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'We don't need people who can spit back facts. We've got Google'

Susan Notes: The reporter is right: no government can engineer the hidden curriculum of spontaneity, discovery, intellectual agility, problem solving, creative thought. But as NCLB shows us, the government can easily derail this curriculum. This is why we need a Slow Schools movement. And we need it now.

The good news hers is the very idea of Slow Schools.

In one classroom they're sitting still, doing spelling drills and getting stomach aches. In another, they're on their feet, rushing to the board, doing city planning, debating wave-theory physics. The difference? It makes mainstream education look like fast food

Anne Cassidy's Grade 5-6 class has just started a unit on urban studies. But none of them knows it.

Last week, they were camping at a wilderness park in Ontario for three days, lugging their water from a pump and cooking in the great outdoors. Now that they're back, they are brainstorming about what makes a city: What would it take to build one in the place where they camped?

The classroom is alive with voices. One boy is sitting up on the table, the better to make his points to the person who is writing down ideas on a poster-sized sheet of paper. Another is drawing out his ideas, because that's the way he explains best.

They'll have to have food in their city, one of the groups remarks. And clothing to buy. But where will that come from? Who will make it and how will they be paid? What forms of energy will they need? How will they get them? What about government? Who gets to make decisions, and how are they chosen?

There is no script here at the Institute of Child Study's laboratory school on Walmer Road in downtown Toronto. No government-mandated questions on a set topic, as has been the trend in education nearly everywhere in the past decade. The children are constructing their own curriculum, being guided by their teacher but not being spoon-fed.

This is the hidden curriculum, the one no government can engineer, about spontaneity, discovery, intellectual agility, problem solving, creative thought. As for the official curriculum, Ms. Cassidy confides later that the children are actually digging into units on government, energy, community and current affairs. For the creative-writing unit, she says, she might ask them to write a story based in a water-treatment plant like the one they'll see in a later field trip.

The joke around here is that the children are having so much fun, they don't realize they're learning.

"It's not impossible," said Elizabeth Morley, principal of the independent school that is run by the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Its tuition is over $7,000 and the waiting list is 1,000 children long. "If people want this, this is what they do. It really happens."

It is safe to say that her laboratory school, a decades-old experiment devoted to putting into practice theories of education, human development and psychology, runs against the powerful trends to be found in most schools in the English-speaking world. There is no focus on tests, no marks, no reminders that accountability is paramount, no imperative to rush through learning units.

If a fledgling international movement has its way, schools like this one could become the pattern for the future. And its proponents say the benefit could be a population that's not only better educated but more able to think.

The "slow schooling" movement runs directly counter to those who believe children should be filled up with information, the more quickly the better. Slow, in this case, means savouring information instead of swallowing it whole, digesting it instead of regurgitating it before its intrinsic nourishment can make itself felt. Slow, as in exploring something deeply and thoroughly, learning how to learn, how to ask questions, how to understand, how to apply that understanding to other areas of study.

The movement started last year with a manifesto by the British and American educator and author Maurice Holt in the august journal, the Phi Delta Kappan. Dismayed by the "drill and kill" philosophy toward math, reading and writing that prevails in English-speaking schools around the world, he had been casting about for a metaphor to explain how schooling could regain some intellectual stuffing. Inspired by his food-writer spouse, he discovered the "slow food" movement.

That movement began in Italy after McDonald's put up its golden arches in the Piazza di Spagna in Rome in 1986. The outrage was instant and robust. Why did Italians, of all people, need fast food when they had a rich culinary tradition of their own? Was food just about pouring calories in? What about the cultural dignity of growing, preparing and consuming a repast that honours complexity? What about taste? What about context?

Today, the slow-food movement has deep roots in the U.S. as well as Europe, boasting a yearly international festival that celebrates locally grown seasonal foods. The famed Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse has become a poster child for the movement, along with its award-winning founder and chef Alice Waters -- now a strong proponent of slow schooling as well.

What's more, 63 municipalities around the world have become official "slow cities," led by Orvieto in Italy, with more preparing to join. The gospel of slow has even penetrated the business world with books such as Tyranny of the Moment by Thomas Hylland Eriksen, adjuring managers to hold on to slow time because it is critical to high performance.

"At a stroke, the notion of the slow school destroys the idea that schooling is about cramming, testing and standardizing experience," Mr. Holt writes in his manifesto, adding that "slow schools give scope for invention and response to cultural change, while fast schools just turn out the same old burgers."

The Grade 4 teacher at the laboratory school, Richard Messina, recalled how passive his students were in the public-school classrooms where he used to teach. And if the principal should happen to enter, he said, each student needed to be seated, quiet and on the same page as everyone else.

He chuckled, savouring the difference at the laboratory school.

"Our end point is not a test. It's not even a product," said Mr. Messina. "It's knowledge."

