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Testing as a Challenge of Daily School Life

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Published in Rundbrief, the journal of the Pedagogical Section in Dornach. Volume 22, Easter 2005

Elements of testing, coming as true challenges, are the life-sources of biographical development in school. Everyday school life has to include a threshold situation -standing before something new and uncertain -as well as intensive repetition and practice. If this does not happen, the atmosphere of learning may be endangered by a prevailing easy-going attitude. During teaching phases of retelling, repetitive practice and the quietness that comes from an inner certainty are of fundamental importance. At the same time there are many children in the first class who are highly sensitive to the fact whether something new has been developed and experienced in relation to their great joy in discovery and eager­ness to learn. In a class the atmosphere of learning may change in the direction of a growing expectancy, a searching interest, a strong identification with school,if both pupil and teacher experience again and again the meaning of standing on the threshold to the unknown as a challenge to step into new territory. From the ,teacher's point of view it may be very wholesome and sometimes rather sobering to ask this question after each lesson: What did your class, what did each single pupil really and truly learn today? Based on this question, some teachers have developed the good habit of giving a short precise summary of what was worked on and newly developed during that morning before sending their class out to the break.

If we look at the course of a lesson in relation to the challenge it presents to the pupil, we will find two distinctively wide and highly sensitive portals to what is new: Each new description, introduction and narration will create a curve of inter­est leading to the next unknown element. Even while talking, the teacher may be conscious of the pupils' reaction: whether they will take on· the difficulties of the challenge and how they connect themselves with their new experience. How dif­ferently the introducing narration will be taken in by each individual pupil will often only be seen in the further course of the lesson.
Obstacles in setting up a task The tasks that are put before the pupil in speech, writing or in.the field of art dif­fer in character: Here the individual's will is more challenged in finding a fitting answer. While preparing a lesson emphasizing the will, a particular obstacle may
an se: On the negative side, the perplexity and excitement in the face of an unrea­sonable task may lead the pupil into a painful fear of failure. Even as a teacher I know that moment of anxiety before this obstacle's image, for example, to choose between putting before a group of students a newly developed, difficult lesson with unknown results, or presenting a well-known, routine lesson ...

On the positive side, the perplexity and excitement of a challenging task that leads into unknown territory may move the whole person: creative powers are set free on the impulse of developing individual solutions. The way a pupil takes on a task on his own initiative and develops something new while doing it, will show me a facet of his personality w hile letting me appreciate his own way of proceeding.
Here is an example from a biology-epoch in class 9: After studying the human skeleton we viewed the animal kingdom. The students were assigned the task of drawing an animal skeleton of their own choice in such a way that the character­istic bones would show clearly. While looking at the different papers together with tbe class, I was greatly amazed when one student showed her drawing of a horse skeleton. Usually she was rather quiet in her cooperation, but being confronted with this task had obviously inspired her: With great effort she had man­aged to work the human skeleton into the shape of a horse in sucb a way that the metamorphosis and extension of the bones could be experienced very clearly. To everyone present it became evident that a general theme had been changed into an individual, enlivened thinking, inspired by a personality's own impulse.

Today students in the higher classes have access to an overwhelming flood of facts with a mouse-click. The discrepancy between generally known facts and the student's ability to enliven these facts in self-active steps widens daily.

In certain circumstances it may happen that a pupil in class 7 delivers a highly competent and nicely written paper about the history of New Zealand, but while he is reading it, we discover that he has neither grasped the vital relationship between his sentences nor their essential meaning. In 1919 Rudolf Steiner said about this discrepancy: "for you (as Waldorf teachers) it will not be signifi­cant to deliver facts and knowledge as such, but to use facts and knowledge in developing individual human abilities .....Obviously the timeliness of this aim is greater than ever. The pedagogical answer to the described discrepancy in class 7 was not to read the paper, but only to use cues and speak freely in front of the class. Almost all pupils accepted the challenge. This was a hopeful sign of the
gratifying abilities which young people bring into our time.

Taking into consideration the necessary repetitions and exercises, not every task will challenge the pupils to make discoveries on their own. But even where in class 7 and 8 most questions in an examination will be about the facts that have been learned in an epoch, it is possible to put some questions in such a way that the pupils are able to show their own individual interest: "Which experience particularly occupied your mind'" -"How would you solve this problem?"­"What would you like to explore?" -In a human-studies epoch in class 8, questions like this about the relationship between animals and men brought very different, detailed answers from the pupils: "You shouldn't ask so many isolated questions, they are impossible to answer!" :... "Why do people often like young animals or babies?" "An important question: Why do men destroy their own resources? Animals don't do that.-Why?"

Where Rudolf Steiner describes the way from "thinking in a general atmosphere of thought"and from "habitual conventions" of society towards an enlivened thinking, he describes as helpful methods artistic powers and a growing interest in the individual being. In this sense the anticipating observation of a pupil's situation with regard to the actual theme is part of finding the right amount of challenge in a theme. The inevitable next step will be to appreciate the pupil's work in speech and deed and make sure that the pupil realizes this appreciation. From class one to the end of school the experience of being perceived with true interest by the teacher will give stability to the soul. This stability is of the highest importance for a self-determined learning. Only a relationship be­tween pupil and teacher which is build on interest and deep obligation will in­spire truly challenging tasks. Tasks that will not lead to anxiety before the de­scribed obstacle, but will initiate new developments.

If I look closely setting appropriate tasks is in truth a task set before me as a teacher.

translated by Anja Reglin