‘The Tortoise and The Hare’ in the Classroom.

22 Feb 2018

In this age, which believes there is a short cut to everything, the greatest lesson to be learned is that the most difficult way is, in the long run, the easiest. Henry Miller.

Rather terrifyingly, after almost a year of writing, ‘Slow Teaching: on finding calm, clarity and impact in the classroom’ will be published next week by John Catt Educational (Friday 2nd March). The overview of the contents of the book is here, and this article I wrote for TES summarises where the concept for the book came from and the ideas behind it.

This extract from the book opens the chapter on ‘Streamlined Planning and Teaching:’

We are all familiar with the basic plot of Aesop’s fable ‘The Tortoise and The Hare’. It revolves around two contrasting figures: the speedy Hare and the slow Tortoise. The Hare isn’t the most modest of chaps; he frequently mocks the ponderous and plodding nature of the Tortoise. Fed up with this ridicule, the plucky Tortoise challenges the Hare to a race. Having taken what he believes to be a clear lead, the Hare decides to have a short slumber. Shock horror: upon waking he finds that the Tortoise has ambled his way into the lead and to eventual victory.

‘The Tortoise and The Hare’ in the Classroom

Allow me an extended analogy (more of the learning power of that later). This fable is a perfect representation of the contrast between teachers in a school environment. Mr Hare is the charismatic ‘outstanding’ lesson deliverer: his individual lessons sparkle with flair, dynamism and engagement. Students talk highly of him: ‘Every lesson is so fun and interesting!’ or ‘We are never bored!’ They dash for his lessons, waiting eagerly for whatever ‘learning journey’ will be tightly and energetically compressed into an hour. Mr Hare puts hours into manufacturing detailed PowerPoint slides that are full of stimulating images; he photocopies endless resources, and he has a particular penchant for group work tasks that are spectacularly well organised. There is an almost manic energy to Mr Hare; he moves all day with irresistible speed.

Mr Tortoise is a more self-deprecating classroom figure. His individual lessons are more refined, with his painstaking long-term plans providing the insight he needs to generate the individual experiences for his students. He has an almost-mythical knowledge of his subject; the product of intense investment in developing mastery of subject content. He rejected the default mode of PowerPoint slides some time ago, preferring to focus his students’ full attention on the purpose of learning. His students may speak about him in a slightly less effusive manner, but what they do say is telling: ‘We know what we need to do to improve.’ ‘He explains things for us so clearly.’ ‘He knows his subject inside out.’ There is a serenity to Mr Tortoise’s professional demeanour; he appears to glide through the day, omitting an aura of wisdom and experience.

In the examination race at the end of the year, senior management are bewildered and confused. Mr Tortoise’s group performed much better, despite Mr Hare’s ‘outstanding’ performance management lesson observation. Keen to learn from this experience, they set themselves a challenge: it is time to deconstruct, learn and share the practice of Mr Tortoise…

Learning Over Time

This is clearly an exaggerated stereotype, but it is an all too familiar distinction in modern day education. We should not, of course, completely reject the importance of an ‘outstanding’ individual lesson experience or, indeed, the power of some of Mr Hare’s work in the classroom. Individual lessons of dynamism have much to offer. They remind students of the exciting potential of our subjects and learning in general, and can spark initial interest in a topic, which can result in immediate learning gains.

There is, however, a much more important conversation that needs to take priority: how to teach effectively over time. Teaching, and indeed learning, is not a series of isolated lesson-by-lesson experiences; it requires careful thinking and design.

In my first few years of teaching, I completely embraced Mr Hare’s philosophy. I spent a disproportionate amount of time scrupulously studying how to achieve the holy grail of being awarded an Ofsted ‘outstanding’ lesson. For those precious observed moments, I would spend hours planning lessons of Oscar award winner potential, coupled with resources that were painstakingly constructed and differentiated for every child. My excellent mentor would (sometimes) say some lovely things, then pose the question: so what is the next step?

Cue awkward pause. Next step?

I had absolutely no idea how to plan for learning over time; how to look at sustaining learning; how to build on skills incrementally. Nobody had talked about that during my training. Instead they threw around ‘engagement’, ‘collaboration’, and ‘learning styles’ like confetti. I certainly don’t recall hearing the word ‘memory’ at any point. In those early days, I would eagerly rush to see the magic pay off in students’ assessments and then slump dejectedly into a corner: why wasn’t any of the learning sticking?

I was a walking metaphor for what was wrong with the lesson-by-lesson approach. It left me utterly exhausted at the end of the working week, having lived on my nerves, without any clear sense of direction. The process of moving away from this – to reflect more on incremental learning over time – requires careful consideration of the best ways that students can learn. It is an investment that will pay off, as it provides us, in the words of Henry Ford (1928), with ‘the calmness that the long view of life gives us’.

Thanks for reading, the book can be pre-ordered here. 


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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