The Düsseldorf model

By Kristina Döring, May 2013

Streaming by performance does not make sense.

The principle of the class community has been jettisoned in English lessons in many Waldorf schools for a long time. The great demands of the university entrance exams on the one hand and pupils who struggle with basic grammar and vocabulary on the other mean that many foreign language colleagues no longer consider it possible to teach all pupils together because under these conditions they can no longer do justice to the abilities and needs of either group. There has been an increasing use of textbooks in the separate streams in upper school (9, 10 or 11), something which is intended to make the training and examination of abilities easier both for teachers and pupils. 

We do not have any of that in our school. When we meet our fellow language teachers – such as at the annual “English Week” – we Düsseldorf teachers sometimes feel on a different planet: a bit isolated in adhering to the “old” structures and principles, but also frequently admired and assailed with hopeful questions as to whether there really is still another way. For there are probably not many teachers who are truly happy with streaming by performance ...

Every day the principle is confirmed for me that pupils – particularly also in foreign language lessons – learn from and with one another. Starting with simple vocabulary work through grammar exercises to questions as to how to formulate what they want to say in their own textual work: the exchange between pupils among themselves plays an important role. The models coming out of their own group, to which everyone wants to belong because it is their class, are more important than the voice of the teacher. For as Waldorf teachers we not only have an educational mandate but also support the children as they grow up. Our mandate is to create an atmosphere for learning in which every pupil can express their abilities. That more talented pupils speak up in lessons more frequently and with longer contributions does not necessarily need to be a disadvantage if the slower pupils see it as an opportunity to learn. That is of course the crux of the matter: how can all of them be supported in such a way that they achieve their aims – be it in interim or final exams? And related to lessons: that the pupils have the feeling that they are supported, irrespective of their performance level. These questions acquire increasing urgency in middle school, and explicitly so in upper school.

Motivational impetus through class plays in class 10

A proven means to allow all pupils to immerse themselves in the foreign language together is our English class play in class 10. The rehearsals and discussions are also all held in English with few exceptions. The feedback from pupils and teachers could not be more clear: this project is a language milestone, quite apart from the way in which the pupils develop through such work. The major roles are not just taken by the talented English pupils but by weak ones as well who through their tasks in the play acquire a new and intensive relationship with English and prove to themselves and us that through hard work, practice and commitment they can achieve something quite exceptional – in English! The motivational impetus, the pleasure in the foreign language bear fruit in the wider lessons.

An additional hour of English in class 11 for the exams

The central final examinations to which the Waldorf schools in North Rhine-Westphalia have been subject for a number of years, were diametrically opposed to our non-textbook teaching concept. Content which interests our pupils and which we communicate to them through reading the original, class discussions and longer texts composed by the pupils themselves, which allow them to express their personality, were now to be replaced by completely different content and forms of examination.

We neither wanted to abandon our holistic approach nor did we want to deprive our pupils of the opportunity to prepare adequately for these exams. We therefore decided to introduce an additional English lesson for the whole class in the examination year (class 11)  the sole purpose of which is to prepare for this examination. The three regular English lessons in two groups remained “Waldorf lessons”. This made our focus clear and comprehensible also for the pupils: our main subject in this school year is Shakespeare, but at the same time we are preparing (alongside) for the central examination. The exams are passed with above-average results and the second correctors are so surprised by the abilities of our pupils in the written part that we receive enquiries about how our pupils are prepared.

Team teaching in class 12 prepares for the university entrance exams

It is our wish that class 12 continues to be the concluding Waldorf class and not a preparatory class for the university entrance examinations. We do not want to break with the principle of the class community here either. Every school is currently seeking suitable forms for class 12, our school is no exception in that respect. With regard to English lessons and the  many other subjects which also need to be studied for the university entrance exams, we decided with their introduction to work on the geography main lesson on globalisation in English. That means that the English teacher gives the main lesson together with the geography teacher so that this subject is prepared simultaneously for two subjects in class 13. The team teaching brings many advantages: thus the pupils have two teachers to help them with their research on the Internet. Such a specific longer period of individual work means that there is time to respond to individual questions about language and content and to support the pupils in their preparation for their final presentation. Apart from that, it is also a pleasure for us teachers to work in a team. Such cooperation is certainly worth considering and developing also for other combinations.

Responding to changed conditions

The three particular features of our school (class play, additional lesson, team teaching) are the result of changes in external examination requirements, but also due to our unaltered conviction that the pupils develop better overall if they remain in their class or group association without being divided up by performance. Joy of learning and motivation for the foreign language can be rekindled in upper school through the special features discussed above. Communicating joy and motivation to pupils and keeping rekindling them is our task as educators. If we succeed in doing that for most of the pupils in a class, the question as to the performance level of the individual and the call for homogenous performance groups recedes into the background.

About the author: Kristina Döring is an English teacher at the Düsseldorf Rudolf Steiner School. During a sabbatical in India she worked in teacher training for a developing Waldorf initiative.