The McDonaldization of Education: the rise of slow

5792035508_fb667bdb01_zSlow.  I love this word, and yet it tends to have many negative connotations  in education. Which is too bad because it’s the very philosophy we need to save our education system, and give kids the time and space necessary to grow into the thoughtful, articulate citizens we desperately need them t0 become.

The 20th Century is known for many things. It’s mass destruction. Statistics show we managed to destroy each other and plunder the planet at a rate unequal to any other time in history. At the same time, it was also a time of great exploration, innovation and technological advance. The exploration of space. The eradication of disabling and fatal diseases. Increased global awareness. Gaining at least some measure of equality for groups who are disenfranchised.

However, the thing that stands out most vividly is what Canadian journalist Carl Honore describes as “the cult of speed”.  Slow ways of life have largely disappeared. Many see them as ancient, naive, or largely impractical.  Instead, we live in an instant world, where most often if you ask someone how they are, the reply is busy, as if the response justifies one’s existence on the planet. Few people stop to ask if what we’re so busy doing is actually worth the energy we’re expending.

According to Honore, fast and slow “are shorthand for ways of being, or philosophies of life. Fast is busy, controlling, aggressive, hurried, analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, active, quantity-over-quality. Slow is the opposite: calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity. It is about making real and meaningful connections with people — culture, work, food, everything.”

Unfortunately, our education system, at least in North America, has been deeply influenced by the “need for speed”, or what George Ritzer has termed “McDonaldization” — that is, “the process by which the principles of the fast food industry are coming to dominate more and more sectors of the world.

Ritzer outlines four characteristics of this mechanistic worldview: efficiency, predictability, calculability (quantifiable results) and control — or at least the illusion of control. In regards to education, McDonaldization attempts to wipe out any of the messiness or inefficiencies of learning. Instead, it attempts to reduce it to a commodity that can be packaged, marketed and sold. Rather than cultivating a deep, holistic love of learning that touches every aspect of a student’s life, learning has been reduced to an assembly line. In reality, we’ve imposed a mechanistic view of life onto how people learn, which is largely an organic process, and at a great cost.

Education continues to rapidly adopt short-cuts that reflect the dimensions of McDonaldization. Essentially, this imposition seeks the most efficient (read, easiest) way to get a student from kindergarten to grade 12 .  In an assembly line, things are homogenized as much as possible. In education we tend to see this in the assumption that the most important thing a group of kids have in common is the year they are born.

Efficiency has also the birthed the idea that teachers can be replaced by Khan Academy, and the ridiculous class sizes that many teachers now have to deal with. I don’t doubt that the Khan Academy can transmit information, but that’s assuming that the transition of information is the most important part of learning. Can it help to develop our children into thoughtful , ethical citizens, who critically evaluate, rather than being swayed by the flavour of the day? Does it create citizens, instead of consumers? When learning is treated as one more product to be consumed, a horrible disconnect occurs in our students. It becomes about the mark. It becomes about the diploma. It becomes about the end justifying a lot of terrible means.

And if a student is not quite ready to read when it’s introduced, if they’re “slow”, if they mess with the efficiency and control of the system, then they often pay the price for the rest of their lives. Kids are labelled as being not “academic”, as if being academic is the most important quality a child can possess. Creativity is quashed. Curiosity is quelled. It may also explain the huge amount of student disengagement we see in today’s classrooms.

Predictability causes the standardization of a curriculum, and the way it’s taught, with little or no regard for student interest, background or ethnicity. Every student must be able to display the same skill (or regurgitation of content knowledge) at the same time. However, it’s important to be able to calculate if any of this is making a difference, so a system of high stakes testing is introduced.

In some cases, test scores are up, whatever that means. But our students are also more stressed and disengaged from their learning. They can jump hoops, but most have little idea about what they’re passionate about. Of course, another caveat is that it’s not clear what the long term costs of all of these methods will be. What does it do to a child to spend 12 years stressed out by tests or not measuring up to an arbitrary standard usually created and advocated by someone who can’t pass “the test” themselves?

And of course, there must be a way to control those involved. Fear. Fear of losing one’s job. Fear of losing funding. Fear of embarrassing test results being published. Fear of one’s child not being able to get into college to get a “good” job. There’s an awful lot of fear in education today, and the truth is, we have no idea what the long term cost of this is either. We know in the short term, we lose a lot of new teachers in the first five years. We know that others quit early or need stress leave. We know that children are more heavily medicated now more than any other time in history. So how do we change all of this insanity?

Enter the slow movement

For awhile now, I’ve been researching and thinking deeply about the slow movement. The Slow Food movement is a grass roots movement that began in 1989 in Italy. Over the past 25 years, it has branched out to other areas of life that have been co-opted by speed & efficiency.

