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The Value of an Unhurried Childhood

February 19, 2024
By Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor

A recent New York Times article highlighted the importance of giving children an unhurried childhood, without an overpacked schedule of extracurricular activities and excessive homework. The pressure on Gen Z to excel at a young age has led to decreased mental health and increasing struggles at school. Waldorf Education takes a balanced approach, with plenty of time for children to play and explore, while also providing a joyful and well-rounded education that instills essential life skills, sparks a lifelong love of learning, and prepares them for a successful future. 

This article was written by Shalini Shankar and originally published on July 9, 2021 in the New York Times

A Packed Schedule Doesn’t Really ‘Enrich’ Your Child

When the extracurricular-industrial complex came to a grinding halt last spring, parents were left scrambling to fill vast hours of unscheduled time. Some activities moved to remote instruction but most were canceled, and keeping children engaged became the bane of parents’ existence. Understandably, screens became default child care for younger kids and social lifelines for older ones.

As American society reopens, going back to our children’s prepandemic activities looks like an enticing way to reintroduce upper-elementary through high-school-age kids to the outside world. For parents with economic means, it’s tempting to return to a full slate of language classes, sports, music lessons and other extracurriculars — a guilt-free plan to keep kids busy with “enriching” activities while we get our jobs done.

But I suggest pausing before filling up their calendars again. We should not simply return children to their hectic prepandemic schedules.

Certainly, some amount of extracurricular activity can offer a welcome break from screens and help children nurture interests. But for Generation Z, the over-scheduling of extracurricular activities has been bad for stress and mental health and even worse for widening racial gaps. Moreover, as I learned when I conducted anthropological research for my book “Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z’s New Path to Success,” it no longer consistently improves the prospects of the white middle-class kids for whom it was designed.

But what can parents do with our kids instead? The answer is simple, though not easy to carry out: We can teach them (and perhaps relearn ourselves) the value of unstructured time and greater civic participation.

This does not mean we should quit our day jobs and devote ourselves instead to endless hours of building forts and playing games. Exposing children to sports, music, art, programming or dance certainly has benefits — including physical exercise, intellectual stimulation and fun — but there are also good reasons to give children time to be bored. Not least of these is it forces them to figure out a way to entertain themselves.

For many kids today, scheduled time and down time on their screens are the only states of being. Paradoxically, scheduled unstructured time could address this. Cooking, reading a book, art projects and neighborhood walks are unlikely to completely replace screens, but routinizing blocks of time for these self-sustaining activities each day or several times a week could introduce children and teenagers to new pleasures, and at the very least invite calmness.

Gen Z acutely feels the pressure to be accomplished at a younger age. As kids take on a wider range of challenging activities younger, a trend that began with millennials but has grown to steroidal levels, the criteria for standing out in the college admissions process have shot up accordingly. It’s no wonder kids are stressed out.

The Slacker Generation, an initially disparaging label that Gen Xers have reclaimed, did not have to build a childhood résumé brimming with skills, expertise and accolades to get into college. Now many of these former slackers are parents worried about whether their kids are doing enough to stay competitive in college admissions and the job market. Those who can afford it feel pressure to pad their kids’ résumés as much as they can. A 2019 survey found that more than a quarter of “sports parents” spent upward of $500 per month, with some spending over $1,000 and jeopardizing their retirement savings.

But it’s clear by now that all this expensive enrichment won’t ensure kids’ success. Despite middle- and upper-class millennials mortgaging their childhood to get into college and then toiling through early adulthood in unpaid internships, they are unable to acquire the levels of economic and social security still held by their baby boomer parents.

Perhaps that’s why Gen Z has shown astute awareness of the dangers of overwork, with some high-profile Zoomers demonstrating acts of radical self-preservation. The Gen Z tennis star Naomi Osaka, for example, recently chose to prioritize her well-being over her career’s demands when she dropped out of the French Open after officials fined her for declining to participate in its post-match news conferences. Gen Z seems to have accepted that no matter how much you love your job, your job won’t love you back. Their parents — Gen Xers and even older millennials — were late to this lesson, and if they learned it at all, it was often only when they hit a wall with burnout.

Of course, preparing children for college and the job market is not the only goal of parents shelling out for guitar lessons or robot-making labs. Parents are also eager to expose their children to different ways of using their minds and bodies in the hope that they’ll discover passions that could become vocations, or simply lifelong joys. One passion that’s worth trying to instill is civic participation.

