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Under examination: portfolio-based qualification supported by Nobel Laureatte

Against a backdrop of exam season for tens of thousands of pupils across Scotland, and the pressures of prelims being felt on campus, 8 pupils erected an exhibition, piloting the Certificate in Integrated Education (CIE) for the first time. They received top marks for their efforts, benchmarked at GCSE level. Will Integrated Education influence the examination landscape for younger generations? It has the support of Nobel laureate Thomas Sudhof.


In an interview with Edinburgh Steiner School, Dr Thomas Sudhof, Nobel Prize Winner in Neuroscience, Waldorf graduate, and Patron of ACTS, explains:

I believe that training in the arts, especially classical music but also painting and writing, trains the mind because it teaches a person that one cannot be creative and innovative if one doesn’t first master a skill. Creativity comes on top of technical ability.

My musical training taught me that I first had to be actually good at playing the instrument before I could create new artistic expression. Once I had a modicum of technical ability (not very much, I am afraid!), I could actually start to be creative, but only after achieving this ability.”


In an interview he gave during the 3-year ACTS project, Dr Sudhof is quoted saying:

I spent my entire school education in the Waldorf system. When I emerged from it, I’m sure I wasn’t as well trained in many of the STEM systems. But I don’t think that matters. In particular, I feel that today’s education, at every level — certainly in school, but even in college — is way too much focused on the so called “STEM subjects”: science, technology, engineering and math. The fear that we may become illiterate in those subjects, is probably well founded, but you can’t just cram it into people. It’s not productive, and certainly not in young children. So I think that fostering creative thinking and individual initiative early on is tremendously positive. (Empowered Doctor).


The ACTS team weigh in on what children need to navigate the challenges of the 21st Century. Feeling stifled by the requirement to force-feed knowledge to stressed and fatigued teenagers, educators collaborated to seek a far more inclusive and less invasive form of assessing the pupils’ skills than the standard exam system. Project Coordinator, and international education consultant, Elaine Holt says: “Creativity is an elusive jewel that is often overlooked or misunderstood, even when it lies in plain sight, just waiting to be raised up – or trodden down into the mud”.


Echoing Michael Brooks, author of Invest in Minds, Not Maths to Boost the Economy Holt reiterates the system of endless testing is broken:

Having to focus so heavily on formal learning for summative, exam-based assessment to achieve a qualification, means that many schools currently find that their students are not being best served. The pressures to achieve within an exam-based system inevitably devalue time spent on integrating other important learning opportunities.

Those students whose learning styles do not sit well with formal learning and summative exam assessments are at greater risk of becoming disillusioned, disengaged, stressed and even disruptive.

Even those who are well-suited to formal learning in the teenage years are not best served in an exam-driven environment that is necessarily backward-looking and based upon what was important some years previously when the exam criteria were set, rather than providing preparation for acting in an increasingly complex and uncertain world.

More damaging still is the way the current system places undue stress upon finite fact regurgitation and training to pass exams, rather than creative understanding and engagement with principles as continually developing concepts.”


The UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity; with seventeen identified goals to address the most pressing global problems facing both the current and future generations. It informs global educational policies. In the document, ‘innovation’ and ‘innovative’ appear twenty-six times, particularly in relation to science, technology, infrastructure, and economic growth. But curiously, these words do not appear anywhere in Goal 4: education provision or aims.


Teachers teach to the whole child, addressing all the multiple intelligences, including emotional literacy and kinaesthetic learning, while bringing into balance the right and left hemispheres of the brain. This develops analytical, logical and reasoning skills as education has always done, but also focuses on the development of imagination, creativity, memory, and flexible-thinking – skills highly prized in today’s society.


Holt says: “Focusing surgically on a specific set of elevated STEM subjects can cause nations and the education systems they govern to devalue other equally valuable and interrelated skills which include the precursors to creativity.”


Steiner education aims to develop the thinking activity that has the capacity to find solutions rather than only knowing facts, so that they can begin to ask questions that have never been asked before and open new findings. The IE qualifications provide, for the first time, a tangible recognition of the value of creative thinking skills – that is, taking skills, knowledge and experience from diverse subjects and settings, and applying them in other contexts and combinations, as has long been the tradition in Waldorf schools.


Edinburgh Steiner School – the only school north of the border based upon the principles of the internationally recognised educational philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, provides an important alternative to mainstream independent education in a city where a staggering one in ten children attend a fee-paying primary and parents of more than double this number (21%) are paying for secondary school (Biggar Economics report, 2018), compared to a UK average of 6%. Steiner schools typically experience a high number of disaffected pupils needing a more integrated, holistic educational approach; one that recognises them as individuals with different thinking and learning styles.


Still the fastest growing independent education movement worldwide, now with over 1,200 schools and 2,000 Kindergartens on every habitable continent, Steiner education aims to develop the thinking activity that has the capacity to find solutions rather than only knowing facts, so that they can begin to ask questions that have never been asked before and open new findings.


Joining fellow Steiner schools in Finland, Denmark, Norway and the UK in developing the innovative non-exam qualifications at Level 2 (GCSE) and Level 3 (A Level), three members of Edinburgh Steiner School staff have been engaged in a rigorous post-graduate training programme to embed the skills necessary to teach and assess the Integrated Education (IE) courses at all levels; and the school is in its second year of bringing the Level 2 IE Certificate into the classroom. These qualifications hope to help pupils engage with education again, and achieve their potential in a way that makes their learning visible and able to be evaluated beyond the gates of a Steiner campus.


