The most important thing for which we can prepare a child is the experience of freedom, at the right moment in life, through the understanding of one's own being.


Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925)

Teaching Practice
culture, reflection, curriculum, colonialism, narratives, religious education, Sekem School, Kusi Kawsay, Nairobi Waldorf School, multiculturalism
By: Katharina Stemann, February 2017,

On the Back of the Turtle. Culture and Waldorf Education

The Waldorf movement is becoming more and more international. There are already more than a thousand schools and eighteen hundred kindergartens in over seventy countries worldwide. The latest pioneers can be found in Myanmar, Greece and Turkey. (1) This is why we are increasingly concerned with questions on culture, even though such questions have been the constant companions of teachers ever since the founding of the first Waldorf school. They are there when we choose fiction, stories and fairy tales; they appear when we need to decide what and how to celebrate, when we choose historical events for the history lesson or any literature for the learners.

Are we aware that every choice of lesson content has to do with 'selection', 'construction' and 'focus'? When the teacher chooses literature for the learners, there is indeed a difference whether the author is male or female, has an urban or rural background, which religion they belong to and so on. With this article I want to encourage teachers to reflect upon their own pedagogical narratives. Such reflections may help to develop a clearer perception of the pupils in school and kindergarten, to choose culturally meaningful lesson content and to critically question our own focus. I am also including examples drawn from some of the first research papers into questions of culture at Waldorf schools.

Lost in the web of significance?

What is culture? To put it simply, it is that which connects us as a society, that which unites us. In a 'cultural area' we speak a common cultural 'language' with which we identify. Shared customs, norms and values such as table manners or greetings are part of it and provide some orientation. We are rarely aware of these small daily rituals because we have mastered them from a very early age on. Yet, when we go abroad we are soon confused. The rolling head motion of the Indian people can cause despair in Europeans because they don't understand if it means yes or no. German bus timetables which tell you the exact times of the buses' arrivals and departures, precisely to the minute, are another cultural peculiarity.

However, culture is not fixed, it has no clear boundaries. For the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, culture is a 'web of significance' in need of interpretation or 'thick description', as he puts it. The following example shows that this is not so easy:


"There is an Indian story – well, it was told me as an Indian story – about an Englishman to whom someone explained that the world rests on a platform which rests on the back of an elephant which rests on the back of a turtle. So, the Englishman asked (..) where the turtle rested on. On another turtle. And this other turtle? 'Oh, Sahib, then there are only turtles, all the way down." (2)

It is clear: To cautiously approach another culture is a complex business, but it is perhaps easier to do it in a foreign culture rather than in our own. But this is the craft: to learn to reflect our own habits.


As Steiner said to the first teachers at the first Waldorf school: "We dare not be simply educators; we must be people of culture in the highest sense of the word. We must have a living interest in everything happening today, otherwise we will be bad teachers for this school." (3)

Cultural Stakeholders

Everyone is a cultural stakeholder: culture is created individually at every moment. James Clifford in 'Writing Culture' says that everyone 'writes' culture. (4) If we look for instance at the literature curriculum for schools in Europe, it is clear that Shakespeare and Schiller have to be included. But what about female authors or unknown writers from non-Western countries? A particular curriculum is an important cultural agent, but we have to be aware that with our choices we create a specific focus. Edward Said, in his famous publication 'Orientalism', points out that the 'Orient' has been 'orientalized' through western science and literature; through the way the Western world perceives the Orient. (5)

A culture which reinvents itself creates something powerful. Eric Hobsbawm shows in 'The Invention of Tradition' (6) that certain “traditions” are now created as historic fiction in order to re-establish norms and structures. This phenomenon can be seen as a reaction to today's ever present societal changes. Today we observe revivals of old festivals and rituals in many cultures around the world. These revivals are interesting for us as educators because they bring old traditions to our attention and help to re-enliven them.

Karin Smith, a Swiss mentor and potter, explained to me recently how she had talked to some Peruvian teachers about the old Andean ceramic traditions. Through her, they became aware of the great treasures of pre-columbian ceramics in their country and how they could use these treasures in their own teaching. This is just one example of how the international exchange in the Waldorf movement can open up new inner and outer horizons.

