According to the Swiss Waldorf teacher Robert Thomas, “for as long as schools have existed…one of the teachers’ main tasks has been to observe, evaluate, judge and classify the work of their students.” (Thomas 2005) Thomas goes on to point out that the question of assessment has three central aspects: the what, the how, and the who. The ‘what’ consists of observable, measurable facts; the ‘how’ refers to the relationship between the learner and the teacher; and the ‘who’ indicates the person learning and developing. What we understand about a person is something unique; it cannot be standardized, generalized, or measured. It is also never complete, but always remains open.
We generally assess the past, what has already happened. But assessment also means getting a sense of what is emerging, what is in a state of becoming. We can try to understand the future of the child, as it emerges, to borrow Otto Scharmer’s phrase. (Scharmer 2009) An assessment can also be a kind of message from the future that we, as teachers, attempt to read. This means that we have to create space in our assessment for the person’s potential development, and doing this well can even help a healthy future come about. Therefore, in assessment we need to give space to the voice of the person we are assessing and be open to hints of what he or she may become—the distinctive signature of that person as it manifests in deeds, gestures, and acts of creation. In doing so, we must be most careful not to limit that potential through our judgments based on the past.
The who refers to the person doing the assessing. How we assess sends a message and defines the nature of that relationship. Is it wellintentioned, respectful, and caring, or distancing, objectifying (i.e., making the person into an object, or even a statistic), or labelling (weak, average student or good student)? The quality of an assessment depends on the quality of seeing, listening, and understanding.
Assessing learning in a Waldorf context assumes we know what learning means from an anthroposophical perspective. There has been surprisingly little published on what the Waldorf view of learning actually is, although Jost Schieren recently made an interesting attempt. (Schieren 2012) Learning is a complex theme that I can’t go into here, but perhaps the most important things to remember are that learning is a process that transforms the whole person and thus changes the way we are and how we act, and that it has to do with making and sharing meaning about the self, others, and the world. Let me state at the outset my position regarding assessment for learning. I was jointly responsible for developing and publishing probably the first public definition of learning outcomes grade for grade (for math, English, and first foreign language) in the Waldorf literature. (Mepham & Rawson 1997; Rawson & Richter 2000) Although I have regularly promoted the use of assessment for learning and criticized the lack of good assessment practices in Waldorf schools, over the years I have become concerned that the pendulum has swung too far the other way.
This article revisits one of my basic interests in Waldorf pedagogical principles and is a much shortened version of a longer essay on this topic.
Martyn Rawson has been a Waldorf teacher in schools in England and Germany since 1979. He is the author of several books about Waldorf and co-editor of the English-language curriculum which has meanwhile been translated into 18 languages. From 1996 to 2010 he worked in the collegium of the Pedagogical Section in Dornach. Today he teaches at the Elmshorn Free Waldorf School and the Kiel Teacher Training Seminar.
Please also look at Martyn's new website on community learning.
This article first appeared in the Research Bulletin of the Waldorf Research Institute, Autumn/Winter 2015, Vol 20(2). With kind permission by the author and the Waldorf Research Institute.