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Steiner education

'If you want to be beautiful, work with your mind'
Peter Deunov


mediaeval school room


At the right age they will awaken their own free sense of religion and morality which will then become part of their very being. And they feel that only this can make them fully human. The great aim at the Waldorf School is to bring up free human beings who know how to direct their own lives.

Rudolf Steiner A Modern Art of Education:12 [1923]

. ∴ .

Steiner/Waldorf Schools

There are over a thousand Steiner (or Waldorf) schools worldwide.

One of the important aspects of these schools is that each is independent and, except where local legislation dictates a commonality of curricula, independent of government school guidelines.

The administration of education, from which all culture develops, must be turned over to the educators. Economic and political considerations should be entirely excluded from this administration. Each teacher should arrange his or her time so that he can also be an administrator in his field. He should be just as much at home attending to administrative matters as he is in the classroom. No one should make decisions who is not directly engaged in the educational process. No parliament or congress, nor any individual who was perhaps once an educator, is to have anything to say.

Basic Issues of the Social Question

Steiner or Waldorf education cannot be, as should be obvious from the above quote, a 'system', so each school, and in fact each class level within each school, may do things in different ways. What is common, however, is the educational underpinning of the education which is based on Rudolf Steiner's pedagogical and spiritual views of the human being.

Educational Philosophy

As in other educational settings, these views are not taught to the students, but rather inform how, when and why certain things are introduced. An important consideration in the overall concern is reflected in Steiner's statement that

It is of prime importance that we develop an art of education that will permit us to emerge from the social chaos into which we have fallen. The only way to emerge from this social chaos is to bring spirituality to the souls of people by means of education, so that within the spirit itself they can find the path to progress and a better evolution of civilization.

This is especially important given the educational climate that seems to want to inverse principles from one where healthy social conditions arise from education to one that views human beings as, effectively, no more than 'cogs in the ecomonic machine' (to which also the political sphere has fallen into subservience). In Steiner's Threefold Social Order, such was already highlighted with quite an astounding and deep statement with important ramifications:

A healthy relation exists between school and society only when society is kept constantly supplied with the new and individual potentials of persons whose educations have allowed them to develop unhampered. This can be realized only if the schools and the whole educational system are placed on a footing of self-administration within the social organism. The government and the economy must receive people educated by the independent spiritual-cultural life; they must not, however, have the power to prescribe according to their own wants how these human beings are to be educated. What a person ought to know and be able to do at any particular stage of life must be decided by human nature itself. Both the state and economic life will have to conform to the demands of human nature. It is neither for the state nor the economic life to say: We need someone of this sort for a particular post; therefore test the people that we need and pay heed above all that they know and can do what we want. Rather, the spiritual-cultural organ of the social organism should, following the dictates of its own independent administration, bring those who are suitably gifted to a certain level of cultivation, and the state and economic life should organize themselves in accordance with the results of work in the spiritual-cultural sphere.

R. Steiner 'The Threefold Social Order and Educational Freedom'

This, of course, is being increasingly undermined by National Standardised testing pushed onto communities by governments as a consequence of a report that emerged from the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 1999. Therein, its Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) basically sets out uniformity, and unfortunately all too many countries have taken it up even though pedagogically unsound. In contrast, Steiner's pedagogical views encourages a development of each human being to fully engage in the world... within the context of apt developmental stages, overly briefly outlined below.

Of noteworthy mention is Frank Furedi's Wasted: Why Education Isn't Educating (2011), where he writes (p 215-216):

Education needs to be saved from the influence of curriculum experts. It will take a long time for teachers to recover their confidence and begin to think of themselves as educators rather than as learners. There are too many vested interests that play the game of ticking the right boxes, micro-managing the classroom, and promoting social engineering schemes. Many of the prevailing practices - inspections, examinations, teaching to the curriculum - encourage the process of standardization instead of improving standards. […] Schools that are devoted to pursuing education as something that is important in its own right are likely to formulate an effective approach towards the specific needs of their pupils. More widely, the affirmation of adult authority in and out of the classroom is essential for providing a sturdy cultural foundation for education. The depoliticization and the insulation of schools from the influence of social engineers is also a precondition for transforming schools.

It should perhaps be obvious that Steiner's views reflects an educational philosophy that is fundamentally based on a view of the human being as spiritual, and that fully respects the authority of the teacher-as-educator. Further, it sees for education a task that is to serve the human being, rather than be at the service of the state or its economic development. These latter will, in any case, benefit and develop according to the proper development and education of individuals, grounded in an understanding of human striving (i.e., valued history).

Notes on Christianity, Buddhism and Islam

It should probably be obvious from some of the other pages on this site of the central importance of understanding Christ. Steiner schools, whether they wish to acknowledge it or not, are based on an anthroposophical understanding of the human being, which includes an understanding of the spiritual hierarchies, forces, and their development and manifestation through human history and pre-history.

