Andreas Schleicher’s Very Special Education

Andreas Schleicher works out of the OECD in Paris, and is best known for the the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), “a triennial international survey which aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students.”

TEDGlobal 2012 - June 25 - 29, 2012, Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

TEDGlobal 2012 – June 25 – 29, 2012, Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

According to a January 2010 presentation given to the Quality of Childhood Group in the European Parliament, when Schleicher was at elementary school he was told that he ‘would not qualify to go on to higher education’. However, he was sent to a Steiner-Waldorf-School in Hamburg, Germany, where he passed his Abitur (University Entrance qualification) and from where he obtained a BSc degree in Physics in 1988, and a MSc Degree in Mathematics in 1992. In 1994 he joined the OECD after working in student assessment and quality improvement.

The following, with points of particular interest in bold, is adapted from the Waldorf Answers website:

2. What is unique about Waldorf education? How is it different from other alternatives (public schooling, Montessori, unschooling, etc.)?

The best overall statement on what is unique about Waldorf education is to be found in the stated goals of the schooling: “to produce individuals who are able, in and of themselves, to impart meaning to their lives”.

The aim of Waldorf schooling is to educate the whole child, “head, heart and hands”. The curriculum is as broad as time will allow, and balances academics subjects with artistic and practical activities.

Waldorf teachers are dedicated to creating a genuine love of learning within each child. By freely using arts and activities in the service of teaching academics, an internal motivation to learn is developed in the students, doing away with the need for competitive testing and grading.

Some distinctive features of Waldorf education include the following:

• Academics are de-emphasized in the early years of schooling. There is no academic content in the Waldorf kindergarten experience (although there is a good deal of cultivation of pre-academic skills), and minimal academics in first grade. Literacy readiness begins in kindergarten with formal reading instruction beginning in grade one. Most children are reading independently by the middle or end of second grade.

• During the elementary school years (grades 1-8) the students have a class (or “main lesson”) teacher, who stays with the class for a number of consecutive years. Many teachers stay with their class from first to eighth grade. However, in a number of schools, teachers are likely to stay with a class for a shorter period: a class may have one class teacher for grades 1-5 and another for grades 6-8, for example.

Certain activities which are often considered “frills” at mainstream schools are central at Waldorf schools: art, music, gardening, and foreign languages (usually two in elementary grades), to name a few. In the younger grades, all subjects are introduced through artistic mediums, use the children respond better to this medium than to dry lecturing and rote learning. All children learn to play recorder and to knit.

There are no “textbooks” as such in the first through fifth grades. All children have “main lesson books”, which are their own workbooks which they fill in during the course of the year. They essentially produce their own “textbooks” which record their experiences and what they’ve learned. In some schools upper grades may use textbooks to supplement skills development, especially in math and grammar.

Learning in a Waldorf school is a noncompetitive activity. There are no grades given at the elementary level; the teacher writes a detailed evaluation of the child at the end of each school year.

The use of electronic media, particularly television, by young children is strongly discouraged in Waldorf schools.

3. What is the curriculum at a Waldorf school like?

The Waldorf curriculum is designed to be responsive to the various phases of a child’s development. The relationship between student and teacher is, likewise, recognized to be both crucial and changing throughout the course of childhood and early adolescence.

The main subjects, such as history, language arts, science and mathematics are, as mentioned, taught in main lesson blocks of two to three hours per day, with each block lasting from three to five weeks.

The total Waldorf curriculum has been likened to an ascending spiral:
subjects are revisited several times, but each new exposure affords greater depth and new insights into the subject at hand.

A typical Lower School curriculum would likely look something like the following:

Primary Grades 1 – 3

• Pictorial introduction to the alphabet, writing, reading, spelling, poetry and drama.
• Folk and fairy tales, fables, legends, Old Testament stories.
• Numbers, basic mathematical processes of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.
• Nature stories, house building and gardening.

Middle Grades 4 – 6

• Writing, reading, spelling, grammar, poetry and drama.
• Norse myths, history and stories of ancient civilizations.
• Review of the four mathematical processes, fractions, percentages, and geometry.
• Local and world geography, comparative zoology, botany and elementary physics.

Upper Grades 7 – 8

• Creative writing, reading, spelling, grammar, poetry and drama.
• Medieval history, Renaissance, world exploration, American history and biography.
• Geography, physics, basic chemistry, astronomy, geology and physiology.
Special subjects also taught include:
• Handwork: knitting, crochet, sewing, cross stitch, basic weaving, toy making and woodworking.
• Music: singing, pentatonic flute, recorder, string instruments, wind, brass and percussion instruments.
• Foreign Languages (varies by school): Spanish, French, Japanese and German.
• Art: wet-on-wet water color painting, form drawing, beeswax and clay modeling, perspective drawing.
• Movement: eurythmy, gymnastics, group games.

4. How did Waldorf education get started?

In 1919, Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian philosopher, scientist and artist, was invited to give a series of lectures to the workers of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany.

As a result, the factory’s owner, Emil Molt, asked Steiner to establish and lead a school for the children of the factory’s employees. Steiner agreed to do so on four conditions:

– the school should be open to all children;
– it should be coeducational;
– it should be a unified twelve-year school; and that
– the teachers, those who would be working directly with the children, should take the leading role in the running of the school, with a minimum of interference from governmental or economic concerns.

Molt agreed to the conditions and, after a training period for the prospective teachers, die Freie Waldorfschule (the Free Waldorf School) was opened September 7, 1919.

5. How many Waldorf schools are there?

Currently, there are about 1,000 Waldorf schools in 60 countries. Approximately 150 Waldorf schools are currently operating in North America. There are also public Waldorf programs in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Detroit, Michigan.