As parents, we can reinforce the importance of caring beyond one’s own success. Taking your kids to volunteer or to protest injustices they see in the world are good ways to show them what it looks like to give back and replenish. The human and nonhuman connections they will make at food pantries and animal shelters can help kids cultivate empathy — itself a valuable skill for navigating life — while offsetting the anxiety footprint caused by today’s inflated standards for success.

It might feel counterintuitive to deny your children the leg up in life that many extracurriculars promise, but it’s worth examining that impulse too. The pandemic has exacerbated existing socioeconomic disparities, especially along racial lines. With widening wealth gaps, there will be even fewer opportunities to prioritize extracurricular activities for low-income kids. Rethinking the value of a packed calendar offers a concrete opportunity to narrow the racial and economic gaps between privileged and underprivileged kids.

Replacing video games with nature walks might not make you the most popular parent. Your kids may complain a little (or a lot) about losing some of their organized fun, since boredom is a feeling they’ve rarely experienced. But they’ll figure it out.

The Power of Hands-On Science Education

February 05, 2024
By Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor

Research shows that hands-on learning is extremely effective for students of all ages, particularly when it comes to science education. Waldorf Education employs an experiential approach in all subjects, especially in science. Students learn through observation and experimentation, rather than just memorizing formulas. This engages the senses and encourages critical thinking and problem-solving, which fosters wonder, curiosity, and a deeper understanding of scientific phenomena.

Learning about science through listening to lectures and reading about it, though valuable, isn’t always enough to truly engage students. Learning by doing science through hands-on science activities and experiments lets students see what they’ve learned in action and develop a deeper understanding of the subject. Hands-on learning is just another way to refer to learning by doing. Allowing students to discover more about scientific concepts through hands-on science activities, experiments, and projects is a proven way to increase engagement and academic achievement.

A study done by the Canadian Center of Science and Education found that children can learn mathematics and sciences effectively even before being exposed to formal school curriculum if basic mathematics and science concepts are communicated to them early using activity-oriented (hands-on) methods of teaching. Mathematics and science are practical and activity oriented and can best be learned through inquiry (Okebukola in Mandor, 2002) and through intelligent manipulation of objects and symbols (Ekwueme, 2007). The study looked at the impact of a hands-on approach on students’ academic performance and the students’ opinion about this activity-based methodology and showed positive improvement in both the students’ performance and participation in mathematics and basic science activities and willingness on the part of the teachers to use hands-on approaches in communicating mathematical and scientific concepts to their students.  

What Is Hands-On Science?
Hands-on science can be defined as students getting their hands on materials, performing experiments, exploring phenomena, and trying out ideas. According to research, hands-on science usually involves “physical materials to give students first-hand experience in scientific methodologies” but can also include virtual labs. Labs, experiments, and projects are all potential hands-on science activities.

Why Hands-On Learning Is Important in Science
Hands-on learning is more than just a way to get students to experiment with science equipment or be immersed in a virtual world. Also, hands-on learning does more than bring fun to learning. This approach is proven to increase student engagement and understanding of scientific concepts.

Hands-on learning can also connect to inquiry-based learning in science, another teaching approach that’s proven to increase student engagement. Inquiry-based science instruction encourages students to ask questions they are interested in and investigate those questions. Hands-on science is one of many ways students can explore inquiries, whether the procedure is designed by the teacher or student. Let’s delve into the additional benefits of hands-on learning in science.

Benefits of Hands-On Learning in Science
Increases Retention: Active learning, such as through hands-on activities, has been proven to be effective at promoting retention. When students apply what they’ve learned in the classroom through hands-on science experiments and activities, students can better understand concepts.

  • Improves Performance on Assessments: Research from the University of Chicago shows that hands-on science can improve student outcomes. Participating in the learning process through learning by doing helps students forge a deeper understanding of the scientific concepts taught in class.
  • Provides a Sense of Accomplishment: Teachers have recognized that hands-on science provides students with a sense of accomplishment. At the end of a hands-on activity or experiment, students can see the immediate results of their learning. Learning new ideas can take a long time, but when the learning is hands-on, students reach a clear stopping point and can look back at what they did.
  • Supports Students with Learning Barriers: Hands-on learning is a proven way to support students with learning barriers, such as multilingual learners and students with autism. Research has shown that students who are just beginning to learn English can benefit from visual resources and hands-on activities that help them understand new words and concepts in English. Additionally, research has shown that hands-on learning can enhance the learning process for students with autism.
  • Develops Critical Thinking Skills: Overall, hands-on learning develops students’ critical thinking skills. Through doing hands-on activities and experiments, students have the chance to connect to and apply what they’ve learned in class to complete their projects.
HS Periodic Table Mosaic Designed and Built by Students