There is an important and positive role played by the Buddha, both during his earthly incarnation as well as in his role in our own journeys towards earthly incarnation and our post-death ascent.

There are, however, other forces and being that need to be understood, and some of these are not only those who work with Christ, but also the counter luciferic and ahrimanic forces. As also included on the page On Lucifer - Christ - Ahriman, Steiner responds to a teacher's query about Allah thus:

It is difficult to describe that supersensible being. Mohammedism is the first manifestation of Ahriman, the first Ahrimanic revelation following the Mystery of Golgotha. Mohammed's god, Allah, Eloha, is an Ahrimanic imitation or pale reflection of the Elohim, but comprehended monotheistically. Mohammed always refers to them as a unity. The Mohammedan culture is Ahrimanic, but the Islamic attitude is Luciferic.

Faculty Meetings with Teachers, vol. 2, pp. 75-76

Steiner is clear also on the differences between particular forces or spiritual beings that may impact on our own development (for good or ill) and our common humanity irrespective of our genetic make-up.

He similarly does not circumvent important considerations within Christianity. Steiner can be seen as being critical to the protestant's focus on Jesus in contradistinction to Christ (elsewhere he is similarly critical of the Society of Jesus for similar reasons):

If human beings would only understand the Christ […] then the feeling and conceptions that are developed in regard to Him could be conveyed to all human beings. Christ did not die only for those who belong to some Christian sect, but He died and rose again for all mankind. […]

If we go as missionaries to foreign cultures, or even to people in our own lands, and wish to force upon them the worship of Jesus within a religious denomination, we will not be understood since the knowledge of these people extends far beyond what is brought to them by this or that missionary. I should like to know, for example, what a Turk would say if a modern Protestant pastor should try to convey to him his conception of Christ. This conception as it is dealt with by modern Protestant pastors holds that there was once a Socrates, and then one who was somewhat more than Socrates, the Christ, the human being, the special human being, but still the human being – or any of those confused things that are said today in modern Protestantism about Christ. The Turk would say to him, 'What! You tell me such a thing and you wish to be called a Christian? Just read the nineteenth chapter of the Koran; much more is contained in it about the Christ than what you are telling me!' In other words, the Turks know a great deal more concerning Christ Jesus than what the modern Protestant pastors are prone to present because the Koran contains more about Him and Christ is represented much more as the Divinity in the Turkish confession than in that of the modern Protestant. This is simply not realized because nowadays people do not often go so far as really to read the original religious documents; rather, they utter much superficial nonsense regarding all possible religions.

[…] Everyone today is to some degree prepared to receive the Christ revelation; this is a distinction that must be made. However, many forces are at work to suppress the real Christ revelation and genuine spiritual science.

The Karma of Vocation (GA 172) Lecture X

These are not insights that are, of course, taught to students, but at the same time they do inform questions that arise for us as teachers when looking at history and reflecting on its unfolding.



Practical applications of Steiner's pedagogical principles

From the 23rd January 1923, only weeks following the destruction of the first Goetheanum in Dornach, Steiner gave a series of talks in Stuttgart (collected as Awakening to Community, GA 257, p.10), in which he mentions that:

[…] the Waldorf School is not an institution set up to teach anthroposophy, but to solve the problem of how to teach for the best development of the whole wide range of human capacities: how can education best serve human growth?

Continuing the same set of lectures to the same audience a few weeks later (13th February 1923, p. 67-68), Steiner mentions that 'it is possible to be a first-rate Waldorf teacher and a poor anthroposophist', with the comment, however, that

Being a real anthroposophist is the all-important thing. Waldorf teachers, workers at Der Kommende Tag, scientists, medical men and other such specialists simply must not turn their backs on the anthroposophical source or take the attitude that there is no time left from their work for anthroposophical concerns of a general nature. Otherwise, though these enterprises may continue to flourish for a while, due to the fact that anthroposophy itself is full of life and passes it on to its offspring, that life cannot be maintained indefinitely, and the offspring movements too would eventually die for lack of it.


The Pre-School Child - the 0-7 year old child and education:

When this time is not able to be spent within the family home, the kindergarten seeks to provide an environment that is rich in natural materials, simple and natural shapes, and that in many ways becomes an extension of the child's home.

No formal tuition is engaged in per se. Rather, the child emulates that presented by the engaged adult, whether this be preparing food and cleaning, working in the garden, creating rich imaginative stories, or repeating tales from the vast repertoire of humanity's creative genius.

guiding principle

A home-like environment in which the child imitates. Attention to details and an extremely healthy setting is therefore necessary.

Development of the limbs and a careful pre-natal care for the etheric or rhythmic body. Repetition and regularity of daily and weekly rhythm therefore carefully maintained.


