My daughter is now 23. She is computer savvy. Recently she sent me a YouTube video, where Mr. Arunachalam Muruganandam speaks about the low cost sanitary napkins that he makes to help the poorer section of India embrace their right to hygiene and to empower them economically. In her formative years my daughter was neither exposed to the computers nor bored to death by lessons on health and hygiene! She distinctly remembers the day I walked into their class (I happened to be her teacher in a Waldorf School) with a sanitary napkin – not to educate them but to shock and embarrass the boys who were often peeking into the bags of the girls and making snide remarks if they found sanitary pads. So what was hidden behind the closet was there for everyone to see. Along with the facts of life about puberty (which any book or computer programme can tell them), they also learnt about psychological health. The need for privacy in all our personal lives and the dignity to respect it. The need to live in a non-invasive manner. They learnt to respect the differences in the physiology of genders.
Strictly speaking, the Waldorf curriculum does not delve into the biological details of the reproductive system when children are in class seven. Yet I made an exception since the class had begun to have social issues connected to gender differences. And that perhaps is the real beauty of Waldorf education – to meet the children where they are, which no textbook can or does. It is a human quality to meet people ‘where they are’ and no print can replace that quality of human judgment about what a class needs as a lesson! The very boy who was troubling the girls has grown up into a young man, who later stood by one of his classmates in an environment of what is known in culturally acceptable terms as ‘eve-teasing’, a euphemism that masks the fact that it borders on sexual abuse.
When my daughter was 6, she brought home textbooks out of which she had to learn things by-heart. ‘Man is a social animal’ (my daughter is not!). ‘The sun does not move but the earth does’. She had the classic question, “Ma, but we see the sun move from one side of the sky to another. If the earth moves, why am I not shaking?” Fortunately she had parents who did not call her a dodo, and a curriculum that actually understood that children learn through their sense experiences and imagination up to a certain age. Their ability to think beyond sense experience comes at another time in their development. Surely she has no doubts today about the heliocentric reality. It comes also with respect for times in the past where people believed in geo-centricity. They were not dodos either. Mankind as a whole needed time to move beyond sense experience. The Waldorf schools know that the history of mankind is repeated in every individual child’s development.
The primary grouse I have with textbooks is that they do not take into account child development when lessons are prescribed. Nor do they take into account the fact that children learn best out of real human contact with the teacher. Or that writing for a child comes more naturally if it is born out of drawing and then followed by reading what they have written. (That’s like deciphering a code they have created!)
Children need to write large letters, or numbers – and then read them. This is simply good for their growing, ripening neurological system which is involved in a seemingly simple aspect like pencil grip.
Children need imaginative pictures. “Once upon a time the Sun said to the moon…” will ring true for them. Not ‘Man is a social animal’. Imaginative thinking is what transforms in adolescent and early adulthood years into abstract thinking. By abstract, I mean the capacity to abstract the essence of ideas. Not abstractions that make no sense to them.
Science teaching in particular, if merely based on the textbook, is a classic example of meaningless abstractions accumulated in the head. I remember learning by rote that ‘Light is invisible’ while no teacher was able to make me understand all the brightness I saw around me in the day time. Or light as I saw manifest in tubes and bulbs, or a candle. The Waldorf schools work intensively with experiments and allow time for the students to digest these experiences and then think about them. Our teaching of sciences should awaken in the children a questioning, enquiring mind. Not a smart head that remembers science facts. (Smart phones are getting smarter than that!)
As for math – one notices in all clarity that all the textbooks are driven by the objective of cramming the students with quantitative bulk. Whether the quantitative bulk awakens mathematical thinking in students is a question that not many educators are willing to ask and answer with any level of honesty. We have become consumers of education, and math and sciences as prescribed in most textbooks are classic examples of how, in the name of education, we consume facts so that we are armed to become the most successful survivors in a race called life.
In a Waldorf school, students create their own textbooks. It means what is learnt and assimilated is written in their main lesson books which eventually serve as their textbooks. Students are encouraged to work with care. Colours are part of their books since art is a primary means of educating them. They may sing songs and recite verses in connection with what they learn. Singing and recorder playing begins from Class 1. As they grow into adolescence, they not only appreciate beauty in sounds but also learn acoustics and the math of sound intervals. Thus a comprehensive and truly integrated approach to learning is offered to them.
Does this mean we never use the printed text? Of course not. But the teacher selects texts (not textbooks) that are age appropriate to children as supplementary lessons. As readers. For math practice and so on.
Textbooks in the hands of a creative teacher can be an aid to learning, especially in the higher classes. My daughter fondly remembers her psychology teacher, who taught them ‘prejudice’ using the relationships within the class before moving to the content from the text. This cuts across all subjects as a reality. This only reinforces my conviction that all teaching is truly a human contact. Books can at best be add ons; hopefully in the hands of a teacher who can add and delete!
Should textbooks meet the needs of the children or should children meet the needs of the textbook? The textbook is only a tip of the iceberg of the larger question of education. It is nevertheless a classic example of misplaced priorities. Textbook or the child?
The author teaches at Abhaya – a Waldorf school, Hyderabad. She can be reached at email@example.com.