Culture and Waldorf Education

For a number of years now, the Waldorf movement has been concerned with the question of how Waldorf education can be implemented in, say, Russia, Australia or Japan. Martyn Rawson, co-editor of the Waldorf curriculum in English, justly asks if educational habits can simply be copied. "Some ideas may be good in one situation but don’t make sense in another. Because children in Germany learning knitting with wool, does this mean that knitting with wool is standard even in countries that do not traditionally knit with wool (perhaps they weave with cotton)?" (7)

Neil Boland, a Waldorf teacher in New Zealand suggests that it is a sign of 'total cultural colonialism' (8) in Waldorf education (as indeed in other aspects of culture) when, for instance, the Shepherds' Play is performed in the hight of summer in New Zealand while the sweat runs from the actors' foreheads as they are dressed in sheepskins and wooly hats. The annual Christian festivals, mainly Christmas, Easter, St. John's and Michaelmas, are firmly connected to the seasons in Europe. They are placed in the calendar according to the position of the sun and the moon. People often experience a particular mood in nature at particular times of the year. Easter, which is celebrated in the European spring, has to do with new growth, while Christmas, at the Winter Solstice, celebrates the return of light at the darkest time of the year. It is therefore crucial to examine how Christian festivals relate to local events and moods in nature. Is it not our task to question if verses, annual festivals or Middle European narratives are suitable in other cultural settings? Boland's research with Waldorf teachers with a Maori background in New Zealand shows that Waldorf education is perceived as euro-centric and that its place in local culture or in multicultural settings has never been thoroughly investigated by schools or professionals. Boland proposes to scrutinize the curriculum and its connection to the local context; we need to find out if the voices of local minorities are heard. Waldorf education needs to be connected to the place, the time and the people it addresses. (9)

I now want to explore some examples in which local tradition is expressed in Waldorf education. Carlo Willmann asks in a research project how the specific 'Waldorf tradition' of the so-called 'religious education' is implemented in a non-Christian context. For his project he has studied the Waldorf schools Sekem in Egypt as well as the Harduf, Shefar'am and Jerusalem schools in Israel. 

Willmann shows that Steiner coined an educational concept of religion which touches on feelings and will, such as trust, a sense of awe, reverence etc, and is not concerned with the content of a particular religious denomination. This is implemented through the so called 'pictorial method', using language, gestures, pictures, metaphors, symbols and parables which are usually accompanied by religious motives. In European Waldorf schools we therefore find religious songs, season tables, the celebration of Christian festivals, myths, legends etc.

Willmann found that religious education is a central aspect of teaching at the Sekem school and in his research conversations he often heard the sentence 'everything is religion'. In the context of Islam, education is a part of the religious life. "To illustrate this point we may refer to a regular practice used in the teachers' meetings which the founder of Sekem, Dr. Ibrahim Abouleish, told me about. Islamic tradition refers to Allah by 99 different names. They all express one of the positive aspects of God and allow our incomplete human mind to understand the incomprehensible being of God a little closer. The teachers regularly meditate on one of Allah's names in their conferences and relate it to their educational practice. If 'The Patient One' is one of Allah's names, the teacher can meditate this name and therefore find inspiration to practice patience in their own teaching." (10)


What do teachers at the Israeli schools and the Sekem school choose in terms of Waldorf narratives such as legends, symbols and stories?

Willmann describes how prayers, verses and stories drawn from Arab culture and from Islam are used at Sekem. At the Israeli schools a specific curriculum for classes one to eight has been developed. For example, the Jewish legends of the great Rabbis are told in grade two; in grade four the narratives are centred around some of the Old Testament, such as Judges, Samuel, Joshua or the stories of Deborah and Gideon. The story of David is focused on in grade five.

It can be said that the choice of narrative is an expression of culture. Taking the examples above, we suggest that teachers examine the importance of the cultural bias for the pupils, how it might help them to find their identity in place and time. Stories, such as the ones chosen in Sekem, can for example convey cleanliness or purity as an important cultural virtue. The stories of the Rabbis, in the Israeli context, express courage and wisdom.

Seasonal Festivals

Annual festivals, recurring regularly and according to a specific rhythm, are an important cultural element and a key to the child's 'anchoring' in place and time. Festivals and rituals mirror cultural traditions and provide a meaningful framework for anthropologists' research. (11) For the people themselves, festivals and rituals are important events which provide stability and orientation and through which they can express – often subconsciously - their cultural background.

