This is what it is like in a Waldorf school. In fact, Waldorf education engages the student in the learning process to the extent where worksheets or exams would actually interfere with their learning process.
But we first need to ask ourselves where did textbooks, worksheets and quizzes originate? In Early history students learned by lectures alone and did not work from textbooks at all. If their teacher wrote a book or there was a classic piece of work they might work from it together as a class but books were not readily available to “take home and study from” until 1450 with the invention of the printing press. So for thousands of years students learned by listening, observing and doing. Quizzes were not given in any written form. Rather, the instructor would ask the student(s) questions to challenge them on an ongoing basis and would not allow them to “earn the privilege” of learning more until they understood the current lesson.
Upon the invention of the printing press books became more widespread and learning institutions made them more readily available to their students. Some fortunate students were even able to own some or have a small library at home. Students would learn by reading classic pieces of literature from periods in history, work by the great mathematicians and scientists, first hand accounts of events in history and by doing. Students were expected to show what they had learned by creating their own inventions, books, projects, works of art or music pieces.
In 1620 that John Amos Comenius is credited with inventing the first textbook. The first textbook was like all textbooks that have come after it – it was in one language (his was in Latin), it had pictures to help people understand what was in the text and it provided a standard selection of facts for the student to learn. During his time the “textbook” was thought of as revolutionary because it enabled anyone to pick it up and learn from it – no matter what their social status (man, woman, child, rich, poor) was. In this way, the textbook was very suitable for his time in history.
It also turned out to be very convenient for the time for reasons beyond educational equality. Because steam power created more opportunities for travel it was important that a student could “carry their school” with them and be assured they were learning what their peers were learning back home.
In the past a student was admitted to college on their works, deeds (and perhaps family status) alone. By the time a student had worked with a teacher, tutor or subject long enough they had usually produced something they could show for it and their skill in the subject had been on display in the form of writing, speeches and/or performances. A student did not have worksheets and exams they DID what they were taught, took what they were taught and created from it. These creations led them to college where they continued along the same path.
However, with education becoming more and more widespread there also needed to be a way to compare the progress of each student. As more and more colleges and schools opened, more students enrolled and more governments became involved (public education system) the more of a demand there was to standardize everything. The old methods remained but the larger schools and larger cities that were forming realized that the only way to teach large classes of students at once was to use standard text-books and standard worksheets so everything was “equal” and “measureable”.
Over a short period of time this method of education rapidly overtook the traditional methods and instead of being a method “designed to suit the needs of the time” it became the standard. Education became defined by textbooks, worksheets and exams. However, it was almost as rapidly discovered that this method was not always the most suitable method of teaching. In fact it was only been a very brief slice of history in which the textbook-worksheet-exam model was popular among educators.
Historians of public education pinpoint the first widespread use to the laws influenced by Horace Mann (a powerful leader in the state education policies) in 1837 and to the early 20th century when new scientific theories where being applied to all kinds of methodologies. This “particularly narrow model of schooling” as they refer to it, became established as the “one best system” of public education.
In his essay A Brief History of Alternative Education, Ron Miller says, “ According to this model, the purpose of schooling was to overcome cultural diversity and personal uniqueness in order to mold a loyal citizenry and an effective workforce for the growing industrial system. Education aimed primarily to discipline the developing energies of young people for the sake of political and social uniformity as well as the success of the emerging corporate economy.”
In 1762, however, less than one person’s lifetime in the “new” standard school system, alternative schooling methods started to challenge this “new method” of education. This movement was lead by some of the great thinkers of the time – Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, and Friedrich Froebel and has resulted in a world filled with many different ways to education one’s child. However, interestingly enough, the public school model still remains the same. As a person who works with public schools from time to time I have seen the efforts and desires of hundreds of teachers trying to break out of this model but the main problem is that any change they try to make is like taking a gear out of a machine. If you are in the system, you have to follow the system and any creative means of education must still be performed within the system and provide ways to show student progress through the required exams and worksheets.
Waldorf education, established in 1919 by Rudolf Steiner, as one of the hundreds of alternatives offered to your student in today’s world, focuses on the child’s process of learning and ability to express what they have learned. The teacher makes sure that the child’s learning process takes place through their head, heart and hands and not just their head (worksheets and exams). Activities focus on being as hands-on as possible (hands) and each student is given time to think, experience, discuss and even dream (heart) before they start on the work of their head through their Main Lesson Books.
However, even the head work seeks balance within itself. It involves a little of the hands (creating through writing and drawing instead of just filling in answers) and the heart (thinking and experiencing what they are doing instead of just spitting back answers).
