On Steiner Education by Joanna Tyczynska
Steiner (Waldorf) Education is currently one of the fastest growing alternative educational models. The principles of this education are based on Rudolf Steiner’s deep insight into child development. Through his lectures and writings the first Steiner school was founded for the children of the workers in the Waldorf Astoria Factory in Stuttgart in Germany in 1919 (hence the name – Waldorf).
Currently there are over 1000 independent schools in 60 countries across the world and over 30 in UK working out of this model. Moreover other state and private schools as well as educational programmes (e.g. Curriculum for Excellence) are increasingly using methods drawn from Steiner (Waldorf) Education.
The principles of Steiner approach to educating a young person are specific and different from the main stream approach in many respects:
- Balanced development of a whole person at the core of education
A Steiner School provides a nurturing environment for balanced development of children. Each child is valued as an individual and developing human being of distinct needs in four main areas: physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual.
- Curriculum responding to the developmental needs of children
The Steiner School curriculum mirrors and responds to the specific needs of the children at their particular stage of development. A special consideration is given to a child’s readiness to grasp certain concepts or ideas and hence find an intellectual and emotional satisfaction in them. Joy of learning and intellectual discovery is carefully cultivated, so that it may translate into a life-long commitment to learning and zest of life. The motto: “Learning is not about filling a bucket but kindling a fire” finds its reflection in the lack of testing system and marks in Lower School. Children learn at their own pace and for the sake of learning. Teachers’ involvement with and respect for every child as an individual create an ambience in which learning becomes a privilege rather than a chore.
Observation of children shows how differently they learn at different stages in their development and so Steiner schools are usually divided broadly into three age groups: Pre-school (up to age 5/6), Lower School (ages 6-14) and Upper School (ages 14-18).
The Pre-school child learns mainly through experiencing the world, through absorbing its surroundings and actively participating in what’s going on there. In the Kindergarten children are engaged in domestic activities every day: baking, preparing soup, basic woodwork, gardening, crafts etc. They are also given plenty of time to free play (simple toys are hand made of natural materials), and socialise, which helps them to develop confidence, imagination, good communication and other social skills. At the snack they all sit together by the table and say a grace before enjoying the meal they helped to prepare. “Kinde children” experience spoken language through ring-time with verses, songs and games as well as through stories and puppet-shows. Outdoor activities are important part of the day “whatever the weather”. Natural materials, simplicity of the play environment and a special care given to beauty in details of the room and behaviour create an ambience in which children feel happy and nurtured.
By about 6 or 7, the feeling life is developing in a new way and the child now relates to the world more strongly through its feelings. The subjects of the Lower School curriculum are presented in a lively, imaginative way, interwoven with colour, music and movement in a 2-hr “Main Lesson” given by the Class Teacher each morning. The topics of the Main Lessons relate to the general developmental age of the class and are taught in blocks of 3-4 weeks allowing a good immersion in the subject being studied and time for the children to create their own records of the Main Lesson in beautifully illustrated books. After Morning Break, there are the subject lessons: Foreign languages (from Class 1), music, painting, drawing, crafts, games etc. all of which relate to the children’s developmental stages and often link up with the theme of the current Main Lesson.
In the Upper School, the Main Lessons continue, their themes now relating to the adolescent’s developmental stages, but they are taught by specialist subject teachers. In the 10th class (15/16 yr olds),the pupils sit the first of the national exams and go on to the higher levels in classes 11 and12 with very good results.
- Nature and Festivals
The importance of human connectedness with nature and its rhythms is one of the basic principles of Steiner Education. Knowledge, respect and love for Mother Earth are at the core of the curriculum. The respect for the natural rhythm of the year finds its expression in celebrating seasonal Festivals. They are one of the highlights of Steiner Education. Being a source of invaluable knowledge of both nature and cultural lore they also serve as a powerful way of celebrating life and community. Through the artistic media (story-telling, songs and performances) where everybody has their part in preparing and performing, the spirit of community is maintained as a constant source of security, sense of belonging, happiness and inspiration.
Many activities and projects of the curriculum are held outdoors, but the love of nature is also woven into the everyday curriculum – in stories, songs, verses, plays and many artistic and craft activities. Natural materials are usually the basis of the decorations of the school and of crafts. Respect towards the beauty and order of nature helps children to feel part of their natural environment and care for it from early years.
- The artistic element as an integral part of the curriculum
Artistic activities are viewed as a valuable educational resource and therefore are used daily. Painting, drawing, form-drawing, rhythmic work, eurythmy, singing and performing – are all parts of the curriculum in a Lower School and are brought in the context of the current theme a class is working on. They help children to “digest” and assimilate information as well as memorise it (e.g. the method of teaching the multiplication tables with movement and rhythmic recitation).
In the Lower School children do not work from textbooks, but make their own record of the Main Lesson theme in beautifully illustrated books, at first under the teacher’s guidance, and gradually incorporating more of their own work.
Unique to Steiner Education is Eurythmy , a new art of movement inspired by Rudolf Steiner, which brings music and speech to visible expression through artistic movement.
Handwork is a separate lesson but it is also related to the current “main” theme. The course of handwork is designed so it may assist children to grasp and ground new concepts and ideas. For instance knitting is introduced together with first two mathematical processes in Class 1 – it gives children an opportunity to practice addition and subtraction with their own hands and eyes. In Class 4 cross-stitch is supporting the understanding of the concept of fractions. In this context the slogan “nimble fingers – nimble minds” is very accurate.
- Spirituality and development of moral qualities
Moral development of the human being is at the core of the integrated Steiner curriculum and every Steiner teacher is aware of the importance of emotional and spiritual development of the children. The curriculum involves many stories of human strife and courage, perseverance, compassion and love, which are told by the teacher, and then carefully illustrated either by drawings or in the children’s performances. Weekly lessons of Religion are a part of curriculum from class 1 and are not tied to a particular faith. They focus on human being and the journey through life, which demands so many virtues, but also brings so many rewards.
Care is given to periods of quietness and contemplation amongst the happy business of the school day. The morning begins with a verse recited by the classes and their teachers, grace is recited before meals and there is a good-bye verse at the close of the day for the younger classes. These help children to be mindful and at peace with themselves and others.
- Community ethos and parents involvement
The aim of a Steiner School is to create a learning community consisting of teachers, parents and children. Children feel every day that they are a part of a wider community of a class, a school, the Steiner school movement (inter-school enterprises, visits etc.), their community, country and humanity as a whole. Teachers carefully nurture the individual talents and potential of each child helping them to recognise these potentials, strengthen them and weave them into practical, social life. There is emphasis on group involvement, respectful help and self-realisation, rather than competition. This helps children to develop self-confidence and trust, but also compassion and collaborative skills.
Parents are involved in the life of a school community on an everyday basis. They co-create the school environment, help with many practical and managerial tasks and support whole-school enterprises. They are also engaged in their child’s learning in partnership with the teachers.
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