Wind in the sails. Autonomous learning in lower school

By Annette Neal, May 2013

How can we teach in a way that maintains the pupils’ pleasure in learning and lets each one go their individual way? How can the teacher change his or her role without giving up responsibility for the learning process, and what are the stages from independent to autonomous activity? These questions are investigated by Annette Neal, jointly responsible in the “Autonomous learning” research project.

Project main lesson in class 2 – building an adventure trail

It was in the afternoon at the end of the first of three weeks. I was working in the garden. My telephone rang. “Ms Neal, I’m glad I’ve managed to get hold of you!” I could hear the sounds of an open-air swimming pool in the background. “Moritz keeps pestering me. Please tell me what fish I’m supposed to buy. We’ve just been in the pet shop. Moritz wanted a large goldfish. The shop assistant told us that the pond needs a pump for goldfish. So I though I would check with you first.” It was not just Moritz’ father who was a bit confused – it came as rather of a surprise for me, too! What was the boy doing?

»Dear Mr Schneider. The idea of a pond is currently still at a very early stage. Moritz and his group are just in the middle of digging the hole which at some point in the future will become the pond,” I responded, trying to calm him down. But Mr Schneider was not to be put off. “Moritz is convinced he needs the fish right now!” “Give it time. The hole is difficult to dig because there are lots of stones in the ground. It will be a while before we can start to fill it with water.” Mr Schneider was still not satisfied. “That’s easy for you to say. What am I supposed to do right now? Moritz will be back in a minute and he keeps bugging me to fetch the fish!” “Then suggest to him that he gets the pet shop to write down precisely everything he needs.” “I’ll try. But Moritz wont’ be stopped. He’s on a roll!”

Moritz was a class 2 pupil. Next day he came to school with precise information about keeping fish. After the morning planning discussion and the meeting of the building group, the matter was settled. Various aspects such as the size of the excavation, maintenance of the pond and the costs were discussed. As a result, the group decided to build three smaller ponds without fish. The goal of this project main lesson at the end of the school year was for 32 class 2 pupils to plan, execute and present a useful building project in various groups. The focus was on planning their daily work by themselves.

After an initial inspection of the location, drawings were made of the terraine and ideas were collected from each pupil, fleshed out and coordinated. Then the pupils formed teams of three to six children. Each group began by building a model made of clay and natural materials. The next step was to draw up a work schedule and obtain the materials and tools.

In realising their building projects, the pupils were able to see the results of their independent planning and work each day. The teams had to organise the process from planning through obtaining the materials to implementation themselves. The resulting steps each day were recorded by the pupils in a construction book. In that way they documented the course of their work. They planned the next steps before and after viewing the individual building projects.

When the materials won’t cooperate

As we inspected their building project, five girls stood a little bit baffled in front of a plank of wood. Various saws were lying next to it. “We have a problem!” Leonie said and the expression on the faces of the other girls lent credence to her words. “We can’t get the plank sawed through.” It was a piece of bangkirai hardwood which is particularly used for weather-resistant, robust patios. Some pupils examined the wood, others the saws. “Can I try?” The girls nodded to Paul and he set to work immediately. The attempt was attentively observed and the difficulties he clearly had were discussed. “The wood is totally hard ... the saws aren’t right for it ... they keep getting caught in the wood, you have to clamp it otherwise it will keep slipping when you saw.” The girls began to look a bit more optimist after all the suggestions and, in the end, a beautiful bird house hung in the tree.

At the topping out ceremony with the parents at the end of the main lesson, all the pupils were able to provide precise information about their projects. My role as the teacher changed; I tried only to give advice, or help in disputes, if I was asked. This gave the pupils greater opportunity to find solutions of their own. Finding one’s own ways like this is important for autonomous working and learning.

Class 2 and 4 learn the multiplication tables together

How, as teachers, can we manage to make a laborious undertaking such as practicing the multiplication tables into an event in which each pupil is involved with commitment and fun? We, the class 2 and class 4 teachers, together tried to achieve this in a project involving both classes through joint learning. We thought that the creation of learning tandems consisting of one class 2 and one class 4 pupil would raise motivation. The pupils in class 2 would have to work at something alone for the first time, the pupils from class 4 became teachers for the first time. The class 2 pupils would mark each of the tables they had practiced with a crown on their arithmetic chart. We further required learning tandems to take account of the individually varying learning abilities, learning speeds and learning strategies of the pupils and to enable a range of individual learning paths.

