Critical Pedagogies 2: Steiner Lecture

Introduction

This chapter explores the ideas of Rudolf Steiner, explaining the context in which they arose and the theory of Anthroposophy. It explains the meaning of some key terms such as eurhythmy and explores Steiner's view of human nature, and especially of childhood and child development. The chapter then discusses how this theory was linked to education through the Waldorf/Steiner school movement. Examples are provided to illustrate how the Waldorf/Steiner school system works in practice, and how it can be applied to different educational settings. As in previous chapters, the strengths and limitations of this theory are explored and the reflection sections are designed to help you use this theory when thinking about your own experience in teaching.

Learning objectives for this chapter

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • understand and explain clearly what Anthroposophy is and summarise Steiner's view of childhood
  • understand and explain how this theory applies to education
  • critically evaluate and discuss the strengths and limitations of this theory
  • link this theory to educational practice

What is Steiner's theory of Anthroposophy?

Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) was an Austrian thinker and educationalist who developed a whole new philosophy which he called "Anthroposophy". This word is derived from the Greek words for human being, and wisdom, and it means literally the study of humanity. In fact, however, the theory is much broader than this, and takes in the cosmic dimension of existence, and various non-Western ideas as well as traditional thinking. A key factor that influenced Steiner's philosophy is the shocking experience of conflict that characterised the period between 1914 and 1918. Central Europe had witnessed loss of life and destruction of property on a huge scale due to the large-scale impacts of the first mechanised World War. Moreover, Germany and her allies had lost the war, and there was a prevailing sense of defeat and despair. People were weary of conflict and there was a widespread belief that history was taking a wrong turn, and that human beings had lost their sense of meaning and purpose in the face of so much suffering. Deficiencies in moral and spiritual education, and too much reliance on science and technology was thought to be part of the reason why such a disaster had befallen the world. It is against this background that Steiner developed his innovative ideas about returning to a more natural lifestyle, and encouraging people to adopt a more thankful and appreciative attitude to life. It is perhaps not surprising that his new theory emphasising justice, peace and aesthetic appreciation was very welcome in this context.

Steiner's study of classical and modern philosophy brought him to a realisation that materialistic views of the world can lead to a loss of the sense of awe that human beings historically have felt in the presence of natural phenomena. His thinking rests on classical philosophical premises about the importance of the moral and aesthetic qualities that human beings have, and the concept of wisdom, which incorporates these qualities alongside theoretical and practical knowledge. He was also influenced by the work of more recent authors and artists working in German-speaking environments including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). Goethe was one of the most famous figures in German literature, revered in German speaking countries as much as Shakespeare is in the English-speaking world, and he wrote about scientific theories of colour and philosophical issues, as well as producing world-renowned poems and novels. Like Goethe, Steiner was a prolific author whose literary and non-literary works spanned many disciplines, but unlike Goethe, it is in the field of education that Steiner's reputation has mainly been acquired.

The spiritual dimension was, according to Steiner, all often neglected in early twentieth century living, and yet he views this as an integral part of life that needs to be nurtured just as much as physical, social and cognitive development. His view of the child is summed up as "a spiritual being bearing gifts" (Clouder, 2009, p. 18) and it follows, then, that it is the job of adults to help the child to open up these gifts and discover what they are and how they can be used. He believed that children require healthy and nourishing food, plenty of opportunity for physical play, and an environment that would inspire them and foster their imagination. Also, the concept of will, or willpower, which has a deep resonance in German mythology and philosophy, is an important part of Steiner's philosophy.  Steiner was also interested in Eastern philosophy, and studied concepts such as karma and reincarnation, because of the insights they contained in areas that went beyond the restrictions of largely Judaeo-Christian religious thinking in the West. These ideas were incorporated in to his world view, so that he perceived a whole cosmic dimension that influences human beings in dimensions other than the material world that we see with our physical senses. Steiner's philosophy is no different from traditional religious faith in its general acceptance of a higher order of being, but it is certainly quite different in its detail than any mainstream religious faith.

