If you want to educate others, you yourself need to be educated. If you want to have any kind of influence on young people, you yourself need to stay young and continuously work on yourself.


Simon Gfeller, Swiss teacher and author (1868 - 1943)

Teaching Practice
Evaluation, assessment, testing, individual reports, certificates, learning process
By: Robert Thomas, May 2015, First published in the Journal of the Pedagogical Section at the Goetheanum. Easter 2005.

Evaluating, Assessing, Testing and Learning

For as long as there have been schools – in the sense we understand them today – one of the teacher’s main tasks has been to observe, evaluate, assess and classify their students' work. Some of our pedagogical challenges begin here. Children and young people want to learn individually, based on their own initiative. Testing and evaluating this process is very complex. Experienced educators can only agree upon one thing: the learning process can be encouraged by education but it can never be caused or directed by it. It is the child herself who learns. This can be said more radically: Learning is the only thing we can really do on our own.

If learning processes are individual and are not necessarily reduced to a measurable cognitive level, then it is important for schools to ask how the learning process should be assessed and evaluated. We know that large school systems, mostly those of the state, are dependent on productivity and economic success and have developed standardized measuring systems to be able to provide an ‘objective’ evaluation of school work. As comparability with other measurement systems is demanded, the present age of globalization demands a formalized method of analysis and an international evaluation system. (i) Here and there, however, with the introduction of portfolios and personal full-year projects, some movement in the direction of individualized evaluation has begun to appear.

The Interface of the Waldorf School

The Waldorf school has been confronted with these problems from the very beginning, especially with regard to pupils who leave the school in order to continue their education at other schools. Before Waldorf graduation, the continuous overall evaluation of the pupil is sufficiently adequate (certificates, intermediate reports, parents’ meetings, quarterly assemblies, individual discussions, etc.). It is, of course, expected that the school-leavers must be able to provide documentary evidence of their school work/ level of knowledge/ competence in order to continue their education. An important interface in this connection is when the student completes grade twelve. If the Waldorf alumni are not to be discriminated against and permanently put at a disadvantage, adaptation to the different national educational systems are indispensable. It is also advisable to regulate access to institutions of further education to the benefit of the pupils, as long as due reforms of European universities have not yet created new possibilities (ii) or have come to accept a Waldorf Certificate as equivalent to a national certificate. Apart from this, however, the question of assessment of the pupil’s real and individual school work remains open, and this question preoccupies not only the young people and their teachers but also European society at the beginning of the twenty-first century. (iii) Not only what has been learned is important but also how well it is retained.


How does the student learn?

How a pupil learns also depends wholly or partially on the quality of the instruction. According to Rudolf Steiner, one of the golden rules of education is the teacher’s daily review of what took place during that day’s lesson. The teacher’s observation is sharpened by his or her basic exercise of separating the essential from the inessential. This is how a sense for quality and its optimization is created. In this way the teacher truly grasps how the students have taken up, understood, and processed the material of the instruction. The teacher thus begins a learning process in the evaluation of the student’s school work and receives in practice a concrete feeling for the reliability of the student and what can be expected from the learner. This result of the reflection is decisive for continuous evaluation. In the science of education, looking back is merely described as a form of ‘taking stock.’ So as to be able to measure the quality of the instruction objectively, a number of criteria have been carefully worked out: the classroom atmosphere, the effectiveness of what happens during the lesson, and the significance of the overall lesson plan. From this can be deduced what is necessary in order to satisfy the student’s will to learn.


Empirical studies have shown how fundamentally different each student’s learning process is at different age levels. Moreover, pupils learn in quite different manners: some learn step by step, building up logically on what came before – and all intermediate steps are decisive – while others learn intuitively; they have an overview of the subject and at the same time grasp its meaning. The teacher encounters these contrasting learning processes every day. There are even some pupils who change from one type of learning process to the other. How do we evaluate the results? Do we evaluate the measurable facts and/or the student’s ‘soft facts’ such as personal application, how they have arrived at the results and how they have arranged the facts in the context, their interest in these facts, the permanence of what has been learned? It is more rational to formally only evaluate facts – only testing for knowledge (past-oriented evaluation). Steiner explains the difference between knowledge and understanding and points out that the adolescent needs understanding if he is to learn from life. “Life itself, however, is the greatest school, and one leaves school rightly only when he brings out of it the ability to learn from life his whole life long.” (iv)


How does the teacher teach?

Empirical studies have analysed the possible forms of instruction and evaluated their efficiency. Learning techniques are scientific instruments which focus on measurable results and which can and are intended to classify them.(v) These didactic means are stimulating as long as they do not become systematic and end as routines. The pupil is always in a unique learning situation and needs the full didactic availability and openness of her teacher. The uniqueness of her developing willingness to learn demands to be recognized if it is to grow. This anthropological law is one of the new social requirements of our age. Fluctuations in learning are dependent on age and character, and imponderables often play a role. Not only is an individualized dialectic necessary, but a grasp of the ‘here-and-now’ of the learning process can work wonders. In order to characterize this better, I would like to draw analogies to modern aesthetics. Why has evaluating a work of art become so demanding and difficult today? In his book on the philosophy of art of the 1930s, Walter Benjamin radically challenged the great systems of aesthetic evaluation (of Plato, Kant, Hegel, Schiller, Lukacs, Heidegger). He found that numerous reproductions of works of art modify the original, that is, the relation of the viewer to the work is affected by its reproducibility.(vi) The category of a work of art’s authenticity, i.e., that of the original embedded in the context of its tradition, is destroyed by its technical reproduction. Benjamin sought a new binding character between the work and the viewer. He wanted to apprehend the uniqueness of the object anew and to make the confrontation become essential, so that the criticism of the work of art would serve less to evaluate it than to complete it.