A directory of schools in the United States or Canada is maintained by the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America (AWSNA). Schools elsewhere in the Worldcan be located through the mother site of the Waldorf world, the Bund der Freien Waldorfschulen, (Federation of Free Waldorf Schools) in Stuttgart, Germany.

6. What is the philosophy behind Waldorf education?

Consistent with his philosophy called anthroposophy, Steiner designed a curriculum responsive to the developmental phases in childhood and nurturing of children’s imaginations. He thought that schools should cater to the needs of children rather than the demands of the government or economic forces, so he developed schools that encourage creativity and free-thinking.

7. Why should I send my child to a Waldorf school?

The main reason is that Waldorf schools honor and protect the wonder of childhood. Every effort is expended to make Waldorf schools safe, secure and nurturing environments for the children, and to protect their childhood from harmful influences from the broader society.

Secondly, Waldorf education has a consistent philosophy of child development underlying the curriculum. All subjects are introduced in age appropriate fashion.

Finally, Waldorf schools produce graduates who are academically advantaged with respect to their public school counterparts, and who consistently gain admission to top universities.

8. Who was Rudolf Steiner?

Dr. Rudolf Steiner was a highly respected and well published scientific, literary and philosophical scholar who was particularly known for his work on Goethe’s scientific writings. He later came to incorporate his scientific investigations with his interest in spiritual development. He became a forerunner in the field of spiritual scientific investigation for the modern 20th century individual.

His background in history and civilizations coupled with his observation in life gave the world the gift of Waldorf Education. It is a deeply insightful application of learning based on the Study of Humanity with developing consciousness of self and the surrounding world.

9. How is reading taught in a Waldorf school? Why do Waldorf students wait until 2nd grade to begin learning to read?

Waldorf education is deeply bound up with the oral tradition, typically beginning with the teacher telling the children fairy tales throughout kindergarten and first grade. The oral approach is used all through Waldorf education: mastery of oral communication is seen as being integral to all learning.

Reading instruction, as such, is deferred. Instead, writing is taught first. During the first grade year the children explore how our alphabet came about, discovering, as the ancients did, how each letter’s form evolved out of a pictograph. Writing thus evolves out of the children’s art, and their ability to read likewise evolves as a natural and, indeed, comparatively effortless stage of their mastery of language.

12. Why do Waldorf Schools discourage TV watching?

The reasons for this have as much to do with the physical effects of the medium on the developing child as with the (to say the least) questionable content of much of the programming. Electronic media are believed by Waldorf teachers to seriously hamper the development of the child’s imagination – a faculty which is believed to be central to the healthy development of the individual. Computer use by young children is also discouraged.

Waldorf teachers are not, by the way, alone in this belief. Several books have been written in recent years expressing concern with the effect of television on young children. See, for instance, Endangered Minds by Jane Healy, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander, or The Plug-In Drug by Marie Winn.

14. What kind of education do Waldorf teachers have?

While requirements within individual schools may vary, as a rule Class Teachers will have both a university degree and teaching certification from a recognized Waldorf teacher education college or institute. Some Waldorf education programs can also grant B.A. and M.A. degrees in conjunction with Waldorf teaching certification. Typically, the course of study for teachers is from two to three years and includes practice teaching in a Waldorf school under the supervision of experienced Waldorf teachers. Teachers must also satisfy whatever state credential and licensing requirements might apply.

Rudolf Steiner, speaking in Oxford in 1922, defined “three golden rules” for teachers: “to receive the child in gratitude from the world it comes from; to educate the child with love; and to lead the child into the true freedom which belongs to man.”

15. Why do Waldorf students stay with (ideally) the same teacher for 8 years?

Between the ages of seven and fourteen, children learn best through acceptance and emulation of authority, just as in their earlier years they learned through imitation. In elementary school, particularly in the lower grades, the child is just beginning to expand his or her experience beyond home and family. The class becomes a type of “family” as well, with its own authority figure – the teacher – in a role analogous to parent.

With this approach, the students and teachers come to know each other very well, and the teacher is able to find over the years the best ways of helping individual children in their schooling. The class teacher also becomes like an additional family member for most of the families in his/her class.
It’s worth noting that this approach was the norm in the days of the “little red schoolhouse”.

16. How are personality conflicts between students and teachers handled?

This is a very common concern among parents when they first hear about the “Class Teacher” method. However, in practice, the situation seems to arise very rarely, especially so when the teacher has been able to establish a relationship with the class right from the first grade. Given the sort of person who is motivated to become a Waldorf teacher, incompatibility with a child is infrequent: understanding the child’s needs and temperament is central to the teacher’s role and training. If problems of this sort should occur, the faculty as a whole would work with the teacher and the family to determine and undertake whatever corrective action would be in the best interests of the child and of the class.

21. How does Waldorf deal with kids that don’t get it academically?

Waldorf schools hesitate to categorize children, particularly in terms such as “slow” or “gifted”. A given child’s weaknesses in one area, whether cognitive, emotional or physical, will usually be balanced by strengths in another area. It is the teacher’s job to try to bring the child’s whole being into balance.

A child having difficulty with the material might be given extra help by the teacher or by parents; tutoring might also be arranged. Correspondingly, a child who picked up the material quickly might be given harder problems of the same sort to work on, or might be asked to help a child who was having trouble.

22. How well do Waldorf graduates do on standard tests? How well do Waldorf high school graduates do in college?

To the best of our knowledge, no controlled studies have been done on these questions, but anecdotal evidence collected from various sources would seem to suggest that Waldorf graduates tend to score toward the high end on standardized examinations such as the Scholastic Aptitude Tests. As far as higher education goes, Waldorf graduates have been accepted as students at, and have graduated from, some of the most prestigious colleges and universities in the United States.

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