Steiner's view of human development envisages a series of stages in blocks of seven years as follows:

  • 0-7 years (in which the personality of the child develops from what is inherited from the parents into a new, individual being)
  • 7-14 years (a time when feelings and imagination dominate)
  • 14-21 years (a time when higher thinking takes root, and strong impulses emerge)

The theory goes on to postulate further seven-year stages throughout the whole of life, and to relate them to astrological theory, and the movements of the planets, but that need not concern us here. The key point to remember is the relatively long period between each stage, and the focus on separate areas of development in each stage.

Reflection

Carry out some further research into these three stages envisaged by Steiner. Do you find this division convincing? Why or why not?

What implications does this three-stage division have on the kind of relationship that adults should ideally have with children?

How do these three stages compare with the stages suggested by Piaget and other educational theorists?

What is your view on child development? You could compare the different approaches outlined in this module and choose one of them, or perhaps you could define your own, individual view.

A distinctive feature of Steiner's theory is the emphasis that it places on the human body and its physical development. It is widely recognised that children need outdoor play and physical education, because this helps them to develop motor skills and social skills such as team building, as well as contributing to the health of the child. In Steiner's philosophy, however, there is much greater emphasis on the body, and it is linked with aesthetic and musical appreciation and other kinds of activity.

Another important dimension of Steiner's theory is the role of music, both as an individual activity such as learning to play an instrument, and as a collective activity as children sit in a circle and sing together. His theory involves the practice of eurhythmy, which is a special kind of music and movement activity which teaches self-control, healthy breathing and posture, aesthetic appreciation and harmony with the world and other people.

Another key idea in Steiner's philosophy is that of harmony between the human being and the natural environment. Steiner believed that that human beings are happiest and healthiest when they are in outdoor surroundings such as woodlands and gardens, soaking up the sunlight and breathing in the fresh air. Awareness of the changing of the seasons, different weather conditions, and interaction with animals, plants and physical objects is presented as an essential element in mental and physical health. This helps a person to understand and appreciate his or her place in the world and enjoy simple pleasures that are often forgotten in the hustle and bustle of urban living.

Steiner travelled around central Europe, giving thousands of lectures on his philosophy and building up an enthusiastic following. A centre was established in Switzerland which is still used as a focal point for followers of Anthroposophy. For many people, Anthroposophy has become a way of life, and a guiding philosophy that covers every aspect of their experience.

Reflection

What is eurhythmy? Do you agree that people have lost touch with the physical and spiritual dimensions of existence?

How exactly does it embody anthroposophical philosophy?

Do you think it is beneficial? Practical? Can you think of any contexts in which the practice of eurhythmy might be appropriate? Can you think of any contemporary sports and leisure activities that might have similar goals and effects?

How does this theory apply to education?

At the end of the First World War, Steiner was asked by the head of the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart to set up a school for the children of factory workers from both working class and wealthier social backgrounds. The aim of this first Steiner/Waldorf school, set up in 1919, was "to support all pupils to develop their potential for clear thinking, sensitive feeling and motivated doing through teaching the Steiner Waldorf curriculum" (Taplin, 2011, p. 87). There was also no gender segregation in Steiner's schools, even though this was standard practice in Austrian schools at the time. Collaboration with industry and commerce, usually in the form of funding and access to premises is a feature of Waldorf/Steiner schools that continues to this day. This allows Steiner schools to offer free places to children whose families would not normally be able to afford this alternative form of education.

