AN INNOVATIVE EDUCATION FOR THE 21ST CENTURY
Glenaeon was founded in 1957, but its roots go back to the famous architect, Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion Mahony Griffin, who came from Chicago to design Canberra. They later moved to Castlecrag in Sydney, where they established a very innovative community, and also discovered the work of Rudolf Steiner.
Waldorf Education emerged from post First World War Germany, when in 1919, the Austrian scientist, philosopher and teacher Rudolf Steiner was invited to start a school for the children of the factory workers in Stuttgart to give them new hope after the carnage of war. The school grew rapidly as did the Waldorf movement with a school being established in London in 1925 and New York in 1928. It spread fairly quickly through the '50s and '60s to what is now one of the largest independent school movements in the world with close to four thousand schools, schools and special education centres worldwide.
Inspired by the work of Steiner, and at a time when things like the arts and the imagination were not much understood, the Griffins sent Sylvia Brose to Edinburgh, Scotland to train in Waldorf education. Upon returning she started up Glenaeon with three students in a hall in Pymble. The school grew; acquiring the current site in Middle Cove in the '60s and over time was able to purchase the Castlecrag Infant School as well as establishing a pre-school in Willoughby. There are now three campuses catering to around 500 students. Sylvia Brose was awarded the Order of Australia Medal for her services to education.
How did you first become involved in Waldorf education?
I was an academic and I found myself in my late twenties working with medical students. I was teaching a subject called Behavioural Science in Medicine, and I was involved in a multi-million dollar initiative to establish a new kind of medical education that was intended to produce problem solving doctors.
However, we found within the first year that these students' express wish was simply to know how to pass the exam. And this was a lightbulb moment for me, I was up against a situation where the best and the brightest of our students coming out of school were locked in to a high performance exam culture, and it made me think how can we produce genuinely problem solving, creative in the broadest sense, professionals, who can address the increasing number of issues that our society is faced with.
Whilst looking around at other ways of educating, it became very clear to me that to produce problem solving professionals at the age of 19 or 20, you had to start at the beginning, and that students who had gone through 12 years of a very particular and narrow educational system, were not going to be turned out at the other end naturally like that. Some might do it, but it wouldn!&t be because of their education.
Many other people have come to exactly the same conclusion. Ken Robinson, for example has a YouTube clip seen by millions around the world titled !'Does Education Kill Creativity in the Broader Sense?!( In my search I came across Steiner!&s work in education, which I hadn!&t been aware of before. Its whole aim was to produce balanced people who were academically well qualified, but at the same time embedded in their education was a personal creativity that would enable them to go into any profession and to be able to work at problem solving in a creative manner.
From there I found people who were starting a school, I left the university world, retrained as a teacher and have been happily involved in Steiner Education ever since.
Waldorf education is quite unique in its approach. How does Glenaeon meet the needs of the children during the different stages of learning?
We have a very clear picture of the way students learn at different stages in their upbringing.
In the early years, up to around the age of 6 or 7, we learn very directly from seeing things in the world and then wanting to do them, by imitation. We act out; we play out the things that we see around us. It!&s learning, you could say with whole body. And it!&s very creative, you see a police car go by, children want to act like a policeman, and maybe they see a fire engine, they see a builder, they want to act like that.
The beauty of it is, it!&s very open and it!&s incredibly creative. As Ken Robinson says, 'if you do studies of creativity in children, our highest level of creativity is around this age,' it!&s when we!&re the most open.
In kindergarten and pre-school, we create spaces for children to be able to express this impulse to play creatively. And they learn so much about the world from this. They learn numeracy, social skills, working with each other; it!&s what we call embedded learning, where they!&re learning through physical activity.
Then we go through a stage around the age of 7 where the brain changes and we start to learn gradually in a new way. We start to learn through our imagination and more abstractly. The first stage moves towards a more thinking way of understanding the world.
And so in our primary school, we bring knowledge of the world to the children through their imagination, through the artistic elements - through stories, drawing, drama, and music. We are able to deliver a very strong academic program, but through the means of the arts.
Now this obviously grows in sophistication as the children grow, and as they move through primary school the brain changes again, and grows further, and we start to think more in terms of reason. Rather than just whole pictures and stories, the children start to look at how one thing causes another.
This really starts to unfold roughly at the ages of 9, 10 and 11, leading into high school. Our curriculum gradually steps up to meet this increasing need for more thoughtful understanding, a more intellectual understanding, until when we get to high school !X and moving up into Years 8 and 9 !X the child is really needing to understand the world in an analytical way, and our high school is very much like any other high school in that we teach all the standard syllabuses of the New South Wales Educational Standards Authority(NESA), but we integrate it in a way where their personal creativity is embedded in their learning.
All the way through the school, we work with imagination, with creativity. Students learn to draw, to act, to sing, and all of these things are complemented by a strong academic program. So the students have personal creativity embedded in their learning, not something that!&s separate, not something that!&s done at one time in the week while formal learning does at another time, we!&re able to work it so that their formal learning is inspired by that creativity.
What are some of the teaching methods that are used during these stages?
At different stages we obviously use different methods, but there are a couple of constants that run all the way through. One is what we call immersion learning, and the other is what we could call rhythmic learning.