Harvard Supports: Education Should Be Joyful

January 22, 2024
By Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor
Research from Harvard Graduate School of Education emphasizes the importance of making education joyful. Compared with high-pressure, high-stakes, testing-driven environments, students retain more and process better in happy, lower-stress environments. In Waldorf Education, our intentional approach prioritizes engaged, enthusiastic learning and our teachers bring joy to every lesson, instilling a deep understanding of each subject and a lifelong love of learning. 
 

This is an excerpt.  The full article was originally published by Lory Hough in the Harvard Ed. Magazine https://www.gse.harvard.edu/ideas/ed-magazine/22/05/space-joy

Is learning even meant to be joyful? 

Anyone who has picked up an instrument or tried to learn a new language knows that learning can be hard and frustrating. As Irby pointed out, “Learning is not always a joyous undertaking. Pushing through a difficult subject, topic, or painstaking assignment can be tough.”

But, he adds, “joy at school and in learning is a foundation from which students gain the confidence that academic struggle is temporary and worthwhile.” There’s also a very real connection to the brain. “The brain does not exist by itself,” writes Professor Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child. “Connecting the brain to the rest of the body is critically important. When we’re stressed, every cell in the body is working overtime.”

Students who appear joyless or unmotivated may not be making voluntary choices, says Judy Willis, a neurologist who went on to teach middle school for 10 years. Their brains, as Shonkoff points out, may just be responding to what’s going on around them, like the ups and downs of the pandemic and our push to “catch up” academically in schools.

“The truth is that when we scrub joy and comfort from the classroom, we distance our students from effective information processing and long-term memory storage,” Willis recently wrote in the Neuroscience of Joyful Education. “Instead of taking pleasure from learning, students become bored, anxious, and anything but engaged. They ultimately learn to feel bad about school and lose the joy they once felt.” Neuroimaging studies and measurement of brain chemical transmitters reveal that “when students are engaged and motivated and feel minimal stress, information flows freely through the affective filter in the amygdala and they achieve higher levels of cognition, make connections, and experience ‘aha’ moments. Such learning comes not from quiet classrooms and directed lectures, but from classrooms with an atmosphere of exuberant discovery.

Irby saw this with his own children. When school went remote, they were not happy. “On the best days, they were ambivalent. On the bad days, they were miserable,” he says. When they returned to in-person learning this past fall, things mostly got better. His son, a first-grader, didn’t like people being too close and didn’t want to be overly corrected for his efforts, but “they were very happy to return to school. They loved almost everything about returning, from packing their book bags, seeing their friends and socializing, to developing relationships with their teachers.”

Happy is great, but what about the important idea that we need to regain academic ground lost during the pandemic? As Professor Tom Kane and his colleagues at the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University (CEPR) reveal in their new Road to COVID Recovery project, using real-time data and working with school districts across the country, learning loss from the pandemic is significant.

“I don’t think there’s a broad appreciation for the magnitude of the declines we’ve seen,” Kane told Ed. — the equivalent of kids missing three or four months of school last year. As he said in a recent The 74 article, “School districts have never had so many students so far behind.” And especially for some students. The Brookings Institute reported in March that test-score gaps between students in low-poverty and high-poverty elementary schools grew by approximately 20% in math and 15% in reading, primarily during the 2020–21 school year.

CEPR has called for tutoring, extra periods of instruction, Saturday academies, and afterschool programs. Schools, they say, should focus for the next couple of years on getting students back to pre-COVID academic levels.

But what does catch up mean for the joy that tired students and teachers also desperately need?

In a Harvard EdCast interview in February (2022), Susan Engel, a senior lecturer at Williams College and author of the new book, The Intellectual Lives of Children, said, “I heard a first-grade teacher say to me, back in August, when she was planning her remote teaching, she said, ‘The parents are so worried that their children aren’t going to keep up this year.’ And I said, ‘Keep up with what?’ And she looked surprised, and she said, ‘Well, with the standards.’ But I mean, the standards are completely arbitrary. Who made up those standards? Just a lot of people sitting in rooms. I don’t know. And I’m not sure they were good standards in the first place, but it’s silly to let those constrain you too much as a teacher right now.”

