A focus on slow teaching “means that thinking is given real significance in our lessons, that young people know they cannot just mindlessly absorb what is happening around them.” (Jamie Thom)
We have slow TV, slow fashion and even slow food, but what about slow teaching? It hit me this week as I was out and about mentoring pre-service teachers on their practicum, the importance of slowing down and taking the time to really teach. I knew it wasn’t a totally new idea as I have always focused on ‘deep not shallow’ teaching as highlighted in the National Numeracy Review Report, 2008:
“Hollingworth et. al. (2003) supported the need for complex teaching, learning and assessment, … they reported ‘a syndrome of shallow teaching, where students are asked to follow procedures without reasons.’”
National Numeracy Review Report
As the report discusses, teaching for understanding isn’t shallow and usually takes time. Although I’d love to stake a claim on the phrase ‘slow teaching’ for myself I can’t (as a post-epiphany google search soon revealed). I was however excited to find a few great websites (and books now published) on the idea of ‘slow teaching.’ It’s good to know … ‘great minds think alike.’
“If we fail to communicate well in our classrooms, no matter how intellectually gifted we might be, no matter how much we pour into the planning of our lessons, we will not help our young people learn.”
Jamie Thom is the author of Slow Teaching: On finding calm, clarity and impact in the classroom, a book which I am now keen to buy and read, and his website https://www.slowteaching.co.uk gives more information on slow teaching at a more comprehensive level (across all aspects of a school, classroom and teaching) beyond what I address here. His story that you can read here may ring true for many teachers feeling ‘under the pump’ and swamped in tasks, other than classroom teaching, that take up much of our time.
In this blog I’m speaking specifically about slow teaching regarding our classroom lessons. The feeling of needing to ‘get through’ content is not just experienced by our pre-service teachers, many practicing teachers feel this pressure of accountability to our curriculum too. This pressure often results in lessons that are more about teaching content than teaching students. When you have in your mind as the teacher that “I just want students to get this” then your teaching may stray more into telling and explaining the concept than listening to what the students are saying. Whereas when you have in your mind “I want to find out if or how the students get this” then your teaching, your in-the-moment decisions, your questioning, and your pace, is set by the students’ reactions, not the content.
“Effective teachers plan mathematics learning experiences that enable students to build on their existing proficiencies, interests, and experiences.”
Anthony & Walshaw, Effective Pedagogy in Mathematics
Glenda Anthony and Margaret Walshaw in their article Effective Pedagogy in Mathematics list their ‘top ten’ effective strategies quality mathematics teachers use in the classroom. The one quoted above focuses on “building on” students’ thinking instead of trying to “fill gaps.” They also discuss classroom arrangements for learning and the need to allow students time to think independently as well as work collaboratively to facilitate the exchange of ideas.
Time needs to be made within a lesson for students to explore and just play with the mathematical ideas being presented. This requires us as the teacher to listen to them, to give opportunities for multiple students to contribute, and to allow for segues that deal with misunderstandings or misconceptions. Slowing the lesson down like this may at first seem counterproductive, you may feel as though your lesson hasn’t been successful if it didn’t get to where you wanted it to go. But this is ok. In fact it’s necessary if your aim is for students’ to understand the concept deeply and for them to make connections to their prior knowledge.
“A lesson is never finished” I keep hearing Charles Lovitt in my head reminding me that just because our day and week and term may be broken down into lessons, doesn’t mean a lesson is finite. It doesn’t mean I must rush through ideas or activities to check off a box. Your lessons still need closure, or a summarise section but this could occur at a mid point within the concept, topic or sequence of activities where questions are posed for students to reflect on “where we are up to” (this can relate to your lesson focus or learning intention). If you feel students need more time to talk about what they are learning or you need to possibly repeat the same lesson tomorrow with different resources, or scaffolds or examples, do it. The learning continues, I guess that’s why its called a learning continuum.
Teaching students how to think mathematically, work mathematically, and how to listen to others thinking and working mathematically is what is important. In a number of previous blog posts I have mentioned the use of Talk Moves in the classroom. These are an amazing tool, and one you can try tomorrow, to assist in slowing down your teaching. They are structures to implement in your classroom discourse to be more intentional about what you focus on and who is doing most of the talking in the classroom (note to self this should be the students). Having students learning to add-on to what others say or repeat an important ‘a-ha’ moment for another student helps build collective knowledge in your classroom. Jamie Thom also mentions many of these on his slow teaching website as part of his top ten successful classroom communication strategies:
- Sparse instructions.
- Wait time.
- Intentional hand gestures.
- Model language.
- Praise meaningfully.
- Eye contact.
Pay attention to what your students are saying and doing in the classroom. Sometimes one comment from a student can spark a whole new discussion that’s still related to the concept. These are opportunities to work with students in noticing and wondering how and why mathematics works. If you find yourself saying things like “we just need to do this” or “let’s quickly do this” or “let’s finish this so we can move on” take a moment to pause and ask yourself, what am I hurrying towards? what am I missing along the way? Students cannot quickly learn to think, to understand, to critically evaluate, this takes time. So I encourage you to embrace slow teaching and enjoy the journey.
Anthony, G., & Walshaw, M. (2009). Effective pedagogy in mathematics (Vol. 19). Belley, France: International Academy of Education. Effective pedagogy in mathematics
Thom, J,. (2018) Teaching and Learning Leeds Conference: ‘Slow Teaching: A recipe for improved teaching, leadership and wellbeing.’ Accessed from https://www.slowteaching.co.uk/2018/06/23/teaching-learning-leeds-conference-slow-teaching-recipe-improved-teaching-leadership-wellbeing/ on 7 June 2019
National Numeracy Review (Australia), & Stanley, G. V. (2008). National numeracy review report. COAG.