The Slow Food movement abdicates the industrial food conglomerates, and seeks to reconnect citizens to the richness of a common life with the neighbours who grow and prepare our food. The Slow movement is a call for intentionality, an awareness of our mutual interdependence with all people and all creation. And it seeks to root people in their community.

Slowness doesn’t require everything be done as slow as possible. Instead, it seeks to do things well & at the right speed.

So what does the Slow movement mean for education? It asks us to reimagine what it means to be a community of learners.  It requires us to admit to, and evaluate the organic, messiness of learning. It requires admitting that a large part of what is happening isn’t good for our children, our teachers, or our communities. Rather than a top down industrialized and homogenized assembly line of education, we need a grass roots development of education that takes into account what real learning looks like and what children really need.

Instead we need a reimaging of what learning can be: Slow Education. As Honore states, “We are doing a great disservice to our children by pushing them so hard to learn things earlier and earlier and by keeping them so busy. They need time and space to slow down, to play, to be children. Across the world, parents, politicians, adults in general are so anxious about children nowadays that we have become too interventionist and too impatient; we don’t allow them enough freedom. ”

The principles of the Slow Food movement are good, clean, and fair. I imagine the principles of the Slow Education movement as authentic, individualized, and formative.

Authentic education requires that learning not be based on worksheets, standardized tests, or the myriad of other terrible things we subject children to. Instead, it allows children of all ages to engage in real, meaningful work that matters to them and their community. Learning that gives them an authentic purpose and a role in society, other than consumer-in-training. It allows students to discover the everyday citizens in their community and how they are working to make it a better place. Furthermore, it empowers kids with the opportunity to identify and seek solutions to the problems in their community. As a consequence of these changes, it seeks to re-educate our communities to see students as authentic, active participants in community life. Authentic education is also an act of justice. It’s about allowing kids the chance to explore social issues and helping them become ethical citizens who speak out and make a difference.

Individualized. Enough homogeneity. Education must be responsive to the real needs of students. We need to shift to using content to teach skills, student interest and most importantly teaching kids how to learn. It needs to put the onus of learning on those who have the most at stake: students. It requires teachers to become co-learners, and let go of control. It requires districts to trust administrators, administrators to trust teachers, and teachers to trust students. It requires a great deal of conversation about what real learning is and why it matters. It allows kids to explore what matters to them, to build things that don’t work, and to figure out why. It requires them to form opinions and justify them based on solid evidence. And it requires adults who care and can speak carefully, and honestly into the lives of their students. Supporting all of this is a community that is deeply connected to the life of the school.

Finally, all learning should be formative. We talk a lot about formative and summative assessment. But I honestly wonder why we even have summative assessments? Bottom line? To give a mark. To give the test score. So kids can have marks for college. Marks should be abolished. I realize that’s a strong statement, but I have good reasons for saying so. In addition to being an arbitrary symbol that we’ve given an awful lot of power to, it means very little. What does 82 mean? Really. I’ve asked students that question. I’ve asked parents and other teachers, as well. No one really knows. Does it mean you don’t know 18% of the stuff? And which 18%. What if it’s the really important 18%?

I once broached the topic of abolishing marks with a senior administrator in my school division. The response was, “Do you know how big that is? Do you know how much work that would take?” Yep, I’ve probably briefly pondered it. So is the reason we don’t do what we know is best for our children because we don’t have the guts or because it’s too much work?

On the other hand, formative assessment allows kids to reflect on their learning. To figure out how to create better. Why something works. Why it doesn’t. What did they do well? Where can they improve? It allows for more failure and less judgement. It provides feedback that matters to students. It provides voice. And it allows me to know everyday what my students can do well and where they need to improve. I’ll take that over 82% any day.

If we slow down education, kids might learn less. Yep. But often less is more.  A slow education values understanding over covering content. I truly question how many students are learning anything now, other than how to do school, or that they’re not academic. Instead, we have the possibility of educating kids in a way that helps them to develop into people who are happy, healthy and humane.

So what is the bottom-line of the slow education movement?

✓ We abolish the busy, controlling, aggressive, hurried, analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, quantity-over-quality education environment that prevails today.

✓ We educate parents and communities about the risks of today’s current model, including the drawbacks of “edubusiness.”

sanders-learning-fair2 ✓ We create learning environments that are carefully crafted, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity and engaging.

✓ We develop curriculum that has greater depth than breadth.

✓ We make sure our curriculum takes into account local culture and celebrates the uniqueness of our local community.

✓ We don’t isolate skills development but let students grow their skills as they engage with important content.

