Book Review by Betty Staley, published in Renewal, Journal for Waldorf Education, Spring, 2017 edition
Betty Staley has been a leader in Waldorf Education for over half a century as an early childhood educator, class teacher, high school teacher, educator of Waldorf teachers, author, and lecturer.
At a time when teachers are under pressure to introduce academic learning in the earliest years, when scores have become the means by which teachers are ranked, and when teachers are being blamed for children’s low educational skills, How Do Children Learn? by Anne Cummings Jacopetti offers a refreshing views. She incorporates neuro-scientific research in child development and the learning process, describes what it means to be a teacher who respects and loves children, and is deeply committed to engaging in the mutual process of teacher and student learning from each other.
The author draws from her wide experience as a teacher in varied situations to focus on how children learn. Her basic premise is that children are born with innate capacities; and these capacities develop on a somewhat predictable timetable throughout childhood and adolescence. The teacher’s task then is to foster children’s capacities and inspire creativity and enthusiasm for learning.
Jacopetti lists nine key elements in which the teacher can implement this goal: strengthening relationships, building community, using stories as stimuli for imagination and guide to the world, integrating the arts, inspiring learning by asking questions, strengthening learning by doing, reconnecting children with nature, working with the seasons and the role of celebrations, and valuing the importance of play as a catalyst for learning.
She draws many of her examples from her years as a Waldorf teacher and teaching in public schools, as well as highlighting other programs and approaches that recognize and develop these important aspects. She provides examples that teachers in any school can use and adapt to their situation.
She demonstrates her points by including poetry and detailed descriptions of conversations with students as well as examples of student work. In addition to clearly identifying these key elements, she draws the readers in so that we feel we are in the presence of a gifted, loving teacher who is as much reflecting on what she has learned from the students as how she has been able to inspire them to love learning from her.
Whereas each of the areas she cites are important, the beauty of this book is how the teacher can integrate them over multiple years. One of her strongest points is the emphasis on relationship, the bonding of the teacher with her students, an opportunity that is present every moment, every day, and every year as the teacher creates a quality of recognition and respect. Not only does Jacopetti highlight the insights of Rudolf Steiner and Waldorf education as her guiding principles, she introduces the reader to the Waldorf approach which is practiced in thousands of schools around the world, and she offers the fruits of this work for any teacher in any school who is committed to teaching as an art.
In order for teachers to implement these nine aspects in teaching, administrators need to offer teachers the same interest, caring and support that teachers are asked to give to the children in their care.
Since the 1980s teachers have not been respected to know how to teach and therefore need to be guided by “experts” such as textbook companies and corporate testing services. Jacopetti states “I believe that such policies are responsible for the poor standing of American students on international educational norms and the exodus of many talented teachers from the public schools.” She cites the Common Core test as an example of an approach that disregards what has been learned through neuroscience about children’s development and instead focuses on expectation of premature analytical thinking which is a cause for increasing anxiety and stress.
Jacopetti’s book, What Are We Going To Learn Today?, offers another way of teaching which brings health to children and inspires them to love learning. For parents and teachers involved in Waldorf education, this book gives an inside view of how to practice this art; how the curriculum addresses the child’s stage of development; how parents, teachers, and children form living and viable communities, how the arts are not an addition to the curriculum, but a necessary means to awaken capacities of trust, enthusiasm, and knowing; why stories are so central a part of the Waldorf curriculum; how learning through questioning and practical experience draw children to awaken their own learning; and how the life of rhythm, celebration, and connection with nature serve to help youngsters connect with the wider community of meaning.
What Jacopetti offers through this book is a gift to all parents and teachers who are concerned about children and their needs, how to counter the materialistic, dehumanizing approach found in many schools under pressure, and how to create a healthy community in which all its members thrive.