Children learn of their own accord – if allowed to do so

Michael Harslem

It is becoming clear that children are growing ever more individual and require increasingly specific and individual support. Then there is the additional factor that many parents are meanwhile of the opinion that their child is highly gifted and therefore requires specific support. This places ever greater pressure on teachers to do justice to the different abilities in a class. Various methods of internal differentiation are applied which have been developed for many years in primary school education. People then often ask me: is that still Waldorf? That can quickly lead to conflict among colleagues which extends to the parents.

As soon as the discussion turns ideological, it is as a rule no longer constructive and divides the community. Waldorf education offers special approaches to activate the self-organising forces of the children and a class in relation to such internal differentiation.

The methodological foundations of Waldorf education include the so-called three steps in lessons. These three steps, which are called conclusion, judgement and concept by Rudolf Steiner, are intended to enable a form of learning appropriate for children. This means: in the first step the teacher introduces the children to the field of life to be investigated (form drawing, writing, arithmetic, the arts, crafts, scientific subjects ...) and warms the souls of the children to the subject to such an extent that questions arise in them. This forms the foundation for the second step: the individual working through and immersing oneself in the subject. In contrast to lessons in a state school, the next step of framing a concept does not follow immediately but there is a pause so that what has been absorbed can be processed during the night. The next morning at the earliest, a start should then be made on searching for concepts.

It is in the second step that the possibility of internal differentiation arises. Here the pupils should be given the opportunity to begin by connecting themselves with the absorbed content individually, that is through individual work, immersing themselves in it and developing questions of their own. It proves its worth if it is followed by a phase of cooperative learning for example in learning tandems or small groups because as a rule pupils learn well from and with one another. But that too has to be learnt from class 1 onwards if it is to be used independently.

I also call this phase “pupil school”. In this school a natural internal differentiation takes place between the pupils. Everyone can learn together with others at their own level. It means that there are clear differences in performance in the class which now become more apparent than in teaching the whole class. Both the teachers and parents have to learn to accept and value this. The pupils, on the other hand, as a rule find learning at different levels easy. In this second phase of the three steps, teaching materials  can be used which support the different performance levels. In my experience pupils learn quickly how such learning materials can be developed for different levels. When the pupils develop these materials themselves, the quick ones learn a great deal in doing so and everyone else is helped because these are specific materials for the own class and not just work sheets previously prepared by adults.

I would also advise against passing such materials on to other classes and suggest that each class should be allowed to develop its learning materials for itself. In my experience obligatory homework is superfluous in such a way of learning because the pupils anyway additionally occupy themselves with the subject if they are interested in it. If they have no particular interest in it, obligatory homework will not help them either to create a greater connection with the content.

After a brief individual work phase in which each pupil brings their own findings to mind, the third step on the next day consists either of work in small groups or in a class discussion which brings the results together. It has been shown in many practical research projects on independent learning that this form of internal differentiation can be developed from class 1 onwards and can become a viable form of joint learning. In this way the pupils can learn over the years with ever greater independence and responsibility of their own. The requirement for it is that the teacher creates the space for it and applies the various forms of learning through practice – and that the parents can cope with their children being able to have such different ways of accessing the individual fields of learning. Their performance can then no longer be compared in the current forms because each pupil will develop their own profile.

I was able to observe in a number of projects how in the open play of children and young people – and, incidentally, also adults – internal differentiation occurred in each group in a quite natural way which met the requirements both of the group and the subject matter. Such internal differentiation does not come about through assessments and grading by the teacher or another adult but arises dynamically out of the group and task.

In my experience I can trust the development of the self-organising forces of the class if I let the pupils gather sufficient experience in self-organised play. That is why I recommend both to teachers and parents to let the children play as much as possible. Children are very creative in developing their own games and the relevant rules for them if they are allowed to do so. That does, however, require great restraint from the teachers and parents not to occupy the children with ready-made games but to allow them to be creative in developing their own games.

About the author: Michael Harslem was an upper school teacher for many years and chief executive of the Überlingen Free Waldorf School. Today he works as an advisor to schools and runs courses in adult education and teacher training.