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 > Curriculum Overview
notion of equivalence, international curriculum, translation as interpretation, story material, fable, legend, fairy tale, myth, biography, identity, telling stories, globalisation, post-colonialism, cultural heritage, indigenous culture, communicating meaning
By: Martyn Rawson, January 2019,

International Curriculum: Choosing story material

After almost 100 years of Waldorf pedagogy the question as how to adapt the curriculum to different places continues to be a challenge. Today we can add the dimension of time, by asking what the challenges of the times we live in place on the curriculum we teach. What curriculum do our students need here, where we live? In this paper I address the interesting question of story material within the curriculum. The research that went into this made me realize that the core problem is the notion of equivalence. There are often no equivalences, because Grimm’s fairy tales are different to Celtic, Finnish, East African or Asian tales.

The notion of equivalence suggests a standard that we have to find local versions that match. This implies that the original curriculum indications and all those curriculum practices that have grown since then and get documented in curriculum texts have priority because they are the standard and if we want to ‘translate’ them into other languages and cultures, then we have to look for something that is equivalent to this model. However, one can interpret many of Steiner’s indications as suggestions rather than as canonical rules, to say nothing of all the subsequent curriculum developments. Are post-Steiner German curriculum developments more important, more correct, more essential than, for example, than British curriculum innovations (some of which have been practiced since the 1920s, without interruption)?


I discovered an image that provided me with part of the answer. I was reading John Berger’s book Confabulations (1). The first essay is about translation. In it, he says that the common understanding of translation that sees it as a relationship between two languages is too simplistic. In reality translation means going back to the pre-verbal origin of the text we want to translate and from there we move to the second language. Since reading this I have been reading about the whole idea of translation as interpretation.


Applied to the task of curriculum development in other cultures (and other times) this means not seeking equivalents but going back to the source of the original curriculum and working from there. Since that source - the spiritual conditions of learning and development - are in an ongoing state of evolution, this has to be expressed in new ways in different places and at different times. This would mean going back to the spiritual context of the developing child to find and from there, to seek story material that offers soul-nourishment for the developing individual here and now, rather than looking for equivalents.


Waldorf pedagogy says, in effect, we think a healthy, harmonious development is fostered when we follow a certain developmental trajectory through the curriculum. An ideal-type is so called not because it is the best possible model (though it may be) but because it is a description of a social phenomenon that gathers most of the relevant evidence into a single characterization that can be used as a framework to compare the actual development of individuals. This is NOT the same as a standard or an average that can be used to measure whether individuals have achieved certain outcomes. Rather it a working norm (i.e. it can be modified if it is found to be inappropriate) that can be used as an orientation and not as a unit of measurement.


In this sense, I use a loose ideal-typical structure to explore, in this case, possible story material.


Choosing Stories

The traditional Waldorf curriculum has an interesting sequences of story material from the first to the eighth class. Though it is anchored in a Middle European tradition, the assumption is that it represents a certain development of consciousness that moves from orality to literacy and then through history to biography. Jennifer Gidley (2) has compared Steiner’s views with those of Ken Wilber, and shown that there is a long tradition of philosophers who have posited a cultural evolution of consciousness. The idea of choosing types of stories that form a kind of evolution of consciousness, however, is fairly unique to Steiner.


The sequence starts with fairy tales leading on to fables and legends before moving on to myth, which then transforms into history and biography. There seems no reason why this sequence cannot be considered of general value within any Waldorf curriculum. The problem starts if one attempts to find exact parallels to the Middle European tradition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Aesop or La Fontaine’s Fables. Idris Shah’s classic collection World Tales (3) shows how themes occur in stories in cultures around the world.


I have had to reluctantly admit that good stories are enjoyed by children and other people around the world, whatever their cultural origin. Indeed, their very archetypal character seems more important than their cultural authenticity. My view is that intercultural understanding is more likely to be fostered by encountering humanity in multiple costumes in story form and later as literature.


There is of course a virtue in anchoring children in their Indigenous cultural traditions. This question of cultural identities is complex in a post-colonial and globalised world. English speakers around the world not only carry the heritage of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens, they are obviously also embedded in different versions of English-American, Jamaican, Ghanaian, South African, Indian, Australian and so on. They also live in countries with Indigenous languages. These voices must also be heard and valued. That applies in all countries that have multiple language traditions, in which some languages are privileged and others neglected or suppressed. We should also acknowledge that many children are not seriously anchored in a traditional culture anyway, and are surrounded by images and stories from all kinds of sources.