The Class Teacher Period - the 7-14 year old child and education: teaching during the second phase of the incarnating child

Schooling begins with the child turning seven. There are of course small differences in development (properly speaking, the manner in which incarnation takes place), and some children will be ready for the independence and the active imagination required either a little earlier or later.

The teacher (and other adults) is here the authority for that which is presented to them.

There are general guidelines for each year level that reflects typical maturation and incarnation. For example, class one is typified by a world of fairy tales and a world animated by nature spirits; class two by the kingdoms of nature and people's direct relationship with it (hence the frequent inclusion of stories of St Francis of Assissi); class three by the creative authority of the divine, characterised principally by stories from Genesis and Moses in the Torah. It is also during class three that most children will experience a particular awakening to a sense of self different to the first usage of the self-referential 'I' that occured when three years old; class four by an outer expression that begins organised co-operation, and characterised by nordic and viking tales; class five by the vast episodic sagas in Indian, Egyptian and Greek ancient cultures; class six by a sense of complex formalised order in the Greco-Roman empires; class seven by the rich tapestry of European mediæval transformation and the chilvalry and courage of service; finally, class eight by an awakening to individuality and human endeavours transforming the world from the Renaissance to the industrial age.

guiding principle

Human history in its rich complexity is presented in ways appropriate to the developing child. A sense of beauty and richness enriches the pre-natal astral body.

The sense of adult authority provides for a world that is felt to be safe and in which one can grow. Choice is therefore either limited, or excluded, providing instead a rich basis for the development of imagination in both school-work and games.


The High School Period - the 14-18 year old adolescent and education: teaching during the third phase of the incarnating child

As for the previous developmental period, one may focus discussion on the adolescent, the teacher, and the materials covered: the more formal curricula.

The nature of the growing human being instructs how, when and why things are presented in particular ways. A key distinction between the former period and this one is in the nature of the authority of the teacher. Now, the subject matter presents its own richness via the engaged teacher who maintains a passion for the subject. A passion does not mean an animated presentation, but rather and simply a deep love for the areas in which a shared discovery is enucleated and unfurled.

This is the time in which the developing individual will begin to make independent judgements. Insights gained are connected to the world around them, and the inquiring mind begins to make connections through understanding. Over the course of this period, beginning insights will lead to judgements, that will further lead to concepts increasingly generalised and abstracted, leading to wisdom-filled ideas that, enriched, become motivating ideals.

Some key curricula contents of a Steiner High School working with the suggested guiding principles will see class nine students engaged in spending some time with our communities' various needs, whether this be with nursing-home elderly, the destitute, or those in life's other nadir points, in addition to working on a farm; class ten students will engage in surveying, during which not only a mapping of the land's physical characteristics will be carefully observed, but also its biosphere; class eleven students will work not only with projective geometry, but also turbines and the art of paper making; and class twelve students will take on a major project and philosophy. All this whilst having maintained classes in Eurythmy, in History, in Chemistry, Physics and Biology, in English (or rather, the national tongue) and a foreign language, in Mathematics, in Geography, and in Art and Music.

guiding principle

An active engagement in one's thought-life and the development of different ways of seeing, feeling and doing. A care for the pre-natal 'I' or Ego of the student.

A school programme of instruction and engagement that actively seeks to engage every student in the seven liberal arts and sciences presented in their modern equivalent.


Main Lesson and structure of the day in the Class Teacher period and in the High School

The day itself is organised in ways still peculiar to Steiner education in which the Main Lesson, ideally the first two hours of the day, sees the same subject investigated in-depth over approximately three consecutive weeks. Not all subjects have, however, a Main Lesson - some, such as the more practical ones such as crafts, farming, music, sports, foreign languages, and theatre are ideally tabled during the afternoon.

Apart from the general welcoming or greetings and the morning verse (and, in the youngest classes, an incoming into the school and and the Main Lesson work through morning circle), the educational day opens with the Main Lesson - no announcements, organisational or administrative duties, and certainly no other teaching or support/remedial reading or equivalent takes place prior to this important opening to the school day. In a sense, the beginning of the day shines the light of consciousness that will spiritually blossom the germination of the night's sleep upon the seeds from the fruits of the previous day's Main Lesson.

Steiner/Waldorf Teacher Education

Various parts of the world have distinct requirements for teaching in general, so the following is irrespective of other requirements that may need to be met. Specific Steiner/Waldorf teacher education takes a variety of forms, in part depending on the age of the students. As can be expected, this is divided into three sections: teaching the pre-7 y.o. or first stage of childhood; teaching the 7-14 y.o. or second stage of childhood; and teaching the 14-21 y.o. or third stage of childhood. Adult education for the post-21 y.o. has further distinct needs.