This understanding of art is a true help in observing and evaluating the ‘judgement’ of the student’s work: by means of these clear acts of consciousness, the teacher contributes to encouraging the pupil and strengthening his will to learn (i.e., the completion of a work of art, according to Benjamin). The teacher truly teaches by perceiving the pupil’s willingness to learn and supporting it through evaluation. The work of the evaluator is now an objective/subjective reflection of a relationship and a challenge for the pupil.

A new possible form of evaluation and assessment

When one reflects on the above and allows it to take effect on oneself, it is possible that something will now become clear: in school as well as in life, there is a ‘what,’ a ‘how’ and a ‘who.’ The ‘what’ consists of measurable facts, the ‘how’ contains a relationship between the learner and the teacher, and the ‘who’ indicates something that is unique, not immediately tangible but rather future-oriented, a kind of message from the future.


In order to make this dimension of evaluation and testing bear fruit in practice, I have attempted to introduce a new perspective of evaluating a pupil’s work in the classroom. Based on a concrete example, I will show how the evaluation of the work on architecture in a twelfth grade high school main lesson block looks and how the individual assessment of the work and subject knowledge of the pupils is viewed. The theme of the main lesson is only of secondary importance; the method of this evaluation is certainly transferable to all other school subjects. The following report is based on several main lesson blocks.

When eighteen-year-olds – who are in the process of presenting themselves through their full-year projects – encounter a subject, it is indispensable to reach agreement on certain points from the beginning. What is the purpose/goal of the main lesson? How do we reach it? Why is it important? How can we be sure that the agreement between the teacher and the pupil is valid and binding? Because after all, in the twelfth grade the pupils have long been jointly responsible for the design and primary focus of a main lesson block within the framework of their limited subject knowledge.


Now, in order to be able to document authentic information concerning an individual’s work at the end of the block, the procedure is discussed and agreed with the class. The pupils plan their research and writing independently; however, the deadline for submitting the project is fixed. Everyone has to hold a fifteen-minute talk for the class, followed by a ten-minute discussion period. The subject of the talk are two structures of modern architecture. Pictures of these works have to be commented concerning architectural statics, style, and so forth, using any desired auxiliaries such as slides or a projector, and including a brief biographical sketch of the architect. Following this, the other pupils and the teacher can ask questions, this is followed by an evalutation.


First, the pupil evaluates her own performance (subject, content, communication). Then the class comments on the presentations strengths and weaknesses. In the third step the teacher gives his/her evaluation. Self-evaluation and evaluation by others are aspects of reality: the pupil, the class, and the teacher. Again and again one hears impressive statements such as: “I succeeded in communicating something, but if I had looked at building X more closely, I could have answered such- and-such question more clearly,” or: “I see that I have to slow down if I want to present something more clearly,” or again: “If I had to do it over again, I would do it differently.”


A wealth of resolutions regarding self-knowledge come into view. What happens when the class comments on a pupil’s work together with the teacher? Through everyone's active interest and attention arises a clear feeling for the work of the student involved. Most statements are considerate but unsparing. The class learns to speak and criticize in such a way that the statement becomes acceptable, constructive, and fruitful. In conclusion the teacher gives an evaluation based on his experience and his overall view of the student’s work, and he attempts to clearly characterize the student’s competence in the subject. The future, the present, and the past are drawn together in the evaluation.


The result of this process are three statements that are of equal value and worth. It is not the expert/teacher (from the past) who evaluates alone, rather the individual’s work is consciously apprehended in its social context by everyone involved. For years it has been shown that this manner of testing contains more value, differentiation and truth content that the traditional, reductive standard method of evaluation. Testing and evaluation are implemented in the social realm; out of this form of evaluation the cultural climate can develop which was spoken of in the 1966 UNESCO report: Learning Ability: Our Hidden Wealth.(vii) The individual, the world, and the student’s peers meet each other in a real way, without barriers or standards, and for this reason, they come closer together. This creates reality.

Robert Thomas was born in 1949 in Le Havre, France; he graduated from a high school for humanities and studied social sciences in Paris. He worked as a teacher of French in Alexandria, Egypt, then studied education at the Goetheanum in Dornach with G. Hartmann and J. Smit. In 1976 he became a teacher for foreign languages, class guardian, teacher for RE and art history at the Plattenstrasse Rudolf Steiner School in Zürich and in 2003 changed to the Atelierschule in Zürich. Robert is married and the father of two grown up children. He helped to found the Formation Pédagogique Anthroposophic de Suisse Romand in 1984 and became a lecturer at the Formation. In 1992 he became a member of the International Forum of Steiner Waldorf Schools. Since 1996 he has been the administrator of the Coordination Bureau of the Swiss Rudolf Steiner Schools. Robert is the editor of SCHULKREIS, the Swiss magazine of Rudolf Steiner Schools.

Translated by John O’Brien


i Pisa 2000. Knowledge and Skills for Life. First Results from the OECD Programme for International Students Assessment, OECD Pisa: 2000.


ii Daniel Goeudevert: “Der Horizont hat Flügel. Die Zukunft der Bildung.” Econ. 2001.

iii Edgar Morin: Relier les connaissances, le defi du 21eme siecle, Seuil: 1999.

iv Rudolf Steiner, Lecture dated June 19, 1919. GA 330, Neugestaltung des sozialen Organismus, Dornach, Switzerland.

v Jürgen Wiehmann (HRG): Zwölf Unterrichtsmethoden. Beltz, 2002.

vi Walter Benjamin: Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen

Reproduzierbarkeit (1935–39)

vii Exhibition catalogue for the 44th Meeting of the International Conference

of Education of the UNESCO in Geneva:1994, Freunde der Erziehungskunst, Weinmeisterstr. 16, 10178, Berlin, Germany.

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