My advice would therefore be to start with traditional fairy tales and fables in the dominant linguistic culture the school is embedded in, then add to these, stories from other cultures. In many countries, colonial cultures have been imposed on Indigenous cultures and the educational tradition of the country is embedded in the historical process of colonisation (e.g. the dominance of English in the Indian education system).


Obviously American schools with a European heritage should start with American stories (i.e. stories in the post-Columbian tradition) but also draw on Native American tales, then European and World Tales. One of the most interesting research tasks for Waldorf teachers in these countries is to reflect on this issue and start making collections of suitable story material, being careful to check authenticity.


What makes a story suitable, or rather what makes a story pedagogically suitable? That is a very difficult question to answer, which is why Steiner’s model of story material can be used as an orientation - not as a canon - but as an idea to start with. We need to explore what makes a fairy tale suitable for class 1 - after all some fairy tales are told in Kindergarten. What characterises fairy tales at all? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary (4) defines a fairy tale as being marked by unreal beauty, perfection, luck or happiness. J.R.R. Tolkien’s book On Fairy Tales(5) defines the essence of fairy tales as a genre - which he said, shows the deep interdependence of language and human consciousness - as imaginative story-telling that presents a world that is different from the empirical world but is wholly consistent and credible within its own terms and logic. In contrast to fables, in which recognisable human traits are represented by animals or fabulous beings, the fairy tale has no pedagogical intention. Above all, fairy tales speak an archetypal language of relationships and consequences; of journeys that have a purpose, of crises that have a logical resolution (not always a happy end), of challenges that have a higher meaning and ultimately they are about transformation and happiness as a state of harmony and balance, when order is restored.


Fables are moral tales in which the stories are populated by animals and beings that are clearly meant to be anthropomorphic and are characterised by their brevity and sometimes semi-historical context, such as the stories of saints and holy men and women. My sense is that we don’t need to stop telling fairy tales when we start fables because they have different functions and involve a different consciousness, though they overlap and need not be sequential.


Legends are meant to be about a historical reality but are really constructions of what history is supposed to be from a certain perspective. This is what makes legends difficult. They were (and sometimes still are) often created for the purposes of propaganda or have been modified as foundational cultural or even nationalistic stories that support a particular cultural identity. The question is, whose tales are told and whose are marginalised, neglected or censored. Legends usually set out to explain some cultural event or character, particularly the life of a hero. As Joseph Campbell (6) classically showed in his bookThe Hero with a Thousand Faces, the hero goes through a sequence of key stages in his or her life; miraculous birth, the call to adventure, the journey of trials, the gift or reward, the return of the hero to his home and the application of the gift to improve the world in some way.


In the original curriculum tradition, the Hebrew Old Testament often belongs in the story telling material in class 3. This, of course, is not for religious reasons but as a body of legends (with elements of fairy tale and myth), just as the Norse Myths are told in class 4. Within these collections there are various elements; myths of origins and creation, legends recalling the history of a people (the Hebrews) or of the gods and later heroes and their relationship to a particular people (the Norse people and the Vikings). Human psychology plays an important role in both collections, in that various archetypes or characters enact tales of human relationships to the god(s), human tales of love, jealousy, deceit, naivety, father-son/daughter, mother son/daughter relationships. Such tales embody intuitive and imaginative understandings of the relationship of human beings to the spiritual world and to the forces of nature. They are rich in symbolism and metaphor as well as being entertaining stories.


Stories, Curriculum and Culture

The traditional Waldorf curriculum is a dominantly Eurocentric model. It offers a range of myths and stories from a range of cultures, Ancient India, Mesopotamia, Egypt and of course Ancient Greece, whilst admittedly ignoring other cultures. The transition from orality to literature starts with Gilgamesh, proceeds through the legends mediated through ancient texts and culminates in Homer’s Odyssey (and later literary works such as Beowulf or St Gawain and the Green Knight). This sequence has a particularly European perspective and reflects the kind of cultural perspectives of Steiner’s historical, Middle European times, when European culture was widely thought to have been the culmination of a particular cultural evolution from savages to civilisation and was influenced particularly by the notion that European civilization was built on Greco-Roman foundations (though largely ignoring the Arabic influence).


