The current model of public education was created in the 19th century during the development of the Industrial Revolution. It is built off of the same ideas of control, efficiency, and homogeny that can be found in the factory systems developed at the same time. As a conveyer belt delivering information to students, schooling focuses more on ‘teaching’ information to students rather than creating an environment of ‘learning’. This system does not acknowledge the individual needs of each student, and it is not sensitive to the many different and varied ways children learn.
Sir Ken Robinson, a progressive education expert, put it very nicely in this quote:
“[We need] a change from an industrial, manufacturing model of batching people – based on agriculture, not mechanic but organic – to create conditions under which they can flourish. It’s not about scaling a new solution – but where we allow people to create their own solution, a personalised curriculum. We must revolutionise education. We have to change from industrial to an agricultural model, to where schools can flourish tomorrow.”
Opportunity and access to classrooms is increasing. Unfortunately, we are not adapting well to this change. Budgets for schools are tight and resources are progressively becoming more spread thin. This has lead to overpopulation of classrooms and limited resources for teachers. Many use outdated textbooks, limited technology, and inadequate facilities. Many times it becomes more a game of how to handle and control 50 students in one room than actually focusing on the learning potential of the individual student. New legislative initiatives like No Child Left Behind and Common Core Standards have made attempts to bring equity to our nation’s schools. Unfortunately, their focus falls on changing curriculums without considering ways for the schools’ facilities and resources to fully support these initiatives. Schools cannot possibly be expected to make meaningful change in education if we do not invest in our students’ future.
The current model of education proposes that in order to reform education, we need to strongly control what goes on in the classroom. We have started to use testing as a way to reify student progress for the governmental bodies that require them. In the US, standardized tests are required on the federal, state, and district level, and often these requirements are for tests that do not overlap. Depending on where the child goes to school, they are required to take as many as 20 standardized tests a year. These tests are required, don’t account for any other assessments teachers feel might be necessary to give their students. With most schools using a 36 week year, its a fair assumption that students are taking some kind of formal assessment almost every week. This overuse of testing negatively effects students. Test anxiety is a very real and serious condition; one study found that 38% of students have high to moderately high test anxiety. This is a defined psychological condition that has cognitive, emotional, and physical effects, which include: poor concentration, negative thoughts, anger, fear, helplessness, headaches, nausea, diarrhea, sweating, and respiratory issues.
Waldorf schools use a progressive education model that values learning skills and processes above the regurgitation of facts and figures. As an alternative to the standard public school model, Waldorf education could be a case study in the utopian future of education.
This is a video made by a Waldorf school in Silicon Valley that explains the philosophy and curriculum in more detail.
What Waldorf does really well is frame education appropriate for the developmental level of the students. They progress through a curriculum that begins with play for young children. An emphasis on developing imagination through stories, singing songs, acting things out helps them to become curious, social, and intrinsically motivated learners. The curriculum for younger children treasures movement and play while developing self sufficiency. As students get older, new skills and subject areas are slowly introduced. The value of aesthetics and hands on skills is integral their learning. Along with reading and math, students learn sewing, candle making, sports, and musical instruments. Much of their learning is experience and project based, rejecting the ‘teach to the test’ practices found in public schools. Finally, Waldorf focuses on developing the intellect, leaving them as well-rounded and responsible individuals.
So how might we be able to introduce basic Waldorf practices into public schools?
The first step towards a more positive future would be to introduce small interventions that teach children hands on skills, and creative thinking. Activity kits that would allow the teacher to have a literal ‘out of the box’ solution to teaching more progressively will introduce Waldorf-inspired lessons to both students and teachers. Emphasizing co-curricular and after school activities that encourage alternative skill building are also very important. For example, an after school program to teach basic sewing, woodworking, and agricultural skills would help to start to shifting public understanding on the importance of this kind of education. Eventually, teachers could begin to incorporate these newly learned skills into their lessons, asking students to build and experiment rather than fill out test booklets. With these changes underway, schools would be able to show the importance of hands on learning.
As public perception shifts, schools will adopt a new framework. Systematic change to curriculums are made across the country; students begin developing critical and creative skills at a young age. The success of this new system of learning inspires the government to Invest in changing the physical school environments to support hands-on and collaborative working postures. Desks in rows facing a chalkboard are gone. Instead, open areas that allow for discovery, play, and collaboration make the space reflect and support the new pedagogy. The curriculum is inspired by Waldorf schools. Standardized testing is gone and instead students submit project portfolios that show they have the same skills and competencies as other children their age. Technology still has a place in this space as well. New education technology products are introduced that foster collective experiences rather than isolating each student inside their own screen.
After this new system has been adopted and multiple generations of makers have been fostered, where will we end up a few generations from now?
The global oil crisis has caused a world-wide shortage of goods and services people in previous generations had simply bought from the local WalMart. Luckily, investment in creating a maker culture has paid off. People have the drive and facility to invest their time in making and growing the things they need to survive. After a mass exodus from major urban centers, people spread out into the rural areas of the country and create small close-knit villages for support. People work together to grow crops necessary to sustain themselves. In many ways, it is a return to the cottage industry model where people barter and exchange goods and services with one another. With this necessary return to a life less complicated by the demands of a globalized society, much of the infrastructure used to build it begins to go away. People no longer have a desire to spend hours on the internet when they could be working on weaving a new rug for their living room. Cable and electric lines begin to shut down. Major highways, trains, and airports sit largely unused. Aside from farming vehicles and personal devices, the glitz and glamour of tech devices made by overseas companies is gone. People make and hack together the remnants of other devices to meet their needs. People are happy and content living a simple life. The demands of the busy metropolitan past are not missed.
Similar to the first scenario, people make the shift to smaller, more intimate communities. With limited resources, they begin to create central resource libraries so people can share equipment and devices with one another. These libraries become coveted resources, and groups work tirelessly to acquire and preserve the best resources for their communities. They also turn this focus not only onto things, but onto people as well. Experts in agriculture, sciences, architecture, etc are enticed join different communities. Unfortunately, this competition between different factions leads to conflict. The central resource libraries become fortresses and the communities invest in protecting their resources from other groups. These fortresses are taken over and managed by an oligarchy of the most qualified individuals. ‘Commoners’ work in the surrounding fields to remain a part of the communities and receive their protection from other hostile groups. This effectively returns us to a mediaeval feudal society.
In this future, people are not so willingly able to let go of the past. While they are a newly reformed group of creative makers, they enjoy the comforts and benefits of a larger globalized society. They recognize that changes are necessary in order to keep the world in equilibrium on this planet. Creative minds have come together to provide several solutions to the energy crisis. People are more aware and involved with where and how their resources get to their door. Much of the reckless consumerism of previous generations has given way to a society that values lasting, high quality goods. People make investments in these more expensive resources and use their own skills to make other things they might want or need. Urban spaces are redesigned and decongested in order to allow for cities that create a more symbiotic relationship with nature. People become invested in urban farming and other sustainable practices. Capitalism has largely been uprooted through a bottom up approach. As people begin to make and barter with each other, they begin to share resources. This eventually leads to a more equal society less focused on individual satisfaction and more concerned with the health of the community as a whole.