Our task as teachers was to divide the pupils into productive tandems and to reassign them if difficulties arose. We divided the tandems on the basis of personality (including temperatment and constitution) and skills level. As the class 4 pupils were already familiar with working in groups and had become aware through their own experience of how differently they learn, they contributed a lot of ideas. The class 4 pupils who did not have a tandem partner from class 2 were given the task of developing and preparing learning materials for the tandems. The period for this was in the main lesson from 8.30 to 8.50 in different rooms in order to minimise the tandems disturbing one another. Before the tandem practice period, class 4 each monring discussed what they would do next and the learning materials.

It was our responsibility as teachers to create an atmosphere conducive to learning, to watch the learning processes, observe individual children, give the pupils subject, emotional and methodological support and provide new impulses when motivation flagged.

The pupils worked with commitment from the beginning and practiced untiringly. They developed many new learning ideas.

Three pupils devise a learning game

Elias and Johannes, two class 4 pupils who did not have a tandem partner, sat in a corner grumbling: “How boring, trying to think something up.” Martin, who was sitting next to the two of them, was drawing a map on a large sheet. “What are you doing?” Elias asked. “I’m making a game for class 2, sort of with adventure maps and countries. They have to use arithmetic,” Martin answered without looking up. Elias and Johannes realised that this might be quite interesting. They designed the game over three weeks and kept fetching pupils from class 2 as test subjects. At the end, they proudly presented class 2 with a multiplication tables game.

Leon from class 2 likes to think up new things when he should be practicing. He comes up with all kinds of ideas which are not necessarily “welcomed” by the teacher and have little to do with the subject. As a result there were also quite a few complaints from his tandem partner in the first week. Leon soon noticed that the crowns on his arithmetic chart were not increasing at the same rate as with the other pupils. At the start of the second week, Leon arrived in class with an egg box which contained ten yellow capsules labelled from two to eleven (he had no doubt already consumed the Kinder Eggs). Without another word, he put the box on his desk, took a capsule and opened the first one labelled with the number two. He unrolled a very small slip of paper hidden inside and tested his his tandem partner. Naturally Leon quickly collected his crowns after having done this work at home.

Nils from class 2 found arithmetic difficult. He did not enjoy it and often refused to do it. Jan from class 4, who is very empathetic, withdrew into a corner with him. First they laid out the two times table with little stones, then they practiced it and wrote it down. In this way Nils slowly learned the table by heart. One day he suggested hopping the two times table from the bottom to the top of the staircase. He beamed and spread out his arms as he was hopping as if he was floating on a current of air. Learning the three and four times table later cost Nils a lot less effort. All the pupils happily participated, there were no refusals, no bystanders, and there was a great willingness to help one another. Individual out times were accepted without interrupting the work flow of the others. The learning atmosphere was relaxed. Testing individual tables became a natural part of the lesson. The learning tandems proved their value. Pupils who found arithmetic difficult were able to grow in self-confidence and to practice and become sure of the tables at their various levels. The “maths wizards” sat far apart from one another. The pupils who had prepared the learning materials in the form of index cards, work sheets, number cards for a numberlines and games tested and changed them as necessary. The impressive aspect for us teachers was the way in which the pupils learned with and from one another when they were able to work in accordance with their abilities and natural work pace.

Having confidence in the abilities of pupils puts wind in the sails of independent and, ultimately, autonomous learning. The teacher thus increasingly becomes an enabler... Rudolf Steiner described this function as being the “setting”: “All education is self-education and as teachers and educators we are actually nothing more than the setting for the self-educating child.«

About the author: Annette Neal is a class teacher at the Widar School in Bochum. She is currently doing a part-time Masters in educational action research at Alanus University and is a participant in the research group on “Autonomous learning in Waldorf schools”.

A publication on the “Autonomous learning in Waldorf schools” symposium, which was held at Alanus University in April 2012, will also shortly appear.