Unlike the Montessori theory, which was discussed in the previous chapter and which has a similar emphasis on viewing the child as the centre of education, the Steiner theory is applicable to all ages from the age of three right through to the age of eighteen or nineteen. Education is seen as a long-term and holistic process and many children remain within the Steiner school environment all through their childhood and adolescence. There are stages of progression, of course, and children are grouped into mixed ability classes, with separation between major stages, but the community ethos of a Steiner school encourages mingling of all ages together, and joint efforts that cross age or stage boundaries. An interesting application of this ethos can be seen in the children's festivals that are held regularly in school. The whole school prepares to present aspects of the children's work, ranging from dramatic performances from history or literature, recitations in different languages, music, science art, or eurythmic performances. In coming together to observe each other's performance, everyone gains an understanding of the different stages of development throughout childhood and adolescence. Older children can look back and reflect on earlier stages of their own development by observing the younger children, and the younger children can look forward and see what kinds of things they might go on to learn in the future (Edmunds, 2004). There is also extensive collaboration with parents, and a sense of joint working for the benefit of all the children in the school. Social events, charity fund raising, trips and outdoor adventures are all built into the curriculum, encouraging the learners to integrate the experience of school life with experiences involving the rest of the community.

The continuity and social unity that characterises Steiner schools comes about largely through the relationships that teachers form with the children. From the very beginning, children are integrated within a group led by one teacher. This adult is a fixed point in the school routine for that group, and he or she takes special responsibility for the progression of each child in the group. In some ways, this relationship echoes the role of a parent. In the first stage of development (0-7 years) learning is integrated with the business of daily living, and there is no subject-based teaching. Daily tasks such as cooking or are used as ways of exploring the language of weights and measures, for example, and children learn many different crafts and creative activities. Stories, role-plays, rhymes and games are designed to practice language skills. Clouder (2009, p. 5) notes that "the integration of these activities cultivates a love of language, develops speech and allows children time to become really familiar with the spoken word-the best preparation and foundation for the subsequent development of more formal literacy and numeracy".

Example

Taplin (2011) describes the everyday experience of mealtimes in an early childhood Steiner school. She cites the example of what happens when a teacher finishes her meal:

"… if the adult in the kindergarten gets up from the table and carefully pushes her chair into the table, the children will be inclined to do likewise. If they do not, the adult might make a general comment: 'Now my chair is in the right place, I am ready to leave the table', and then slowly look round at all the other chairs - 'I can see that lots of the chairs are in the right place now'. If this happens every day, then all the children will push their chairs in to the table and a good habit will have been learnt about completing one thing before moving on to the next. The adult will, of course, have to keep repeating the action herself for the habit to be maintained" (Tapler, 2011, p. 89).

This example is interesting because it highlights the importance of teaching by example rather than by instruction. It is interesting that the teacher is not telling the children to push their chairs under the table, and neither is she making an explicit parallel between keeping the dining area tidy and finishing one task before starting another. What the teacher is doing is modelling a behaviour and by constant repetition of this behaviour and drawing attention to the effect that it is having, she is encouraging the children to imitate her example, and crucially also, develop similar habits. The Steiner school day usually starts with more theoretical knowledge in the morning, and moves to artistic and practical activities in the afternoon, followed by a more reflective period at the end of the day. There is a great emphasis on myths and legends in the first seven years, but learning materials are made of natural materials and are rather simple. This contrasts with the with the brightly coloured and often electronic gadgets that many young children use in schools today. The Steiner approach prohibits the use of televisions and computers until children reach high school age.

This educational method places quite heavy demands on the teacher to maintain a certain role, observing children's behaviour and demonstrating behaviours, skills, and applications of knowledges when she judges children to be ready for these things. It obviously helps if the teacher has had long experience of this method, since it will become second nature to behave in this deliberate and controlled way in front of the children. Teachers who are new to the Steiner philosophy, however, or people who are temperamentally more impulsive, may find this method difficult to sustain all the time. Teachers and students alike must adapt to the Steiner way.

Reflection

Compare this example with Bandura's theory of social learning. Can you see any overlaps between this example and Bandura's Bobo Doll experiment? Are there any differences?

What do you think about the role of the teacher in a Steiner school? Would you like to teach in a Steiner-inspired environment? Why or why not?

