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
creative thinking, digital life world, products of consciousness, self-optimisation, return to the archaic, platonic condition, filter bubble, being body, meditative study of man, ICT learning
By: Robin Schmidt, July 2019, First published in: Lehrerrundbrief (teacher’s newsletter) 107, Educational Research Centre at the Federation of Free Waldorf Schools in Germany, 2018.

Digital change as a societal change

We live in a digital world that has become indispensable. Whether we encounter it with uncertainty or enthusiasm is of secondary importance. Robin Schmidt introduces us to this emerging world from a cultural-historical point of view, without bias and with a gift for philosophical reflection. There are signs of a return to the archaic, to a kind of platonic condition using ‘bachelor machines’ with a tendency towards the "filter bubble" and in permanent "un-do mode. But the Leader of the Cultural Impulse Research Centre at the Goetheanum does not leave us alone with this. He sees pedagogical support in Rudolf Steiner’s idea of the “protecting hand” in connection with learning as described in the "Meditativ erarbeitende Menschenkunde” (Meditative Study of Man). – "Despite, About, With and By" using information and communication technology (ICT).

Technology appears destructive, if you look at it from a cultural-historical perspective, It seems to disturb our present culture. With each of these interruptions, however, something new challenges us, opening up new cultural possibilities. This may lead to tensions everyone senses, but at the same time we react intensively, either with uncertainty or enthusiasm.


Beat Honegger, professor at the School of Education in Schwyz, typifies various spontaneous reactions to digital change (1). On the one hand, there are people who say that children and young people must be protected from the digital media; then there is the person, who ignores this change; then there is an approach, that says that children and young people must be taught media within a pedagogical context, so that they can learn how to deal with it competently; then some say, “we use the media creatively and integrate them into everyday life,” because digital media are simply a part of our everyday educational lives. At the other end of the spectrum, one can make out the 'enthusiasts' who envision the future with humanoid robots making teachers superfluous.


The Internet addiction expert Bert te Wildt (2) recently pointed out in a discussion that the addiction potential of digital media lies not only with the offspring of "enthusiasts", but also with the principal "prohibitionists", since forbidding turns the children and young people it wants to safeguard into dissenters and thus also gambles away the possibility for a pedagogical design. He pointed out, for example, that in connection with the task of learning to deal with digital media, with regard to preventing addiction, we need a different kind of thinking, one that does not move on the scale from prohibition to enthusiasm, but one that evokes creativity: a kind of thinking that can deal with ambivalences, contradictions and constantly changing rules.


The emergence of a new world

However, digital change doesn’t only deal with new media, but in terms of cultural history, we participate in the emergence of a new, different way of life. We have become the inhabitants of a virtual, digital world arising next to the one we were born in, influencing the way we are together and the way in which we communicate with each other. The foundation on which our society was based, has been transferred to the digital. We use it to regulate the water supply as well as the most important political decisions. It is not only a world that is increasingly penetrated by digital devices, but also the other way round: we inhabit a digital world. This has increasingly become the most significant environment as against the urban or the natural environment.


As a result, an interesting phenomenon can be observed: the digital world in which everything important seems to happen, has not only taken over a child’s first field of experience, but also of young people. The material world appears to them as a derived phenomenon, making it increasingly necessary to pave the way into experiencing the world of the senses. The world of objects is seen as another world, and seems to work differently in comparison to the digital. We might see small children "swiping" on a book or a window pane to get to another image. Or you might hear young people saying: "I have to go away for a moment, there's lunch now." Actual existence, being “here” seems to be sensed as "being in the digital world”. To be “away”, in contrast, means saying good bye to the digital, in order to get something to eat in the other world. This means, that the time I spend in the ‘good old reality’ is increasingly experienced as "being away".


A fundamental mental change is taking place: 98% of the current generation of 20-25-year-olds, who attend a university to become teachers, were already equipped with a smartphone in their early youth. This means that the feeling of being online is a permanent and normal state of mind. (3)


In the next 10 to 15 years – if we imagine this development stepping up - a situation will have arisen, in which particular consequences will probably begin to take hold. We can expect the next, third generation of children, following the one for whom "online" is a normal state of mind, to grow up under conditions that make it impossible to perceive the difference between online and offline.


The new world of technology 100 years ago

There is an interesting parallel to the time when the first Waldorf School was founded. In 1919, the third generation of proletarian children was ready for school. The industrial revolution had put them in a similarly changed situation, as the children of the coming generation.


The philosophers of that time watched this with concern: materialistic science had created a world through technology that functioned entirely according to the law of the material. People, who spend their lives in cities and factories, educated in schools which functioned like factories, will in the long run begin to see themselves as machines.


Rudolf Steiner, like other thinkers of his day, described this conviction as a problem caused by the materialistic, scientific world view. Steiner uses the word “view” here, as Fichte used it, drawing attention to its generative quality. This understanding leads to creating the world according to the thoughts, with which I interpret the world around us. One can see how Steiner battled the problem, by following the development of his work. First he began to develop a theory of knowledge, which would lead to beholding the world in a different way, thereby changing one’s world view. (4). In a second step he transformed this into an expanded understanding of art. In this way, natural science was replaced by "spiritual science".


