Teachers, do your homework

By Martin Carle, November 2018

Having worked for many years as a class teacher, school principal and trainer, I keep seeing how many colleagues and students there are who seem to have little idea whether or not Rudolf Steiner actually said anything on the subject of homework – and if so, what. And even when they were familiar with Steiner’s remarks, they clearly found it difficult to draw the conclusions that arise from them: that would have required a radical abandonment of what we have hitherto been familiar with – both in 1919 and almost 100 years later.

Photo: © kallejipp / photocase.de

Since in Waldorf schools the freedom of teaching is held high, there is a more or less cheerful muddle in most of them with regard to homework practice. Every teacher deals with it as they see fit: some of them in the “classic” way of daily exercises, others in a “modern” way as a weekly schedule, others again set five minutes on one day but then in excess of two hours the next. It becomes particularly stressful for the children when teachers fail to coordinate with one another, which is mostly the case. If we want to be charitable, we can describe this as the expression of the free spirit that reigns in a school, or we can just call it an arbitrary mess. 

It might be particularly puzzling for parents who have children in different classes and are given contradictory c reasons by their teachers as to why one child absolutely has to do homework and the other not. 

Although the subject pervades many levels of school life and almost all teachers, pupils and parents are affected by it, it rarely comes up as a topic worth investigating in the weekly teachers’ meetings dealing with educational matters. Hardly any are aware of the meanwhile numerous studies which show that homework ultimately makes “the clever ones more clever and the stupid ones more stupid”, as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaperof 31 January 2016 put it, and tends to exacerbate the different levels in a class – which many teachers, after all, explicitly want to minimise through homework for primarily the “weaker” pupils. 

It is particularly puzzling when homework is justified out of an anthroposophical understanding of the human being by saying that it supports the development of a sense of duty and responsibility in the child. Here, at the latest, we must ask ourselves whether the teachers concerned have ever read “their” Steiner, for the latter commented as follows on the subject in the teachers’ meeting of 28 April 1922: “If you set questions for the children such that they become curious to find out more for themselves, then this is something that encourages them. That is what I would do. A sense of duty does not develop at an early stage, before it is possible to teacher the children about the meaning and consequences of the concept of “duty” …” 

Or elsewhere, with even greater clarity, at the parents’ evening of 13 January 1921: “We should rather encourage the children to work voluntarily if they must work at home at all. The ... direction of travel should not be to frustrate the principles of a truly appropriate art of education by returning to coercion.” And finally, in the teachers’ meeting of 11 September 1921: “Tasks ... should be set in such a way that the activity is encouraged, not that the inner attitude of the child is paralysed. It should be done in a way, for instance, that, when you have dealt with a subject, you write down any tasks arising from the subject in such a way that you say: tomorrow I will deal with the following arithmetical operations – and then wait to see whether the children have been motivated to prepare these operations at home.” 

From the statements of teachers, pupils and parents, and Rudolf Steiner’s remarks, it is clear to me that (compulsory) homework is in essence nothing more than a way to make up for learning processes in school which have not gone well; or it represents inappropriate structural school and societal framework conditions. 

Particularly not for the “underperforming”

According to Conrad van Houten, a holistic learning process consists of seven steps: being attentive to the material to be learnt; relating to it inwardly; processing it roughly; individualising it for oneself appropriately; practising it sufficiently; developing it into a usable skill; in order then finally to become creative oneself with the newly acquired skill. Homework mostly has to be set when one or more of these learning processes are not or not fully carried through. For example when the subject matter of the lesson is not taught in a way that differentiates sufficiently by learning level so that a greater or smaller number of pupils does not really understand the material. 

Thus the so-called “weaker” pupils often have to acquire that understanding outside lesson time. Mostly, however, they are not able to do so on their own. In many cases the parents cannot help either – something that isn’t their job anyway. Financially better-off parents in middle and upper school classes then delegate the problem to private tutors. 

Changing to the main lesson principle

Lesson time is frequently too short. Most of the learning steps described above cannot be completed within a 45-minute work unit for reasons of time alone which is why the work has to be outsourced to home. The lessons take place too infrequently. Anyone who has a mathematics practice lesson or English only twice a week (and on top of that for just 45 minutes), cannot fulfil certain learning requirements such as doing calculations without having to think about them or vocabulary training in school which is why these things mostly have to be outsourced to the home. 

Here the conversion of certain subject lessons to the main lesson principle, as some schools have long been doing, is long overdue. 

Growing pressure to perform

The pressure to raise, control, compare and evaluate the performance of pupils is also growing in Waldorf schools both from one grade to the next and from year to year. Apparently, or in fact, this is also demanded by increasing numbers of parents and pupils: “We want to know where we stand!” is what they say. Waldorf schools, too, are thus being infiltrated by a classic culture of testing which no longer has anything to do with Waldorf education’s own performance measures or also more recent reasonable measures such as the portfolio method. This has quite clear effects on homework which mutates into a preparation for tests as the pupils grow older. 

