Slow Education

Can we do away with the hot-housing, ditch the obsession with testing, boost learning — and STILL keep accountability in schools?

The first rule of Test Club is…

What are the two most depressing words in the English language?This week, my vote goes to “test club.”That’s where my daughter is this afternoon. She’s at her school’s “test club.” Instead of running around outside chasing a ball, or dreaming up a dance routine with a friend, she’s burnishing her exam-taking skills for the upcoming test that will determine what secondary school she goes to.

This is what education has come to in Britain and so many other countries. Exam scores are now more important than learning itself. Mastering the art of taking tests has become a central part of the school experience.This is absurd. But it’s also part of a broader obsession with targets and metrics.Measuring progress can be useful, of course, but too often the metrics become an end in themselves.When Sears set quotas for its auto repair teams, staff began overcharging customers and inventing faults.In the public sector, a fixation on targets has led to police forces redeploying detectives to easier cases to meet arrest quotas and to doctors moving patients who are less ill to the front of the queue to keep down waiting times.In 2011, investigators uncovered the largest cheating scandal in the history of the public school system in the US. Nearly 180 teachers and principals across 44 schools in Atlanta, Georgia, were accused of routinely correcting their pupils’ answers on standardized tests. Whistleblowers were bullied, hit with professional sanctions or fired. Meeting those short-term targets, and harvesting the concomitant kudos and cash, had become more important than the long-term goal of giving children a solid education.

Trapped inside the current system, parents have little choice but to prepare their kids for exams. That’s why my daughter is at test club today.

But how useful is all this testing? What do exams really tell us about children?

What they mainly tell us is how good they are at sitting exams. And how useful is that in the real world?

The good news is that pressure for change is building, at last. And not just from frazzled parents and dispirited teachers.

Today, the Chamber of British Industry released a report today hammering Britain for turning its schools into exam factories.

Bottom line: we need a Slow Education movement now more than ever.

School’s out…side

When I speak in public about Under Pressure, I often ask the audience what they remember most vividly about their childhood. The answers usually break down along the same generational lines. Anyone over the age of about 25 remembers playing outdoors, usually with no adults around. The younger members of the audience recall being indoors, with grown-ups hovering nearby and often with an electronic screen involved. Over the last generation, the way children play has changed profoundly. So much play is now managed, supervised, organized, structured, benchmarked, expensive. It’s no longer enough for children to kick a ball around with their friends in the park or on the street, like Pelé, Maradona and Bobby Charlton did; they have to join a soccer team and play in uniforms with referees, coaches and parents screaming themselves hoarse on the sidelines. It’s not enough for them to mess around with twigs, weeds and dirt in the garden; they have to sit indoors with an electronic educational toy farm. So much play now occurs indoors in sterile environments created by risk-management consultants and bureaucrats from the health and safety department. Or it happens in the home, where anxious parents are desperate to insulate their kids from the perils of outside world. The net effect is that a lot of children nowadays lead very cloistered lives. They seldom go outdoors alone to explore, to take risks, to get lost or get into trouble, to play. Under Pressure examines the price we pay, starting with rising obesity, for treating children like battery hens, but it also investigates the solutions. One of the most promising is outdoor schooling, which has long been popular in Scandinavia but is now gaining ground around the world. The idea is simple: take kids out of the classroom and set them free in Nature. This works particularly well for pre-schools. For Under Pressure, I visited one outdoor pre-school, theSecret Gardenin Fife, Scotland, where three-year-olds spend their time in a forest negotiating harsh weather, open camp-fires and poisonous fungi. I saw more than one of the children break a piece of ice off the top of a muddy puddle and suck on it like a popsicle. In other words, outdoor pre-schools are the stuff of nightmares for a risk-averse society. But they work fabulously well. Sure, the children suffer the odd scratch or burn, but they arrive at kindergarten happier, more confident and less prone to illness and allergies than do their indoor peers. They are eager, motivated learners. They also have a strong feel for the natural world, which is essential if we’re going to save the environment. I’m writing about this now because Canada’s first outdoor pre-school is about to open. It’s set in 77 hectares of woodland on the outskirts of the capital, Ottawa, and is called theCarp Ridge Forest Preschool. As a Canadian myself, I’ll be interested to see how this experiment plays out. What about the notoriously cold winter in the Great White North? Well, the kids will play outdoors all year round, but the organizers are not extremists. When the thermometer dips below 10C, the children will move indoors. My feeling is that the kids could probably carry on playing happily at even colder temperatures but you have to draw the line somewhere. And you have to think of the teachers’ comfort too.