The slow revolution that makes learning fun

It’s hard to feel like a covert revolutionary when hovering around a reception class on a chilly Thursday morning. But within minutes of arriving at St Silas’ Church of England Primary School in Blackburn, it is clear that I have stepped into a bold educational experiment that daringly flies in the face of much current accepted thinking. All around, four- and five-year-olds are playing energetically with water, building things or writing stories. So far, so normal, except that – compulsory phonics instruction apart – pupils are allowed to concentrate on one activity all day if they want to. Equally, they are free to wander from task to task.

I am not often in touch with my inner Nick Gibb but at first this “free play” approach leaves me feeling a little at sea. Don’t children need structure? I mean, what’s the plan here? Moving up through the school, my Hirschian jaw begins to relax. All parts of the national curriculum are being covered, in depth and, apparently, with huge enthusiasm. Some nine-year-olds show me the Anderson shelters they have built before reading from their spirited reimaginings of aspects of the Second World War. It is abundantly clear that by Year 6, St Silas’ has created a room full of independent learners, deeply engaged in what they are doing.

This is reflected in steadily improving Sats scores, despite the school losing many high achievers to two newly opened local free schools. This year’s cohort are the first to have spent their entire primary school life using the Slow Education approach.

Over at Matthew Moss High School in Rochdale, an 11-16 comprehensive, a similar revolution is in progress. A mix of independent project work, detailed feedback and group work, and an emphasis on genuine research skills, produces 12-year-olds who can talk articulately about whether we are at risk of running out of electricity, while sharing details of their ongoing correspondence with postgraduates from the University of Manchester.

The well-resourced music department is full of pink- and blue-haired teenagers playing loudly in studios, mixing tracks or creating promotional material for upcoming concerts. Senior leaders at Matthew Moss, under a new headteacher since 2013, are currently wrestling with the implications of the English Baccalaureate, reluctant to force students into taking subjects that don’t engage them. The school, in the top quintile for measures of deprivation, is keen to improve on its 2014 GCSE headline results (49 per cent of pupils achieved a C or above in five or more subjects, including English and maths). But one of its strengths is the way it encourages students to find out what they love, and pursue it.

National figures for the last quarter of 2014 show that 7 per cent of post-16s were not in education and employment. The figure for Matthew Moss (over one year) is 1.7 per cent. It performs strongly on value-added measures. In one sense, Slow Education is nothing new. It is the modern recasting of a progressive approach to education that goes back to the original “free schools” of Summerhill and Kilquhanity in Scotland or the post-war experiments of secondary-modern headteacher Alex Bloom in London’s East End. Sadly, these innovative educators have been caricatured over the years as part of the disingenuous Goveian rewriting of educational history.

But what strikes me the most about this modern version of “child-centred education” is its rigour. It mixes something of today’s “high expectations” culture with older ideas about having the time – and the freedom – to learn. At both schools, I found myself impressed by the commitment and self-critical reflection among school leaders, teachers and teaching assistants. It also offers an interesting way out of what is fast becoming a rather tired debate about knowledge versus skills. There’s plenty of “traditional” learning in both schools (what you or I might call “normal lessons”) yet the whole point of Slow Education is not to spurn knowledge but to anchor it more authentically.

As Mike Grenier, a teacher at Eton, and a member of the Slow Education network, argues: “To achieve mastery of a subject requires time to learn but also time to reflect on how learning has happened. Many simple tests/forms of assessment largely remove any thinking and become tests of memory. Thus, the so-called traditionalists rail against skills as if they are somehow nebulous and examples of lazy thinkers, and the socalled progressives see knowledge as damaging to creativity and of no lasting significance. Both positions are incorrect.”

Grenier adds that the “more nuanced synthesis of thinking and learning at the heart of Slow Education [is] hard to implement [in a] culture of ‘fast-food’ learning in which… measurement has become paramount”.

In other words: how can we balance the development of a love of learning for its own sake with the high, and some would argue obsessive, priority now attached to raw data?

A lot of the external pressure comes not only from government ministers or Ofsted but also from ambitious parents. During my tours of St Silas’ and Matthew Moss, I couldn’t help wondering how such pushy parents (there are virtually none in either of the schools) would react to Slow Education. Panic, I suspect.