✓ We construct learning environments that foster questioning, creativity and innovation, such as the maker movement and project/problem based learning.

✓ We find the courage to have serious discussions about abolishing standardized testing, classroom marks and grading, and the use of “birth year” as our primary criterion for sorting students.

✓ We lobby our governments for funds to assure true equality in education for all children.

✓ We discontinue the ranking of teachers and schools.

learning-about-slow-food ✓ We replace our egg-carton grades with flexible, personalized learning that takes into account when students are ready to engage in and acquire important skills.

✓ We make time for teacher collaboration a top priority.

✓ We expect all classrooms to connect students globally so they can learn from others around the world and apply what they learn in their own communities through meaningful projects and service.

✓ We make student voice and choice an integral part of everyday teaching and learning.

It’s time for the rise of slow. It’s time for environments that nourish children’s minds, hearts and souls. To create spaces that allow kids to learn at their own pace, in their own way. Do I believe any of this is easy no. It will be real. It will be messy. It will be worth it.

Slow. For me the question isn’t who will let us; the question is who will stop us? It’s time to do what is best for students. It’s time to do what’s best for teachers. It’s time for a grass roots movement that comes together to change the tide. Are you ready?


Photo courtesy of flickr cc: Daniel Oines

About shelleywright

I love education & learning, which likely explains why I'm a teacher. My areas are ELA, Sr. sciences, and technology. My classroom is best described as a student-centred, tech embedded pbl/inquiry learning environment. Furthermore, I am Buck Institute for Education National Faculty member
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36 Responses to The McDonaldization of Education: the rise of slow

  1. Pingback: The McDonaldization of Education | Ripples | S...

  2. Robin M.Wright says:

    Thank You for this insightful commentary. You may upset the current education establishment.
    How can we be be sure that students learn what they need to understand to operate in a civilized world? Basically each child needs to understand how to be an adult and provide for and guide the next generation.
    How can ability and performance be judged if each student follows their own ideas as to what is needed to provide for themselves and provide for their family?
    I strongly agree many changes are needed,
    Evolution is preferable to revolution, slow change will be more acceptable . There many who will resist your suggestions. It may take a few generations to arrive.
    All the more reason to start now.

  3. Tammy Sillers says:

    Couldn’t agree more Shelley! What an insightful post… but disheartening to know how far we are from this in our schools and seem to be moving even father from. I’ve been arguing for years that kids aren’t commodities, and yet here we are moving to a system based on automobile assembly lines. Beyond scary. Thanks for sharing!

  4. howard zugman says:

    Hi Shelley,

    Another of your many homeruns. The change you suggest is important but its implementation involves a tremendous amount of work and population education in our modern “everybody knows that a corvette is better than a geo” society and walking never enters the conversation. The main problem with improving our learning environment is that we already think we know the “right” answers to many of the wrong questions.

    • So incredibly true. I love Albert Einstein’s thought that the thinking that got you into the problem will not get you out of the problem. We have to think entirely differently about education. So instead of focusing on teaching, we need to focus on learning.

  5. Krista Willertz says:

    Shelley – this is very intriguing! I’d like to talk about concrete ways I can participate in this movement. If this is the correct response tool, please contact me if you have time. Blessings – Krista Willertz Anderson HS, Cincinnati, OH

  6. Sounds like it’s time for you to start researching how to start your own school. I’m contemplating it myself. In the meantime I’m homeschooling (like many other former classroom educators). Good luck!

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  9. tilislt says:

    Great insightful artice! I think first we have to slow down our own fast past lives as people and then we will be able to transmit that “slowness” to our students.

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  12. Mark Curcher says:

    An excellent post that raises so many important points Shelley. It is a fantastic vision and I am happy to tell you that much of what you describe does already exist and is successful. I am lucky enough to be a teacher educator in Finland where, fortunately, the commoditization of education has yet to take place and McDonalds do not yet even dominate the fast food market, never mind education. I am pretty sure that you have looked at Pasi Sahlbergs insightful book, Finnish Lessons, which also looks at the slow process that brought Finnish success about, which was based on a desire for an equitable education system rather than an excellent one. You and your colleagues do need to start a movement, it is worth the fight. I took the easy route and just emigrated and walked away from the failed UK system that is following its distasterous course. Great blog, good luck.

  13. Shasta Mund says:

    Hello, Shelley, from Lumsden, Sk! It is a wonderful surprise to hear someone so articulate and thoughtful and so close to home! I have always been very interested in the Slow movement; thanks for your application of “slow” principles to the field of education. Since completing my M.Ed at Harvard in 2002, I have dreamed of starting a Ph.D. I am entering a new phase of life where it just might be possible. I am currently trying to find my passion and your article is so inspiring as it is the marriage of a topic close to my heart with my field of study. Your ideas could prove to be amazing catalysts for my own research. Thanks again for sharing. . .