Steiner's ideas are, of course, used explicitly in Waldorf/Steiner schools, but they have also influenced mainstream education, which has gradually evolved to take more account of the individual needs of students, rather than class or cohort-based instruction. The subtle way in which teachers observe and guide students in a Steiner school is increasingly seen as a useful approach in kindergarten and primary schools today. Even in cultures where didactic, whole-class teaching methods are popular, such as in Japanese and Chinese traditional teaching, there is an increasing appreciation of the value in letting children work freely, asking teachers for help when they need it, rather than simply following instructions to the letter.

There are some Steiner management practices which are quite different from the majority of mainstream schools in most Western countries. There is no head-teacher, for example, and so all the teachers share out the administrative and leadership tasks that arise. A teacher will also tend to stay with the same children over several years of education, sometimes even through the whole primary school experience rather than switching to a different class each academic year (Gray and MacBlain, 2015). This reflects the Steiner philosophy which sees schools as a kind of community which should build long term relationships and sustain continuity and harmony.

Reflection

Select one school that you know well, whether as a student or as a teacher, or trainee. What is the management structure like? How are decisions taken? Do all teachers participate in the decision-making, or is there a hierarchical power structure in school? Can you see advantages and disadvantages of each model? Which do you prefer and why?

Think about the way progression from year to year is organised in this school. Does this build long term relationships between pupils and teachers? What impacts are there on children's development when there is a) continuity as in the Steiner model b) discontinuity as in most state school models of yearly teacher changes.

What are the strengths and limitations of this theory?

The main strength of the Steiner approach to pedagogy is the attention that it gives to educating the whole child, including the psychological and physical dimensions as well as cognitive dimensions of development. The emphasis on the natural world, and appreciation of outdoor activities, is seen as a healthy antidote to the many pressures and harmful effects of urban living in overcrowded and busy spaces. Many parents and teachers value the Steiner approach because its slower pace and greater provision for individual learning takes pressure away from the child. Classrooms are peaceful and harmonious, and children learn to understand themselves and others in a calm and purposeful way.

The focus on individual development encourages children to build their own unique personality and talents, rather than submit to an externally imposed norm. Instead of responding to discipline and coercion, children learn to make their own choices and follow their own ideas to reach goals that they have either set themselves, or agreed in conversation with other people, including peers, parents and teachers. This ability to use thinking and talking skills to solve problems is very much appreciated in society, and children who master it early in life have an advantage over those who have learned only to submit or resist in a more authoritarian environment.

Children who learn in a Steiner kindergarten or school are often more creative than children who learn in a mainstream setting. Freedom to explore different crafts and skills in the presence of instructors who pass on tips and demonstrate new techniques can encourage the simultaneous development of intellectual, social and technical abilities. There is no separation between these dimensions and all are valued equally. For children who have less interest in academic learning, this can be a very positive and valuable experience, and it allows them to grow up without the stigma that is often applied to "less academic" children. The Steiner methodology accepts that children are different, and may develop in different ways, and it promotes diversity and tolerance. These features are very much needed in many pluralistic societies and this may explain why Steiner schools remain popular with parents who have liberal values and seek a progressive educational experience for their children.

Steiner's theories are sometimes criticised because of their tendency to be very idealistic, and to over-protect children in an environment that filters out some of the pressing realities of the modern world. The delay in exposing children to instructed learning, for example, can be seen as a form of developmental hindrance, because it takes longer for children to learn to read and write in this environment. In our highly competitive world, this is seen by some as a disadvantage. The prohibition of screens and gadgets in primary school is also becoming increasingly difficult for Steiner schools to maintain. It is also arguable that children need to develop an awareness of digital technologies, just to be able to function in the modern world. Children who learn in a Steiner environment may lack areas of competence that children in other schools have already mastered. While this is not problematic in an environment where everyone signs up to the Steiner methodology, it can be quite a shock, and a severe disadvantage, when a learner leaves a Steiner school and experiences other types of learning in a mainstream school or college. There may also be considerable conflict between the environment at home and at school if a child's parents are not fully supportive of the rather narrow Steiner view of these matters. The more different a Steiner environment is to the majority of homes and schools in society, the more difficult transitions in and out of that Steiner environment will become.