Which is why it was interesting, says Wade Whitehead, a fifth-grade teacher in Virginia now in his 28th year of teaching, that in the spring of 2020, when it became clear that we weren’t going back to in-person any time soon, “the first two things we threw out the window were grades and standardized testing.

Why was that, he wondered? “I think it’s because those two rob students and teachers of joy. I think it was to keep students and teachers happy” as we shifted focus to everyone’s crushing social-emotional (SEL) needs. And there were other changes that at any other time would have seemed radical: Schools shortened the school day and cut back to just a few class blocks a day. “COVID was an opportunity for schools to go deep. People had the freedom to just learn. If you want to be around someone who is happy, be around someone who’s just learning something to learn, especially face-to-face. You’re just happier that way.”

Unfortunately, says Whitehead, a Certificate in School Management and Leadership graduate, a year later, we “picked up those two apples” — grades and standardized tests — “and put them back in the cart. I’m not against grades or tests. I’m for amazing grading systems and amazing assessment and accountability systems.”

Durney agrees that the “normal” way of schooling wasn’t working for everyone and says that we can still rethink schooling.

“We need to use the pandemic as an opportunity to consider how we meet the needs of all our students through engaging tasks,” he says. “Students have access to apps, games, etc., and there are things that can and should be leveraged when designing learning opportunities. It isn’t just academics that students missed over the past two years. They need opportunities to engage in activities that allow them to build and strengthen their SEL skills. Rigor can and should be fun!”

Kane agrees and says that academics and emotional care go hand-in-hand. If students feel more comfortable being back in school, they are going to have an easier time focusing, just as finding success in the classroom can lead to positive e­ffects on mental health.

Irby also says it’s not an either-or as we move forward.

“I would say to educators who want to prioritize getting kids up to speed academically over joy that the two are not mutually exclusive. They should think about them as mutually reinforcing,” he says. “Not only do joy and academic rigor go hand in hand, but tactful educators plan to ensure both happen in tandem.” He noted that Gholdy Muhammad’s framework outlined in her book Cultivating Genius includes five pillars to consider when planning lessons, and joy is one of them. “An example is children’s museums, which off­er learning opportunities that center play and fun. Exhibit curators plan with joy and excitement at the center of their learning design, but they don’t forgo academic content. In other words, the same way a teacher can plan to have students learn a disciplinary skill, they can plan for students to experience joy while doing it. One priority doesn’t need to outweigh the other.”

He says this is especially important for students who experience “compounding killjoys” — students who “live with circumstances and experiences that make it very difficult to be joyful. Some big picture joy killers include poverty, racism, social isolation, and concrete realities that stem from racial, social, and economic injustice such as hunger and food insecurity, housing insecurity, exposure to violence, health ailments, and living in a household or community where adults experience chronic stress. The more of these killjoys that students experience, the more concerned educators should be about using learning as a means to cultivate joy.”

For example, he says that if students don’t have access to safe green space, recess should become a priority. If they experience conflict with relationships in their lives, educators can create learning scenarios that are collaborative, “which provide opportunities to find joy in working with people.”

Keeping this in mind, Sandra Nagy, Ed.M.’02, managing director of Future Design School, says any e­ffort to get kids caught up and still feel joy needs to be intentional.

“In order for this important change to take hold in schools, there needs to be a space for joy,” she says. “That means balancing eff­orts to address learning loss with looking ahead to what we can do next and celebrating the way teachers proved their ability to innovate and adapt in the past two years.”

And Brooks says we can do something else to bring back joy that would once have been considered radical: We can slow down.

“We can engage with students where they are, whatever they’re interested in at the moment, because that’s the ‘stu­ff’ of the world they’re trying so hard to build normalcy from,” he says. “We can play with them on the field and court and laugh with them throughout the day. There will still be time for all that needs to be learned.”

Is joy still below the surface?

It’s all important — and it’s not all doom and gloom. Even tired educators say that below the frustrations, they see joy again.

