Are We on the Right Road?

Reflections on the Waldorf Alumni Panel

By Peter Lawton, Class Teacher

“The alumni panel is not so much an advertisement for Waldorf education as an opportunity for self-reflection, an opportunity to compare our ultimate hopes and dreams for ourselves and our children with our operative ideas regarding education, culture, even parenting.”

Last evening’s all-school meeting featured an alumni panel. Five City of Lakes graduates spoke eloquently and humorously about their Waldorf and subsequent school experiences, and their current life projects. For many in the community, both parents and teachers alike, the annual alumni panel is a highlight of the school-meeting year. Suspicions about the Hallmark Theater quality of the event notwithstanding, hearing individuals speak so candidly about their formative life experiences provides a unique moment in time, a reverential island in the ocean of materialism and mundanity of our daily paddle. How often do we take time to consider the types of existential questions invariably arising at the alumni panel? How often do we consider the meaning we make of our lives or formative experiences? In this sense, the alumni panel is not so much an advertisement for Waldorf education as an opportunity for self-reflection, an opportunity to compare our ultimate hopes and dreams for ourselves and our children with our operative ideas regarding education, culture, even parenting. Wednesday evening’s discussion was an opportunity to align our ultimate destination (our existential hopes and dreams for our children) against our roadmap (our plan for how to get there).

One of the traditionally pressing concerns raised at the alumni panel is high school readiness. In fact, in large part the panel was originally instituted in an attempt to ameliorate parent concerns regarding academic preparedness for high school. However, viewed through the lens of our hopes and dreams, the topic of high school readiness presents a quagmire. An obvious question is, to what extent does so-called high school readiness support our ultimate goals for our children? On the one hand, high school performance may be a gateway to entrance or scholarships to prestigious colleges and universities. On the other hand, the simple fact is, the curriculum and methodology employed in the majority of the high schools our children will attend is wildly and developmentally inappropriate, particularly for younger adolescents.

There are two significant bodies of scholarly literature related to high schools. One concerns the delivery of academic content. The other concerns the psychological, cognitive, and physiological development of children. The first line of inquiry relates to outcome-based or standards-based models of education, or what we might term No Child Left Behind (NCLB) schools (No Childhood Left Behind schools?). This research is largely devoted to identifying methods that best deliver the required academic content. In terms of methodologies, NCLB schools tend to rely on standardized curriculums, high-stakes testing, competitive grading schemes, and a focus on discreet facts and concepts. The second line of scholarly inquiry relates to more holistic models of education acknowledging the social/emotional aspects of learning, or what we might term Whole Child schools. Research in this vein is devoted to identifying methods that help children grow in healthy ways. In terms of pedagogy this means, well, a school like Waldorf. In fact, there is little alignment between research concerning the cognitive and emotional development of children and the delivery of academic content in the NCLB-model of education. With the exception of arts programming, sports, activities, and clubs, the academic design of the majority of modern, comprehensive high schools is adopted without regard to the developmental needs of young adolescents. Curricula and methodologies are instituted based on criteria often at odds with the developmental needs of children.

“If we stop for a moment and take some time to reflect on our ultimate destination, what we hope and dream for our children concerns not what they know, but how they know.”

What parents, colleges, and potential employers want, what society itself demands, is that children think reflectively, critically, analytically, thematically, synthetically, and a whole other list of words ending in “ly” commonly understood under the moniker “abstract thinking.” What we want, in other words, is free-thinking, socially responsible adults. Because of their political ideologies and their resulting methodological biases, many modern, comprehensive high schools seek to embody the aforementioned aspects of thinkingreflectivity, criticalityinto fixed concepts, into some form more readily quantifiable and testable. As opposed to thinking, the resulting process in young adolescents resembles what one might call “thoughting.”

