Waldorf upper school 2.0

By Maria-Sibylla Hesse, November 2019

How can Waldorf education be improved in the twenty-first century? How can we do justice to today’s young people and prepare them for living conditions over the coming 30 or 60 years that are still virtually inconceivable for us? Possible approaches include the equal exchange of knowledge, an understanding that we are all learners, and project-based teaching.

What needs to be improved in our upper school? I posed this question to a good 20 pupils last autumn, ranging from classes 10 to 12. One person made a note on the blackboard which was quickly filled. Recurring themes for criticism were the food in the cafeteria, the use of too much plastic and creation of a lot of waste, as well as the lack of space for small group work, subjects for projects that seemed arbitrarily chosen as a means of filling time and a lot of teacher-centred instruction. I told them that there were no limits to what could be criticised.

After prioritising the criticism, we tackled the most pertinent issues in the project “Potsdam Waldorf School 2.0” which lasted for eleven weeks each comprising four hours of teaching time: we planned for better equipment for the computer room and designed furniture for an outdoor seating area. In addition, we reviewed how projects are taught in the upper school and hung up a timeline for our improvements in a corridor. On the other hand, the attempt to improve the use of the rooms available remained unsuccessful because there was no way to create more space.

A modest result maybe. On the other hand, the students first had to learn how to work autonomously without instruction: developing ideas, finding resources, writing letters to the teachers’ meeting, detailed implementation, overcoming unexpected problems and setbacks, documenting the project and finally presenting it.

Conditions in the early twenty-first century

Project work will determine the everyday working life of many school leavers who will make use of all of the common, modern technological resources. However, in a lot of cases these are not permitted in our school: taking a picture of the blackboard with a smartphone, maybe for a pupil who is off sick? That’s still against our school rules. Maybe it’s time for an update? In private, our older students organise themselves in a class chat in which they are reminded of schedules, informed about cancelled classes or finished homework is posted – probably to a greater extent than we teachers suspect.

However, this is an example of a very familiar dilemma. On the one hand we attach great importance to face-to-face contact, on the other hand the Internet enables us to connect with almost everyone worldwide – which is actually quite a remarkable human ideal. Fake news and hate speech can be deplored, but they can also be understood as a call to develop the abilities to learn to be able to distinguish the untrue from the true, the good from the bad, and the ugly from the beautiful.

Current problems – for example climate change, famine, peace policy – demand new solutions and cooperation across multiple borders: geographical and generational, determined by tradition or inertia. And they require the courage that the younger generations seem to bring with them, for example when they call for reform according to their ideals in which nothing is off limits, vehemently stand up for equality or show understanding for failings. Examples can be found, for example, in Joseph Beuys’ demand for the social aspect as the seventh art form or in the performance artist Yves Klein’s “Leap into the Void.”

Thanks to the anthroposophical understanding of the human being and our interest in the individual, we teachers have the tools to seek answers as contemporaries together with the young people. At school, the aim is to awaken forces of initiative that carry impulses for the future and are able to meet these challenges.

Students participate in determining content and methods

Schools used to operate according to factory model: identical classrooms were arranged one after the other along a corridor, the representative of the authoritarian state sat at an elevated lectern, equipped with tools of correction such as the rod, and all pupils read the identical page in the identical book. Today, more recent government regulations call for the diversity of the student body to be addressed, but hierarchy and a lack of influence for those for whom the school is organised continue to dominate.

A hundred years ago Waldorf education must have seemed ludicrous. Even the joint teaching of different social classes, and then coeducation, took a lot of getting used to. Boys should do knitting and sewing? Yes – and contemporary neuroscience confirms the developmental potential of this approach. How can we find the basis of our system of education as intended by Rudolf Steiner a hundred years ago underneath the crust of possibly distorting traditions? How can we once again become so innovative, so radical?

One proposal with which I have had positive experiences is to give the young people greater rights to have a say. To this end we recently set up a school parliament. In order to practise democracy and see all of us as learners as we interact as equals, I also in a main lesson set out a reasonable choice of content and methods, guided freely by the Waldorf curriculum. Courage, opening up and critical abilities should be developed.

We need a culture of constructive criticism

Making everyone involved a participant counters a consuming and alienated attitude towards the school. An important element in this respect is a culture of discussion. Do we discuss things non-violently and respectfully with one another, also when we don’t agree? Pupils with technical skills help us to work the projector, for example, but do we adults allow them to extend our knowledge and skills in other ways as well? If we ask about the impulses which the young people bring with them, the learning relationship is reversed. The basic attitude that we continue to be learners also as teachers requires a joyfully supported culture of constructive criticism. Do our young colleagues find a climate that gives them the courage to try things out? 

My goal would be to refrain even more from testing knowledge and skills, also in main lesson, and leave it at the offer-utilisation model in which the pupils are responsible for their own success to much greater extent. Such negotiation is certainly not possible in all subjects and all grades and it will be an ongoing practice field in perseverance. I am reassured by the experience that the focus of many young people on the subject matter tested in the university entrance exams does not prevent them from learning from life or from the acquisition of knowledge that will serve them in life. What are taxes, why is philosophy so often dropped they asked in their list of improvements mentioned at the beginning; equally they suggested drama in a foreign language or interdisciplinary subjects.

The needs of the present as learning material

At the start of the school year, politics was not an area of great interest for many in our class 11. In the winter, then, some of them took time off on several occasions: under the banner of “Fridays for Future” they went to the regional parliament to draw attention to the urgency of updating environmental policy. They made use of their civil rights. I did not find it necessary to examine their proficiency level in a test because, as they reflected in their binder, they had discovered that they too had political responsibility and had taken action.

Docking learning to life and doing what is necessary in a real and concrete way – even at a basic level – demonstrates to the young people that they can unfold their potential and take effective action themselves. 

Pupils as teachers

A further step is taken when individual pupils are deployed as teachers in projects. The pupils react differently when one of them becomes leader: they understand content more easily, feel better understood, are frequently more motivated and have a greater team feeling. The change of roles, appreciated by many of them, reduces the hierarchical gradient which can strengthen individual responsibility. Such trial activities contain an individual challenge. And perhaps, after such a change of perspective, those concerned may even consider the teaching profession one day?

The Protestant School in Berlin Zentrum has firmly located the subject of “Challenge” in its annual programme for the pupils of classes 8 to 10: for three weeks, alone or in a group, they hike, sail, cycle or work, translate, look after people/animals … The plan has to be approved by the school in advance and must not exceed 150 euros; the expectation is that individual boundaries should be extended.

Out of the comfort zone, into the challenge …

Anyone who has learnt in this way to become independent develops resilience which can support them through challenges which cannot yet be anticipated today. We notice in our five-week business (class 10) and social (class 11) placements that it is often possible to bring the acquired self-control back into the everyday life of the school.

Newly acquired experiences call old ideas into question, for example that the outcome of attending school has to be the university entrance exams or that ultimately the teacher is always right anyway. Or that we will never succeed in reducing the waste we produce. Everything can be improved. Practice through learning, learning through practice, always remain in dialogue: onwards to the next endeavour!

Maria-Sibylla Hesse teachers history, art history and projects at the Potsdam Waldorf School. She leads the project “Potsdam Waldorf School 2.0” together with a class 11 and a class 12 pupil.