Article for `De vonk’, magazine of the Waldorf school in Rotterdam West

Contemporary values at West

This is a topic that I have been interested in over the past few months: which are the contemporary
demands that education is faced with? This question seems to be all over the place. In my
view, answering the question starts with defining a school’s basic values. Which issues are important
for education, and why? Which questions arise when we transfer these values to our classrooms?
What do we consider to be valuable education?

Education empowers us to find answers to societal questions. Polarization is a theme which unfortunately
appears to be gaining importance. As a school, wishing to oppose this tendency, we
believe it is important that our students are taught understanding and compassion for their fellow
citizens. It is not an easy task to carefully define one’s values, which is particularly true for the education
sector. In this blog, I want to discuss the steps that we, as a foundation and a school, are
currently taking. These steps are aimed at structuring our education in such a way that our students,
just like 100 years ago, when the first Waldorf school was opened in the Netherlands, are
able to follow their own path through life. For a school, defining its values is the starting point. At
West, we opt for a contemporary approach. Not an easy task, but surely a challenging task!

Values

The word `value’ has various meanings, and it is hard to find a clear-cut definition. To start with,
things may have an intrinsic value. This value can be either positive or negative (a great school, a
boring lesson). Here, the word `value’ is not used as a noun, but is rather used in an evaluative
sense. However, the kind of value which is the focus of this blog is a concept in its own right. Values
indicate that which is good, desirable or valuable, they guide our actions. The key question
posed at various levels in our organization during the coming period will be: which are our important
contemporary values, and how do we translate them to our education (curriculum as well as
didactic and pedagogic activities)?

Waldorf schools all have their own set of values. Within the context of our foundation these include:
personal and intellectual development, friendship, respect, transparency. Values that match
our current time. Some values, however, deserve a second look. A personal question of mine, for
instance, is how to translate the freedom value of the Waldorf school. An important principle of
Waldorf education is to enable students to follow their own path in life, in order to allow them to
become independent free-thinking people. Here, the individual plays a central role. However, is it
not true that freedom rather grows from connectedness? Within society, we see an increasing
need for connection. Western European thinking focuses for a large part on optimizing the individual.
The Ubuntu philosophy, which originates in South Africa, takes the opposite view. You are
who you are because of other people, Antjie Krog states in her wonderful essay on the Ubuntu
philosophy, which says that one can only be really human by connecting with others (1). Do you live
your life just for yourself, or do you live your life for your fellow human beings, she wonders. In
education, too, it is clear that when there is mutual connection (between staff, students, parents),
this almost automatically results in a huge improvement in wellbeing and quality.
At the same time I would like to reconsider the issue of freedom within the context of government
intervention. The current state-imposed framework is no joke. Do we have enough freedom to realize
our own values? Of should Waldorf schools continue to follow their own path?
Resilience is a value that I personally find important in our education. Resilience in the sense of
being able to deal with adversity, of addressing one’s personal conflicts, persisting when things
do not succeed right away, daring to make mistakes, reflecting on one’s own actions. However,
the question of how to structure education in such a way that it promotes resilience, is not easy to
answer.

(1) This is a fact that Aziza Mayo also mentions in her lectorate speech `Autonomy in unity’

A contemporary Waldorf school

At West we have been aware for some time of the need to reassess the Waldorf values. There is a
good reason for our ambition to be a contemporary Waldorf school. This need for reassessment
does not come as a surprise. Since the first Waldorf school was opened in 1919, society has
seen a significant change. In the course of one century, large societal shifts occurred and we went
from a society with strong segregation to a more fluid society, in which nothing is what it appears
to be.

It seems only logic that these changes have an impact on education. In our time, it is more important
for students to be able to ask the right questions than to be able to simply list some facts.
Talking about values, this is an important question for all schools: which are the demands of our
time, how do they impact the structuring of our (Waldorf) education?

An important aspect for Waldorf schools in this respect is the central place for every child’s overall
development; learning from the head, heart and hands. It is not sufficient to give attention to the
head only (qualification), as this means that overall development cannot take place. In our view,
personal development and social development (socialization) are just as important. However, it
also not desirable not to pay any attention to qualification at all, as has been a trend in Waldorf
schools in the past. Every child needs basic knowledge in order to be able to flourish in society. These three elements should therefore be balanced.

This perspective means that Waldorf schools are far ahead of mainstream schools. Mainstream
education’s predominant focus from 1917 onwards has been the qualification element (schools
were starting to resemble factories, which is probably not very surprising in view of the industrial
revolution in the background.) Only now, mainstream schools are paying attention to socialization
and personal development as well as qualification. When these three are balanced, this is a
characteristic of good education, the Education Council proclaimed as late as 2016 (2). Steiner
brought this same message already one century before. It has always been my view that mainstream
education has much to learn from Waldorf schools. Waldorf schools have long been a foreign
body in the education sector. I feel that this is changing. Many schools are looking for values
that show the world that the cognitive level is not the only factor of importance for them. They feel
they are missing something, but cannot pinpoint this missing element. Waldorf schools have already
found the answer to that question and show with their method of learning with the head,
heart and hands, that they want to do justice to children’s uniqueness. Waldorf schools’ educational
concept seems to be very contemporary in many respects, it matches our time. Maybe the
current societal demands and our task should be focused on a completely different social sphere?

(2) Onderwijsraad (2016): Over de volle breedte van onderwijskwaliteit. Den Haag

How to continue….

Within our foundation we are set to complete the strategic plan for the next few years, based on
the similarities and differences in schools’ core values. Which are the questions that are raised by
the choices we make, and how are we going to find the right answers?
At West we have worked on our core values during the workshop. We have focused in particular
on relevant questions that arise when we transfer these values to our teaching practice.
The vision working group will also have an important role, as they will be translating the results to
our current situation. The group is composed of parents and staff, and will define, based on the
anthroposophical perspective, which values we want to reconsider, including the reason for this
reconsideration and the way in which this will be handled.

Finally

There is a reason why I started this article with an illustration that includes Mandela’s quote Education
is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world. It is my hope that Waldorf
schools and mainstream schools will learn from each other. And also, I hope that this cross-fertilization
will lead to a situation in which all students receive the education that not only allows them
to become who they are, but that also empowers them to make a contribution to our society,
which is faced by complex issues that no longer can be ignored.

Minke Knol
Acting school leader.

Books that offered inspiration when writing this article:

Krog, A. (2018). Deze Afrikaanse filosofie inspireert tot een nieuw soort verbondenheid.
https://decorrespondent.nl/7067/deze-afrikaanse-filosofie-inspireert-tot-een-nieuwe-soort-verbondenheid/444522398782-a94e44b0
Ramose, M. ( 2017). Ubuntu, stroom van het bestaan als levensfilosofie. Ten Have. Den Haag
Reingoud, T. (2018). Levenskracht en levensvragen. AnkHermes. Utrecht.
Bauman, Z. (2018). Vloeibare tijden. Klement. Utrecht
Rotmans, J. (2017). Omwenteling. Arbeiderspers. Amsterdam