What does foreign language teaching mean today?

Martyn Rawson

Difficulties lead much more quickly to parental intervention – above all in middle school – than is the case with other subjects. It can even happen that new or insecure teachers fall back on state textbooks with the support of their schools. When parents demand the use of textbooks, they do so out of a wish for security. They hope for guaranteed success through systematically prepared bite-sized chunks of grammar and steadily growing vocabulary. Teachers might welcome the books because they give them something to hold on to, lessons are planed out for them and apparently just need to be worked through. What everyone leaves out of the equation here is the simple fact that possessing and reading through a textbook neither guarantees that the prepared content is assimilated nor that it replaces good language teaching. Textbooks allow a comparison of the content on offer, they do not guarantee better learning of English. 

The insecurity must be met in other ways. Teachers must learn to understand their problems, must understand how foreign language teaching in Waldorf schools can work and must be enabled to structure interesting and lively lessons themselves with the support of their colleagues. The demands this makes of Waldorf language teachers are very wide-ranging and go well beyond a good knowledge of the language, for good Waldorf English lessons comprise more than “just” the learning of the language.

The necessity of life-related learning

An important concern of Waldorf education is to look at the developmental needs of the pupils, listens to their implicit and explicit questions and structure the education in accordance with those things, instead of prescribing what young people should think, feel, be able to do and become.

Of course young people need guidance. But it should be sensitively handled and allow them to grow, two methodological approaches which attempt to stimulate both their inner striving for education and their independence. Beyond that, we should today keep in mind the principle of life-related learning, above all in middle school. Nothing kills off the interest of young people more quickly than prescribed topics which were thought up by somebody else! Pupils should themselves research, think about, discuss and present the topics which interest them in the foreign language. Literature, of course, represents a certain exception in this respect, although even here the pupils can be involved in the choice of their reading matter, depending on age, motivation and linguistic competence. At our school in Elmshorn, we have had good experiences with reading projects from class 7 onwards in which the pupils individually choose a book, read it and report back on it. On the one hand this is about the motivation to learn the foreign language, but on the other it is all about the experience of having read a book from start to finish themselves.

Strengthening resilience

Waldorf education is also about teaching pupils in a salutogenic way, i.e. strengthening those forces which promote health. The lessons are intended to make them resilient. Resilience is the ability to recover from setbacks and approach problems in a positive, constructive and creative way. Life is changing rapidly and is not necessarily becoming simpler. Change and problem solving require qualities such as flexibility, learning aptitude, creativity, courage, an ethical stance, team spirit and powers of judgement. These qualities cannot be crammed or tested and, least of all, quantified with marks. We are called upon also as foreign language teachers to create space in our lessons for these qualities to develop.

Language teaching requires the courage to communicate

A significant reason why we send our children to a Waldorf school lies in our expectation that the needs of the growing person are taken seriously and that he or she is given the opportunity to develop his or her potential. For most parents this motivation is equal to, if not greater than the wish that the children do well in their school leaving exams. Foreign language teaching offers the opportunity to accommodate both things at the same time as long as we do not let apparent necessities make us lose sight of what is important in good language teaching: spoken competence in the language, linguistic creativity and the courage to communicate – competences which then also have a positive effect on written forms of examination. Lively, interesting and spoken Waldorf foreign language teaching is the best prerequisite for good final exams. But being able to structure such a way of teaching and defend it convincingly externally requires that we know what we are doing.

Sensitivity and tolerance of ambivalence

Foreign language teaching should prompt us to develop respect for other ways of life. In our globalised world we have to learn to be open towards people who are different from us. That requires self-assurance, sensitivity, tolerance of ambivalence and an unselfish interest. Hence teaching has to be health-giving because being healthy means being free. Salutogenesis is connected with healthy human reason. Salutogenesis means being able to find a sense of coherence and meaning within ourselves in every situation.

Lessons in general aim to let enduring attitudes and abilities grow over the long term, such as independence, interest in others, listening, a sense of tact – and the same applies to foreign language lessons. Only when children and young people feel that what they experience in school is comprehensible, manageable and makes sense will they be able to develop a sense of coherence which is deemed to be the key factor in a salutogenic development. In other words, lessons should always communicate the feeling in an age-appropriate way that “I can understand it, and even if I do not understand it right now I feel that I could understand it”. The educational skill consists of creating learning situations in which the pupils can experience such feelings of their own accord. The goal of teaching is to give pupils light-bulb moments which touch and move them inwardly.

The concept of “age-appropriateness” plays an important role in Waldorf education. On what basis do we decide what is “age-appropriate”? Research has shown that there is no such thing as the typical nine-year-old child. We know today that the developmental differences between children aged five to seven can comprise a range of three years if there are no developmental disorders, and in 14-year-olds developmental differences of five years are normal. If children in a class vary in their development, what does that mean with regard to age-appropriate teaching? And how can we teach foreign languages in an age-appropriate way?

The answers to these questions require a deeper study of the basic ideas of Waldorf education. They assume that the importance of the Waldorf curriculum and of Rudolf Steiner’s concept of development has been understood and that there has been an in-depth study of the findings of modern language research, developmental psychology and anthroposophy. If we expect all those things from our foreign language teachers, then we also have to provide them with the corresponding training and advanced training.

About the author: Martyn Rawson teaches English and art history at the Elmshorn Free Waldorf School and works in Waldorf teacher training in Hamburg and Kiel. He is the editor of the Waldorf English language curriculum.