Modified versions of these remarks by head of Administration Dan Ingoglia were spoken at Back to School Nights on both campuses.
Welcome back for the school year, the 34th of SFWS. Last year I spoke about how we teach students—implicitly mostly—to value and practice contemplation, or deep reflection. A contemplative approach can help balance the flight or fight reaction that our nervous systems opt for when faced with the tsunami of stimuli we encounter in our world. It’s no wonder that many young people figure out multiple ways of coping with the white noise around them. Given the opportunity, many escape into the virtual world where there’s a certain feeling of security in the self-contained universe of digital games, social networks, and tweeting—they’re predictable, and bounded, and you can sign off when you want. The outcomes seem within your control.
As we get older we tend to devise cleverer ways of escaping from or controlling the confusion and overwhelming nature of the world, and we focus increasingly on doing things that provide affirmation and reward. This is a natural human tendency that for most of us tends to narrow and solidify the older we get. We build comfort zones psychically and physically, minimizing opportunities to fail and maximizing opportunities for success.
On the other hand, we often expect our children to succeed at just about everything they do, even when it’s a new, uncomfortable, or unnatural task! And it’s the value of and opportunity for failure in a Waldorf school that I want to speak briefly about tonight. One of our past high school graduates, Liv Leuthold, spoke about this theme at our high school graduation in June, (included in this newsletter), but I’m taking a slightly different tack.
The genius of the Waldorf curriculum is that it meets and helps guide our children through their natural developmental stages by resonating with their evolving feelings while at the same time putting those feelings in a larger perspective:
- Young children are encouraged to immerse themselves in play, which builds a foundation for individual creativity and imagination. At the same time they’re given challenging physical tasks that build a sense of mastery and confidence.
- Grade school students develop deep abilities to listen and create meaning through story, while having to work through the details of constantly creating physical manifestations of their learning by integrating art, music, the practical arts, and movement into almost all intellectual disciplines.
- In high school, students encounter both their inner and outer lives in the curriculum—for example, the 10th graders’ inner worlds are safely explored in poetics, and 12th graders’ explore the unfathomable idea of infinity in Calculus.
- All children live in and sense the support for each of them, not just as learners, but as spiritual beings for whom our task is to remove obstacles in the way of each one developing to her fullest human potential.
At the same time that Waldorf education meets them developmentally—making learning engaging and resonant—it also recognizes that struggling itself is an important experience, and that operating out of one’s comfort zone builds a foundation of grit and self-assurance that can sustain them into adulthood:
- Science experiments and math problems that focus on careful observation and thinking—rather than repeating predigested theories orformulas—teach perseverance and reduce selective attention. Our students tend to see the forest through the trees more frequently as a result.
- Emphasizing primary sources—stories and biographies—in the humanities allows independent thought to develop by seeing perspective and witnessing many historical “facts” as “opinions in disguise”.
- Working with voices, hands and bodies in the fine and practical arts for a much greater percentage of the time than most schools inculcates an appreciation for and confidence in using one’s imagination, intuition, and inspiration in a wide variety of pursuits—it builds what was known 40 year ago as a “can do” attitude.
As a result of our demanding that students remain generalists in so many areas and requiring that they think instead of just regurgitate information, they necessarily experience a certain degree of frustration and even failure, which of course as parents we are not so crazy about. As parents we know in some vague way that failure builds character, but when a specific instance of it occurs with our child, our nurturing instincts kick in and we want to avoid it—for them and for us!
But failure is actually incredibly valuable experience to have as a young person growing into adulthood.
Last year a number of interesting articles appeared on two key subjects: the value of experiencing failure in one’s youth as a way to incubate successful adults; and that quantified measures of education, such as test scores, are highly misleading when it comes to measuring or predicting success and happiness in life. Additionally, research by developmental psychologists has identified qualities, or character-based attributes, most associated with long term success: zest, grit, self-control, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, curiosity, respect, honesty, and tolerance.
Although we don’t (as some schools do) wear T-shirts or post banners that explicitly broadcast these attributes to our students, much of what we do here allows our students to develop these qualities implicitly, by setting them up for challenges in which they are uncomfortable because they can’t predict the outcome.
But by not making a big deal of failure, by staying focused on qualitative rather than quantitative assessments, and by letting them know they can fail with some sense of safety and less judgment than they might experience elsewhere, grit, zest, self-control, gratitude and the other attributes can take root and hopefully grow to help them weather the storms and enjoy the sunshine of life. It is this equanimity that enables one to engage with oneself (as in self-reflection or contemplation) and the world.
Because our real and ultimate goal here is that every graduate asks him/herself at some point (soon) after graduation: “what do I need to do to be useful in society?” much more frequently than “what do I need to do to get what I want?” And we hope you agree. In truth, it’s what you signed on for and committed to in sending us your child.
And of course we greatly appreciate your commitment to SFWS and to this education, especially during these still challenging economic times. We know it’s a struggle for many of you, but also know that your dedication in doing so is a daily reinforcement of the goals mentioned above. We welcome any questions, observations or concerns you have this year.
Thanks for coming tonight and welcome again to the 2012-13 school year!