"We would like to have grades so we know where we stand."

By Martyn Rawson, Ulrike Sievers, August 2022

Do grade reports really help to find our position?

Reports – joy for one, sorrow for another

At Waldorf schools, no grades are given in the first eight to ten years and no one can be held back a year. This means that the reports have lost their fateful character and with it their threatening nature and in the best case have become a kind of mirror. The reports give parents a small insight into the (school) life of their children who are excited to know how they have developed – from the teachers' point of view – during the last year. Many teachers experience creating this "little insight" as a very stressful time. Given the different interests, concerns and expectations, it seems appropriate to interrogate the meaning and purpose of the document, the manner of writing it and the impact of these textual testimonies.

Giving a report – what is it actually about?

The activity itself can be very enriching: we place each child, each young person before our inner eye, turn our attention with respect to the young people in recognition of what they have achieved. We measure the child against themselves – look at the steps which have become visible and what comes next. Almost a contemplative process – given the necessary time and leisure – that goes hand in hand with a wide variety of thoughts on our own teaching.

Since reports are written digitally and are allowed to be longer, they can at the same time give an overview of what we have worked on during the school year, a mixture of information and accountability, so to speak.

However, there are a few questions to be answered along the way: for whom do I write the report and to whom do I address it? How do I arrive at what I write? Do I have criteria to guide me and what observations do I base my judgements on? What do I want to achieve with what I write? Are the parents to learn something about their child? Is the pupil to be able to learn something from it? Do I perhaps want to show that I have seen the children and young people in what they are doing? The answers to these questions, which presumably change with the age of the children, will have a decisive influence on the process of creation, the formulations and the later reading experience.

Everyone wants to be seen, heard and understood

Young people go to school to learn and they want to be seen doing what they do. In order to make both possible, it can be helpful to distinguish qualitatively between an annual report and feedback in ongoing teaching. At the latest from middle school onwards, it is important that we enable our pupils to take the next steps in the learning process independently through concrete, timely feedback. A report that addresses in July what went wrong last October has little effect on learning. Regular feedback – if it is in written form – is also a wonderful help in summarising the whole developmental process at the end of the school year.

Looking back together in conversation

In a #waldorflernt online dialogue, a teacher reports how, after the period of remote learning, she remembered the concept of the educational partnership and expanded it – in terms of living concepts – to include parents in the writing of reports. Using questions such as "What new things did you discover about your child during this time?", "What did your child do particularly well?", "Where were you able to give support as a parent?", parents were invited to write down their observations. Together with the perceptions of the teacher and the children’s own look back in a class 7, a multi-layered picture emerged in which all those for whom the report is primarily prepared were involved. We are convinced that such a report leaves a lasting impression.

Another promising approach to deepening the impact of the reports is to hold a report or development meeting. Together with the parents, or with children and parents, there is a joint look at what learning opportunities there were during the year, how they were used individually and what needs to be worked on further. Such discussions are time-consuming, but they have the inestimable value of placing different perspectives directly alongside one another and promoting relationships. Children and parents feel seen and appreciated and we avoid that what we have written with much sweat and effort is shoved into a drawer and ignored.

The review of the school year, originally proposed by Steiner, is also a wonderful experience and is organised differently depending on the age group. The idea here is that the pupils remember, review everything and decide for themselves what was important for them. Artistically designed, put into its own form, the pupils’ own path is perceived and appreciated – in upper school usually a very individual review with great potential.

Thoughts about the future

Grades seem to give clear, concrete information about where someone stands. In doing so, they reveal little about the person whose performance they are evaluating. They are often experienced as judgements, with little invitation to improve things further. We should be clear about the goal we are pursuing with reports. For example, how about all colleagues teaching a class looking at a child together for ten minutes and trying to identify and formulate what is important: is the child on a good trajectory? Are the existing "treasures" valued? Do the adults recognise where support is needed? Ultimately, it is crucial that our pupils feel heard, seen and understood – this applies to the reports as well as to the lessons.

Authors: Martyn Rawson and Ulrike Sievers are Waldorf teachers, write books on Waldorf education and are involved in teacher training. Ulrike is co-founder of the online platform for teachers: www.e‑learningwaldorf.de and both are involved in the project #waldorflernt – analogue, hybrid, digital: contemporary forms of teaching and learning.

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