Although there are many parallels between the Steiner philosophy and current legislation on curriculum in schools, there are some important differences. This means that teachers in mainstream must be wary of adopting Steiner principles without checking that they remain within the Statutory Framework that is set down for all schools. Steiner publications including Clouder (2009) contain explicit disclaimers, underlining the need to adhere to the national legislation, unless an exemption has been granted.

Another criticism that is often levelled against Steiner is that his ideas on education are part of a much wider world view which has heavy philosophical and religious overtones, and he published a huge amount of material relating to the esoteric branch of philosophy/theology known as "Theosophy". He was interested in mysterious and secret forms of knowledge, and his argumentation fuses spiritual and logical reasoning in a way that many educationalists find confusing, or even incompatible with the more materialistic view of the world that many modern societies have. His writings on the "Soul-World" and "Spirit-Land" (Steiner, 1928, chapter XXXIII), for example, contrast the physical human body with the so-called astral body, and advocate exercises in inner reflection which lead to experiences in a higher world. People who already have a religious faith may also object to these ideas, although for different reasons than non-religious people.

Reflection

In the life and work of Rudolf Steiner there is ample evidence of the way in which his rather unusual religious ideas affect his thinking on education. Locate some of his works online (not summaries or critical appreciations, but some of his own writings - a simple Google search will turn up a rich variety of them) and see if you can trace connections between his philosophy and his educational theory. Do you find his a) his educational arguments and b) his more esoteric arguments convincing?

Now reflect on mainstream education in the UK (or any other country of your choice). What philosophical or religious ideas underpin educational theory in this country? Think about the impact that major philosophies and religions such as Christianity, Islam, scientific positivism, Marxism, etc. have had on education. Are all schools influenced by ideology of some sort or other? How does this affect the students and teachers in the school?

How can this theory be linked to practice?

Steiner schools remain distinctive, even though some of the ideas that Steiner advanced have become more widely acceptable than they were when he first started writing about education. In many Northern European countries, including especially Germany and Scandinavia, Steiner's views on the outdoors and learning in the fresh air through experience of the natural world have great cultural resonance. It was recently estimated that there are some 800 Steiner schools and over 2000 Early Years settings in over 60 countries (Clouder, 2009). This profile shows a wide geographical range of application, but in any one country, Steiner schools and kindergartens are very much in the minority.

Some other progressive forms of education such as the famous Summerhill experiment in the UK build on very similar ideas about child-centred education. A more recent movement in and around temporary or permanent "Forest School" learning environments are very popular, and increasingly being offered alongside or even instead of mainstream Early Years provision (Knight, 2013). This dimension of learning has been somewhat neglected, particularly in urban schools where school grounds are often small and paved over, and opportunities for learning in a natural environment are few. Forest schools can be offered as week-long adventures in which children and their teachers set aside their normal routine to focus on open air activities. These activities should present new materials and new activities, which will necessarily involve some element of instruction by teachers and workshop leaders, but in essence, the whole experience should be largely child-initiated and child led. The insights that children gain through this type of learning can be highly personal, with great variation between one child and another.

Example

One researcher reports on a Steiner-inspired Forest School learning experience in the open air that she witnessed:

"I have watched a boy re-create a tree with a bird's nest in it on the ground using twigs … Once he had completed his self-appointed task he lost interest in what was to me a work of art. It had fulfilled its function in helping him to understand what he had seen and was therefore redundant. Such play needs time, time to think through the process of their own learning, and accommodate new abstract concepts" (Knight, 2013, p. 98).

The teacher does not know what is going on inside the head of the boy in this example, but she observes his behaviour and links it with the experiences he has had earlier in the day. She reflects on the way the boy uses materials that he finds in the natural environment to make sense of his experiences and learn about the world around him. In this instance, she does not need to talk to the boy to understand the importance of this experience for him. It is obvious from his demeanour that he is thinking, and re-shaping his understanding to accommodate new knowledge about natural habitats.

