Education reformers need a movement that treats these various problems as different symptoms of a single underlying pathology, and Slow Food is an instructive example. So what would a Slow School movement mean?
Slow Food represents a cluster of beliefs about what and how we should eat. These include supporting local and organic food, growing our own ingredients, savoring meals in communal settings, opposing the spread of industrial slaughterhouses and pesticide-drenched crops, and rejecting gratuitous chemical additives. But the movement doesn’t boil down to a single policy goal or life practice. Many interrelated problems plague our current system of growing and consuming food, and the movement takes a holistic approach to solving them.
It’s hyperbolic—and sort of creepy—to say that students are directly analogous to animals packed into crowded feedlots and pumped with hormones before their slaughter. But the analogy works on some levels: Just as factories aim to maximize profit, schools seek to boost test scores. In both cases, shortcuts are irresistible. Animals are injected with growth hormones, and students are taught quick tricks to answer test questions they don't fully understand.
In her recent book, Building a Better Teacher, Elizabeth Green describes precisely this phenomenon. She writes about teachers who feel that pressure to produce high scores on state math tests undermines effective instruction. Cows fed corn instead of grass may grow more quickly, but their health suffers. Students taught quick mnemonic tricks may answer a multiple-choice question correctly, but that doesn’t mean they understand the math. Many companies track the cost of transforming raw materials into finished products (like corn to beef), and many school districts use a system borrowed from industrial economists to assess the cost of increasing student test scores. These industrial methods helped to create a perverse system defined by a single objective: to raise test scores.
But how teachers raise scores matters—not all methods of solving a problem are equally valid. Students allowed to struggle slowly with difficult problems ultimately do better on harder tests. In her book, Green describes Japan’s approach to education, which involves having elementary students spend entire class periods working slowly through a single problem rather than cranking through dozens of repetitions without understanding any profoundly. Slow School would emphasize process over results. Food raised in humane and ecologically responsible ways tends to taste better, but this isn’t the only reason to follow these practices. There’s something intrinsically valuable about increasing the quality of life for animals and protecting the environment. Students given the chance to slow down tend to perform better, but their experience also matters. And cramming specious shortcuts to prepare for tests that determine the salaries of teachers is not enjoyable.