I’d be interested in reading more about the nitty gritty of going without grades (practical details, dealing with the inevitable problems, etc.). As a writing instructor at a community college, I’m especially interested in hearing how it works in that context.

    Your post on slow teaching reminded me of this article from the Nov-Dec 2013 issue of Harvard Magazine:
    “The Power of Patience: Teaching students the value of deceleration and immersive attention,” by Jennifer L. Roberts

    Do you know it? I really liked it.

    • Thanks, Davis. I will check that article out. And thank you for the suggestion about getting into the nitty gritty of being gradeless in community college. That is definitely worth a post. Stay tuned.

      • I’ll be interested to see what you think. Here’s a comment I came across when following some links on throwing out grades, etc. It’s old but still relevant, I believe. The article was “Getting Out of Grading” by Scott Jaschik and you can find it here:

        The comment in the discussion that I was especially interested in was this:

        “Yeah, I tried this for several years in the mid-nineties. I found it worked wonderfully–the first time I tried it. The students worked much harder than they ever would have for a grade, and enjoyed the learning experience more, and told me later it was the best class they took in college. But the next semester it worked worse, and it kept working worse and worse for the three or so years I used the system. I kept tweaking it, trying to find a way to restore its original success; but no luck.I finally realized what was going on: word was out that my class was an “easy A,” and it was attracting all the laziest students. I invariably had one or two motivated students who were there for the novel learning experience, and then a whole slew of slackers who wanted to coast.Some of those slackers also came back and talked to me about the class later. Typically they said things like “I realized some time just before the end of the semester what a fantastic opportunity you’d given us to really learn something, and enjoy it, but by then it was too late.” They’d been conditioned to be motivated ONLY by grades, and a single fourteen-week semester was not long enough to recondition them.I also asked students during the semester, when I noticed them doing the absolute bare minimum to have “done the work,” why they weren’t working harder. Their honest answer: “This class is pretty cool, but it’s also the one class we CAN coast in. So if we have to cut back somewhere, we’re going to do it where we won’t get penalized for it.”My project was an overidealistic one, I finally realized (and, gritting my teeth, went back to more traditional grading): I wanted to RELEASE my students’ “natural” love of learning from the bonds in which they had been encased by fourteen or fifteen years of grade-slavery. I love to learn; hence, a love of learning is “natural”; hence, grade-based opportunism is artificial; a conditioned jail; hence, my students need to be liberated from their jails. I realized at some point that my project was actually one of reconditioning my students to be more like me–and that, while it did work in some cases, not only was a semester not a long enough reconditioning period, but the project itself was suspect. What’s the answer? I have no idea. I do still believe in liberal education as LIBERATION, but find myself constrained by institutional inertia in the practical application of that belief.”

        I don’t share all the assumptions here–I think there’s lots of evidence to support that people are natural learners; it’s not just idealists trying to make other people be like them–but I recognize the power of institutional inertia and 12+ years of conditioning. I wonder how those who’ve been doing this for a while see this issue and how they handle this kind of challenge.

  • Wow! Interesting. I have enjoyed reading your blog so far and this discussion is even better. I want to move to a more sustainable model of teaching that increases student wonder but I am concerned that, like the other posts suggest, students are too institutionalised to appreciate what we are trying to achieve and actually need recovery time in the class that offers the change in pace. Students need to be taught to do this.

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