This example shows that there may be some deep meanings behind children's play that educators could easily overlook. It also illustrates the principle of reflective practice, which demands that teachers, and new teachers especially, should develop a habit of continually observing and gathering evidence which they can use to improve their own performance (Ghaye, 2011). Teachers themselves should never stop learning, but always observe the multitude of different ways in which children understand and interact with the world. Sometimes events and experiences that seem trivial or irrelevant to an adult onlooker, can have a high level of significance for a child. A key point to note is that children will sometimes take time to focus for a longer period of time on aspects of their own play, and these periods of high concentration are often an indication that learning is taking place. It is not always possible to predict when these opportunities will arise, or to organise classrooms in such a way as to make space for each child to have such experiences, but every school should provide. Steiner's theory advocates long periods of learning, with opportunities for children to integrate their emotional, cognitive, physical and spiritual learning through extended interaction with the environment. It can be logistically difficult and quite expensive to organise such learning opportunities, and there are considerable health and safety aspects to consider as well. Nevertheless, this style of learning provides opportunities for creativity, awe and experience that are impossible to provide within the constraints of a classroom or small, urban or suburban playground.

Reflection

Observe some children and teachers in a Steiner or Forest School context where learning is taking place outdoors (you can do this by locating any video online on this theme). What is special about this kind of learning? What are the teachers doing, and what are they not doing? Describe one episode in detail: where the children are, what they are doing, what tools they are using, how they are interacting, what language they are using, what they are learning etc.

What have you learned in this reflection? How could you apply some of this learning in your own teaching?

Conclusion

This chapter has very briefly reviewed and discussed some of the main tenets of Steiner's theory of Anthroposophy and its application to education, both in Waldorf/Steiner schools and in other contexts. It has drawn parallels with other educational theories, including notably the Montessori method, with which it shares some features. The Steiner approach is not for everyone, and it requires quite considerable study, training and practice before a teacher can fully embody its principles. Some will find its more esoteric aspects difficult to grasp, but there are plenty of very useful ideas and techniques in Steiner schools that are educationally sound, and can be adapted to other contexts. Open-ended and outdoor play, imaginative use of myths and legends, and a strong community ethos based on stable, long-term relationships are just three areas where Steiner's theory can provide inspiration and useful guidance for any teacher.

Reflection

By the time you have finished reading this chapter, and thinking about the issues raised in the examples and reflection sections, you should:

  • understand what Steiner's theory means in the context of educational research
  • understand the Behaviourist assumptions behind this theory, and how it relates to other theories
  • understand and explain clearly how this theory applies to education
  • relate this theory to educational practice at different levels from infancy to adulthood.

Now you should complete the 'hands-on scenario' at the end of this chapter. Use what you have learned in this chapter to complete the short task described there.

Reference list

Clouder, C. (2009) Guide to the Early Years Foundation Stages in Steiner Waldorf Early Childhood Settings. Forest Row: Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship.

Edmunds, F. (2004) An Introduction to Steiner Education: The Waldorf School. Forest Row: Sophia Books.

Ghaye, T. (2011) Teaching and Learning Through Reflective Practice. Second edition. Abingdon: Routledge.

Gray, C. and MacBlain, S. (2015) Learning Theories in Childhood. Second edition. London: Sage.

Knight, S. (2013) Forest School and Outdoor Learning in the Early Years. Second edition. London: Sage.

Steiner, R. (1928) The Story of My Life. London: The Anthroposophical Publishing Company. Available at: http://wn.rsarchive.org/Books/GA028/TSoML/GA028_index.html [Accessed 12 December 2016].

Taplin, J. T. (2011) Steiner Waldorf early childhood education: offering a curriculum for the 21st century. In L. Miller and L. Pound (Eds.), Theories and Approaches to Learning in the Early Years. London: Sage, pp. 86-98.


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