Experiments with pace: slow teaching and slow marking.

03 Feb 2017

Praise of slow

“Society is all but rude,
To this delicious solitude.”

Andrew Marvell ‘The Garden.’

What makes effective teaching? The ultimate question and “slowness” is certainly not high up on the list of quick fire responses. In fact I think most of us would recoil in disgust if we were dubbed a “slow” teacher. I know I would: energy, drive, enthusiasm, passion are the hall marks for me of effective teaching. Do the antithesis of these: slowness, tranquility and quiet deserve to be admitted to the hall of effective teaching fame?

Confession: there is a selfish reason for this post. Please allow a moment of self absorption: I am not a particularly wonderful sleeper. I am an early morning riser anyway, but usually at five in the morning (cue epic violin solo) I am awake, reflecting and sometimes fretting about the day ahead. The has been a relatively recent phenonomem, one that is getting much better but I am still working to consign to its evil sleep defying grave. I am, therefore, always on the look out for an easy “fix”. Last weekend I stumbled across this TED talk: in which Carl Honoré advocates the various merits of decelerating. It is convincing and entertaining viewing and I would recommend a perusal, particularly if you feel the constant demands of teaching result in a week spent on a conveyer belt. I swiftly ordered his book and decided the week ahead would be a week with experimenting with speed. Society, would “Marvell” at my new found serenity and “delicious solitude” Then, “the best laid plans” and all that, Ofsted phoned. So how did slowness correlated with an Ofsted inspection?

As Honoré notes in his fascinating book, “in the war against the cult of speed, the front line is inside our heads”. Part of slowing down is about challenging the inner monologue that can be difficult to switch off. So, in order to strive to be slower in the work environment, this begins first thing in the morning. When the alarm reared his malevolent head at 5.50 this week, the first ten minutes of the day involved ten minutes of meditation.  I have had a fairly sporadic relationship with meditation over the past couple of years (don’t worry, I will spare you the details) but now I plan to make it a feature of every morning.  The inner monologue is often interesting: “why on earth am I sitting here?”, but perseverance pays off and there is always a feeling of clarity. The journey to work, instead of the normal pugnacious power of the Clash or similar rousing chums, was ruthlessly cast aside this week with ‘slow’ music: John Martyn, Frazey Ford (wonderful!), Nick Drake and Bob Dylan all graced the serene drive to work: “The times they are a’changing” indeed.

Enough narcissism, here is to the important stuff. So the aim of the week is to slow down in the classroom and to examine the impact this has on learners. Here are some things I experimented with:

Slow teacher talk: Being very conscious of the speed of talk in the classroom has been interesting this week. Tackling the frantic need to talk and to repeat instructions has been part of the process, but more obviously has been simply slowing down the speed at which I am speaking in the classroom. Very interesting to note the more attentive nature of students just by dropping both the volume and speed of talk at the front of the classroom. Instructions have been clearer and students have asked less questions about what they need to do. This has been coupled with slow body language and movement, using hand gestures slowly to keep student’s attention and focus.

The pause and slow questioning: Rapid fire questioning obviously has its place in the classroom. This week has involved slow questions, seeking to build more collaborative dialogue from students. I have been trying to slow down to encourage students to build on their own answers and to build on the answers of those around them. Questions like this have been a constant feature of lessons:

“Lets take five seconds to consider Anna’s answer, how could we build on that?”

“Listen carefully to this question, take ten seconds to think then I will ask for feedback”

“Can you take a moment and consider how you might develop that answer?”

“What do you think was the best part of that answer, how could we develop it?”

More importantly the pause has been out in its full theatrical force this week. Everything has been followed by a pause or thinking time. The desire to pounce on students for an answer has been curbed, even if at times this has required an inner monologue count down. I think this has led to a calmer, more thoughtful classroom environment – certainly one that is less rushed. The idea that students are expected to be thinking and contribute has also had an impact.