For her doctoral thesis, Vera Hoffmann has examined the annual festivals at the Waldorf schools in Kusi Kawsay, Peru and Nairobi, Kenya. (12) The Andean Waldorf school Kusi Kawsay is situated on an altitude of 3000 m near Cusco. The school's annual cycle follows the old Andean customs, for example the ritual to honour 'Pachamama', Mother Earth, is celebrated with the whole school community. Nairobi Waldorf school, with its more international focus, used to celebrate Christian festivals but, as Vera Hoffmann reports, the school is now trying out new forms. Today, it celebrates the annual 'Festival of Light' which draws on elements of all major world religions.

Silviah Njagi, a kindergarten teacher at the Nairobi Waldorf School and lecturer at the East African Teachers' Seminar, describes the change from the dry season to the wet season as an important moment in the annual cycle of kindergarten and school. "For the nature table we take bare twigs, stones and ants which look for food during the dry season. And then, suddenly, around the middle of March, the strong rains start and everything turns green within two days. This is a moment of nourishment and now it is timely to celebrate the rainbow festival with all the colours of the transitional period." (13) Furthermore, Njagi mentions the African tradition of storytelling. She realizes again and again that it is easy for the trainee teachers to tell stories; it is part of their culture.

The Curriculum in Kiswahili, Arabic, French…..

A Waldorf “curriculum” cannot be compared to an ordinary curriculum with a fixed content. It is rather an open concept, it is culturally open and oriented towards individual, social, regional and contemporary development.

As Martyn Rawson puts it, "A Waldorf curriculum approaches the task of preparing children and young people for the challenges in the world in quite a different way. It describes experiences, activities, themes, story material and phenomena that can provide children and young people with learning contexts in which they can form and shape themselves, school their abilities, cultivate their feelings, define and re-define their relationship to the world and others and above all, to develop new ideas." (7)

Teachers are constantly faced with the task of bringing new life to the curriculum and to align their own cultural background with the children's development. In Australia, Aboriginal stories have been scrutinized by Waldorf teachers in order to find suitable stories to be told in the appropriate age groups. (14)

Furthermore, a curriculum can reflect societal changes as the following example from Japan illustrates: The pupils in grades four to eight at the Fujino Steiner School learn Japanese Calligraphy. However, in grades four to six they learn the typical 'print' style, called Kaisho. In grade seven they learn Gyosho, a 'cursive' style. Finally, in grade eight, they learn the Koso style which is not used very often anymore but which reflects a change of consciousness and artistic expression. (14)

Alain Denjean writes about the curriculum in various cultures: 'Not long ago, a colleague who teaches German pointed out to me that she discusses Dietrich von Bern, a character in the Nibelungenlied, at length because he symbolises an ideal for young people: He did not use the defeat of the enemy to build up his own power and self-confidence but rather tried to honour the rival in order to create a better world in peace together with him. So, she said smiling, this is exactly the attitude towards other human beings which I find in Nelson Mandela. In her joy I saw the richness of the curriculum which does not stipulate to read the Nibelungenlied with South African students but rather finds open doors in every culture; open doors to reflect on anthropological issues which inspire the students' souls at the right moment in their development.' (15) This example is interesting on two levels. One, it challenges every teacher to find the didactic content in her own culture. Two, it can also encourage teachers to look for examples in other cultures which allow the learners to expand their horizon.

Is an international Waldorf curriculum possible? Christoph Wiechert, the former head of the Pedagogical Section at the Goetheanum, sketches the following picture based on fairy tales: "The criteria for an international curriculum can only be given in an abstract form: First, you need profound knowledge of the teaching subject and second, you need profound knowledge of developmental psychology, particularly of anthroposophical anthropology. The following criteria apply to fairy tales as well as to any other narrative: Archetypes have to be present in stories, for example the nasty witch, the good fairy, the innocent child, the good deed, the bad deed and so on. Furthermore, the story has to show some kind of development, it should develop from an initial state to a higher state, there should be some kind of path, sometimes including some crisis. And finally, a fairy tale or a story should have a happy ending." (16) This means that an international curriculum should no mention any specific teaching content but rather include a list of criteria by which the individual and culture specific lesson content can be developed.

Intercultural and Multicultural Education

Finally, I would like to refer to some intercultural and multicultural questions in Waldorf education. In recent years, the international character of schools and the inclusion of refugees have brought these questions to the forefront.

