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todayonline - 29 days ago

No grades till 15: Estonian schools encourage creativity over rote learning

SINGAPORE — When it was time for Ms Piret Meier’s three children to enter primary school, she moved her family 130km from their home in Pärnu to Tallinn to enrol the kids in the Tallinn Free Waldorf School. Ms Meier, 55, liked that the school emphasised creativity and allowed students to learn at their own pace. This was unlike public schools, which she said were stressful and competitive. “I wanted something more playful and fun for my children,” she said. A growing number of parents like Ms Meier, dissatisfied with public schools, are enrolling their children in private schools based on the Waldorf pedagogy. These are set up by like-minded parents who want a more holistic education for their children. Devised by Austrian educational philosopher Rudolf Steiner in 1919, Waldorf education prioritises creative learning and the development of practical and artistic skills. Students in the eighth grade start their lessons by playing on their block flutes. Photo: Gracia Lee There are nine parent-owned Waldorf schools in Estonia — of these, four have been set up in the past decade. The Association of Free Waldorf Schools and Kindergartens of Estonia says there are 1,200 students in such schools this year — twice the number five years ago, and one per cent of the 153,000 school-going children. Parents pay between 500 and 1,200 euros (S$779 to S$1,870) in school fees each year, whereas public schools are free. Chairman of the Estonian Parent Association Aivar Haller, 57, a parent who helped to set up the Tallinn Free Waldorf School in 2001, said public schools focus too much on results. In contrast, the Waldorf schools develop students’ love for learning by encouraging creativity and allowing for space to fail, he said. Students celebrate their classmate s 14th birthday by raising him up and down on a chair 14 times. Photo: Gracia Lee “Results and assessments say that making mistakes is wrong. But much more important than results is the process of learning,” said Mr Haller. Students at the schools don’t get grades until they are 15. Instead, they get written feedback for each subject, where teachers highlight strengths and areas to work on. Ms Kristina Sanin, head of Tallinn Free Waldorf School, said: “If I say to a student that his grade is three out of five, it doesn’t help him. But if I tell him that he must pay attention to details to understand more, then he knows what he must do.” She said this also reduces competition among students and helps to avoid creating feelings of inferiority among the weaker ones. Class size is also kept under 20 so each student gets more attention. And each class gets a teacher who stays with them from Grade One to Grade Eight. This creates a connection that allows teachers to be more aware of students’ needs, said Ms Sanin. While mainstream Estonian schools are introducing electronic devices to kindergarten pupils, Waldorf schools only introduce computers and tablets in high school. Ms Anne-Lii Kerge, head of Tartu Waldorf Gymnasium, said it takes time and maturity for children to be responsible media users. “If media is introduced too early, they just drown themselves in it and don’t look at what happens around them anymore, which is not good,” said Ms Kerge, whose 17-year-old son attends the school. Mr Haller believes that delaying the introduction of these devices does not put students at a disadvantage but helps them become more competent users in the future. “Withholding media at an early age allows creativity to unfold and creates an excellent foundation for further rapid development,” he said, adding that several pupils from Waldorf schools have won technology competitions. “Everything must start at an appropriate time,” said Mr Haller. Mobile phones go into a basket every morning, and are returned at the end of classes. Photo: Gracia Lee The schools also place a great emphasis on developing creativity. The walls at Tallinn Free Waldorf School are plastered with students’ artwork, while pianos and shelves of cloth, yarn, crayons and bicycle parts line the corridors. Ms Sanin said about 40 per cent of students’ time is spent on subjects required in the national curriculum, such as language, science, mathematics and humanities. Lessons often integrate at least two subjects, such as physics and maths or history and literature, to help students see that “the world is not separated” into different subjects, she said. The rest of the time is spent on art, music, drama and physical education. All students are taught to play the flute and get to work with paint, pottery, wood, metal and textiles. This is a big draw for Ms Kart Ulman, 56, a news editor, who believes in the importance of learning art. Her youngest son, who is 17, attends the Tallinn Free Waldorf School. While music and art are compulsory subjects in the national curriculum, Ms Ulman feels that these subjects are starting to be seen as less important in Estonian society. “It is unfortunate because art and music education teaches kids so many other qualities they need in their lives, such as self-expression and teamwork,” she said. Students from the Waldorf school achieve average results at the state examinations, noted Ms Sanin. For Estonian language, her students typically score between 61 to 64 points – the national average score is 62.2 points. As for mathematics, they typically score between 36 to 38 points, which is comparable to the national average of 37.4 points. About 70 per cent of graduates enter university, Ms Sanin also said. Fourth graders learn to tie an anchor bend knot, their draw it in their notebooks. Photo: Gracia Lee Alumnus Kristel Kolkanen, 20, who graduated last year and is now studying music composition at Georg Otsa Tallinn School of Music, said classes were engaging and taught her how to “think out of the box”. “In high school, a lot of friends my age who were in public schools were so done with school. But I was still happy to go to school and eager to continue studying,” she said. At the end of the day, the goal of the school is not to produce the smartest students. Instead it wants students to learn their strengths and weaknesses, said Ms Sanin, the head of Tallinn Free Waldorf School. “Every person is unique. It’s normal that some students are good in some areas and not so good in others. We want our students to know who they are and what they can give to the world.” This piece was produced as part of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information’s Going Overseas for Advanced Reporting (Go-Far) course. Go-Far is an advanced journalism reporting course that immerses students in the challenges of operating in another country and culture. TODAY will be carrying other essays written by the course participants in the coming weeks.

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