Waldorf (Steiner) Pedagogy

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Image: Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein, Germany

Springing from Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy of intellectually comprehensible and objective spirituality, felt via inner development, this pedagogic approach differentiates child development in three distinct stages. Steiner’s philosophy, best known today as Anthroposophy, emphasises the widening of the mental abilities responsible for inspiration, intuition, and perceptive imagination by developing a form of thinking that is distinct from sensory experience; this enables clear and rational expression of the results of studying the spiritual experience, similar to the manner in which scientific investigations are conducted (Steiner, 2013).

Developing free, moral, and publicly integrated students having high social competence – a combination of behavioural, cognitive, emotional, and social skills – is this pedagogy’s fundamental aim, with the schools being mostly self-governing in the structuring and teaching of the curricula and the stress on qualitative assessments. Known as the leader in alternative, independent education movements worldwide, over a thousand Waldorf/Steiner schools can be found in both the most impoverished as well as the wealthiest areas of the world, intended for individually developing the body, spirit, and soul of children from all abilities, interests, and social classes.

The Three Development Stages

Rather than studying each academic discipline independently, the approach correlates and integrates all artistic, intellectual, and practical activities within the curricula, along with a strong emphasis on developing the imagination, which is central to anthroposophy. Ultimately, students undergoing a Waldorf education can expect a holistic growth, preferably with a balance between their “behavioural, cognitive, emotional, physical, social, and spiritual” characteristics that comprises both analytical and creative thought. The following stages each focus on seven-year development:

  1. Kindergartens and preschools emphasise hands-on, practical activities in addition to environments that encourage creative play, which is based on empathy and emulation of the surroundings, and presents a child with a “good” view of the world.
  2. Elementary, or primary, schools focus on bringing out the students’ artistic and social abilities that foster both an analytical and social understanding, to prepare them for formal schooling. Through activities and presentations – such as artistic work and storytelling – students learn the academic content that evokes their feelings and imagination, thereby forming a meaningful association with the content. The curriculum combines languages, visual arts, drama, music, and crafts with many commonly taught school subjects; this presents a child with a “beautiful” view of the world. Additionally, there are no standardised textbooks (Ullrich, 2008).
  3. Secondary education aims to foster an empathy and critique of the world via a formalised learning of the arts, humanities, mathematics, science, and world languages: the student understands the subject matter through independent judgement and thought. The teaching focuses on enabling a good understanding of the conceptual matter, which the student then implements to form conclusions using independent judgement and thought. This presents a child with a “true” view of the world. Skill progression is essential to phase, where refinement occurs of fine art and music techniques, for instance.

Understanding the phases

In the pre-primary phase, the focus on developing the oral skills through movement games, poems, songs, and stories brings forth the child’s inherent creativity; when combined with simple multi-functional aids, such as Waldorf dolls, this strengthens their creative and imaginative faculties. The instruction of conceptual and intellectually straining matter at this age is considered detrimental to the child’s growth, since they learn the most – unwittingly through imitation – in captivating surroundings (Ginsburg, 1982).

However, perhaps the most debated aspect over the Waldorf education system concerns early literacy, traditional education models stress that formalised literacy occurs prior to the age of 6 or 7, contrary to the Waldorf belief that education should begin the child and not the teaching of subject matter (Elkind, 2006). This engages the child’s creative spirit in imagining the things as opposed to the words; they are not born knowing the difference between the colours, surface textures, temperature, or the plethora of physical sensations, which are learnt only through a direct interaction with things and not through words. The pedagogue, Friedrich Fröbel, summed, “Children must master the language of things before they master the language of words”.

Other Aspects

A few key differences are present within the Waldorf system, with eurythmy being primary:

  • Unique to this pedagogic approach, eurythmy is a movement-infused art with associated  spoken text or music containing dance and role-playing elements.
  • Although seen in other systems as well, cooking, farming, and outdoor education are established within the Waldorf/Steiner curriculum.
  • Free play and non-competitive games at a young age foster cooperation but at the secondary level, competition is stressed; critics may disagree with the notion of non-competitiveness and the values it promotes but this actually promotes harmony and team play at a young age.
  • Instruction in two foreign languages starts at the elementary level.

Finally, numerous studies, including those by the renowned PISA, have shown that Waldorf/Steiner students have greater scientific reasoning and are more capable in not only the sciences but also display greater creative thinking faculties, especially in the arts, when compared with other school systems. This is reflected in their far-above-average ability in the PISA school assessments. Moreover, a large proportion of students tend to become doctors, engineers, scientists, scholars, and teachers (Jiménez, 2012). So illustrious is the education methodology that prominent educational practitioners and systems worldwide have infused many aspects of this pedagogic approach, thus giving rise to numerous Waldorf-inspired schools. For parents wanting a holistic development of their children and hoping to provide them with a unique education, they need not look any further.

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Image: Waldorf School, Trier, Germany

References

The author encourages the reader to visit the following website to glean further information regarding the Waldorf/Steiner schools in India, as well as information regarding the curriculum and the schooling format. http://www.anthroposophicalsocietyindia.org/waldorf-education/

“Anthroposophy”: Encyclopaedia Britannica. [Online] – Available at: http://library.eb.com/eb/article-9007798 [Accessed 08/12/14].

  • Elkind, D. (2006). Much Too Early – Education Next. [online] Education Next. Available at: http://educationnext.org/much-too-early/ [Accessed 08/12/14].
  • Ginsburg, I. (1982). Jean Piaget and Rudolf Steiner: Stages of Child Development and Implications for Pedagogy. Teachers College Record, 84(2), pp.327-37.
  • Jiménez, F. (2012). Wissenschaftler loben Waldorfschulen. Die Welt. [online] Available at: http://www.welt.de/print/die_welt/wissen/article109490665/Wissenschaftler-loben-Waldorfschulen.html [Accessed 8 Dec. 2014].
  • Steiner, Rudolf (1995). The Spirit of the Waldorf School. Hudson, New York: Anthroposophic Press.
  • Steiner, Rudolf (2013). The Essential Rudolf Steiner. Lanham: Start Publishing LLC.
  • Ullrich, Heiner (2008). Rudolf Steiner. London: Continuum International Pub. Group. p. 77.

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