Immersion learning is where we need to be really immersed in one topic for an extended period. We all learn best when we!&re immersed in our topic. We organise our timetable so that every morning, for up to two hours, the students work on one topic in-depth over a three week period. And in that time, they look at one big idea, one big topic. It might be in Year 1 for example, learning the alphabet. In Year 6 it might be the Ancient Roman Empire or Physics. In Year 10 it might be the geography of the Pacific Ocean.
It!&s a big topic, and in that time the students are immersed in it, they go deeply into the subject. It!&s really what we call deep learning.
The other type of learning is rhythmic learning. This is skill-based learning, where you need to build skills over time. So after morning tea we have a period timetable where students work on all the different skill subjects, academic, artistic, and practical.
Do you have any special programs running at Glenaeon?
We have a two tiered curriculum. We obviously teach the New South Wales Educational Standards Authority syllabuses, but we have on top of that the worldwide global Waldorf curriculum that provides this inspiring, imaginative and deep thinking approach.
At the same time we have a number of specific programs that we!&ve developed over the years that are particularly important. One of them is our outdoor education program. We believe it!&s very important that students are confident in the outdoors, in the outdoor world, that they!&re able to manage themselves. It builds character, resilience, confidence !X it builds trust in one!&s own ability.
So beginning in the early years the students go on bushwalks, we start a camping program from mid-primary, and by the time they!&re at high school, every year the students do at least one, usually two outdoor programs. In Year 9 we start the Duke of Edinburgh Program, in Year 10 we take the students to Tasmania where they do a major hike. In Year 11 we take them to the Northern Territory for a Kakadu experience, and there we have a Service Learning Program where they work as aids in a school which has a very high Indigenous enrolment.
We also have a number of voluntary trips, where we take students sea kayaking in the Barrier Reef, white-water rafting, and this year our Year 12 finished with a three week trip white-water rafting down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.
How do the students perform academically?
Our students all come out as curious learners able to think independently, critically and creatively.
On test scores, obviously the HSC is a measure. We!&re a non-selective school, so we!&re very proud of the fact that we help all students reach their potential and get to the HSC level. And when we do that we look at two ends. On the one side we look at extending the academically able, and supporting the academically challenged. Now on balance overall, we!&re always within the top 10% of the State in terms of academic performance.
Within that we have numbers of students who do exceptionally well and we have an accelerated maths program that runs through the school. We have cohorts who then work ahead of their time and are able to sit the HSC early, and have achieved some exceptional results.
What is your approach to technology and why doesn!&t Glenaeon use technology in the younger grades?
We believe it!&s very important in the early years that students develop their human faculties first. That is, faculties of writing, reading, drawing, learning to do all those things themselves.
Now machines, computers, IT obviously is a wonderful aid to us and we want students as they move through the high school to be competent, if not masters of technology, and we produce students who are. But we believe the basis for that has to be building the human faculties of thinking, imagination, their humanity first.
So the students learn to write and draw beautifully, they learn to create books that are beautiful. In other words, they make things and do things out of themselves.
We believe that the appropriate time for moving into technology is around adolescence !X and this is one of the important aspects of our education !X doing things at the right time. From Year 6 we introduce students to a scaffolded IT program, where they learn how to research and how to use the internet intelligently. By the time the students are in Year 9, they are working with ICT integrated into their learning.
Many of our students go on to work in the IT field. We!&ve had a number of students who have done exceptionally well worldwide, who are now global players in IT development.
What is unique about the curriculum?
We have a very specific program of learning that takes students through, we could say, the history of humanity. The aim of this is to give students as broad as possible a picture of the major cultures of the earth, so that they emerge at the end of their education with a real picture of the whole world, so they can be a global citizen, as well as being able to participate in their local community.
Storytelling is a key part in the primary years. Students hear stories from around the world, stories which are appropriate to their age, and then as they move through primary we bring them in touch with all the key historical epochs. By the time they!&re at high school we bring them up to the current world situation, so that they!&re very aware and able to engage with debate and understanding of current world issues.
So they come out with a real sense of history !X where we have all come from !X and the aim of this is that they feel themselves part of the human story. One of the great issues we consider today is the cynicism of young people that is so common, a sense of alienation and meaninglessness. This real sense of the meaninglessness of life, and one of our higher goals as a school is that every student finds a sense of meaning in their personal life. One way we can help students do that is to give them a sense of the wonder of the human story, the great people who have shaped history and the great actions and deeds that have inspired us all.
So the students coming through can feel that yes, this great story is part of me and I!&m part of this story, with the aim they can step out at the other end, they can step into the world with the sense that they have something to contribute, they can actually add to this human story. They have a personal sense of meaning within their own life, their own moral compass, their own picture of life. And we see that in one sense as one of our highest purposes as a school.
Our school has also always had the goal of developing and fostering individuals who are able to express their creativity, who can think independently and whose academic achievement is not based on just simply repeating information, but in being able to understand it, to replicate it, to communicate it, and to work creatively with knowledge. That!&s exactly the skill that the 21st Century is in need of, and they!&re the skills that we foster and develop at Glenaeon.