Why work placements in Waldorf schools?

Christian Boettger

On 16 January 1921, Rudolf Steiner spoke at a meeting with teachers about the organisation of the upper school and graduation:

“We are always faced with the difficulty of taking our children as far as the school leaving exams. That is an objective difficulty. We have to find a way around it. It is possible to take children as far as the school leaving exams if they also do practical work. Those who are better at practical work should be taught to a greater extent in practical things without thereby streaming the school.”

For more than ninety years the teachers in Waldorf schools have taken these words to heart  and try through a large element of crafts teaching, and particularly through many different work placements, to give all young people in upper school a real experience of these practical fields of work. But if these concepts of the schools are to be effective, it is important to review them at regular intervals and work on them in the upper school collegium or the educational conference.

Once the collegium together with the parents has formulated the developmental and learning challenges facing the young people and has prepared, provided support for and reviewed the work placements, the pupils return to school after three weeks fulfilled and full of enthusiasm.

The following sequence of work placements has established itself in many schools:

Class 8: Forestry placement (often the whole class together)

Class 9: Agricultural placement (individual farms or the whole class together)

Possibly: trade placement (individual, in small businesses with under ten employees)

Class 10: Business placement (individual, in businesses with more than ten employees)

Surveying placement (whole class)

Class 11: Social placement (individual, often also in combination with a stay abroad)

Industrial placement (individual, in a major industrial enterprise)

Possibly: Ecology placement (whole class)

There are, however, also good experiences with completely different allocations of the work placements to the classes. Many schools carry out only one placement in each school year. Experience with two work placements a year shows that the other subjects do not suffer from the longer absence of the pupils because the motivation to work back in the classroom improves significantly. Individual schools (Hibernia, Kassel and in Switzerland Jura Südfuss) have integrated the periods in manufacturing businesses into the weekly timetable. Discussions with schools with other allocations show that it is not actually the work placement as such but the learning and developmental challenges which the school sets the young people in collaboration with the businesses and institutions which form the educationally effective core. The central question is: how does the work placement relate to the personal development of the young person at the respective age? Often the challenges do not lie in the work itself but the task is to train social and personal skills.

The challenge of a farm community

When the young people in class 9 arrive alone, or sometimes also together with a fellow pupil, in the farm community of an agricultural enterprise, it represents a great challenge. They have to integrate into new workflows and time structures, undertake demanding physical work and find their way in new familial ways of doing things. This area in particular sometimes requires intensive support through the school’s placement supervisor.

The workflows and time structures are as a rule experienced as fulfilling because they are directly prescribed by nature or the livestock. In some schools, particularly in Switzerland, this work placement is offered in class 11. At this age the young people are much better able to investigate and understand the specific features of biodynamic agriculture, whereas in class 9 the focus tends to be on the physical work.

Experience of manufacturing processes

When schools undertake a second work placement in class 9, it is mostly in a trade. Here the young person can, as a rule, live at home and go to work in the business, which is small enough to understand fully, during normal working hours. A meaningful progression would be to become familiar with the organisation of a larger business in class 10 and a really large industrial enterprise in class 11. It is important, however, that an area of work is found in which the young person can actually be involved in the manufacturing process.

Experience shows that young people identify with the business only through the work itself – and of course through the new social relationships. Their work creates the feeling of really being needed – an experience which ordinary lessons can only rarely provide. Many schools only offer one of these work placements. But this progression illustrates particularly well how the task can be adapted to the developmental horizon of young people.

Special role of surveying

In the list of work placements, surveying in class 10 plays a particular role. If only  because this work placement is as a rule undertaken as a class trip with the whole class. The challenge for the young people at this age – alongside the many different surveying tasks – is above all a social one. It is all about the collaboration in the work group. Other than in the group tasks which can be organised in school, everyone is essential in the work groups in this work placement. New friendships arise.

If the work placement is successful, the young people experience their fellow pupils from a new perspective. Similarly the surveying tasks as such communicate a new perspective on the landscape which is recorded. The technical tasks themselves, which are as a rule set by the mathematics teachers, lead into the field of surveying. As a rule procedures are used which can be fully understood and must lead to precise results. Areas are mostly chosen for which there is a concrete surveying task.

Moved in the social placement

The work placement in a social setting in class 11 is very often undertaken in connection with the so-called Parsifal main lesson. Here the young people encounter marginalised social groups, be it people with disabilities of some kind or socially disadvantaged groups. They must play their part in the institution concerned and may take on responsibility for other people. Deeply moved, they report about their human encounters. But they also become acquainted with and learn to reflect on the occupational problems of these fields of work. Some schools offer their pupils a choice between and industrial and social placements.

If there is a second work placement in class 11, this mostly takes place in a natural setting again. However, in contrast to class 9, greater emphasis has to be placed on reflecting on the wider context. To that extent it can easily be a deepened farming placement, a forestry placement or a ecological placement. The latter in particular serves the understanding of and reflection on an eco system.

This overview of the work placements in upper school gave an indication of the thematic content and personal or social challenges for the pupils. We can also look at the progression through the work placements from the aspect of cultural development and note that in the work placement we can trace and reflect on our cultural development from farming via the trades to industry.

This, of course, also includes surveying our earth, as well as the very special experience of a work placement in a social setting in which the young people arrive at the most profound question of humanity.

About the author: Christian Boettger is chief executive of the German Association of Waldorf Schools. He was an upper school teacher for mathematics and physics at the Waldorf school in Schopfheim.