Reflections on Holland
There were several surprises in store for me in Holland.
First of all, I was dreading having to speak Dutch again after 17 years of being away from The Netherlands. Yet I quickly found myself speaking Dutch with everyone I encountered, and even thinking in Dutch. I dropped in unexpectedly on two of my Dutch tutors who lived in my old neighborhood, and ended up speaking Dutch non-stop for three hours. The greatest surprise was that I enjoyed it!
When I was in Holland 18 years ago, the feeling was that Waldorf education had had its growth period in the 1970’s and that things had leveled off. Surprisingly, and in spite of decreasing numbers of students in the country overall, the Dutch Waldorf schools have recently experienced a lot of growth. The school I had taught at (Adriaan Roland Holstschool in Bergen, which has grades 7-12) had about 250 students 25 years ago. Today it has 600 students. Each grade has five or six classes! In the whole country of the Netherlands, there are now 25.000 students in 74 primary schools and 20 high schools.
Confidence is the Key
In an educational world that seems increasingly fixated on test results and getting into prestigious colleges, we can lose perspective of what the true purpose of education is.
The pressure to prepare for state exams or college entrance exams can be overwhelming. The message I heard both in England and in Holland was that the topics on these tests have become more numerous, and, perhaps not surprisingly, the topics are needing to be introduced at a younger and younger age. Many of the high school teachers in Holland seemed more overwhelmed and discouraged by this tread than I had remembered from 18 years ago.
As I heard teachers expressing these concerns, I reminded myself that there is much more to education than preparing for exams and getting our students ready for math in middle school, high school, or college. Patrick Bassett, former head of NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools), asked the question: “What are the skills and values that will be necessary for students to succeed and prosper in the 21st century?”, and came up with the following attributes: character, creativity, critical thinking, communication, team work, and leadership. I have included this list in my teacher’s source books. And have spoken about it often.
There is a common fear voiced by math teachers everywhere I go. They speak of the terrible pressures they feel for getting students prepared for their state exams. In the past couple of weeks, something has occurred to me. Of course, we want our students to do well on such exams which often can determine which universities they can be admitted to – but what is the cost? How many sacrifices do we need to make so that students will be prepared for these exams? It’s perhaps the most urgent question that I hear in every country and in every school I visit.
I think we need to look at it differently. We should instead ask ourselves,
What is the greatest gift we can give our students that will help them find their own place in the world, and allow them, ultimately, to fulfill their destiny?
I see this gift as confidence. In a world seemingly dominated by fear and uncertainly, what a gift it would be to provide the students in our care with an education that enables them to develop self-confidence – to know themselves and be comfortable with who they are. Think about it…how many students learn to play the game well, do great on their exams (be it SAT tests in the U.S., or state exams in other countries), and perhaps even gain admittance to prestigious universities, but somehow are lacking self-esteem and underneath it all are unsatisfied with life?
It shouldn’t be all about test preparation. It should be all about building confidence.
If we can gift our students with self-confidence then all of Bassett’s attributes are enhanced. Confidence strengths one’s character and one’s thinking abilities. Confidence allows for the possibility of being creative, and enables one to communicate more effectively, and work well with other people.
Now we have the question: how do we gift our students with confidence? Clearly, continuous false praise (everyone is wonderful and deserves a medal) does quite the opposite. Making things easy in order to ensure “success” doesn’t help either. After all, what does anyone really accomplish by doing something easy? No, we build confidence in our students by occasionally guiding them through challenging experiences. This is what builds confidence, whether it be in math class, on the sports field, or on stage. Real success comes when students find the courage to attempt something they thought they couldn’t do, and, usually with the teacher’s guidance, they work their way through a period of struggle until they break through and succeed. Real success isn’t easy.
How would students’ experience of school be different if their teachers focused less on preparing them for exams, and more on helping them to strengthen their self-confidence?