Comparing our destination to our road map of how to get there, then, we must ask ourselves, are we on the right road? If we remember ourselves as teenagers, if we look deeply at our own children, if we consider a wide-range of scientific studies devoted to how children actually learn, we find the type of thinking we ultimately want for our children is not possible until much later in adolescence. Rudolf Steiner and many cognitive and developmental psychologists, including Piaget, Erikson, and Kegan, agree; the types of thinking activities listed above are not remotely possible until later adolescence, around the ages of 17 or 18 or later. Checking the roadmap again, high school academics may be considered more of a speed bump than a super highway.

Yes, many of our students do just fine, even excel, in the abstract and concept-driven environments of the modern, NCLB high school. But as suggested above, as parents, educators, employers, etc., we are not ultimately concerned with what our children know, we are concerned with how they know. For example, being able to parrot back thesis statements in a freshman humanities class is something young adolescents can do, and it’s something they will be asked to do in high school. As such, being able to form a thesis relates to the question of high school readiness. However, what we want ultimately is not that our students are able to write a good thesis statement, but that they are able to think thematically, analytically, synthetically, and so on. Writing a thesis statement is not necessarily indicative of analytic or synthetic thinking. When abstract concepts are taught in a rote manner, as pre-formed objects, as we might present a rock, one might say they are “materialized.” Our ultimate concern is not really that the concept may be simply understood, but that the concept continues to live and grow in the individual, that it becomes part of the individual’s thinking process itself.

“What we want and expect and hope for our children as adults is that their thinking is creative and generative. In other words, we don’t want abstract thoughts to be the objects of our thinking; we want the ability to think abstractly to be part of our actual thinking process.”

In fact, as Steiner and other educational theorists including Dewey, Gardner, Erickson, Freire, Kegan, (the list goes on), show us, our ability to think abstractly in the way our society purports to value is built upon a rich and solid foundation of experience and emotional connection with our surrounding world. Our ability to become free-thinking adults is not based solely upon our ability to understand abstract concepts. What we want and expect and hope for our children as adults is that their thinking is creative and generative. In other words, we don’t want abstract thoughts to be the objects of our thinking; we want the ability to think abstractly to be part of our actual thinking process. And our ability to think abstractly in a free and socially responsible way, in a creative and generative way, is built upon the quality of our educational experiences, namely our hands-on experiences and emotional connections. The list of “ty”s we want for our childrenreflectivity, criticality, responsibilitythese abilities (abili- “tys”) are all predicated on relations, the connective forces that bind us to each other, to our world, even to ourselves. These connective relationships are the very substance of abstract thinking. And they relate to so many of the comments made by alumni at last evening’s panel.

Alumni comments in turn relate back to “Whole Child” research concerning highly motivating and meaningful high school methods and practices. These practices include the selection of relevant and authentic material (emotional connection), qualitative, adaptive, and mastery-based grading and testing schemes, and ample opportunities for experiential and cooperative learning. These are the very practices research and common sense reveal to be desirable and effective. These practices are the very “soul food” teens need to grow their higher-order thinking skills. And unfortunately, according to many of our former graduates, these are the very practices missing from many high school academic programs, particularly for younger adolescents.

I love the alumni panel for many of the same reasons I love the eighth grade projects. Both events emanate a quiet power, almost a sacred air. Time itself seems to slip away as the community becomes witness to the act of “becoming” at the eighth grade projects. And the alumni panel has a similar timeless quality, as we witness our graduates humbly embody our very hopes and dreams. The whole thing feels almost unbearably humane. The alumni panel is also a great opportunity to check in on high school readiness. However… news flash, this just in: the academic transition to high school is easy for most Waldorf elementary graduates! More than an opportunity to check in on the nuts and bolts of where our children are academically, the alumni panel is an opportunity for us as educators and parents to focus on our ultimate destination, our hopes and dreams for our students and children. If what I suggest we want from our kids is true, if, in fact, our hopes and dreams for them involve not what they know but how they know, then the alumni panel offers us the unique and quiet opportunity to ponder how to best get there.

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