A mixture of English GCSEs, National 5s, Highers and Advanced Highers are offered at Edinburgh Steiner School from Class 9 upwards. The particular mix arises from the teachers’ study of which exam will best fit into the Steiner curriculum and allow the most latitude for study. The School ranked in the Sunday Times Top 10 independent schools (2017), before SCIS actively discouraged member schools from submitting data for these league tables. It is now championing the new Integrated Education suite of qualifications within its timetable.


Alistair Pugh, Chair of College at Edinburgh Steiner School, has been actively involved with the project from the beginning. Mr Pugh says:

I believe that it’s one of the most exciting developments in Steiner education for a generation. Taking CIE into the classroom progresses the project for the generations of young people to come who will benefit from its pluralistic orientation. It not only provides an opportunity to evaluate the Certificate in practice. A school delivering Integrated Education can apply for the qualification to be added to the UCAS Tarif.”


UCAS in the UK translates qualifications into a numerical value. Universities, colleges and conservatoires refer to a minimum number of UCAS Tarif points in their ‘Course Entry Requirements’. The Level 2 CIE qualification, already registered on Ofqual, will provide the young person with the number of UCAS points equivalent to two GCSEs once fully fledged.


Measured against comparable qualifications designed for 15-16 year olds, Alison Richards, Head of Quality Assurance at Crossfields Institute says: “It became clear that students from Steiner schools are expected to, and achieve, higher levels of self-direction and self-management at this age and stage, due, in part, to the process of undertaking a Class 8 Project. This also sets them up well to work with the Creative Thinking Skills.”


Reflecting on his own Waldorf education, Sudhof remembers: “At the Waldorf School that I attended in Hanover, the teachers provided me with the freedom and inspiration to develop my own projects, allowing me to develop my own approach to and thinking about specific issues ranging from mathematical problems to artistic creations.”


Sudhof, father to seven children – Saskia, Alexander, Leanna, Sören, Roland, Moritz and Leonore Haiying Sudhof – would ‘strongly consider’ a Waldorf education for his children if it weren’t for the nearest school being a long drive away. “Because of traffic, it is more than an hour away even though I live very close to Stanford”. The distance didn’t stop Sudhof from being a key speaker at the collaborative Waldorf 100 celebrations in Silicon Valley however, giving a talk in the rain about his research, which recently had a breakthrough.


“In the brain, trillions of nerve cells communicate with each other via synapses, which are communication nodes. Each nerve cell has thousands of synapses that are formed between specific partnering cells at well defined locations. How this specificity is achieved is unknown. This is what we work on,” Sudhof explains.


“We have recently made major progress in identifying mechanisms that allow that brain to form specific connections, and that go awry in neuropsychiatric disorders. I am excited about this progress!”


Whilst a wooden beam in the science wing of the Edinburgh campus is prepared to display the century old bassoon, autographed by Dr Sudhof as part of our Waldorf 100 celebrations,  he warns budding scientists:

More than ever, we live in a world filled with distractions, falsehoods, and irrelevant side issues. The IT revolution with smart phones and social media has led to a vast industry of companies that want a piece of each individual. I would urge people to refuse to give up their individuality to this industry, and to resist the temptation of participating in this industry, but to instead follow their own mind and develop their ideas and knowledge.”


One pupil did just this through her Class 8 project, choosing the world of poetry as her research topic, writing two biographies for ‘inspirational and important’ female poets. As part of her independent study she joined the Bronte Society. For the practical part, she penned her own poetry, and printed it in a book self-bound ‘to balance the academic with the creative’.


Euan – the youngest in the educational pilot – spent his time crafting his own street organ and leaning to play it. An important component of the Independent Project module stipulates the regular engagement with a mentor, who acts as a critical friend and advisor. Euan worked with former Harris & Harris head pipe voicer, whose last job was tuning the organ for Prince William and Kates wedding. Euan is to join the Fairground Organ Preservation Society as a junior member.


Others built a bike, ‘as I’d been saving up for one and thought I’d just make it’; learnt Batik skills, ‘After making all the mistakes, I started to understand and get the hang of doing Batik’, creating decorative fabrics; self-taught himself action-camera video-making ‘pulling together all the things I love to do’, explored ‘dream discovery’, that included making a dream catcher; studied landscape and portrait photography, taking her SLR out into nature and back into the digital darkroom; and took on the craft of basket-weaving, producing a collection of cane-woven artefacts.


Alongside the more traditional, formal elements of education, the qualifications will enable non-formal and informal learning to be included and recognised, allowing the unique talents and interests of each student to be acknowledged. They develop a spectrum of creative thinking skills through the cross-curricular approach to equip pupils to access higher education, employment and entrepreneurship. And they have high aspirations, seeking to raise attainment, lower Early School leaver numbers, and put creative skills back on the curriculum agenda.


“The students have an opportunity to gain internationally-recognised academic credit through the fantastic learning opportunity offered by the Class 8 projects’ adds Class 8 teacher Andrew Phethean.

“Those pupils who have elected to do the CIE pilot will make a considered point of showing the process that lead them to the result, evidenced through photos, videos, sketches, drawings, reports, conversations, lists and meetings with a mentor, alongside the final project”.