Steiner Education

by stronged

I’ve just read three papers on Steiner Education (or, as the yanks like to call it: Waldorf schools):

  1. Steiner for the 21st century: the application of Waldorf principles to mainstream practice by Ken Wylie and Martin Hagan
  2. Spiritual development and young children by Anna Giesenberg
  3. Layers of experience: Forms of representation in a Waldorf school classroom by David W. Nicholson

All seem to skirt around my topic of how and why Steiner education is considered “alternative” or “esoteric.” This is the problem I explained I to Danielle I am experiencing when tackling this topic. I keep finding papers in the peripheral of my focus.

However, by stating that concern, I also must admit that Nicholson’s paper revealed much about how a Steiner classroom functions. It brought back many memories from my childhood. The soft pastel coloured walls, the U-shaped pattern of the desks, the chalkboard drawings of myths and legends, playing records and singing a capella, storytelling, and the overall anthroposophy ideology to connect with ‘head, heart and hands’ (Easton 1997: 87, Barnes 1999: 6) in child development and learning practices.

‘[B]ringing the content on a feeling level rather than on a thinking level, particularly with younger children’ (Nicholson, 579) seems to flow against the current of what mainstream education dictates. How the value of literacy and numeracy approached in a technical, cognitive way, takes precedence over any other aspect of a child’s development. From observing a Steiner classroom at work, Nicholson experienced the multi-layered approach of Anthroposophical pedagogy where teachers utilize a diverse skills base in order to communicate key concepts to their pupils (i.e. oral-storytelling, singing, drawing, creative writing, play, etc.) rather than relying on traditional pedagogical practices of memorization, controlled testing, and dictation.

This ‘integration of artistic forms into the curriculum aims to extend and deepen the intellectual experiences of the students, stimulating the senses, enriching the imagination, and cultivating feeling’ (Easton 1997, Schmidtt-Stegmann 1997, Barnes 1999). This allows the students to immerse themselves in their studies holistically, each year level of study aligning with the developmental stage the students are experiencing. As the Steiner teacher Anna explains to Nicholson, “I really want the children to experience drawing art in a mediaeval way, because I know that’s where they are on some level.” (582)

‘By coming to know the era from the perspective of those who lived it, the students did not read about who was and what was, but they heard and experienced how it was. The layers of experience provided equal emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge, the practice of skills, the fostering of creative ability, the stimulation of the imagination, the nurturing of feelings of empathy and understanding, the importance of social responsibility, and the value of moral principles.’ (585)

The rapport established between students and teacher is far stronger than in the state school system as the teacher accompanies their class of students throughout the majority of the year levels. This allows the teacher to draw from a pool of shared experiences ranging from years of association they have had with each student.

It was interesting to read how the ‘forms of representation shape the content’ (586) of each lesson. This ties in with my research question: How does the form of interactive media platforms alter/change the reception/transmission of narratives to the user/reader?

Giesenberg explores notions of spirituality in her paper: ‘Spirituality is defined as an innate ability to show awareness or consciousness of the surrounding world shown through wonder, a sense of compassion and love towards this world and everything in it, and for some people a relationship with a transcendent being, who can also be immanent in the individual.’ (23) Imbuing a sense of wonder in students also ties into what we have been reading in Media Objects. How this is a necessary precursor/trigger/enticer to motivate a sense of curiosity and therefore learn something about the chosen topic.

She highlights that ‘”homo spiritus” awareness, acceptance, actualisation, and altruism are important (24)’ relying upon a ‘holistic integration of body and spirit where cognition and expression are balanced, and where all creation is united into communities, including political groups, and then into nature and a possible higher force’ (25) in Steiner education.

Giesenberg briefly touches upon Montessori education as well, explaining how she viewed ‘every human as having a spiritual embryo which grows and develops alongside all other developmental areas in a person.’ (27)

Anthroposophy proposes that four main parts of a human develops over the course of their formative years:

  1. The physical body
  2. the etheric body (middle childhood)
  3. the astral body (adolescence), and
  4. the Ego (28)

These periods flow into Vygotsky’s theory of the Zone of Proximal Development a child experiences when they step away from mimicking their role models and into independent learning.

She also introduced to me Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of Flow, when you become immersed in an activity that all temporal matters (hunger, ego, etc.) fall from your consciousness and you become fully focussed on the task at hand. In order for this to occur the task cannot be too easy or too difficult, matching your competence levels as well as challenging you in some way.

Unfortunately Giesenberg’s study is incomplete, as research into the role and development of spirituality for a child has never been undertaken before and would involve longitudinal observation.

In todays Research Strategies seminar Adrian reiterated the point that through the process of writing you reveal what you do know about the topic, and more importantly, what you don’t know about it. It made me consider puddling about in my own recollections of my Steiner upbringing in order to see how Steiner is considered “alternative.”

I moved from Steiner in year seven to a state school down the road. Quite an abrupt change in socialising and approach to pedagogy. In hindsight, it would probably have been wiser to move further afield rather than just down the road as the stigma/reputation of the Steiner school was very much present in the school yard of this state school. They had labelled it the “hippy school” and berated and ridiculed me for being different to them. An understandable human reaction motivated by a fear of the “other” or something that is different.

External differences included:

  • No television or computers allowed
  • ceremonial practices (eg. walking the streets at night dressed in medieval attire carrying candles and carved out pumpkins to celebrate mid-winter, year 12 break up day – normally consisting of many flowers and heartfelt farewells)
  • No uniform
  • Plenty of cannabis floating around
  • Art and Music the emphasis for the Steiner education

Like any second-hand impression/information, these topics were exaggerated and warped into a view that Steiner was more of an occult than an institution of education. Back then I wondered whether this animosity towards the Steiner school spawned out of envy. After all, Steiner is a private school and therefore exhibits a high economic cohort of the population. Not overly affluent, as some other private schools seem to consist of, but certainly higher than these state school kids were used to. The unknown seems to attract contempt and spiteful segregation. I being the unknown.

Thinking back to that time, there were activities I participated in that even I felt were strange. One example being eurythmy (an artistic method of movement to sound (Jones, Lindsay. Encyclopedia of Religion – second edition.). Such an abstract concept for a kid to understand. I suppose similar to interpretive dance.