Instead of filling in worksheets, students create Main Lesson Books – which become their own self-created worksheets as well as their own textbooks. Instead of reading textbooks, students read classic literature, first-hand accounts from history and listen to stories told by their teacher (or in books).
A Main Lesson Book is a child’s creation. It represents what the child has learned that year and what they have created. It represents hours of drawing, writing, thinking, copying, reading, sharing, challenging, figuring out things and creating, After listening to their parent/teacher tell them about a historical event the child may draw a picture of the event in their book or may write about it. After reading a biography about James Watt a child may write a “letter home” from James Watt in their Main Lesson Book. Younger children start by copying what the teacher says and draws or copying verses into their books. As the child gets older the books add the element of creating to go along with the use of the book for recording and copying down information.
After conducting a science experiment in class the student will diagram what they did in their Main Lesson Book and when a student first learns about the stars they will divide their Main Lesson Book in sections and actually draw the night sky at different times in the evening as the night progresses. After learning to do addition, subtraction, multiplication or division, or even algebra a student will be able to create their own practice problems based on the world around them. For example, instead of doing a worksheet with 15 random problems about area or surface, a student is asked to find the surface and area of items around their classroom. Instead of filling in worksheets with answers to addition problems students are given objects to sort and count as many times as they want and the motivation to do so.
The Main Lesson Book is a PART of the child’s learning experience and is an expression of so many things. A Main Lesson Book is not a substitute for building, doing, creating, reading, painting, sculpting, cooking, playing, stretching, singing and so many other things that are important to your student’s education. However, it is also an important part of their day.
It is the child’s way of saying “this is what someone told me today” or “this is what I learned today” or “this is what I can create”. A Main Lesson Book brings the child’s focus to the process and effort that goes into their of their work rather than the outcome (if their answer on the worksheet is “right”). A Main Lesson Book allows a child to learn at their own pace and in their own space. They can fill four pages with math problems or they can fill one. They can work quickly through a lesson block or more slowly. They may need many pages to finally produce a final product they are happy with or they may produce that final product the first time they try. A Main Lesson Book allows the teacher/parent to see and get to know what is really going on in a child’s head instead of knowing only that they can add 2 plus 2 to get 4. The way the child writes, what they write, what colors they use, how many pages they use and so many other things about the Main Lesson Book are a window into their mind that would not be possible through a worksheet or exam.
Learning to use a Main Lesson Book with your child can be compared to learning to use Facebook. Remember when you first started to use Facebook and you enjoyed reading other people’s posts and struggled to figure out what to post yourself? But over time your mind became accustomed to it and you actually started to come up with little “Facebook posts” in your head on a regular basis. You started thinking about your life in terms of Facebook posts. OR you can also make an analogy to photography. Try going on a vacation or to a wedding or birthday party without a camera. Most people can’t (unless they know there is someone else there recording the event). Because we have learned to “see” our experiences in terms of various snap-shots and memorable moments we can capture. The analogies can go on and on.
However, the point is that once you start using the Main Lesson Book your student and you will find yourselves also seeing the world in terms of the Main Lesson Book. You will find yourselves more and more saying “Oh! We can put that in the Main Lesson Book”! At first the blank pages will stare at you and it may seem awkward to the teacher and/or student to write in a book with no lines or to draw an assignment. However, very quickly you will find your student jumping up suddenly and saying “Aha! I have something to put in my Main Lesson Book” and the teacher saying “Open up your Main Lesson Book so we can ….”
To see an example of how a Main Lesson works you can watch our video “Three Ways to Teach a Main Lesson” HERE.
So what about exams?
There is no need for exams when a student can demonstrate an understanding of the subject. This is different than being ‘exam-ready’. An understanding of the subject means that they have explored the subject and shown through Main Lesson Book work, verbal assessment, activities, and interactions with the parent/teacher that they understand the material.
‘Exam-ready’ means that the student understands the format and style of the exam, knows what the person testing expects from them, and has been prepared with a specific subject in mind. This process may also require memorizing dates and names. It is important to know the difference between ‘exam-ready ‘and ‘understanding of the material’ as all students – even those in public schools – need to become ‘exam-ready’ before they take any standard exam.
One possible exception to this method is the use of math worksheets. Using math worksheets can provide the teacher with a valuable assessment tool, even if they are not used daily. We recommend using them at least once a month. You can find a curated set of worksheets on this page here.
Sample Main Lesson Books
You can download two sample Main Lesson Books below. These Main Lesson Books illustrate how different students may display different styles in their books. Not all the student books look like the Waldorf Pinterest pages!Fourth Grade: Human Being & Animal Main Lesson Book Sample by Hannah Sixth Grade: Astronomy Main Lesson Book by Claire Powers