The current emphasis on what could be called "fast" education started least 20 years ago. Mr. Holt traces it back to A Nation at Risk, the report commissioned in 1983 for then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan. The report accused the U.S. school system of failing to keep up to international competition, a situation amounting to "educational disarmament" and threatening the very security of the country.

Its remedies were to standardize curriculum, lessen choice, up the amount of homework, and adopt "more rigorous and measurable standards."

It was the antithesis of some of the earlier educational thinking that had influenced teaching. In Canada, the landmark report Living and Learning, published in Ontario in 1968 had advocated increasing choice, encouraging exploration and abandoning tests.

One its two main authors, Lloyd Dennis, now 80, said he is dispirited at the state of education today, comparing it to the military models on which schools were built after the Second World War: "We lined them up and marched them into the schools and taught them as if they were empty-headed," he said. "Now we've reverted to that old system under the gloss of competiveness."

He said he saw slow schooling as an exciting addition to the kind of child-centred learning he advocated (with some success) in the 1960s: "This isn't a race." Rather, he said, the goal of education should be to welcome children into school in the morning and make sure they come out better at the end of the day.

But in the past two decades, policies throughout the English-speaking world have followed the fast model. Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada have increased the amount of testing, the attention paid to international standings of students, and generally the amount of pressure on schools, teachers and students to show that they are mastering a set curriculum, said Ben Levin, a professor of education at the University of Manitoba and an international education consultant.

It's called "intensification" and it fits squarely into the broader social interest in tightening up the accountability of education, medicine, law and social services, he said. The goal has been to cut spending and improve outcomes at the same time, a theme that has had tremendous appeal to a tax-conscious public worried about how its kids will fare in the global economy.

That approach has seen some clear success. There was a lot of chest-beating last week when the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's world rankings came out, putting Canada near the top. But other signs indicate that education is in trouble in at least some parts of Canada, and in need of fresh ideas.

The Schools We Need: A New Blueprint for Ontario, published in April, flatly stated that the system is in jeopardy, with demoralized teachers, program cuts and no evidence of improvements in student learning despite years of attempts at reform. Its authors called for more money and flexibility in how that money is used at the school level.

A tracking report published this year by the advocacy group People For Education found a 29 per cent drop since 1997-98 in the number of elementary schools with a music teacher, and a 22 per cent drop in the number that had a physical education teacher. The number of schools with a teacher-librarian, either full-time or part-time, fell by 28 per cent. The number of school libraries open 10 hours a week or less has doubled. Roughly 42,000 students across the province were on waiting lists for special education. There has been a 63 per cent jump in the number of schools with English-as-a-second-language students but no ESL program.

The problem, said Prof. Levin, is that schools can't intensify forever. Putting too much pressure on them can suck the joy out of learning, a phenomenon he sees happening all over the world. And expecting children to learn without heart doesn't work: "The fallout is that we're getting less value out of the education system than we could," he said. "I'm not advocating that the pressure come off, just that there be a balance of pressure and support."

There is plenty of evidence to support that view, much of it from the arena of science, which increasingly shows that children who are stuffed full of factoids and expected to perform don't do as well as children who are allowed to play. By a dreadful irony, trying to make your child smarter can backfire.

U.S. developmental psychologists Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek's book Einstein Never Used Flash Cards: How Our Children Really Learn -- And Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less hits bookstores next week. Prof. Golinkoff, who has spent her career understanding how the human brain works, decried the "roadrunner society" that tells parents to accelerate children's brain development.

Some earlier research has been misinterpreted, she added, to produce the notion that "if you don't pour it in by the first three years, your kid is doomed. Your kid will never see Harvard." This idea that children must be constantly at work, she said, is folly: "We don't need people who can spit back facts. We've got Google."

The pressure snakes from parents to teachers to kids. Last week some schools in Connecticut were closed for two days because of the heavy weather from Hurricane Isabel. Prof. Golinkoff heard of parents there who were frantic because they believed that if their kids missed two days of school, they would fall behind. The kids were in kindergarten.

"How pathetic is that?" she said.

Her research tells her that what children need from their schools is opportunities to explore, invent and discuss. They learn when they experience, not when they sit numbly. "[The] pressure to boost children's brainpower is harmful because it threatens to erode aspects of childhood that are crucial to social, emotional, and cognitive development," she and Prof. Hirsh-Pasek write.

Prof. Hirsh-Pasek and some colleagues tested 120 children to see whether preschools with more academic curricula produced smarter, happier and more creative children. Initially, the children who had been drilled in letters and numbers knew more at age 5 than the group that had focused on playing. But by the time they were 6, that gap had vanished.

What didn't go away, though, was the finding that the children who had gone to the academic preschool were less creative and less enthusiastic about learning. "Factors such as self-awareness, self-discipline, empathy and understanding others are all part of being truly smart and successful," they write.

