AS A journalist, one of the attractions of the job is getting to meet all kinds of interesting people in all sorts of locations and situations. It’s not often though, that your day-to-day work happens right in front of a classroom of teenagers. But then, the Alfa Project, based outside Scariff, is not your average secondary school and reporting on an extraordinary initiative should involve a departure from the norm.
The Active Learning for Adolescents centre delivers Steiner education to teens. If offers creative and practical education and provides an alternative to the conventional Junior Cycle. When I arrive at the idyllic woodland setting in Raheen in the crisp December sunshine, notebook in hand, I am quickly roped into an English lesson by the school’s administrator, Alan Dickey, who spots an opportunity to answer my questions and help students learn about journalism in the process.
My unexpected presence in the class room doesn’t phase any of the 14 senior students, however. The Steiner programme, which is about immersive and practical learning, regularly sees craftspeople, musicians, and language specialists mentoring students inside and outside the classroom.
Alan suggests that we hold our interview ‘live’ in front of the class so that they can see the work of the media first-hand. While I must admit to being a bit daunted about the prospect of having my interview skills so closely scrutinised, there is a buzz of energy in the room that’s infectious. Gradually, with Alan’s encouragement, it’s the students who become my interviewees and answer my questions, the first of which is about what sets the Alfa project apart from the mainstream.
“The teachers here are a lot more open to people who have difficulty with education that’s about getting told a load of stuff so that they can just soak it up and get it out onto a page,” one student explains. “There’s less stress about learning and we definitely get a really broad range of knowledge here.”
Alan adds the teacher’s perspective, noting that the emphasis is very much on stimulating the head, the heart and the hands.
“It’s education for the whole person,” he says. “We make sure that the emotional connection to learning is acknowledged. We don’t have text books, so classes are experiential and project based. Modules which include themes like ‘Stewarding Our World’ incorporate a range of subject matter and encourage students to make connections between issues like climate change, social structures and so on. Our approach is an integrated one so rather than looking at separating subjects, we cover material in a way that naturally incorporates things like geography and the sciences.”
Currently, Alfa, which is a fee-paying initiative provides full-time, progressive education to 32 12-16 year olds. Based on the Steiner-Waldorf philosophy of education, it is one of the few settings that provides an alternative to the mainstream Junior Cycle.
Currently, there are two Steiner primary schools in Clare – one is Raheen Wood, right beside the Alfa facility, the other is Mol an Óige in Ennistymon. The Steiner approach was devised by academic Rudolf Steiner who, in the early part of the 20th century, inspired what became a worldwide movement of schools espousing and promoting universal human values. The approach is co-ed and multi denominational. Its stated aim is to give equal attention to the physical, emotional, intellectual, cultural and spiritual needs of students. Practitioners say its designed to work in harmony with the different phases of development and that whole class, mixed ability teaching is the norm.
While many students at Alfa progress from the county’s Steiner primary schools, others have transferred from conventional secondary facilities. Because Steiner is a global movement, the Raheen school also regularly hosts international exchange students from Spain, France, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany. Their presence adds to the range of perspectives and viewpoints in the classroom and the senior class, whose English lesson I’ve gatecrashed are excellent examples of the Alfa Project’s aim. “We strive to shape creative and resilient young people who are able to take themselves forward in the world,” says Alan.
Part of that fostering of creativity is a unique project to build a ‘geodesic’ dome on the site. The hemispheric structure will serve as everything from a theatrical space to an alternative classroom. It’s a project the students are clearly very enthusiastic about and it’s a perfect example of practical learning.
“Last year the foundations were laid,” Alan explains. “Two local firms engineered the wooden and steel parts and students were guided to put up the basic frame. We have more work to do in the year ahead
and we’d be expecting to have the first gathering inside the dome next May.”
Another major talking point among the senior group at Alfa is the move to third-level education. Alan asks for a show of hands and the straw poll reveals that the majority intend to continue their studies into further and higher education. The stumbling block is having to navigate the points race that is more or less the antithesis of the Steiner approach. If students need to fulfil college entry requirements, they need to complete the Leaving Cert, something that isn’t available through the Alfa Project.
“Lots of us have come here from the mainstream system,” one student tells me. “The thought of going back to do the Leaving Cert is a bit of a punch in the guts. The system is totally outdated and just heaps pressure on people.”
Alan is more positive about the capacity of Alfa graduates to cope with the return to the conventional classroom. “I think that if and when students go back to do the Leaving Cert, they know what they need to do to meet the challenges and they see it as the means to an end.”
So that students are prepared if they do return to the conventional senior cycle, teaching in core subjects including Maths goes right up to Higher Level Leaving Cert standard. That doesn’t mean that lessons are dull, however, because innovation in learning is put to the fore across all subjects. After I sign off from my impromptu English class with Alan, I get to meet some of the other Alfa teachers. A staff of four instructors is supplemented by another 12 part-time tutors as well as facilitators for all kinds of practical workshops from blacksmithing to construction technology.
The teaching of Music and History at Alfa is looked after by Dr Jyoshna La Trobe. From New Zealand, she has been living in Whitegate for around a year and says her philosophy of teaching and learning is based on inclusion. “There really is a place for everyone, whether that involves singing, playing an instrument or discussing music,” she says. As an ethnomusicologist her classes incorporate music from 1400 BC to the current day.
Physics and Irish are taught by Cormac Griffith who lives in Tuamgraney. He describes his educational approach as being about awakening a sense of wonder. He has been teaching the junior group about the physics of light and rather than simply pouring over text books and examining mathematical formulas, the group has been making kaleidoscopes with CDs and exploring the interacting of mirrors, torches and lasers.
“We experiment first,” Cormac explains. “Students get to play before we intellectualise what’s going on. Even with the junior group, we’re able to incorporate elements of the Leaving Cert Physics course in this way.”
Cormac who has been working for five years in Steiner education completed his training at the Crossfields Institute at Stroud outside Bristol. “Here, a huge amount of trust is given to the teacher,” he notes. “We don’t use text books, so lessons are based on a range of materials from videos to experiments and handouts. It really encourages creativity in learning.”
Assessment and feedback are conducted by regularly checking in on students and through weekly meetings. Students are also assigned mentors who are available for support and informal career guidance and Cormac says it’s rewarding to see young people applying what they’ve learned in practical ways.
“Students spent a few weeks on crafts like blacksmithing and coppersmithing and I saw one of them making a triangular pyramid – a tetrahedron – that we’d spoken about in class, so that was amazing.”
Cormac also believes that the nature of the school day is key to facilitating learning.
“In the morning, students might to 30 minutes of exercise with the teacher,” he explains. “There might be a basketball game before class in the afternoon. The relationship between the teacher and the students is super-important. Harvard University has recently supported the approach of caring about the students and caring about the subjects we teach. The big difference here is that learning happens without pressure and it’s amazing to see kids settle and blossom in this environment. The fundamental basis of mainstream secondary education is that corporations need staff and that tends to put pressure across the system. In my view, it’s not necessarily the best thing for human development.”