By René Petersen
I believe this fear is beneath most questions we receive around our very “controversial policy” on formal testing. In this day and age, we want qualitative results in our hand and tests satisfy our need for information.
But what is the cost to our children? So much research has been done into the growing rates of CHILDHOOD depression, low self-esteem, suicide, anxiety, etc. and these can be found online. These studies have repeatedly found formal school testing to be one of the main causes of these illnesses in our children. Tests place an incredible amount of stress on children who are too young to be able to deal with it. And forcing them to do tests does not respect the child’s healthy development.
It is worthwhile considering what we believe the purpose of testing is. As adults, we can all recall cramming for an exam or test knowing that you would forget everything the minute the exam was over. Do we need grades only so that we can have a set of tangible results?
We believe that in primary there are many healthier and more fun ways to assess learning and progress. We believe that the will to learn is something we need to nurture, develop and instill in our children. Retaining knowledge at a level of interest is far more valuable than a set of facts quickly forgotten. We value the HEALTH of our children in all areas and therefore place their wellbeing above a set of results.
I will immediately state that children in Waldorf schools are evaluated and assessed constantly throughout the day, month and school year. It just looks different from the outside world as there is a multifaceted approach taken.
The first and most important method of evaluation is close child observation. Children reveal many things through their gestures, words, drawings, tone of voice, eyes, bodies etc. Waldorf Class Teachers stay with their class over a few years. This means that at the start of the year the child is with a teacher who knows them and is committed to understanding them even more. In this way the teacher gets to really know a child’s weaknesses (academically, socially, and emotionally) and as such is able to address them. The teacher is also able to pick up quickly when there is a change noted which needs to be acted upon.
Teachers use various means of assessment which are fun for the children. From as young as Class 1 simple math games could be played with the group in which it would be very clear who is always behind/confused/lost. These progress to mental math sums disguised as fun word problems involving things of interest to the children. Individual work is monitored via the Main Lesson books. Here much is revealed in a child’s handwriting, drawings, pencil grip, posture when seated, listening and concentration skills, attention span, etc.
Instead of giving lists of words to learn for spelling we could write a paragraph or poem for the children to memorize- so they see the words in context, in an interesting way and are still required to spell the words.
In the later grades, homework is given which provides the teacher (and parents) the opportunity to see where a child is making mistakes or confused. In the classroom, 5 Math problems can be put up on the board and children would have to complete them in silence- independently. The result is the same- children are evaluated- but they do not feel under pressure, they could be excited even to show the teacher how much they know. It is small changes like this which totally change the evaluation experience for the child.
Children are assessed whenever they present projects to the class and during class reading when every child has a turn to read out loud. We see their grasp of grammar through their speech and free writing. We watch their kicking, running, balancing, etc. during play to see how well their physical body is developing.
This level of observation requires hard work, thorough preparation and a deep understanding of Child Development from the teacher. The teacher is highly accountable and has to ensure they are acting within the requirements as set out by the Waldorf Curriculum and the Ministry of Education.
In my classroom, we speak about tests or challenges as an “opportunity to learn”. ThatI, as the teacher, would be able to check that I am teaching in a good way so that everyone understands. But mainly so that they, themselves, would be able to see what they need extra help with. There is no question around the fact that assessment and evaluation is an essential part of teaching. What we need to question is WHY we assess; HOW we assess; and whether or not we are assessing in the healthiest way possible.