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Why the 13th year – Caroline Marquardt

My thoughts on the value of the 13th year
by Caroline Marquardt, High School Teacher, Mathematics

Waldorf or Steiner education was designed to cover 12 years, and the unique curriculum spans 12 years. Over the last 100 years, governments have become more involved and prescriptive about their education systems, so Waldorf schools have had to introduce a 13th year to allow their students to complete their Waldorf education and write the required government examinations that allow them to move onto higher levels of education such as universities and technikons to study further and realise their personal career dreams.

Today, each Waldorf school in South Africa finds itself with a difficult choice. Do we offer our students 12 years of Waldorf education and one year of ‘sausage machine’ in which students are taught how to approach and write examinations? This year is also used to plug any gaps in the various government curriculums that have not already been covered by the main lessons taught in the previous 12 years. Or do we reduce a 12 year curriculum to 11 years and tack on the one year “sausage machine” to allow our students to complete their formal education in the prescribed but arbitrary 12 years?

I now find myself in a rather unique position to comment on this choice. I have spent 11 years teaching in a Waldorf high school, which uses the 11 years plus one year model, and I have now been a teacher at Michael Oak (which uses the 12 years plus one year model) for one year, so I have been able to observe various differences.

To reduce 12 years of a rich, well-conceived, rounded and whole education based on a deep knowledge of the child’s developmental stages at each year in that 12 year period is by no means an easy task. Any group of teachers tasked with this would know that the  Steiner way is to value finishing and rounding out something that has been started. We finish each term with a festival. We finish each main lesson with an assessment task appropriate to the age and the topic of study. So to lop off an entire year is essentially robbing a young adult of their final culminating year and catapulting them into a foreign environment without actually completing the process that was started. It’s like serving up a delicious, home-baked malva pudding, but omitting the glorious, sticky sweet sauce that gets poured over it while it is still hot.

However, let’s take a look at the process of reducing 12 years to 11 years. What will we take out? Let’s start in Class 12, the final year of this rich curriculum. What are the highlights, those learning experiences that we cannot possibly lose? Definitely the Class 12 play and the Class 12 projects.

The play essentially allows each class to come together as a team to produce, act, advertise and pull off a production which is put on for the entire community. It is a massive undertaking and requires the students involved to compromise, problem-solve, plan, organise, etc.

The projects require each student to work individually, to research a topic of personal interest to them, to write it up in a hand-made book and to present it to the community as a whole. This is sometimes seen as the pinnacle of Waldorf education and certainly is excellent training for what will be expected of them at university level. There is anecdotal evidence of students overseas accepted into university on the basis of their Class 12 projects.

We are left with no choice but to put these two experiences into Class 11. We have now retained the play and the projects, but at what cost? We are now asking students to do things that are no longer age appropriate for them. They do their best, of course they do, but they are not at the correct developmental age where they can truly cope with these tasks on their own. The result is watered down and tends to be held too tightly by teachers and sometimes parents, as it does not sit comfortably with the student.  We have to become more prescriptive and break the tasks down for the student, which defeats the purpose, but we don’t want the student to crash when doing the final public presentation so we prop them up.

It has been eye-opening for me to see how the Class 12 projects at Michael Oak belong entirely to the students. Yes, the students have mentors, but the teachers do not sit weekly with each student pushing them onto the next step in the process as they must necessarily do when students a year younger are tasked with this exercise. The Class 12s enjoy the process of the project. It becomes a learning experience and fun to do. The final result is an achievement to be proud of. My current Class 12s have spent much of the June holiday putting the final touches on their projects or: creations. I have seen excited, fulfilled faces, not stressed out and tired ones that I have seen from students a year younger attempting this all-consuming project.

Let’s return to the reducing of the 12 year curriculum to 11 years. The Class 11s now have a play and a project to cope with. They cannot possibly manage a eurythmy performance as well. Let’s put it in class 10. Also the Class 11s have a social project to do out in the world, that will also have to go into the class 10 curriculum. The class 10s are scheduled to do a work project, that now becomes part of class 9.

Each project is now no longer being presented to students of the correct age. We are expecting students to cope with work that was laid down for students a year older than them. This is not the Waldorf way, not as Steiner would have wished it. Now, while I am in no way a purist or a Waldorf fundamentalist, it is easy to see how things can go awry with the best intentions. We are simply expecting too much from our students at age-inappropriate times.

The curriculum is literally becoming watered down as our decision to reduce a 12 year curriculum to 11 years starts to affect our entire high school. We realise that the students are not coping. We want to retain the so-called highlights of each year — but how can we lighten the load on the younger high school students? Choosing what to drop from the curriculum is not easy! If, for example, we dropped the eurythmy performance, we would still teach eurythmy, but we will reduce our expectations of the students.

This is obviously just an example of how one school faced this difficult, almost impossible task of reducing a pedagogically correct 12 year programme into 11 years. There is also a wealth of main lessons which will be lost, which is another discussion entirely.

Last year, for the first time in my 12 years of being a Waldorf high school teacher, I experienced a full on Class 11 eurythmy performance. The entire school was invited. The atmosphere was one of both reverence and excitement. Wow, I thought, eurythmy is taken seriously here. This was new to me.

The performance itself moved me to tears, granted, by this time I was emotionally involved with some of the students performing. It was so beautiful. The music chosen was modern and well-known. The class was rightly extremely proud of their performance and revelled in the congratulations that they received. They were the heroes of the moment, shining lights to their primary and high school colleagues. It was a right of passage. An eye-opening experience for me as to what my previous students in an 11 year curriculum had lost out on. With the loss of this culminating performance, much of the essence, respect, and value of this unique form of therapy was lost to an entire school.

Let’s move on and talk about examinations – a necessary evil in any education system to separate out those who will go on to be our future scientists, actuaries, surgeons, engineers and so on.

I came from a Waldorf school that found it necessary to have examinations from class 8 – class 11 in June and November in the subjects of English, Afrikaans, and mathematics in order to train the students how to write exams. That’s a lot of lost teaching time, although our exam timetable only ran after main lesson. Exam time is stressful to students in more ways than one. There is the fear of failure. The knowledge that perhaps you aren’t good enough.

Imagine my surprise when I learnt that the new matrics at Michael Oak write their first set of exams ever in November as they are about to move into their final, 13th year of school. This fact had not yet dawned on me, so I did not hold back when setting their two, 2 hour papers in my subject. I was new to the school, and was just doing what I do – preparing young folk to write matric. I took most of my questions from common papers that had been written around the country that year for the current matrics. I was delighted at how well my students coped with these exacting papers, and even more surprised to learn that they had never sat for formal examinations before this.

I slowly realised that in a 13 year school, there is no need for regular exams to be written in the high school. We get to eliminate lots of unnecessary stress for teachers and students, and have more teaching time in the classroom. What a win, no formal examinations are needed in a 12 year Waldorf curriculum!

Class tests and assessments are common throughout both the high school and the primary school. Most main lessons finish with a test. Most running lessons have at least two  assessments per term – all completed during class time. The stress of formal examinations has no foothold in a 13 year cycle, but reduce this to 12 years and there is a need to subject the students to examinations as they are less mature and need the practice at writing them from an earlier age.

I can now see just how much the 13th year offers to our young adults. It does mean that when they are in their first year of university, they are a year older than many of the school leavers around them, but I would argue that they are streets ahead of them in the valuable skills of research and independent thinking.

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