A Waldorf Education in Kommetjie, Cape Town vs a Public School Education at Winchester High School, MA USA
In the beginning of 2015, I took a leap of faith and left everything familiar in my life to take a journey all the way across the world to go to South Africa for six months. Moving approximately eight thousand miles (thirteen thousand kilometers), about a third of the distance around the planet, from the known to unknown, posed several challenges to me. Over the course of time I had the opportunity to adjust to a new culture, landscape, and people. The most prominent change though, was adjusting to a new style of education.
I had come from Winchester, a suburb near Boston in Massachusetts. The town itself is well known and prestigious, with many wealthy residents with high expectations and even higher standards of achieving success. The high school itself, Winchester High School (WHS for short), is ranked among the nation’s best public schools and has even been awarded the National Blue Ribbon Award for excellence from President Obama. The glory associated with the school, means that WHS is a highly competitive school. Too often this emphasis on excellence pushes kids to their breaking point in the name of “achievement”.
From primary school, students were taught advanced concepts that some had trouble grasping. Though the teachers are good, their primary focus is on drilling the facts and formulas into our heads rather than explaining to us students why learning is important. We never have time to reflect and incorporate the knowledge into our own psyches. We were taught how to cram information into our brains just long enough to pass the rigorous weekly tests. Due to the nature of this teaching system, students would lose the essence of the lesson a few days later.
Many kids complained about school and didn’t want to be there. I don’t blame them. Even though I’ve always been an avid learner, and have always been curious about the world, I found school to be difficult and challenging. There wasn’t much room for creativity in our work load either. The system didn’t care how you learned it, or how the knowledge impacted you, the important thing was your grade. This made school an impersonal, stressful, and rigid environment where kids didn’t have much time to appreciate childhood and be curious about the world.
In WHS, students were subjected to difficult and rigorous courses. Classes were methodical and highly structured. We would then get approximately an hour of homework from each class. The majority of students took at least five courses, which meant on average, a student could easily have up to five hours of homework a night. This left very little time to develop yourself and enjoy childhood. There was also a highly competitive atmosphere amongst the students about getting the best grades. Between homework, studying, and sports, kids would have no time to be themselves. This is the environment I had come from when I left America to come to South Africa.
When I first joined the Waldorf school, I felt anxious because I wasn’t used to such a relaxed and easy environment. The learning pace was much, much slower and more focused on how the knowledge related to the individual. This was unnerving to me at first because I was used to the high intensity environment of WHS. I worried that by the end of my six months in South Africa, I would need to repeat a grade just to be up to speed with my peers in America. As time went on though, I began to appreciate having the free time to reflect and incorporate what I was learning into my brain. The system of Main Lesson books allowed me to really develop my thoughts and remember the concepts. Even today, I can still remember almost everything I learnt during my time at the Waldorf School. Though we covered a lot less, I remember a lot more, whereas at WHS, we covered a lot more and I remember almost nothing.
Waldorf also fostered a sense of community. Instead of creating rifts amongst the kids and fostering competition, Waldorf promotes the growth of an individual in their own unique way. Everyone is encouraged to learn at their own speed and to take time to actually learn from the lesson by reflecting the notes in beautiful books. This practice allowed me to develop a lot as a person and student. It gave me the space to be myself and make my own connections and conclusions. Teachers also had conversations with their students. This was really quite special to me because it showed me that the teachers cared about us and what they were doing. Students also asked a lot of questions and were encouraged to connect the concepts to their own lives. These in-class conversations helped solidify the topics we were covering, and helped me relate to what we were learning. It also connected the teachers and students to one another, fostering a sense of community and caring for one another.
Waldorf pushes you in an unconventional way. Instead of being pushed to get the best grades, I really felt the system pushed you more into becoming an individual. I felt nurtured and supported at Waldorf, a feeling that was alien to me coming from WHS. I was able to grow into myself and it was a unique experience that has allowed me to come out of these six months as a more grounded and whole person in general. The six months I’ve spent at the Waldorf School will definitely influence my life and attitudes towards learning. I’m ever grateful to have been part of the school community and experience what it has to offer. It has made a lasting impression on me, and has served as the most rewarding challenge I’ve had to face in my trip to South Africa.
By Reza Kay Pienaar