One of my students on the International Masters Programme in Stuttgart, Shuchan Zhang investigated what Chinese mythology would be suitable for grade three. She began by analysing the developmental tasks of grade three students, then looked for the key elements in the tradition story material (Old Testament) and finally studied the available material in Chinese. She drew mainly on the ancient Classic of Mountains and Seas, but also on material recently discovered and published, such as the Darkness Legend(黑暗传) from Hubei Province Shennongjia Forestry District (神农架). Another student, Serene Fong produced a massively documented analysis of a range of Asian countries, exploring the many possible curriculum developments. Other students have looked at comparisons of Chinese traditional Confucian education and Waldorf, another developed possible craft and handwork activities for the Philippines using local materials and traditional artefacts. Another explored Indonesian children’s street games in Waldorf contexts.


Stories of ancient cultures and religions offer imaginative pictures of human beings’ changing relationship to the spiritual and to the natural worlds. Likewise, stories from contemporary Indigenous cultures offer alternative pictures of ‘reality’. Today we have to learn to understand post-industrial, post-colonial, post-modern and globalised societies and the risks and benefits for humanity. The cultural historian Aleida Assmann (7) says that the last quarter of the 20thCentury marked a shift of focus in cultural memory and the stories we tell to make sense of who we are, from stories of emancipation to stories of identity. We need not only to tell the stories of emancipation of peoples, cultures and individuals from oppression and totalitarianism, but we also need to tell tales of identity, that is, from the perspective of biography.


The Teachers’ Tasks

The first task is to anchor the child in her cultural heritage, which after all, in modern, urban family life, may be barely visible, if it plays a role at all.


The second task of story-telling is to locate us in a global evolution of consciousness from mythic to historical, from magical to scientific, from intuitive to rational, from collective to individual and to prepare for a new form of conscious intuitive knowledge. This has to be done in such a way that each expression of cultural consciousness is equally valid.


We now need to add the journey from individualism to social responsibility alongside tales of the Other and tolerance, difference and complexity. Not only do heroes need to be girls and women, but some of them need to be gay, disabled and different from the ‘norm’ in various ways.


The third task of story-telling is to exercise human beings’ most powerful and rich means of making and communicating meaning, namely narrative. By telling and hearing stories we learn to structure complex human experience in meaningful ways. The unmentioned source of stories in the curriculum, are the ones we make up ourselves, perhaps in the form of pedagogical stories tailored to a specific situation, or simply tales that children can identify with. Let children also make up stories and tell them and later write them. So one could say, it is more important that we tell stories; the stories we tell are secondary.


Guiding principles

·       Telling stories orally is very important, just as reading stories later is important.

·       Use the sequence of fairy tale, fable, legend, myth - including creation myths, the relationships between gods, the heroes and human beings, then tell history as story and arrive at biography.

·       Locate your material in the linguistic and cultural contexts you are in, acknowledging that this will inevitably be complex and draw on what I call, world tales.

·       Create your own stories or modify existing ones.

·       Collect and share ‘good’ stories that have worked for you.


Research questions

·       Which stories are told in your school and why (and which are not told)?

·       What local story material is available and how could it be integrated?

·       What world tales might be told?

·       Explore which groups and cultures within the school’s community are missing from the story curriculum. (The St. Michael Steiner School in London has about 130 children and children from 31 different languages and cultural backgrounds- that’s a wealth of story material).




(1)  Berger, John: Confabulations, Penguin Books 2016.

(2)  Gidley, Jennifer: Educational imperatives of the evolution of consciousness: the integral visions of Rudolf Steiner and Ken Wilbur, in International Journal of Children’s Spirituality, Vol.12, no. 2, pp117-135, 2007.

(3)  Shah, Idris: World Tales, Octagon Press 1991.

(4)  The Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online

(5)  Tolkien, J.R.R.: On Fairy Tales in Tree and Leaf, Harper Collins, 1964

(6)  Campbell, Joseph: The Hero with a Thousand Faces, New World Library 2008.

(7)  Aleida Assmann: Cultural Memory and Western Civilization, Cambridge University Press, 2011.


Further reading
Alison, Kevin, Rawson Martyn, The Educational Tasks and Content of the Steiner Waldorf Curriculum, Floris Books, 2014.


Martyn Rawson has been a Waldorf teacher in schools in England and Germany since 1979. He is the author of several books about Waldorf education and co-editor of the English-language curriculum which has meanwhile been translated into 18 languages. From 1996 to 2010 he worked in the collegium of the Pedagogical Section in Dornach. Today he teaches at the Christian Morgenstern School in Hamburg/ Germany and the Kiel Teacher Training Seminar. Please also look at Martyn's new website on community learning.




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