Jürgen Lohmann, a lecturer at the Hamburg Seminar for Waldorf Education, has discussed some questions related to intercultural education with a group of students in 2012. Among others, the following aspects were discussed: "What is the significance of the mother tongue for the development of identity? How can education serve the needs of both the individual and society? How and when is the teacher subconsciously conveying any hierarchies on the basis of her own culture? What are the positive aspects of differences? What does home mean? What is the role of religion and what do the various religions have in common?" (17)

Further questions have been discussed at a workshop at the Asia Conference in 2013: "Which children do we want to educate? How do we develop a strong sense of identity in our children, while also nurturing their openness towards other cultural practices? Is multiculturalism the aim of Waldorf Education? If so, do we need to culturally enliven our own culture as part of the curriculum? How can we help the child feel comfortable in his/her own culture? Via mobility? Or via security? How multi-cultural is Waldorf education? How multi-cultural is our own school? With the changing nature of society, there are rural/urban cultural differences emerging within our own populations. How do we adapt to these?" (14)


Lastly, I would like to encourage everyone to engage in the exciting reflection of culture. You will quickly discover new aspects of culture which encourage fresh insight into your own teaching.


I would love to hear our readers thoughts on culture. You can post your ideas and questions on our >forum

Katharina Stemann is enthusiastic about the international growth of the Waldorf movement and the brave people who start schools in the midst of trouble all over the world. She has studied cultural anthropology and used to work for the international Waldorf movement at Friends of Waldorf Education in Berlin. Today, she is an editor for the online platform Waldorf Resources and also works for the Pedagogical Section and the International Forum for Steiner/Waldorf Education.

Translated by Karin Smith



(1) Friends of Waldorf Education: Pioneers Worldwide. Rundbrief Autumn 2016.

(2) Geertz, C. (1973): The Interpretation of Cultures. Basic Books. New York

(3) Steiner, R. (1996): The Foundations of Human Experience. Anthroposophic Press. GA 293

(4) Clifford, J. and Marcus, G. (1986): Writing Culture: the Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. University of California Press.

(5) Said, E. (1978): Orientalism. Random House. New York.

(6) Hobsbawm, E.J. (1993): The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge University Press.

(7) Rawson, M. (2017): Waldorf Education: A continuous cycle of renewal. Foreword to the Chinese Edition of “The Educational Tasks and Content of the Steiner Waldorf Curriculum”. 

(8) Boland, N. (2017): Neil Boland in a conversation with Karin Smith.

(9) Boland, N. (2015): The globalisation of Steiner education: Some considerations. RoSE Journal Vol 6.

(10) Willmann, Carlo (2014): Religiöse Erziehung an Waldorfschulen im nichtchristlichen Kontext. RoSE, Vol 5 / Special Issue.

(11) Bell, C. (1992): Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. Oxford University Press.

(12) Hoffmann, V. (2015): The Creation of Waldorf Festivals based on Local Tradition. Masterthesis RSUC Oslo.

(13) Njagi, S. (2015): It is really about the child.

(14) Rawson, M./ Li, Z./ Panosot, P. (2013): History and Culture Curriculum – A Multi-cultural Approach. Notes of a workshop at the Asian Waldorf Teachers’ Conference. Transcribed and edited by Emily Bulter. Seoul, Korea.

(15) Denjean, A.: Lehrplan auf Kiswahili, Arabisch, Französisch..., Journal of the Pedagogical Section, No. 51, Easter 2014.

(16) Wiechert, C.f (2016): E-mail conversation with K.Stemann 12./ 14. October 2016.

(17) Lohmann, J. (2012) Interkulturalität: Baustein der Lehrerbildung. Erziehungskunst.

Further Reading

Brater, M. et al. (2009): Interkulturelle Waldorfschule. Evaluation zur schulischen Integration von Migrantenkindern. Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.

Cherry, B. (2016): Are you living your talk? 

Davidow, S. et al (2016): Decolonising the Classroom – An Indigeneous learning journey of transformation. Journal for Waldorf/Rudolf Steiner Education. Vol. 18.

Gerding, L. (2015): Steinerschule in China? Ein persönlicher Erlebnisbericht. Forum 5. Rudolf Steiner Schule Bern Ittigen Langnau

Häuptle, Mary-G. (2015): Was sind die Schätze Deiner Kultur für die Zukunft? Gedanken über die kulturelle Vielfalt und Waldorferziehung. IASWECE.

Keller, G. (2014): Cultural Turn und das Zeitalter der Globalisierung. RoSE Vol 5 / Special issue. 

Schmelzer, A. (2012): Die multikulturelle Gesellschaft. Eine Herausforderung für die Waldorfpädagogik. Erziehungskunst. 

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