Best practice: Slow teaching

This article was written for SecEd Magazine

What if we sought to put greater depth and therefore less breadth into our teaching, being clearer about and taking more time over key concepts and making our curriculum planning more effective? Matt Bromley calls this ‘slow teaching’…

In my key stage 3 English lessons this term, I have been experimenting with what I call “slow teaching”. I use the qualifier “what I call” not in some comedic Miranda-esque style, but because there may be an established phenomenon called “slow teaching” which carries with it a fixed set of characteristics or rules.

Point of fact, a quick internet search of the term “slow teaching” took me first to a 2018 book of that name by Jamie Thom which says that slow teaching is “a thoughtful exploration of how slowing down in all aspects of education can lead to improved student outcomes”.

Thom’s book promises to evaluate how this slow pedagogy will result in “improved feedback, more nuanced and skilled classroom management and relationships, meaningful classroom dialogue, retention of knowledge, and school leadership with attention to detail”.

The book also reflects on strategies that will enable teachers to “feel calm, confident and organised in a profession that can often appear relentless”. Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book and was unaware of it until just now.

My internet search then took me to a related term, “slow education”, which is based on Socratic, adaptive and non-standards-based approaches to teaching, the term being derived from a distinction between slow food and fast food (or junk food). According to Wikipedia, “slow education” is “an effort to associate quality, culture, sustainability and personalisation with quality schooling”.

But, for clarity, though there may be similarities, I refer to none of these established ideas when I talk about my own experiments with “slow teaching”.

So, what do I mean?

What I mean, put simply, is that I have sought to introduce greater depth and therefore less breadth into my teaching; I have covered less curriculum content but done so in much more detail, spending longer exploring key concepts so that those concepts become securely embedded in my students’ long-term memories and can be easily retrieved and applied later.

I have also aimed to ensure that these key concepts are not just embedded in long-term memory, but that students build an in-depth knowledge around these concepts – forging ever-more complex schemata or mental maps – and thus can easily transfer their learning to new contexts. These schemata also help my students to think quicker by making connections between their prior learning and any new information they encounter. They have a bigger frame of reference with which to understand the world around them.

What does this look like?

Permit me a simple illustration of the point: I used to set students as many essays as I could in order to help them practise for exams. They would write full essays in class and in exam conditions. I would mark these essays and give students detailed feedback. However, they would not very often redraft these essays – time was too tight and I had too much curriculum content to cover.

In theory, they would take account of my feedback in their next essay, but they would not act on it directly. I say “in theory” because I’m not convinced this ever actually worked in practice. Students tended to regard each essay as something entirely new and unconnected to the previous essays on which they had received feedback (even if those essays were on the same text). And thus, my feedback went unheeded.

There were a number of other flaws with this plan. First, as I say, teaching time is tight and if we are to cover the curriculum (which might take the form at least in part of a qualification specification) in sufficient depth and breadth – delivering a T-shaped curriculum if you will – then students do not have the luxury of being able to write lots of full essays.

Second, the strategy of writing lots of essays tested, if anything, students’ ability to write a sufficient number of words in timed conditions rather than testing their growing subject knowledge. I am not suggesting that being able to write a lengthy essay in timed conditions is not important. However, there is a limit to how many times students can and should practise this skill because to focus entirely on essay-writing as an isolated study skill is to deny students the domain-specific subject knowledge they need in order to write good essays that demonstrate their in-depth command of a text or argument.

Third, the feedback I gave students after each essay was rarely acted upon because students could not transfer the advice from one essay to another when the essay question was different. Students, as we know, are not good at transferring knowledge acquired in one context to other contexts – transferability is not innate, it is a taught skill.

What am I doing differently now?

I no longer set lots of essays. Instead, I focus on the planning stage of the process and then get students to plan out as many essays as possible but not write the essays in full.

To ensure this is effective, I teach a planning technique which is also a means of crafting a focused essay introduction: the semi-colon list. It is a technique taught to me by my own A level English teacher – who was terrifying and brilliant and really improved my essay-writing skills.

Each of the items in the list pertain to a point that will form the topic of each of the subsequent paragraphs. As such, students must work through their entire answer and know clearly what they will write about even though they won’t always go through the writing process in full.

We discuss, among other things, what evidence they will use, making sure their quotations are relevant, succinct and embedded, and how they will analyse this evidence for its explicit and implicit meanings, language and structure, the writer’s intentions, and the impact on them personally as a reader.