  14. I really love this article 🙂

  15. Bernard Nkuyubwatsi says:

    Hi Shelley and all,

    I agree with those who commented before, this is a fantastic blog post. Many of the issues you raised call for change in education delivery, and working together, we can make it happen. Thanks a lot, Mark, for giving example of where they are working in practice.

  16. Mel Buendia says:

    Your post is really inspiring. It is a reminder of the importance we , as teachers or parents owe to our kids. So elocuent, so clear. THANK YOU!!

  17. Margaret says:

    Hi Shelley,
    First of all, I wanted to say thank you for your post. I really enjoyed reading it, and I wholeheartedly agree with your educational philosophy. The one point I would like to discuss is your distinction between summative and formative assessment. In your post, you equate summative assessment with grading, but in my understanding, this is not necessarily true. It is true that summative assessment is about assessing how well students have learned a particular concept or skill (for example), but the form of that assessment does not have to be a grade or number. There are other ways to accomplish the same goal. For instance, I highly recommend the book “Assessment and Learning: The ICE Approach”, by Susan Fostaty Young and Robert J. Wilson (Portage and Main Press, 2000). I bring this up because I do think people who are critical of the slow approach would have a problem with a lack of summative assessment, because it can seem like the education system is dodging accountability for student learning.
    I look forward to reading more of your blogs!

  18. Altus says:

    It seems like we are looking for a “one size fits all” approach to education. Technology can actually help educators develop a slower, more individualized approach that resonates with each student. Great article.

  19. Paige says:

    Hi, Shelley. I am a student at the University of South Alabama. I really enjoyed your post. Going into the field of Education, I understand that all students are not the same. I observe at a disabled school and some of the teachers there try and force all the kids to learn at the same time and the same way, even though I know it is not possible. Thank you for sharing.

  20. Amanda says:

    That was beautiful. I wish NYC would move towards what you describe. How can we (parents, In my case) contribute to this change?

  21. Jenna says:

    This is amazing. We need more teachers like you!

  22. Pingback: The McDonald’s effect among school leaders | OTOInstitute

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  24. Reblogged this on jamiesondryburgh and commented:
    Slow Education – authentic, individualized, and formative
    In anticipating the beginning of a new academic year in which I will be taking on leadership responsibilities and commencing my PhD study in earnest (great word) it has been helpful to be reminded to the value of Slow.
    Not going at full pelt with a hundred and one things on the go while thinking about a dozen more is quite challenging for me. I relish being busy and pride myself on how many plates I can keep spinning. However I was challenged recently to reconsider the way I paced my life and to build more time for doing nothing. This nudge was sugar coated with the idea that even when we are doing nothing we are doing something. That something is the stuff which gets crowded out.
    I have been trying. I will keep working on it (if this isn’t too contradictory). I sense there is more for me to experience if I can tune in to what Shelly Wright is discussing here about being ‘calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity’.
    and perhaps this will be experienced through my work with student in the coming year too. I would like to think it might.

  25. Talbot Troy says:

    I love what you wrote here. On the issue of Khan Academy, I would say that, no, it can’t do all those things, can’t replace the teacher. But, there are some teachers who are embracing the “flipped” classroom approach to free up students and teachers to use classroom time to engage in those important interactions that you describe. Formative assessment, for example. (And thank you for explaining FA so well!) I do agree that there are going to be some who use Khan (or similar resources) to abandon, rather than to embrace, opportunities to engage students more authentically. That would be a misuse of just another tool. Khan, himself, has insisted that he would not want teachers to send their students to his videos and expect that their work is done. If I ever return to the classroom – and one day I might – then there is no way I would teach the way I taught before. I would not spend nearly as much time in front the classroom doing example problems and giving directions or making announcements. I’d put that stuff on video – or better yet, have the kids produce those kinds of videos for their peers to view. And I would try harder to use my classroom time the way you describe.

  26. Muthui says:

    a really good journal

  27. Tine says:

    i agree with this

    it made me realize i am pushing my children much
    They got no time to experience what and who are around them

    Authentic education requires that learning not be based on worksheets, standardized tests, or the myriad of other terrible things we subject children to. Instead, it allows children of all ages to engage in real, meaningful work that matters to them and their community. Learning that gives them an authentic purpose and a role in society, other than consumer-in-training. It allows students to discover the everyday citizens in their community and how they are working to make it a better place.

    They lack play due to tremendous work in school
    even weekend activities

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