Three girls are chatting, two boys are taking their shoes off, eight year old Anna is crocheting. The doors are open. Someone waters the plants, a little boy looks out of the window. Children and grown-ups greet each other, here everyone knows everyone. The wooden floors creak, the violin and the xylophone are sleeping in the corner, the exposed beams look ancient. A child sits on a red cushion reading. Piano music drifts up the stairs. Children arrive in dribs and drabs, shake the teacher's hand and show her their homework. What feels like a cosy family, so inviting, so relaxed and Bernese, are in fact the lower classes at Rudolf Steiner School in Langnau, Emmental, Switzerland.
Here, the janitor also teaches main lesson as well as arts and crafts; furthermore, he prunes the bushes with upper school students and organises music and drama rehearsals. The eurythmy teacher and the horticulture teacher are one and the same person; the kindergarten teacher is the chair of the faculty meeting. The colourful variety and dynamics of this school are striking. Teacher Doris Hirschi hits the nail on the head, “we are a lively school and we want to keep it that way. It is our decision not to have too many rules and structures. Therefore, we are able to implement new ideas quickly, without any red tape, and we can change them quickly if need be.”
In Need of Research
There are 74 children and teenagers, divided into three levels at the Langnau Rudolf Steiner School (see box). They are taught in combined classes, with a clearly defined concept. Since 2009, the number of children has risen from 48 to 74. Due to a room shortage, the teachers decided on a halt to admissions for the current academic year and have introduced a waiting list.
This form of teaching, initially an emergency solution, turns out to be a blessing in disguise and has now been firmly established on the basis of pedagogical considerations. Combined classes, also known as “multi-grade class” or “split classroom”, are fairly widespread in rural areas. Today, we find them in Waldorf schools all over the world. However, very little research has been done within the Waldorf movement and they are considered the poor cousin of “proper” classes.
Main Lesson in Combined Classes
At the centre of Waldorf teaching there is the curriculum with its age-appropriate content as an answer to the children's developmental needs. Most indications of Waldorf curricula and teacher training centres presume that teaching happens in groups of same-age children; thus, the lesson content automatically reaches the children at the appropriate age. It follows that main lessons are the most challenging aspect for teachers of combined classes; also for the teachers in Langnau.
For David Joss, class teacher for years four to six, it is important to teach the culture epoch main lessons in the appropriate age group whenever possible. He teaches a main lesson block on the topic “Mesopotamia and old Egypt” in year four and five while another teacher has a main lesson block on the Romans with year six. The two lower school teachers, Doris Hirschi and Marianne Etter have the good fortune to teach years one, two and three as a team. They are therefore able to split the group for individual main lesson blocks as they see fit. The science main lesson blocks in the upper school are based on an intricate three-year-plan where the topics relate to each other in various ways. Christophe Frei, class teacher in the upper school (years seven to nine) has looked at cross-curricular aspects in the various science topics in order to design this plan. He has found, for example, that the biology topic “breathing and blood circulation” forms the basis for the chemistry main lesson focusing on starches, sugars, proteins and fat.
Furthermore, the physics topic of mechanics relates to the biology topic of the skeleton. For Christophe, this interconnectedness of the topics is the framework within which the teenagers' age differences are a natural element and make sense. The various age groups in his class are working on the same subject, the same topic, sometimes at different levels.
Daily Surprises for Children and Teachers
All the teachers in Langnau agree that the one striking advantage of this type of learning is the acquisition of social skills. The field for social learning opportunities is vast and enriching. Every child is at one time part of the youngest group of children, then part of the “middle” group and finally it finds its place in the oldest group, but in the following year it is again part of the youngest group. In this way, everyone is a helper for some time and then changes to become one who is assisted. However, Marianne Etter notices that “the big ones are not always the helpers of the little ones. Sometimes it is the other way round. Every day is full of surprises.” The yearly change of class combination enables the children to show a different part of themselves from one year to the next. Last year, class six – as the oldest class in their group – called for clear, firm guidance but this year – as the youngest class in the upper school – their teacher describes them as “easy to look after and busily working”.
What are the particular challenges for teachers in combined classes? Clearly, opportunities for personal growth are abundant, not only for the pupils. Christophe Frei describes the changed role of the teacher. “At my old school, I walked along the path with my class, from year six to year nine. Here in Langnau, I remain rooted to a certain point and see the teenagers pass by, as it were. The class' dynamics change from year to year, due to the changing combination of age groups. Therefore, I myself become a learner.”
For David Joss, “keeping the class together” is extremely challenging but he sees it also as a humanly rewarding task. “There is non-stop movement among the children. I can only keep them focused if I constantly develop myself. I am challenged as a human being on all levels, this makes my job fascinating and rewarding. Sometimes, I have to become a caring, gentle father figure for a handful of “young” fourth graders while simultaneously having to approach the girls in grade six – at the onset of puberty – with quite a different inner attitude.”
The school's clear concept has had a positive effect on the number of pupils. For each level there is one person responsible; this fosters trust in parents and children.
Varying student numbers are absorbed much better in combined classes, this also fosters a sense of security. The school has become part of the Rudolf Steiner School Bern Ittigen Langnau which enables it to stand on solid financial ground.
Furthermore, the teachers have established shared action research as a continuous part of their professional lives and we look forward to see new ideas emerging in the Emmental.
Rudolf Steiner School Langnau in Emmental was founded in 1984.
In 2009 it merged with Rudolf Steiner School Bern and Ittigen to become Rudolf Steiner School Bern Ittigen Langnau.
The Levels are:
Kindergarten with integrated playgroup for children aged three to seven.
Lower School: Grade one to three, 24 pupils, 2 class teachers.
Middle School: Grade four to six and Upper School: Grade seven to nine. Each have 25 pupils and one class teacher. Additionally, there are several teachers for specialist subjects (foreign languages, crafts etc) and for individual main lesson blocks.
Following grade nine, many students attend grades 10 to 12 in Ittigen.
Karin Smith left the Emmental after 10 years and now lives with her two daughters, two guinea pigs and a cat near Berne in Switzerland. She is a teacher, writer, translator, editor and potter.