At each stage, I explicitly teach – including through the use of key vocabulary and stem sentences – the form, structure and language of essay-writing. I return to these techniques with each new essay plan, slowly reducing the scaffolds until students can produce semi-colon lists independently and quickly. Later, this is done entirely through speaking and listening rather than on paper – we simply and quickly talk through the essay plan.

Focusing on the planning stage, albeit with clear evidence that students would be able to construct the full essay if required – affords me much more time to teach curriculum content in greater depth.

Changing my practice

There are a number of other changes to my teaching practice which fall under this heading of “slow teaching”.

First, I am much clearer now about the key concepts I want my students to learn. My curriculum planning is more effective – as it should be having written and talked extensively on the subject over the last few years.

I start by identifying the destinations – or the “end-points” to use the Ofsted parlance – I need students to reach by the time they finish their studies. I make sure these destinations are ambitious and that they not only ensure students cover all the core content required for success in their GCSE but also prepare students for what comes next – be that their next stage of education (e.g. A levels) or success in life and work.

To achieve this, I distilled the GCSE assessment objectives (AOs) into a set of non-negotiable concepts that students must acquire (as I saw it), and then linked these to longer-term goals. For example, AO1 of the GCSE English language qualification is “Read, understand and respond to texts” and thus students need to be able to maintain a critical style and develop an informed personal response, and use textual references, including quotations, to support and illustrate interpretations.

A part of this is understanding the difference between explicit and implicit meanings – within which lies the concept of bias, among other things.

Acquiring this knowledge not only enables students to meet the assessment criteria of the GCSE qualification they are currently studying, but it also helps them to become informed consumers of information – to detect fake news and so on.

Next, I identify the way-points through which students must pass on their journeys towards these destinations – in other words, the threshold concepts that students must acquire. For example, in the case of explicit and implicit meanings, the early stages are as follows:

  • I can define the words explicit and implicit.
  • I can identify an explicit and implicit meaning in a non-fiction text.
  • I can identify both explicit and implicit meanings in a range of different text types.
  • I can explain why a writer has implied rather than explicitly stated something.
  • I can comment on the effect of both explicit and implicit meanings on the reader.
  • I can analyse writers’ use of explicit and implicit meanings.

The benefit of this approach is two-fold: first, these “can-do” statements prove a meaningful means of assessing what students know and can do, rather than assessing something more arbitrary or abstract; second, these threshold concepts embody retrieval practice because students must return to step 1 in order to complete step 2 and so on.

Then I work hard to understand my students’ starting points – what they already know and can do, and what they do not yet know and cannot yet do, as well as what misconceptions or misunderstandings they bring to the classroom.

I use this knowledge to fill gaps in prior knowledge, including in my students’ vocabularies, and to ensure that the pace and pitch of my teaching is suitably challenging. I also ensure that I know about my students’ lived experiences so that I can teach new abstract information within the context of students’ existing concrete knowledge. This ensures, among other things, that my analogies “land”.

I then use a small stimulus to explore myriad concepts. The key here is to reduce the source text to afford time to focus on meaning. For example, I recently spent three lessons teaching a single sentence. That sentence happened to be the opening line of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four which reads as follows: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

First, I used that solitary sentence as a form of retrieval practice to activate my students’ prior knowledge of the word classes, tense and number, syntax, inference, pathetic fallacy, allusion, and much more besides. The key was to show students that simply feature-spotting (such as identifying the line as a compound sentence) was fruitless; the magic lies in being able to say why a writer made that stylistic choice and what impact it has on us as readers.

Once we had explored the sentence, I gave students an essay question and they used the planning technique I had taught them to set out how they would answer it.

As ever, my teaching follows a four-part sequence which affords students increasing independence. I start with teacher explanations, arming students with the knowledge – technical terminology, techniques, etc. – they need to complete a task. For example, in the case of writing about the impact of a text on them as a reader I signpost the use of the first person ‘I’ to ensure their response is personal not generic.

Then I engage in teacher modelling in which I produce examples of excellence “live” in the classroom while thinking aloud to make my expertise visible. For example, I write an embedded quotation and deconstruct each element, making visible why I made the choice of quotation I did, how I embedded it and how and why I punctuated it the way I did.

Next, the class and I produce models together, or add to my initial model. I target questions at students and drip-feed technical terminology into the discussion while they contribute sentences to our analysis. And finally, students complete the same task by themselves so that they can engage the cognitive processes required from start to finish.

Conclusion

It is still early days, but initial assessments suggest my foray into “slow teaching” is proving effective. Students are more able now to use their prior knowledge and can connect this to new learning. They are also much more effective at transferring information from one domain to another. And their ability to formulate their thoughts in essay-form is much improved.

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