Slow tasks: Year 10 are studying transactional writing tasks and need to explore speeches. Any excuse to wheel out Churchill (Winston on slowness: “Don’t think you will be doing less work because you sleep during the day. That’s a foolish notion held by people who have no imagination. You will be able to accomplish more”).  The basic premise of this lesson was to slowly explore his wonderful “We will fight them…” speech. I wanted students to evaluate the significance of the speech and look at the impact of his employment of techniques. My input was to model annotations of the opening line, then give them time to dissect, evaluate, discuss the speech. I put up a list of techniques for them to consider then set them off and meditated in the corner. We then slowly discussed, slowly questioned, slowly added to the annotations. They then completed a timed ten mark how question (not so slow). I told them to slowly write the opening to their own Churchill style speech for homework, looking to mirror some of his techniques. Yes, we need to have some spelling and literacy conversations but she is getting the idea! Allowing the space and time for curiosity and intellectual pursuit surely has its place, as of all strategies clearly variety is the spice of life:


Marking: The desire to sprint through a set of books is completely understandable, they tend to be quickly replaced with the next gigantic pile. The race marking strategy, however, does little for the learning of the students and does little to inform future planning. This week with my Year Nine group I “slow” marked. I spent less time on each book, less than five minutes. Instead of writing manically repetitive comments I came up with seven codes that would be the focus of responding to feedback. I wrote down brief notes about conversations (surely more valuable than superfluous comments!) I would be having with students. Then they had a very slow Friday afternoon lesson to work through the books and targets. I meditated in the corner while they got on with it. Next week I will be working through the targets and using this sheet to inform my planning. Excuse the irony of comments about students’ handwriting, this is rough notes!

Marking notes

Positivity: I wrote this post at the start of the year about the wonderful ‘Hopeful School’s’ by Mary Myatt. I have made a real effort to implement a number of things from this throughout this year, it has very much functioned as my action plan in school. What I realised this week was that true reflection this book advocates, and the consideration of others around you, can only be achieved with a slow calm mind and a sense of perspective in the school environment. As Myatt highlights:

“‘If we think about all the things that are wrong with our lives, our work and the people we plough alongside, then what follows is that we attuned to see more of the same”.

When we fly through our weeks at speed and in autopilot, we miss all the wonderful things that happen around us, what ‘Hopeful School’s’ deems the bright spots. It also means that negativity is more persuasive, nobody enjoys feeling rushed and pushed to our limits. Slowing down this week has allowed me to see the positives and celebrate them around me: I have praised students more, I have celebrated achievement in lessons, I have taken more time to hopefully be more supportive to those around me. Slowing down to take the time to write some post cards to students and to contact parents has been delightful. Slowing down, effectively, is a must for allowing yourself to be hopeful and optimistic about your work. Relentless speed only correlates with burn out and exhaustion.

Ofsted: The Ofsted inspection should have scarpered all slow plans. But I am rather obsessive and nothing was getting in the way of ‘Turtoise Thom’ this week. So it was renamed the Ofslow inspection. Stress and speed are interlinked, cortisone spreads like wildfire through the body and the urge to run around screaming “Ofsteeeed” becomes more urgent. So I, with various degrees of success, aimed to persist with the slowness (often needed forced slow walking!) Did I radiate calm and serenity for the two days? No. But it was certainly the most “relaxed” I have felt during an inspection. Pausing to reflect, stepping outside of yourself, all helpful in ensuring that perspective was kept and that the focus was on what was important.

What is the place of slowness in the hallmark of effective teaching strategies? It deserves its place, relentless speed in the classroom is stressful and confusing for young people and can only lead to teacher burnout. Allowing scope for thinking, pausing regularly, giving students a voice to discuss in lessons, allowing for the pause button to be pressed are all hugely helpful. Let me be clear: I am not advocating some archaic project learning future; pace, passion and enthusiasm will still be the prerequisite for my teaching. Slowness, however, will be joining that mix. To give Ghandi the final word (obviously he meant to say “teaching”)


Thanks for reading, I’m off to do something very, very slowly.


Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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