Looking forwards, not back. Development conversations make written reports superfluous

Kilian Hattstein-Blumenthal

The great feeling of discomfort when writing reports six years ago brought together a group of teachers at the Berlin Rudolf Steiner School. In discussing what the source of that discomfort might be, we developed an understanding for the serious difference between outside and self-assessment. The latter, we noted, was hardly fostered in our school. The former posed great questions for us about its effectiveness – and an educational and spiritual problem. It is encapsulated in a line  of thought from Pietro Archiati: “A human being who feels judged will become ill … We are too little aware of the amount of illnes that arises because we judge and condemn people too much because we have a certain idea in our head how a person should be and what he or she should do … If every person is different, I have no chance of knowing what is good for the other. Only you can know what is good for you.” Pupils from class 1 onwards know very well how good they are in school and where they need help – we just have to ask them! For us as teachers and parents, then, it is a question of supporting the self-assessment process of the pupils in an age-appropriate way for the whole of their time at school.

Now we began to understand why we felt the discomfort we did when writing reports. We recognised the frighteningly pale faces of our colleagues at the end of each school year as a symptom: assessing someone else gives rise to illness. Including in ourselves! To solve our problem, we then found words by Rudolf Steiner which motivated us in a wonderfully new way: “The teacher should give himself just as bad marks as his pupil if the pupil cannot do something because … he has failed to teach it to the pupil.” His response to the question whether reports should be written: “Reports? What for?” Steiner asked. They were unncessary, he though. Something quite different was required: “Throughout lessons the obsession with giving marks which teachers instill into themselves by making notes in their notebooks every day would be turned into its opposite with the attempt to help the pupil over and again at every moment and not to put any kind of assessment in its place.” Thus Steiner also saw the problem in assessment as such. And he gave a precise name to this form of illness: “Assessment addiction”! Assessment makes teachers less educationally effective, distances them from giving the daily concrete help described above because of “making notes in their notebooks every day”. The crucial factor for us became the connection which Steiner sets up between teacher and pupil. It is not only the pupil who becomes ill through being assessed but the teacher also through making the assessment. But in not making “any kind of assessment”, we can concentrate on the process “to help the pupil over and again at every moment”. Just consider that really seriously for a moment: “At every moment”, “over and again”: “to help”! There is truly no place left for assessment – and we enter into a completely new relationship with our pupils.

Written reports are a misunderstanding

So how did we get from this initial situation to the written reports which are still celebrated in Waldorf schools as a great educational innovation? Two years after his refreshingly revolutionary proposal to give “no assessments”, Steiner reported about what has become current practice: “The child does … however get a report. But it contains a mirror image which has been very individually composed by the teacher for the child, something biographical about the year … And we follow that with a verse,” which “then forms a kind of accompanying verse for the child’s life in the next year.” No assessment is intended here, either, then. The “mirror image” is composed not on the basis of school but biographical observations “for the child” – and not for the parents! That this is mostly handled differently in practice represents a serious problem. The biographical mirror image reflects something back. It only makes sense in combination with a look ahead: the verse in the report which is then further worked on for the whole of the new school year.

Let us hold the thought: the idea underlying the Waldorf appraisal culture is, according to Steiner, to leave aside all assessment. Written reports, which in the majority of the examples evaluated by me represent more or less successfully formulated gradings, fail completely to meet this aspiration. Written reports in which the children are “characterised” on the basis of their school behaviour and their school performance have nothing to do with “Waldorf”. They are a misunderstanding. And they produce misunderstandings. One parent commented about this at one of our feedback parents’ evenings: “The written reports were unclear and raised more questions than they answered. Our children felt the same.”

Conversation instead of reports

What to do? Our core idea was: let us talk with the people instead of writing reports! Now learning progress conversations with parents and pupils have already become standard practice in many schools. Here Waldorf schools, recumbent on their almost hundred years of routinely producing written reports, have simply slept through developments in education towards a dialogue-based approach. But it was clear to us that if we wanted to enter into conversations we had to honour the demand not to make an assessment. So no “learning progress” conversations but development conversations. And above all: real conversations, not events in which teachers held forth with the subsequent opportunity for parents to ask questions. Furthermore: looking at the child together on the basis of our understanding of the human being. And of course: a real biographical picture of the child should arise in the conversations. If possible the conversation itself, if the child takes part in it, should be capable of becoming a small biographical motif for reflection and a new beginning in his or her life.

That is how what we today call the “process of dialogue reports” came about. It starts with questionnaires, notes and the meditative reflection on the child by the teacher. It culminates in a precisely planned conversation conducted for an hour with a special awareness. This results in a record which can take many different forms and which can also be given as a replacement report. It must, however, contain facts which have been found by consensus – and above all concrete agreements for improvement desired by all sides! The guiding question in the conversation is always: “What do we want to improve?” Everyone involved should make suggestions, responsibility is accepted as something which rests on everyone. Pupils now perceive themselves as having a creative space where previously they were merely the recipients of outside assessments and outside instructions. An activity born from self-appraisal carries quite a different weight from one which has been imposed. Rational grounds provide weak if  not counter-productive motivation for learning. What really counts is true will – because “only you alone can know what is good for you”. One pupil wrote in her written reflection on the development conversation: “I was quite nervous beforehand but then my nervousness went. I think that the report conversation was quite productive for me. Most of all the homework done under supervision which I find quite a lot of fun and in which I learn a lot.”

Everyone is involved in the process of dialogue

In order to keep the process of a “dialogue report” filled with life and individually fresh in the way it is organised, it concludes with detailed feedback from everyone involved. Pupils, parents and teachers can thus contribute to improving the process in the following year through reporting back about their experiences. A basic insight regarding the dialogue report process for us was that the precise planning of the “setting” (that is, the question who is present in the conversation for how long and which questions are discussed for which period of time) was of great importance. Balance and keeping the goal in mind demand a great awareness among all the participants as to how they should behave in the conversation; the “special awareness” referred to above consists of such a respectful approach to one another. Conversations conducted with such an inner gesture of mindfulness can produce a satisfying feeling.

Depending on the age of the pupils, the conversations are conducted either only with the parents (lower school) or (from class 4 onwards) with the age-appropriate inclusion of the pupils which grows in extent from year to year. There are grades (5-6) in which the parents may “listen” to the child in conversation with the teacher but in which the adults talk with one another without the pupil present to avoid a situation in which the adults “predominate”. Finally, the teachers in class 8 and upper school can also talk alone with the pupils (and, if still necessary, also alone with the parents).

One parent summarised our work together in the following words: “The development conversation is a super opportunity for parents and children. I find it more important than a report. It seems to me that its advantage in comparison to a report is that it is educationally valuable because the child is at the centre and parents and children enter into a new dialogue about school.”

About the author: Kilian Hattstein-Blumenthal is a class teacher and stage director at the Berlin Rudolf Steiner School.