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Sim Yarrow © 2002


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Waldorf or Steiner schools are the largest alternative education movement in the world. The first school was founded by the Austrian visionary, poet and polymath Rudolf Steiner in 1919 as a response to the disaster of World War I and what he saw as the huge mistake of the Bolshevik Revolution. Steiner believed, as I have long believed, that a true communism -- a society where everybody lives their full individual potential in a responsible, collective-minded manner -- cannot be imposed from above. The most important path to this is via a true education, holistic and paying attention to the needs of the individual child, and with a real understanding of what would be most beneficial for the child at different ages of development.

In many ways, Steiner's work helped give rise to the modern Green movement. His view of history was that man had moved from a generally intuitive, instinctive connection to the earth, to a present that gave individuals more power but also brought a destructive materialism, divorced from meaningful spiritual values. Through techniques like biodynamic farming -- a form of organic farming developed by Steiner -- he aimed to revive that earlier instinctive connection to the planet, but with a new scientific consciousness. He was also the inspiration for homeopathic companies like Weleda: his advanced views on the body's healing abilities, in contrast to the mindlessness of much modern allopathic medicine, have played a part in the massive growth of alternative medicine today. E. F. Schumacher (influential Green philosopher and author of Small is Beautiful) privately acknowledge having read much of Steiner's enormous output and being heavily influenced by him. However, Schumacher's published work contained no references to Steiner. Steiner drew many of his ideas from Goethe and the Western esoteric current, as well as his own clairvoyance, and unashamedly called his work Spiritual Science. With the dominance of scientific materialism in twentieth century intellectual life he was thus seen as a deeply controversial figure and often as a crank; Steiner's own words often helped this as he set out to deliberately provoke in his lectures. The renewed quest for a genuine spirituality, beyond conventional religions, as we enter the 21st century -- and the rise of the Green movement -- have helped Steiner's ideas to find increasing favour today. (To those still stuck in scientific materialism I recommend Ken Wilbur‚s A Brief History of Everything as a straightforward book leading beyond this paradigm). But still the most fundamental and important of Steiner's impulses is Waldorf education.

A broad outline of the Waldorf view on child development is three-fold, corresponding roughly to a three-fold division of the human being into a thinking part, a feeling part and an acting part (the will). In the first seven years of life -- up to the change of teeth -- the child lives predominantly in the will, being much less intellectually conscious than she will later be, but bursting with energy, growth, and a need for movement. The child at this stage learns best through the limbs, through activity. They will unconsciously imitate what they receive from adults around them; and they have a strong need for a sense of connectedness to the world, to serve them in later life. The Waldorf kindergarten teacher therefore takes on the challenge of being worthy of imitation, fostering a secure sense of reverence and routine in the classroom, leading favourite praise verses, telling favourite stories, leading the children in rhythmic games, activities and crafts. Whatever the brutalities of the world outside, the classroom is full of natural, beautiful objects -- not finished plastic toys that leave little space for the imagination to run free. It is a sacred space for children to be children.

The imagination should run freer and freer as the child moves into the primary school, from seven to fourteen. Here the "feeling" -- dreaming, emotional aspect is much more dominant. Only now do children begin academic work in a Waldorf school: maths first, since numbers are an unconscious part of all activity -- every movement required a bodily calculation such as "how far is my hand from the table?". Writing a culture's alphabet is more abstract, although as with ancient writing, in a Waldorf school the letter symbols are connected to pictures first -- a "k" represented as a stepping king brandishing a sword, for example, and accompanied by a story about a Kind King. Physical movement remains an important first stage of teaching, with rhythmic counting games or stamping of times tables etc. in maths. But always there is storytelling, since it is vital that, apart from the continuation of meaningful physical activities, this age group stays in the creative, artistic, imaginative realm of feelings -- to aid with creative and flexible thinking later on. Storytelling (without recourse to the book) is an exciting, challenging art for the teacher -- bringing images to life to stimulate the children's own imaginations.

Television, incidentally, cannot do this. Television presents fixed visual images, leaving the child little work to do. As the child is presented such media images, neural pathways become fixed and grooved, making creative thinking more difficult (and painful) later on. It is also terrible for younger children, who receive sensory overload from TV when they should be learning from activity and imitation of real adults around them. Psychologist Joseph Chilton Pearce has written and researched much more on this subject; the detrimental effects of TV on pre-teen children is widely understood in the Waldorf movement. It is an irony that Italian media and political bad guy Silvio Berlusconi has no TV in his house -- on his wife‚s orders, since their kids attend a Waldorf school. With luck, therefore, they will grow up to be freethinking, confident individuals prepared to challenge their father's power base!