Which is a pity. The corridors and classrooms of both schools hum with enjoyment, the ease of relations between staff and students and a kind of intellectual happiness. Matthew Moss set up a Saturday school: scores of Year 10 and 11 students come to revise, or tackle difficult bits of the curriculum, with volunteer “learning coaches” from Rochdale Sixth Form College. Such enthusiasm is not unusual in state schools, of course, but it is worth celebrating in contrast to the dreary drilland-kill approach currently so dominant in England’s education system.

This piece was first published in the TES in the issue of December 11th.

Vivian Gornick: one of the most significant writers you have probably never heard of

Vivian Gornick is one of the most significant writers you have probably never heard of. A biographer, journalist and memoirist, she is among the supreme essayists of the past 50 years, a writer who bridges the worlds of Joan Didion and Meghan Daum, Susan Sontag and Leslie Jamison, without ever having achieved the cultural glamour or worldly success of any of these figures.

In a recent interview in the Paris Review, Gornick, now aged 80, was candid about her marginal status for a large part of her writing life and how often she longed to be part of “the uptown parties, the New York Review parties . . . And then I’d have to recover from that nonsense and forget about it – really forget about it. And I did – over and over again.” These last emphatic admissions are typical of Gornick, redolent of the frank self-examination and literary and professional toughness that run through all her work, her ongoing dedication to the only thing that matters: the writing life, the process of turning “neurotic necessity into literary virtue”.

For all these reasons, perhaps, we Gornick enthusiasts are a distinct, fierce tribe, each with our own favourite well-thumbed books and essays, proselytising to anyone who will listen about her brilliance. Recently, making contact with some other devotees through Twitter, I even discovered a couple of new books, recognising from the first page Gornick’s distinctive approach to her craft, her determination “to stay with a sentence until it has said what it should say”.

Raised in the Bronx by Jewish, communist, immigrant parents, Gornick began her writing life as a reporter on the Village Voice, where she worked from 1969 to 1977. Her early books, such as The Romance of American Communism (1977), chart the emotional dynamics of left-wing politics and she has more recently produced a biography of the great anarchist Emma Goldman.

But it was Fierce Attachments, a more personal work of non-fiction, first published in 1987 and now reissued by Daunt Books, that made her name. The personal essay was not then the ubiquitous form it is today but Gornick – even though she emerged from such a political background – was one of its early pathfinders, developing, in unique fashion, the less formal narrative voice pioneered by the “new journalism” of the Sixties and Seventies.

The book tells of her growing up in the Bronx, a childhood dominated by “Ma”, her frustrated and hypercritical mother, plunged by sudden widowhood into years of histrionic mourning. Scenes from her youth are interspersed with accounts of a now middle-aged Vivian, too often feeling “fat and lonely”, walking the streets of Manhattan with her mother. Gornick perfectly captures the brittle exchanges, mutual misunderstandings, disdain and occasional bouts of tenderness – “I feel pleasure when she says a true or a clever thing. I come close to loving her” – that flow between the two.

Gornick has often written about how the insights of feminism shot through her like a bolt of lightning, transforming her life in a single afternoon. In Fierce Attachments, she wanted to bring alive the visceral difficulties of cleaving herself from the values of femininity with which she was raised. From Ma and the women in the Bronx
tenement, she learns that sex is something to endure rather than to enjoy. The arrival of a beautiful young neighbour, Nettie, who is forced into a kind of defiant prosti­tution, introduces her to the power and danger of female sexual desire, including her own. Gornick takes these battles into her adult fierce attachments, including a troubled first marriage and a long, erotic, extramarital affair.

New York, with its eccentric characters and charming or explosive random exchanges, figures large in Gornick’s work and the city again forms the explicit backdrop to her latest book, The Odd Woman and the City, an artfully arranged series of portraits of urban life, friendship and our heroine.