“Given the circumstances, I have seen a lot of joy at school,” says Durney. “One of the many benefits of working with elementary-aged children is that they can find joy and humor in just about any activity.” Right before winter break, for example, they held an outdoor schoolwide activity where students were able to share their work and play games created by their peers and with parent involvement. “It felt like pre-pandemic times where we’d gather as a whole school community. The day ended with our principal jumping into the frigid waters at the M Street Beach in South Boston because as a school community we exceeded our fundraising goal. The smiles and laughter throughout the entire day were a great way to end the first stretch of the school year.”

Salch addressed burnout when students — and teachers — stopped using a diagnostic online program by creating a challenge where students would earn a popcorn party if they logged in for 10 of 15 days in December.

“We have a local chocolate factory that sells 10-gallon bags of popcorn for $6. We can feed a whole school for less than $15,” she says. “Students that earned the reward came out to the courtyard to eat a coffee filter full of popcorn and dance to Kidz Bop.”

She celebrates her teachers, too — even in small ways. “I do everything I can to keep my teachers joyful,” she says. “I write handwritten notes to them monthly thanking them or congratulating them on something they accomplished. I give random gifts of pens or stickies to show appreciation. I organize themed meetings that included engaging activities that show each other we are humans before we are our professions.”

Joshua Neufeld, a first-grade teacher at the American International School of Guangzhou in China and a participant in a Project Zero program in 2021, is part of a peer coaching network for international teachers called Positivity Playground. He found that regular staff socializing has helped morale.

“The pandemic has been challenging for everyone, and Positivity Playground reminded me that together, as colleagues, we can generate more positive emotions and manage negative emotions effectively.” With this in mind, Neufeld organized a weekly lunchtime tea party for his colleagues called Positvi-Tea. It’s a time for teachers to hang out and talk, he says, often about things other than school. “This is a time that energizes the participants and challenges them to continue the day with a positive outlook. I leave the meetings feeling recharged, viewing upcoming situations with a sense of realistic optimism.”

Beyond celebrations and gatherings, others say a focus on personalized learning and setting small, actionable steps (not just big lofty goals) can help bring joy back. Brooks says teachers and other educators can also pay more attention to self-care.

“I am striking a better work-life balance, taking time to be with my family and recharge,” he says. “Doing so allows me to be more fully present and increases the likelihood of finding and making joyful moments at work.” The same needs to be done for all educators. “It does not take anything extraordinary to bring joy back to the workplace of teachers. I would argue it comes down to acknowledging the difficulty of the work in these times, commiserating openly and honestly about these challenges, facing them together, and celebrating every small success of the professionals in the building. Impromptu conversations, dropping by to check in, and showing gratitude are a few other easy and regular ways to bring a sense of joy back to the workplace on a daily basis.”

With her ladybug stickers in hand and her joke book open and ready for the next meeting, Julia de la Torre is still tired, but she knows the joy at her school is there.

“Quite frankly, joy is the reason I come to work every day and why I love my job,” she says. “Pop your head into any classroom and you’ll see kids thriving, connecting, and enjoying school. They may have masks on, but you can see joy in their eyes and in their laughter. I’m always trying to remind my teachers that there is joy everywhere in schools, if you stop to look for it. It may be harder to find during these challenging times, but it’s the joy that keeps us coming back for more.”

Teacher Looping Promotes Student Success

December 05, 2023
By Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor

Researchers have found that teacher looping is a key component in student success in school and beyond, as highlighted by a recent New York Times article. This practice involves students having one teacher for multiple years, which allows time for teachers to get to know each student personally, to understand their learning style, their strengths and challenges, and how to encourage them to do their best work. Waldorf Education has practiced teacher looping for over 100 years because we know that it provides the strongest foundation for each child’s future in both school and life.

This article was originally published by Adam Grant in the New York Times opinion section https://www.nytimes.com/2023/10/22/opinion/education-us-teachers-looping.html

Which country has the best education system? Since 2000, every three years, 15-year-olds in dozens of countries have taken the Program for International Student Assessment — a standardized test of math, reading and science skills. On the inaugural test, which focused on reading, the top country came as a big surprise: tiny Finland. Finnish students claimed victory again in 2003 (when the focus was on math) and 2006 (when it was on science), all while spending about the same time on homework per week as the typical teenager in Shanghai does in a single day.

Just over a decade later, Europe had a new champion. Here, too, it wasn’t one of the usual suspects — not a big, wealthy country like Germany or Britain but the small underdog nation of Estonia. Since that time, experts have been searching for the secrets behind these countries’ educational excellence. They recently found one right here in the United States.

