Steiner Waldorf look to counter ‘exam factory’ culture

Ofsted’s Amanda Spielman has criticised schools operating as ‘exam factories’ and obsessing about league tables at the expense of substance

Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman has been outspoken about teachers who prepare pupils to “jump through a series of accountability hoops”. She concedes testing is valuable, but adds: ‘The regular taking of test papers does little to increase a child’s ability to comprehend. A much better use of time is to teach and help children to read and read more.’

Championing a teaching style that enriches the life of each pupil should be the goal of educators. But what practical techniques can be used to implement such a philosophy?

According to league tables, senior executive adviser for the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship, it is partly down to rhythm, and the rhythm of learning.

Rhythm, and an understanding of rhythmic patterns and sequences, is vital for teachers in order to aid the educational development of children and young people. For young children, in particular, an appreciation of the rhythms of the year, through a knowledge of the seasons, aids intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth. It is consequently given a high priority by Steiner schools, where the majority of kindergarten children are aged three and over.

Rhythm also informs the working day across all age groups, including the upper school, where pupils are 14 to 19 years old. The time of day, and the biological body clock of children and young people, help to shape the choice of lessons and class activities.

“One of the key distinctions between the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship and other education providers is that we try to teach in a rhythmic way,” says Mr Avison. “In the kindergarten, it means we introduce children to sequences of events. Young children don’t fully understand time and so they would be provided with a series of activities such as a painting day, a baking day, a modelling day or other practical activities of that sort. This allows the children to build up a sense of Monday being ‘baking day,’ and the day itself has a predictable order of events, which is what the youngest children need.

“Steiner Waldorf teachers also use rhythm quite literally as one of the methods of learning, in the sense of music and speaking. Young children might learn to speak simple verses and poems over a period of time, often based around a season of the year or a festival relating to the season. The rhythmic quality of the verse – its inherent musicality – is important as well as the fact that the activity relates to a specific period of the year.”

At Steiner schools, the day’s main lesson takes place over two hours in the morning and is designed to coincide with the pupils’ natural biological rhythms. This ‘thought-centred’ learning take place when the children are refreshed after a night’s sleep and are highly receptive. The lesson focuses on a core subject, typically over a four-week period, and is an immersive experience delivered via a range of teaching methods.

Lessons that follow have a practice quality, where repetition is needed, such as reading, maths or writing. In contrast, afternoon lessons are designed to allow an element of freedom, and include games and sports, craft or, for younger pupils, a nature walk. The energising sessions mitigate the post-lunch slump.

Mr Avison adds: “By harnessing the body’s biological rhythms and the natural rhythms of the year, a Steiner education seeks to maximise the individual learning experience of each pupil.”

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