The pressure to create timetable solutions of dubious educational value due to a lack of financial resources is also great – Steiner already complained about that in 1919. Thus the “practice lessons” scheduled in the timetable are mostly held in far too large groups. As a result, teachers have great difficulty in responding to pupils individually. 

Starting with small system changes 

We could now accept with resignation that under the present conditions optimal learning processes will not happen in school for various reasons in the foreseeable future and that we will therefore continue to need homework. Or we could refuse to be satisfied with this situation and start to look for alternatives. 

When I decided to take on a class as a class teacher for the second time, it was clear to me that I would have to change my educational approach and my practice with regard to general and teaching methodology. At minimum the timetable and the course of the day for my new class would have to change so that there was a real prospect of a holistic implementation of Waldorf education. My goal was for “the essential part of teaching to occur in school itself. The homework which places such a burden on the children will only be given to them in the very smallest amount,” as Steiner formulated it in a lecture of 21 July 1924. 

Alongside other important changes – for example the introduction of the classroom in motion and working with team teaching – I endeavoured to implement the following points: 

• As a class teacher, I (together with my lower school colleagues) was released from subject teaching in other classes and was able to be present as a class tutor/learning coach in the subject lessons – also an almost forgotten demand of Steiner’s. 

• Less frontal teaching, more active participation of the pupils in lessons, methodological diversity through the permanent use of individual, partner and group work. 

• A more economical approach to the subject content in accordance with the principle that “less is more” in the form of sample teaching. For example restricting form drawing or geometry to a small number of shapes per subject block, but introducing and practising these in such a practical and diverse way that the pupils are really able to penetrate and draw them on their own account and don’t simply just “copy” many nice drawings from the blackboard.

• Coordinating with colleagues as to how many stories are told each day and by whom. On the one hand this avoids the children being presented with up to five different stories (reflective stories, stories to learn from, fairy tales, handwork stories, religious stories …) per day which they cannot all take in properly and on the other hand it saves time – for practice. 

• Extension of the main lesson to 100 minutes and the subject lessons to 60 minutes while at the same time removing a whole subject lesson. Here it was possible to persuade the whole school to make the change so that the subject teachers were able to do this also in organising the timetable. 

• Teaching English as a block. 

These small “system changes” made it possible – following consultation with the parents – to integrate the practice part into the morning lessons, and particularly the teaching blocks. The parents have to be won over and taken along in a careful process. If that happens, then in my experience they will mostly happily support these changes. The “home work”, which I started to call gifts because of its voluntary nature, essentially took three forms: 

• The pupils could make gifts at home, or even just            pick one out and bring it to school, which did not have to be connected in any way to the topic of the lesson. Some examples: a glass of strawberry jam which the pupil had made the day before with their mother; a plane drawn by the pupil with which they had flown on holiday; a rabbit which the child cared for at home; the favourite car with which the child played at home … 

• Using the topic which had just been dealt with in the lesson, I encouraged the children to engage with it imaginatively at home in any way they wanted. For example, I wrote a large number six, which we had dealt with in lesson, on the blackboard and said it would give me great pleasure if in the next few days many colourful and diverse gifts, all connected with the number six, were brought along. As soon as the next day, a girl brought along a three-metre long roll of wallpaper with hundreds of sums which all had six as their result. Another girl had stuck six stickers with pictures of animals on a sheet of paper; a boy brought a honeycomb. 

• Taking up a suggestion from Steiner to look ahead to what was going to be dealt with next, I told the children that next day we wanted to find out what the largest number in the world was. They could think about that until tomorrow and should also feel free to ask siblings, parents or their neighbour about it. Next day there were indeed a large number of suggestions, many quoted incredibly high numbers, the very clever ones of course called out “infinity”, some had even written their number down. A wonderful philosophical discussion about mathematics ensued. 

The key thing was that the next day there was an awareness and appreciation of the gifts from all the other children and myself. That is why we gathered in a circle each morning in which the work of the children was placed in the centre and each child could show and explain theirs to all the others. The subsequent questions and discussions among the children themselves were particularly valuable from an educational perspective. 

It would, of course, have been nice if I had been able to evaluate this eight-year project academically and continue it in upper school. As it was, there was only the feedback from pupils, parents and subsequent upper school teachers that the class had no noticeable learning deficits in comparison to other classes who were given classic homework but was clearly ahead in the skills required for independent learning. 

About the author: Martin Carle is a class and upper school teacher in Waldorf and state schools and a former principal of a Swiss Rudolf Steiner school; he gives advanced training courses for class teachers.