Slack: Or Just a Bit Less Hand Holding


This week I’m attending Outstanding Schools Europe, a two-day conference in London. I’m part of a panel this afternoon. Just in case I’m not as coherent as I’d like to be in real time, here is my reflection in advance of the session.

I’ve offered to share some thoughts on slack, a concept I’ve written about before in terms of a set of practices for teaching and learning that I developed with my colleagues at Leysin American School. Slack for us means giving students more time to find their own way. A quick disclaimer: Increasing slack may preclude you from the amount of content you cover. The value add, however, is gaining agency through practicing agency.

The leitmotif of the panel is student agency. The topics we’ll discuss, in just 45 minutes, include self-regulated learning, agency, collaboration, critical thinking, child-centered approaches, and student preparation for life after secondary school.

Whew. Thank goodness for blogging. I’ll start with the last item on this list: preparing students for lifelong learning, perhaps touching on some of the other topics along the way. 

If we are serious about lifelong learning, and I hope we are, since our educational social media posts and mission statements routinely emphasize creating lifelong learners, then we (1) have to give space for children to practice lifelong learning. For me, this means that (2) we need to be intentional about scheduling time for learning when we aren’t teaching, at least not directly. 

Madly trying to cover enough content in the time we have with students will not work. It will not work because (1) there is far too much content to cover, and (2) we don’t really know which content is going to be relevant. There is a temptation, I suppose, given our inability to know which content is going to be relative, to try to cover ever more content. This is a systemic pressure that contributes to the problem.

The problem with trying to cover more content is that the increasingly packed curricula lead to teaching for coverage, which crowds out the little available space for slack. But we need slack to let children find their way. We need slack to teach what I think is a fundamental aspect of life-long learning: independence. 

We need a bit of a shift in thinking about what the appropriate outcomes of schooling. Our transcripts emphasize content, almost exclusively, but there are efforts underway to paddle upstream, e.g. the Mastery Transcript Consortium and the Coalition to Honor All Learning. Transcripts can also report on soft skills, in other words, things like perseverance and the ability to work collaboratively.

What more can we do? Here are a few ideas that I hope we touch on this afternoon.

Create a school culture that allows teacher innovation. In other words, give teachers slack. We heard in a keynote by Richard Gerver about how Pixar made loosely structured space for its employees. We are familiar with the Google 20. Learn to provide slack for students by providing it to teachers. Model the behavior you want to promote.

As an administrator, allow teachers, and as a teacher, challenge yourself, to increase the amount of low-stake, high frequency assessment and to decrease the amount of one-shot, put-it-inthe-gradebook assessment. Have more conversations with students, individually and collectively. Guide students to have good conversations with each other about their learning process and outcomes. Give yourself time to do this by reducing the number of recorded assessments. 

Make learning visible. For the last ten years we’ve experimented quite a bit by pulling agile, originally from the world of software development, into education. So have lots of other teachers, consultants, and schools – see the Agile Research Consortium for Schools for examples. Implement a kanban board or another system that allows students to pull their own work – instead of the teacher, syllabus, school, and government pushing work on students. You can’t expect wholesale change here, but you can lean toward student choice – and the time for students to pursue those choices – when possible. Start perhaps with the visibility of a system like that found in EduScrum.

Finally, adopt the vision of a school system that weights content and soft skills equally – and then take the small, personal steps you can to head in that direction. Gerver ended his keynote with a picture of him and President Barack Obama. Gerver says he asked Obama the most important thing he learned while in the White House. Obama answered that the problems that crossed his desk were rarely technical, they were human. One has to understand the human problem. In other words, one has to have a richly developed set of soft skills. Give your students (and teachers) some slack, back off when you can on subject content, and let students find their way a bit more.

It will be a long, slow process. This shouldn’t deter us. It just means that we need to start right now.

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