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Seeing & Saying! The Words we Choose

As the year turns, and our thoughts turn to the future - and mid- and end-of-year reports(!), Kevin Avison, (editor of The Tasks and Content of the Steiner-Waldorf Curriculum, and author of the Introduction to Stockmeyer's Rudolf Steiner's Curriculum for Steiner-Waldorf Schools) sent us this article during the Twelve Holy Nights. In this time of quiet contemplation and reflection, he helps us turn our attention to "see[ing] the god-endowed face of humanity in each individual child"

Seeing & Saying!

The question is not what you look at, but what you see. Henry Thoreaux

A renewed & renewing art of education calls for new & better ways of seeing & observing. In my previous blog, I suggested a way to think about observing & giving attention to the children we teach. If you study the Teachers’ Meetings (“Konferenzen”) of the first Waldorf School you will know that Rudolf Steiner often emphasised child study & observation for the teachers of the fledgling school. Here, I aim to pick up this theme from a different point of view.

To do that I will focus on what can happen when we report our observations. Report writing is a formal process & for that reason easily becomes a catching cup for ready-made habits of thought, perhaps, like those we ourselves may have had inflicted on us! I hope, however, not like the following bad examples:

1. “He will never amount to anything”.

2. “writes indifferently”, & “knows nothing of grammar”

3. “Hopeless. Rather a clown in class. He is just wasting other pupils' time. Certainly on the road to failure"….& “too many wrong ambitions & his energy is misplaced”

The first two statements were written in the nineteenth century, while the third is from the twentieth. The boy, who in 1895 would “never amount to anything” was Albert Einstein, the girl who could not write was Charlotte Bronte (now considered one of the great English novelists of her century), & the “hopeless clown” described by a prophetic teacher of the 1950s is John Lennon. Each of these students went on to find their own way, pursuing a special “genius” within them. But we must remember that for every child who rebels against the negative attitudes of a teacher, using them as a spur to success, many more continue to carry them on their backs like a fiendish lumpen toad. Little wonder then that Steiner urged the Waldorf teachers to avoid negative comments so far as possible. That may seem obvious. However, certain types of positive comment also turn out to be harmful.

The Stanford professor of psychology, Carol Dweck, has demonstrated that the way in which teachers praise children may have unexpected consequences. In a classic experiment in which a test was administered to two groups of young students in a school, the group praised for being “smart/clever/intelligent” were far less likely to accept the challenge of a harder test when researchers offered them that option some weeks after the first. By contrast, pupils who were praised for “working hard/making a good effort/trying well” were significantly more likely to be prepared to choose a more challenging test. This has led Dweck & her colleagues to describe two basic attitudes, which they call “fixed” & “open” “mindsets”[1]. The first applies to students who have learnt to set a high value on success, avoid failure at all costs, are risk avoidant &, being determined to maintain the status of an achiever, tend to blame circumstances, or others, when things go wrong. By contrast someone with an “open mindset” has learnt to value effort & learning, accepting mistakes & failures as a necessary part of that journey: they are “improvers” less concerned with the appearance of inborn perfection. “Having a high IQ” or being an “A-student” may become a vulnerability, undermining the resilience essential for life-long learning, which might explain the reason students of high ability are prone to burn-out.

Dweck’s work is supported by over thirty years of research, but inevitably it has some critics. Nonetheless, on the question of sharing observations with children, or writing reports, & dare I say, even thinking or talking to colleagues about the children we teach, there seems to me a vital wisdom in what is a fundamental insight, not directly addressed in Dweck’s account. Human beings in general, & children in particular are always, & ever, embedded in living processes: change, development & existential flow. For any teacher to think, speak or write about a student from a position of lofty judgement, as if from outside the situation in which the teacher is an active agent, is worse than mistaken, it risks destroying potential, because it is defining:

“de” + “finire” = (completely) + (bound, limited)

“finire” being derived from “finis” (as in French, “to reach the end”)

For example, the following are adapted & anonymised comments from real reports I have seen:

1. Harmonia is a golden child

2. Prufrock is full of energy, but his energy is too often wild & unfocussed

3. Asphodel is far too talkative in class

4. Roget produces beautiful handwriting, sets out his pages with an artistic eye & his work is well-balanced

In a dictionary, as in a butterfly collection, dead forms are pinned down. Dictionaries of living languages have to be continually updated[2] because no single defining holds for ever. Reality is indefinable: & a doctor who had only studied anatomy would be poorly prepared for the variety & mobility of the bodies of living patients.

In the examples I have quoted & in addition to their defining quality, you might notice something else. In each statement the author, the teacher, passes sentence like an all-seeing judge. But what is Harmonia to make of statement 1, other than, “my teacher likes me”? Harmonia’s parents might be gratified that their child is seen as a “golden child”, but the words are double-edged: what happens if Harmonia’s “gold” loses its glitter (like a fading celebrity)? If you were Harmonia’s teacher, would you want, perhaps, to acknowledge her good qualities in practical terms, while offering her some challenge in applying them to her learning? By contrast, Prufrock could be encouraged to place his energy in one or two definite directions in order to help with that need for “focus”. Asphodel’s “talkativeness” might be recognised as indicating, her sociability, interest & enthusiasm, along with encouragement to apply this to the content of lessons (“I’m looking forward to hearing you tell us about the books you have been reading during the holiday”). Of the four fictionalised children, Roget’s report may seem unexceptional & entirely positive, but, I suggest, in order to promote improvement, the teacher might describe his handwriting work concretely, as Steiner asked the Waldorf teachers to do. Setting Roget a challenge for the following year would also help to encourage a “growth mindset”.

Speaking & thinking influence one another & both influence what & how we write down our observations, or, how we see. This is why Rudolf Steiner spoke so often & earnestly about the significance of understanding – living with the reality – of our spiritual nature, a nature that grows into the phenomenal world strongly during childhood & presents itself though growth & development. Attentive seeing & supportive articulation of what we see calls for honesty about what we do not know, part of which will always include the flux & flow of the becoming human being: tell me what you think I am now, & you tell me a lie: tell me of the potential you sense in me & I can grow with your living sensing. This is even more important when working with children who have additional needs, who struggle with tasks others find rather easy. While acknowledging that struggle, is it not more helpful to draw attention to what they can do. Then are we not better placed to build on those things?

The radical visionary poet & artist, William Blake once said:

“When the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire somewhat like a guinea? O no, no, I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty”…& might we not also see the god-endowed face of humanity in each individual child?

Kevin Avison - December 2022

[1] A good practical introduction to mindsets, for teachers, is “Mindsets in the Classroom” by Mary Cay Ricci, published by Prufrock Press, 2013. Also see Prof Dweck herself has a YouTube video, “Developing a Growth Mindset With Carol Dweck” which provides a useful overview

[2] It is significant that the aim of the celebrated dictionary of the English language (1755). compiled by Dr Samuel Johnson (1708-1784), according to its author, was to “ascertain the language”. In other words, the Augustan, Johnson, wanted to “make certain” English words, fixing them so that they resembled Latin (a dead language). Ironically, “ascertain” means something entirely different in modern English.

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