The reopening of schools in February this year was a cause for celebration for many students and teachers struggling to master online learning. But it was short-lived: the reopening triggered a panicked rush to make up for ‘lost time’, fuelled by surveys indicating a large ‘learning loss’ and the importance we already pay to high-stakes tests (e.g. board exams and entrance tests).
So as soon as schools opened, they were under pressure to play catch up. They reacted with remedial teaching, after-school classes, and extra testing driven by the aim to cram 11 months of work into two months.
Rushing is a bad idea when it comes to teaching-learning – especially after a two-year pandemic that has unsettled every student and teacher.
Rushed classrooms are not a post-pandemic phenomenon, but post-pandemic schooling has rendered them more visible. There has always been pressure to provide a ‘comprehensive school curriculum’ suffused with academic and extracurricular activities – driven partly by private schools as ways to build ‘21st century skills’ and adopted by government schools to show themselves as being equally competitive.
This pressure to rush becomes acute when aggressive parents, worried about their child’s future and hearing how much the neighbours’ kids are doing, demand schools and teachers pick up the pace.
I still remember a parent-teacher association (a.k.a. PTA) meeting in 2007, when the parents of class 6 students were furious that I was still teaching fractions after spending 45 days on the topic. Students in other schools were already learning mensuration, I was told. In the fifth grade, I was reminded, fractions were ‘covered’ in two weeks!
Most teachers will point out that rushing through the syllabus does not lead to proper learning. What is usually left unsaid is how rushing reinforces a harmful conception of knowledge and how it is developed.
Second, rushing offers insight into how clockwork ‘time’ may get prioritised over quality time to leave schooling a learning failure. If we are worried about learning losses, rushing is the cause, not the cure.
Here is why.
1. ‘Deliver and digest’ knowledge philosophy – A focus on rushing reinforces that subject knowledge is a big, and often dry, object that must be broken down into bite-sized chunks for delivery and digestion.
Consider fractions. If you are rushed, then the fastest way to teach fractions would be to define fractions, provide a glimpse of the types of fractions (like, unlike, proper, improper, etc.) and then demonstrate how to perform operations such as add/subtract and multiply/divide.
This process does not explore the sort of mathematical thinking that fractions exemplify, the real-world authentic knowledge of connecting fractions with everyday life (beyond slicing pizzas), or even the knowledge that fractions, decimals and ratios are representative forms with different strengths.
Instead, understanding fractions is limited to the operational/formulaic knowledge of correctly adding ¼ and ¾ to arrive at 1, instead of helping the student figure out why we can’t add the numerator and denominators in ¼ and ¾ to arrive at 4/8.
Rushed classrooms reinforce the false and harmful knowledge that school subjects are arbitrary, rote-driven, boring and meant for ‘quick’ minds (whatever that means).
2. Obsession with clock time – Rushing prioritises clock time over a richer, meaningful experience of time. The whoosh of one educational task after another reminds of Rabindranath Tagore’s lament of his own early schooling in the 1860s, when objects “forced themselves rudely on my attention, elbowing and jostling”.
Even though more than a century has passed since Tagore called his school experience “a profitless cargo”, time remains neatly cut and imposed onto school life with a relentless succession of 40-minute periods culminating in two-hour exams. Rushed classrooms reinforce time as a linear thing – as a limited resource for individual gain.
Although difficult to explore in all its richness in this article, the cultural anthropology of time presents a compelling view of how cultures and societies have fabricated time differently – especially as a social construct.
For example, cultures and societies may regard time as a ‘medium’ for social connection rather than as a resource for gain. Or families may prefer a more natural, rhythmic growth for their children than tightly controlling what they must master and by when. From a learning perspective, what matters more is the meaning or the quality of time than the number of hours allotted to an activity.
Rushed classrooms force students to conduct multiple activities to make up for lost clock time, but as a result they often run counter to the inner clock that looks for meaning or quality. They don’t provide ‘quality’ time that students need to expand, revise, restructure, reconnect and reprioritise their ideas.
By hurrying through the fulfillment of academic tasks, rushed classes make schooling a clinical, depersonalised affair.
If rushed classrooms are harmful to constructing authentic knowledge and ignore quality time, let us consider slow classrooms instead. First, we need to set aside the false and negative connotation of ‘slow’ in our educational and cultural conversations that presume fast is better. Instead, the term ‘slow’ – similar to its use in the ‘slow-living’ or ‘slow-eating’ movements, means to savour educational experiences.
In terms of strengths, slow classrooms are powerful, empowering contexts that build self-trust and autonomy. They are also more equitable because they falsify myths around “slow-thinkers”. The quality of teacher-student dialogue also increases dramatically when teachers simply take a three-second pause after each question and each answer instead of rushing.
This said, slow classrooms are not more common because ‘slow’ does not mean easy, and because they challenge dominant power structures that discourage autonomy. They are only for brave schools.
Here are four ideas in particular for such milieus:
1. Replace ‘more’ with ‘deep’. Instead of trying to cover many topics, uncover one for a deep-dive into subject knowledge. Your students will learn the value of persisting with one thread and find richer interconnections between topics with life outside school than those provided by made-up stories in a textbook. Begin with experience of a topic instead of providing definitions and formulae.
2. Challenge conventional time durations. At least for one day every week, move away from 40 minute periods to as-long-as-necessary sessions that encourage teachers to prepare workshop-type lesson plans and allow students to breathe instead of being blasted with one subject after another. Use portfolios and projects for assessments to release the two-hour exam pressure and to build the metacognitive skills required for self-evaluation.
3. Create time for the “knowledge emotions” of confusion, interest, surprise and awe. Knowledge emotions foster better learning: being confused gets a bad rap even though it is necessary to build knowledge of unfamiliar topics and could also be used constructively to teach. To quote noted educator Eleanor Duckworth, “all of us need time for our confusion if we are to build the breadth and depth that give significance to our knowledge.”
4. Encourage slow thinking. The mathematician Laurent Schwartz was often ridiculed as “stupid” at school because he was one of the slowest math thinkers in class. “Rapidity doesn’t have a precise relation to intelligence,” he would later say. “What is important is to deeply understand things and their relations to each other.”
Slow classrooms are fundamentally different – and are not a slow-motion version of the rushed classroom. Slow classrooms, to repeat, are about savouring the sweetness of the educational experience captured in the Hindi proverb sahaj pake so mitha hoye (“what is cooked slowly will be sweet”).
The most wonderful aspect of schooling that students have missed, especially in the last two years, is connections and the joy of understanding. Let us not rush and deprive them of these joys. Instead, let us pause and make way for slow classrooms. Our children are worth it.
Gopal Midha holds a PhD in educational leadership from the University of Virginia. He is currently setting up a Center for Research on School Leadership in Goa.
Featured image: A teacher teaches inside a classroom at a school after the Maharashtra government allowed schools to reopen for all classes, in Karad, January 24, 2022. Photo: PTI/modified by The Wire Science