If it feels like a more settled, surer-footed work than Fierce Attachments this is probably because Gornick, three decades on, is more reconciled to her “odd woman” status – a category that she borrows from George Gissing’s 1893 novel The Odd Women, a book much loved by her. She quotes her old friend Leonard, a gay writer: “Fifty years ago you entered a closet marked ‘marriage’. In the closet was a double set of clothes, so stiff they could stand up by themselves. A woman stepped into a dress called ‘wife’ and the man stepped into a suit called ‘husband’. And that was it . . . Today we don’t pass. We’re standing here naked. That’s all.’’

Love, work, friendship, community: she continually returns to our yearnings for these but our difficulty in achieving them on our own terms. In a brilliantly perceptive essay about the life and suicide of Clover Adams, an influential saloniste and Boston Brahmin in the late 19th century, Gornick delicately delineates the many ways in which work is a salvation, even for inwardly drifting depressives, and what it meant historically for women that they were for so long denied the right or ability to “do battle with the world . . . as a way of doing battle with themselves”.

But, for Gornick, the ability to work, even a dedication to it, is only ever a starting point. Like romance, like politics, it is not a form of abstract salvation but a grinding process of daily self-realisation, including the conquering of anxiety, the mastery of self-discipline, the search for internal freedom and meaning. Gornick is fearsomely honest about her wasted hours, days and years, the bad books as well as the good-enough books and the long, tortured process by which she learned to write well.

The Situation and the Story (2001), now considered a classic manual for the aspiring essayist or writer of memoir, explains how her experiments in writing taught her to achieve literary detachment in the service of the narrative.

All of this makes her an acute, highly readable critic. The Situation and the Story celebrates great examples of the genre, from Joan Didion on migraines to Edward Hoagland on turtles. Equally pleasurable is The Men in My Life (2008), her collection of often acerbic but always appreciative essays on some of the great male writers of the century, including Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Andre Dubus, James Baldwin and Richard Ford.

Her work pulses with memorable observations, brilliantly rendered conversations and original analysis. “Love as a metaphor [is] over,” she claimed in her seminal essay “The End of the Novel of Love”. The upheavals of the mid-20th century, from women’s liberation to the liberalisation of divorce and attitudes to sexuality, changed the internal dynamic and necessities of literature. The illicit passions that light up such great 19th-century works as Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary are reduced in the modern world to the drear realities of extramarital affairs followed by second and third marriages. “Today there are no penalties to pay, no world of respectability to be excommunicated from.”

No one writes better about friendship, about the way that connection can blaze up and fall away, within the course of an evening or over decades. In a searing essay entitled “Tribute”, Gornick traces the course of her infatuated friendship with an older, celebrated feminist author, in whom she recognises some of her own failures: “I began to worship in her the incapacity I identified so strongly with.”

The beginning of the end of the friendship is signalled by a devastating argument over a meal at Gornick’s home, in which her friend abuses the men present for assuming conversational and worldly superiority. The scene is so vividly rendered that it is painful to read. “I can still taste in my mouth,” Gornick writes, “the sickening dry excitement I felt that evening . . .”

At the same time, she can grasp the larger point emerging from the unfolding human theatre: “That night I saw coming, as though for the first time, the death of sentimental affection between women and men. The familiar arrangement between us was at an end.”

Gornick has suggested recently that different generations cannot understand or appreciate each other – the contexts and culture shift so significantly. Essayists inevitably reflect and bear witness to the temper of their times; think Roxane Gay on the “bad feminist” or Lena Dunham on just about anything. Inevitably, then, Gornick appears as something of a semi-historical figure, a writer who bears witness to the battles and battle scars of a generation (or two) who helped dismantle western certainties about politics, love and family.

Yet she is so much more than that. Ma once complained, on one of their strained walks up Fifth Avenue, “The unhappiness is so alive today.” Gornick’s retort was: “That’s the first step, Ma . . . The unhappiness has to be made alive before anything can happen.”

Here, she nails the secret of her many-layered achievement: her ability to make vivid the difficulties of living fully and honestly but without a touch of coyness or evasion, uncompromising to the last, even about unhappiness. It is why her work will survive the time in which it was written. That she makes the reader feel so much more human in the process is just one mark of her genius.

This piece was first published in the New Statesman,issue of 8th December 2015.