Mainstream educational ideas, said Prof. Hirsh-Pasek, are at odds with the science as it's understood. The fallout is that young children in heavy-duty academic drilling are less settled, more aggressive, more perfectionist, more apt to believe that there is only one right answer. "What we're doing is setting ourselves up to have fact-finders, not creative thinkers," she said.

Other troubling signs come from the world of medicine.

Toronto pediatrician Diane Sacks said her colleagues across the country are seeing a huge increase of stress-related symptoms in children, such as dizziness, stomach aches, fainting, headaches. The symptoms tend to occur during school days and be absent on weekends.

"Thirty years ago, you didn't see many kids with chronic gastric pain or headaches. Now it's so common you almost don't even have to do the tests," said Dr. Sack, who is president of the Canadian Pediatric Society.

The stress is almost always soaked up from the adults who surround the child, she said. In their rush to make their children ready for the global marketplace, some adults have forgotten that children need the luxury to fail, just like their parents.

Most experts, however, say it would almost amount to political suicide for a government to ban standardized testing. U.S. President George W. Bush's new federal education policy, "No Child Left Behind," is predicated on continual testing. And parents throughout the English-speaking world have come to trust it to identify problems.

OISE's long-running Ontario citizens' poll on education finds near universal support for testing, as long as a child's future is not determined by the results, said David Livingstone, head of the Centre for the Study of Education and Work at OISE and an analyst of the study.

Testing has legions of supporters among academics, too. "It's a good first step," says Nancy Watson, a professor at OISE and one author of The Schools We Need. She endorses the benefits of some testing, though only as part of the picture.

Dr. Sacks said that she, too, favours achievement tests and structuring learning to challenge children. Left to our own devices, she said, humans "will stay away from what's hard for us."

Prof. Levin said one referendum on where education should go may be the current Ontario provincial election: The ruling Progressive Conservatives have been wholeheartedly in the camp of testing and trimming budgets while the Liberals are in the camp of supporting teachers and students.

But even stronger signals are coming from abroad.

The Japanese, long renowned for their awesome test scores and cram-all-night-style of learning, have also changed tack. Now, the Japanese emphasis is on giving students more choice, less structure, shorter school hours and more slow time to think. Government officials call it the "sunshine" approach to education.

"Our current system, just telling kids to study, study, study, has been a failure," one official told The New York Times. He added that students were exhausted, lacked initiative, and found creativity an alien concept.

Elsewhere, after a couple of decades of commitment to the "value for money" version of education, the English invited Prof. Levin and a batch of other academics from OISE to assess their system. That led to a new English game plan for primary schools that calls for "vivid" and "real" learning and says that children need to be excited and engaged in what they're learning.

The title of the report? "Excellence and Enjoyment: A strategy for primary schools." Enjoyment, the government avers in the report's foreword, is "the birthright of every child."

Seizing the moment, Mr. Holt is set to give talks on his idea to groups of educators in Bristol and Exeter in November. Earlier this month, he delivered a paper on it at St. Antony's College in Oxford and next week, he will give an address on the virtues of slow schooling to the annual conference of the American Association for Curriculum and Supervision in Baltimore. Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, meanwhile, will give a major paper on slow schooling at a slow-food event in Italy this fall.

Back at the laboratory school in Toronto, several of the teachers are musing about how others could make a school like theirs. They've had visitors from Japan, The Netherlands, Brazil and many other countries, but rarely from Canada, even though the school is partly funded as a research facility.

They chuckle about standardized testing. At some points in the nine years they have the same groups of children (from nursery school until the end of Grade 6), they have to introduce them to the concept, even though they believe standardized tests do not measure anything critically important.

And when the lab-school children do write the Canadian Test of Basic Skills, a chestnut in the standards arsenal, they routinely score in the 94th to 99th percentiles. In math, it's invariably the 99th. Many go on to capture scholarships and excel at the best universities in the world, including some of the Ivy Leagues in the U.S.

"We're not harming them by this approach," Principal Morley says, smiling broadly.

Mr. Holt contends that "the supreme irony of the slow school is that precisely because it provides the intellectual nourishment students need . . . good test results follow. Success, like happiness, is best pursued obliquely."

Mr. Messina, for instance, couldn't stop thinking about the Grade 4 class he had a couple of years ago. The children became entranced with the idea of light. They wanted to learn everything, absolutely everything, about it. That included minute debates about Newtonian versus wave theory physics, and they even found non-standard textbooks because, as one of his Grade 4 students sniffed, the ministry textbook described the phenomenon of light-emitting creatures without once using the word "bioluminescence."

In the end, the class spent a full year on light. The curriculum mandates four weeks, maximum. They didn't even get to the concept of sound until the end of the year.

Mr. Messina felt incredibly guilty. Finally, a student brought him back down to Earth: "Richard, relax," the kid told him. "We know how to learn."

They knew light so thoroughly, they picked up sound in a couple of lessons.

— Alanna Mitchell
Globe and Mail


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