In every case, what is not only expected of the teacher-in-training, but also worked on within the course, is a combination of a deepening understanding of the anthroposophical view of the developing human being; a development of one's own meditative, imaginative and reflective life; and actively developing one's creative artistic engagements, whether this be in music, the visual arts, or movement.

Nevertheless, individual schools will employ (subject to local regulatory constraints) individuals who are considered to best fit both the class(es) they are to teach, and, other things being equal, those able to fit in and reflect the specific school 'being'. In the teaching of the 14-21 y.o., a deep passion for the subject to be taught becomes of primary importance.


Computer usage and ICT

Perhaps I can pre-empt this brief section by quoting Steiner:

Today people still learn how to write. In a near future, human beings will have only a memory that people in earlier centuries once wrote. There will be a kind of mechanical stenography which will be machine-driven to boot. Mechanization of life! I will only indicate it through a symptom: imagine the peak of a culture in which people will excavate the historical truth that once there were human beings who had handwritten manuscripts, just as today we excavate what is found in the Egyptian temples.

Approaching the Mystery of Golgotha GA 152

The question that needs to be asked of each phase of childhood that is not (for example) 'how can computers best be used?', but rather 'what is it that this (or these) children need in their unfolding development?'. Certainly there will come a time, during the third phase of childhood (ie, at some stage in the High School years), that part of the answer will include an understanding and usage of computers (as well as, for that matter, combustion and electrical engines).

There remains, in any case, a clear distinction that is to be made between information and communication technology and computer science / technology. For the sake of clarification, included an extract from a response I made to a bureaucratic enquiry as to a school's manner in which ICT is addressed:

Rudolf Steiner is explicit in the need for students to understand mature forms of technology, inclusive, therefore, of information and communication technologies. Efforts are made to embed the development of the ICT in a multidisciplinary way, taking account of various appropriate historical developments and human technological and social achievements.

Information and communication technology is certainly broader than computer science and technology, and begins its development with the advent of civilisation. From the clay tablets evident in ancient mesapotamian culture, to the advent of binary morse code and electronic communication and its subsequent development into modern times, technologies and sciences of communication span and reflect human striving. As an example, a stylus, whether formed from a stone or sophisticated alloys, remain technological instruments for information and communication.

There is thus a continuum in the development of ICT across human history (and, for that matter, pre-history, as archaeology make evident) - a view consistent with those of Ray Kurzweil (developer of numerous computer-oriented ICTs and author of a number of books in the area).

ICT itself is embedded within early years through to Class 8, and from Class 9 forms an explicit course in computer technology.

Information and Communication Technologies includes many technologies that, as adults, are often take for granted. These include paper, paint, crayons, pencils, the development of inks and pens; the various developments and methods of writing and recording (from chisel on stone, to clay tablets, bark paintings and parchment); it includes the development of mnemonic methods and devices (such as the hexametre in Greece, aiding recitation, and repetitive poetry or songs); it also includes the development of standardised symbols (such as toilet signs, as the most pervasive international example); it includes the abacus (and, though rarely introduced, the slide rule); it includes clocks and the ability to not only read the time, but also its historical development; it includes mapping; and later associated with these last two, the division of the globe with latitudinal and longitudinal lines; it includes the distribution of mail and goods (and hence various technological developments in relation to transport); the recording and later analysis of scientific observations (from the seasons through to predictions of eclipses and our developing understanding of the world); it includes the development of clockworks showing the relative motions of planets; developments in woodcuts, printing techniques and the printing press; it includes the communication of cultural norms through paintings and petroglyphs on public and religious buildings; the publication of pamphlets, books, journals, newsprint and advertising (of both the commercial form as well as for drama, performances and events); it includes the development of musical instruments and its uses in communicating mood (often within a culturally specific context); and it includes, of course, the development of binary-based technologies (from Babbage's 19th century 'Analytic Engine' through to its electronic equivalent in the modern computer).

Over the course of their schooling, starting in Class 1, students undertake work incorporating elements of the above. As a specific example, children in class 4 undertake to make paper; to develop ink; and to create a pen from a broad-stemmed bird feather during a Main Lesson on the history of writing.


Steiner/Waldorf Educational Resources

The books that follow are some amongst those that are considered essential in terms of, specifically, the pedagogical sphere. These are in addition to the three more general ones I mention on the Spiritual Science page.

essential Steiner/Waldorf education reading:

Steiner, Rudolf Study of Man (also re-translated as Foundations of Human Experience)

Steiner, Rudolf Education of the Child

Stockmeyer, E. A. Karl (ed) Rudolf Steiner's Curriculum for Waldorf Schools ← essential for teachers

recommended Steiner/Waldorf education sites (these also happen to be where I currently work):

Melbourne Rudolf Steiner Seminar (teacher training and adult education)

Little Yarra Steiner School (K-12 school in Victoria, Australia)

for other Anthroposophical pages within this site:

Anthroposophy tab on the home page