The German government, following the lead of that country's strong Waldorf movement, researched the effects on children who started reading and maths earlier than seven compared to those who only started at seven. The effects were striking -- those starting at 7 fared consistently better in secondary education and as a result starting academic work at seven is now German national policy. A recent UN survey has caused panic in Germany about educational levels dipping -- in the direction of the atrocious levels in the UK and the US. Many German politicians are calling for earlier academic work again; meanwhile in the US and UK the obsession of educationalists and parents with giving children a "head start" leads instead to computer games for two-year olds and other insanities. This ignores the fact that the same UN survey found Finland to have the best educational levels: in Finland school starts at seven and includes lots of artistic work.

This seven-year old stage is not the only developmental stage Steiner primary schools take note of, however. Around the age of nine or ten children experience a greater sense of separation and individuality: the Waldorf curriculum sees this as important, but needing to be followed up with more conscious taking in of the world. The basis for science is laid in earlier classes with nature stories devised by the teacher, relevant to the child's environment -- such as sun and flowers having a conversation in character as Spring arrives. Ten year olds move on to "man and animal" stories of how different animals live their day, always relating and comparing them back to human beings. Higher classes move on to look imaginatively at the plant kingdom, and further on at the mineral world and on to elementary physics. These are always presented first as an experience or story, for the child to think about overnight, before coming to any abstract conclusions -- thus allowing the child to continue living with personal feelings and ideas through this age period.

Nine-year olds are also helped to "take hold of the earth" with gardening and housebuilding lessons and practical crafts. These are all mere examples: the curriculum for the primary school works in a clever, integrated way across the board to meet the needs of children at this primary age. It demands real artistry from the teacher but can be immensely rewarding as the children really live in to their own creativity. And the fruits can be seen in the high school. An example I've recently been involved with is the Shakespeare play of the fourteen and fifteen year olds (class nine). The last term really focussed on the play, with most other lessons cancelled (apart from some maths to keep the class grounded!) Each child was given the chance to play a major part, no matter their "natural talents" in a typically positive and affirming Waldorf way. This meant three different casts, something of a director's headache! The born actors shone; the shyly budding actors emerged and blossomed. And the children who would elsewhere have been labelled "special needs" struggled with their lines, worked with remedial help and somehow learnt their parts and brought them to life. The whole thing was achieved with a real sense of co-operation, responsibility, sensitivity to each other's needs and community that I found amazing in young teenagers.

Of course, this kind of production needs flexibility in the timetable, but it is something that comes naturally in a Waldorf school. From class 1 onwards the day begins with a Main Lesson of two hours -- verses, rhythmic games, warm-ups and into an in-depth look at one subject area that lasts three or four weeks, every day -- really looking into plant study or local geography or fractions. Steiner's instructions for working in a positive way with each child has also given rise to special schools and Camphill communities for children with disabilities from Down's syndrome to autism, where amazing things have been achieved.

Waldorf schools have not been without their critics. In Germany the schools have been oversubscribed such that a strange alternative elitism has recently arisen; children being allowed in only if they have no TV at home and so on. Such elitism would be anathema to Rudolf Steiner, who founded the first Waldorf school for the children of factory workers -- it should be obvious that those children who watch too much TV are the ones most in need of the corrective Waldorf approach! The insights Steiner gave for education I find to be extraordinarily appropriate in the main but this can lead those within his "Anthroposophical movement" to accept his views on all things uncritically -- as with all charismatic intellectuals. Some of these ideas come firmly from the early part of the twentieth century and are as Eurocentric as one might expect: there is therefore some room for change in the higher primary and high school curriculums, but busy Waldorf teachers are understandably reluctant to change much unless the alternative can be shown to be more appropriate, which is difficult without dedicated Steiner-oriented tertiary research. (Here in South Africa many African stories have nonetheless entered the curriculum instead of European tales, among other alterations). Some of Steiner's idiosyncratic suggestions for spiritual practices are believed in too dogmatically by certain teachers and trainers. The French Government, which instinctively detests anything not organised from the centre, used this as an excuse two years ago to try and label French Waldorf schools a "cult" and close them down: the Waldorf schools fortunately took the Government to court and won, a rare example of the French education ministry losing in court. And, of course, much is reliant on the quality of individual teachers. Ideally a class gets the same principal teacher throughout their seven years of primary school, giving them a strong and secure bond for this period; but if the teacher‚s own knowledge is deficient in maths, for example, they might be losing out in some cases -- besides the fact that excellent candidates may be put off by the daunting idea of settling in to the job for seven years.

These criticisms aside, however, I believe Waldorf education is the core of what education should be about in the twenty first century (and for what it's worth, UNESCO believes the same). This is a brief overview of what Waldorf education's holistic approach is all about; feel free to contact me if you have further questions or comments. Also if you would like to suggest funding possibilities: here in Cape Town there are a variety of new and established Waldorf schools, many based in underprivileged areas, all looking for scholarship funds to allow poor children to attend.




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