In North Carolina, economists examined data on several million elementary school students. They discovered a common pattern across about 7,000 classrooms that achieved significant gains in math and reading performance.

Those students didn’t have better teachers. They just happened to have the same teacher at least twice in different grades. A separate team of economists replicated the study with nearly a million elementary and middle schoolers in Indiana — and found the same results.

Every child has hidden potential. It’s easy to spot the ones who are already sparkling, but many students are uncut gems. When teachers stay with their students longer, they can see beyond the surface and recognize the brilliance beneath.

Instead of teaching a new cohort of students each year, teachers who practice “looping” move up a grade or more with their students. It can be a powerful tool. And unlike many other educational reforms, looping doesn’t cost a dime.

With more time to get to know each student personally, teachers gain a deeper grasp of the kids’ strengths and challenges. The teachers have more opportunities to tailor their instructional and emotional support to help all the students in the class reach their potential. They’re able to identify growth not only in peaks reached, but also in obstacles overcome. The nuanced knowledge they acquire about each student isn’t lost in the handoff to the next year’s teacher.

Finland and Estonia go even further. In both countries, it’s common for elementary schoolers to have the same teacher not just two years in a row but sometimes for up to six straight years. Instead of just specializing in their subjects, teachers also get to specialize in their students. Their role evolves from instructor to coach and mentor.

It didn’t occur to me until I read the research, but I was lucky to benefit from looping. My middle school piloted a program to keep students with the same two core teachers for all three years. When I struggled with spatial visualization in math, Mrs. Bohland didn’t question my aptitude. Having seen me ace a year of algebra, she knew I was an abstract thinker and taught me to use equations to identify the dimensions of shapes before drawing them in 3D. And after a few years of observing what fired me up in social studies and the humanities, Mrs. Minninger knew my interests well. She saw a common theme in my passions for analyzing character development in Greek mythology and anticipating counterarguments in mock trial — and suggested doing my year-end project on psychology. Thank you, Mama Minnie.

Most parents see the benefit of keeping their kids with the same coaches in sports and music for more than a year. Yet the American education system fails to do this with teachers, the most important coaches of all. Critics have long worried that following their students through a range of grades will prevent teachers from developing specialized skills appropriate to specific grade levels. Parents fret about rolling the dice on the same teacher more than once. What if my kid gets stuck with Mr. Snape or Miss Viola Swamp? But in the data, looping actually had the greatest upsides for less effective teachers — and lower-achieving students. Building an extended relationship gave them the opportunity to grow together.

The Finnish and Estonian education systems are far from perfect, and Finland’s PISA scores have dipped a bit in recent years. But both countries have done more than just achieve high rates of high performers — they’ve achieved some of the world’s lowest rates of low performers, with remarkably small performance gaps between schools and between richer and poorer students. Being disadvantaged is less of a disadvantage in Finland and Estonia than almost anywhere else.

Looping isn’t the only practice that makes a difference. Both Finland and Estonia have professionalized education systems — they often require master’s degrees for teachers, training them in evidence-based education practices and methods for interpreting ongoing research in the field. And teachers are entrusted with a great deal of autonomy. Whereas American kindergarten has become more like first grade, with more emphasis on spelling, writing and math, Finland and Estonia make learning fun with a play-based curriculum. Elementary schoolers typically get 15 minutes of recess for every 45 minutes of instruction. Teachers don’t have to waste time teaching to the test. And over the years, if students start to struggle, instead of labeling them as remedial or forcing them to repeat grades, schools in both countries offer early interventions focused on individual tutoring and extra support. That helps students get up to speed without being pulled off track.

Over the years, American students have consistently lagged behind two to three dozen countries on the PISA. A major factor in our lackluster results is the huge gap between our highest- and lowest-performing students. The U.S. education system is built around a culture of winner take all. Students who win the wealth lottery get to attend the best schools with the best teachers. Those who win the intelligence lottery may get to enroll in gifted-and-talented programs.

Great education systems create cultures of opportunity for all. They don’t settle for no child left behind; they strive to help every child get ahead. As the education expert Pasi Sahlberg writes, success is when “all students perform beyond expectations.” Finnish and Estonian schools don’t just invest in students who show early signs of high ability — they invest in every student regardless of apparent ability. And there are few better ways to do that than to keep students with teachers who have the time to get to know their abilities.

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