Monday, November 04, 2013

European Council in Finland

Forests, lakes & Sibelius, cleverly constructed wooden buildings, fine Scandinavian design, Nokia, saunas & a world-beating education system is quite a list for a country of 5.4 million people (plus one Santa Claus, I am informed - Norwegians might wish to dispute that one). The inner quality of Finland is even more striking. The sense of orderliness rivals Switzerland, but in Finland practicality is nearly always fused with an artistic quality (although a national obsession with heavy metal music, perhaps hints at dark side few Swiss would go along with). Crisp white table cloths draped over dozens of tall white tables at the university ready for coffee table discussions were all neatly aligned. Perhaps this too has some influence on Finland's good standing in international league tables of educational attainment (PISA), a subject which is far more complex than the crude nature of league tables appears. 

This meeting of the European Council for Steiner Waldorf Education took place alongside a conference on the curriculum at Tampere University & a meeting of the Finnish Steiner School Association. The co-operation between educationalists in the university, the schools & Snellman College (the Finnish Steiner Teacher Training institute) is impressive. During the conference there was genuine educational debate in which Waldorf perspectives stood side-by-side with academic enquiry without apology or ned for self-justification. Such is refreshing & the coffee table discussions at took place were similarly open: open-minded, open-hearted & purposeful, something that cannot always be said about discussion of the curriculum, even among Waldorf colleagues. Finnish education may sit atop the tower of PISA, but no-one seems content with that & the consensus from academics & the head of the Finnish Board of Education was that there are many outstanding problems & that revising the national curriculum framework in line with a changing Finnish society & changing needs is essential. The speakers evinced some scepticism about the national PISA status. It seemed almost a matter of embarrassment. As several noted, "the tower of PISA" is leaning & it's current inclination towards Finland might be a mixed blessing.

With notable & worthy exceptions, curriculum debate of this sort in the UK, & especially in England, tends in the direction of the economic challenges the country has to face & then proceeds towards official policy with the assumption that new technology, almost always "information technology", is the heart of the matter. For a British listener, then, the contribution of Irmeli Halinen of the Board of Education (a body independent of government & made up of educationalists) was impressive. Hers was unmistakably a bureaucrat’s view, but it was one seeped in the values & sensibility of an educator. Her starting point echoed the emphasis of the other speakers: that the work of a school is to support young people in finding their own life-meaning, that meaningfulness is a core task in teaching with skills & subjects secondary to that. Inevitably, perhaps, she looked on this through the lens of the challenges of environment, economy & technology, but she made it clear that skills & knowledge need are insufficient answers to these, that teaching & learning need to be infused with social & ethical feeling.

Meaning & responsibility were the watch-words of all the contributions. The curriculum as a guiding principle, a tool rather than a set of directions or directives, appeared as a flexible, adaptive, medium for the meeting of pupils & teachers. That process, as another contributor reminded us, about story-telling, narrative not numbers. That there are education writers in China basing their proposals around such ideas (see Zang Hoa's "No Freedom, No Curriculum") was, at first brush, a surprise, but an excellent reminder that this ancient & complex culture, modernising so quickly, should never be underestimated, or simplified with prejudice or ignorance.

I hope I have been able to convey enough from the conference to suggest to the reader something of its high quality. To do justice to the contributors is, unfortunately, not possible in a short report, & it is unlikely that a long one would do better. This was occasion, punctuated by "coffee table" discourse that seemed close to what Goethean conversation strives to be. Our Finnish colleagues as a whole set before us foreigners a rich terrain for thought-searching; vital questions viewed closely & painstakingly. If all this sounds “heady” or “too intellectual”, bear in mind that the founder of Waldorf education never avoided intellectual activity, but sought to deepen the capacity for honest research in & through thinking. The search for the essence & true nature of things takes place in the thoughtful seeker as it can do in the artist, poet, musician or eurythmist: the philosopher too can be an honest craftsperson. The artful thought of Finnish educators was a reminder of that.    

And Then...Meetings:
To go from the conference to meeting of representatives of the European Waldorf associations, albeit by way of an excellent dinner, needs adjustment: of mood, purpose & will. In fact the Council as a whole is busy adjusting to its new situation & the renewed Board is still finding its way after turmoil & upheaval. At the same time, a cut in funding (no Jean Monet grant this year) presents unprepared financial challenges & Chiara & Patrice in the ECSWE Forest Row office have creditably succeeded in holding the administration together throughout a difficult time. Inevitably, certain matters may never be entirely resolved or fully clarified, but what has been achieved in that direction owes most to the determined work of Babette Johnson (France) & on that basis the new Board, led by Richard Landl (Germany) is ably guiding a long overdue refocusing & prioritising of what the ECSWE can & should be doing.    


So, slowly, haltingly, the Council begins to find a new purpose, & moves closer realising its potential. The opportunity for those who work for national associations, federations (& one “fellowship”) to exchange experience, co-ordinate work that benefits from an international dimension is invaluable. Alongside this there is evident need to ensure that there is an effective Waldorf voice within the many layers & relevant groupings of the European Union. All this is much clearer, as is the means whereby these things can be brought about with the limited funds available. Also clearer now are the practical ways in which countries hosting ECSWE meetings can most usefully link their activities & concerns to Council meetings. Countries & their representatives are also finding their role & voice. Much remains to be done. Because the agreed language for our meetings is English, although the smallest minority are native speakers meanings have to be extracted slowly & painstakingly sometimes through the flames of misunderstanding & frustration. That too can be seen as part of the Council’s mission. Meanwhile, the precise nature of Council responsibilities & its limitations, are taking shape. The essential groundwork has been done in readiness for the next meeting in January in the Netherlands. Watch this space for more information....

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