Three losses due to the industrial environment

Overviewing cultural history, one can deduce three great "losses" as a consequence of the step into the urban living environment. The first is the loss of the relation to one’s natural environment with its seasonal changes, the second is the loss of one’s social integration, as it was shaped by the class-based society, and finally the loss of one’s relationship to religion, to God.


Some perceived this as the 'Decline of the West” in the context of loss, others saw in it the dawning of an age of liberation. The fundamental change in values, which ultimately identified the individual as the centre of culture, became clearer. For the urban environment, the individual becomes the focus of social values: everything revolves around the ego, everything that does not serve the individual is considered to be outdated.


Thus three great tasks challenge and challenged pedagogy: How can one design a school, a culture, that enables the social life of a school to place the emerging ‘I’ (x) in its centre. It would be guided by the understanding of a child’s individual development, but would also offer parents and teachers a dynamic field for their own development. Secondly: how can a relationship be formed through the individuals replacing that, which religion once provided; and how can the lost relation to nature be replaced by an activity that places the ‘I’ at the starting point? Three fields, which lie at the foundation of the Waldorf educational concept of 1919.


Life in the digital world

What is characteristic of the digital world, that is now emerging? It can be characterized as an imaginary world – meaning that it is located between the real and the fictitious. It bases on the fact that we refer to something by completing the meaning. Every emoji, every WhatsApp message, as long as it is short, cannot actually be understood by what it is or what it contains, because the meaning lies in the certainty, that the receiver understands the sign as the author meant it.


In this sense, we live in a world of creations of consciousness; the digital world is actually a world of continuous conscious creation, producing images, references, messages, which are such that other people can read, understand and refer to them.


Michel Maffesoli (5), a French sociologist, calls this a “life in imaginary”. It is the return of the archaic. By this he refers to the cultures, such as the ancient Egyptian, that lie before the Greek classical period. Not only does imagery return to us, but also the feeling that time follows cycles. The reappearance of polytheism is also interpreted as the return of the archaic.


The subject as an object

One can add that life in imaginary also leads, as it did in the ancient Egyptian culture, to the fact, that the content of consciousness is not conceived by the subject, but that man is a thought of the Gods, and is constantly watched by them. Today, our digital devices think us, we are under constant supervision. A selfie is basically a minor example. I look at myself, I observe myself, I control myself, I administrate myself. I have a watchful eye in relation to myself: I follow caffeine levels, blood sugar, fatigue, how I can save time, where I can find next best possible tweet... This constant self-control is triggered by the requirement to optimise myself. Instead of being exploited by others, as Byung-Chul Han (6) states, I exploit my own resources by following the demands of self-optimisation as a starting point. Thus the body becomes the object, a ‘thing’ with which I can maintain an instrumental relationship.


"Bachelor Machines"

The second level of loss is related to the biographical dimension. According to the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard (7), digital machines are actually "bachelor machines", they keep us in the state of an inexperienced human being, who still has his life ahead of him, who has not yet committed himself, who does not yet want to commit himself, who continually upholds the option to decide this way or that, open. Digital life is a life in "possibilities". But if I stay in an environment of possibilities, there will never be commitment. Nothing will be realised. There is no biography in the literal sense: our life can’t be touched, nor do we leave our mark on life, by living a life of "Un-Do-Mode". In word processing I can ‘undo’ my last action by pressing the Un-Do-button. Biography, however, takes place in realisation: My life’s text comes about by writing it irreversibly.


It is actually a Platonic state, because Plato always wanted to think back to the place before the ideas were falsified and clouded by experience. Thus digital life can basically be understood as a Platonic life, that puts us in a prenatal state, that does not allow us to have experiences that have been "inscribed". Today's young adults - they give you this impression - are actually always like "just before”, ie. before life really starts: "Oh, I don't know yet... Now I'll do that, but only as a ‘project'..."


In the filter bubble

The third dimension of loss has to do with the relationship to the other, whereby the other appears in his or her otherness, his or her singular existence. Baudrillard describes digital communication very vividly as a life in the "hell of the same", because we move in a world that only shows us what we already know and like. We never come to anything else, but we always return to ourselves. I find myself in a filter bubble, in which, thanks to the algorithms, I only see what I like and agree with in my Facebook profile; or when I shop on Amazon, I am shown the items I already like. This actually puts my individuality at stake. Because, I, that which is me, takes on its being, when I am exposed to otherness.


Waldorf Education under the Condition of a Digital Living Environment

If the digital world were to become our normal environment, what would pedagogy look like?  What would happen to a pedagogy that is dedicated to an education towards freedom?


Being in the body is a cultural achievement

In the following I would like to sketch four levels, make four suggestions in view of a pedagogy, that would begin to look for its bearings within the context of these conditions.


First, taking into account the conditions of rapid changes in the living conditions of the digital world, one would have to begin to accept them as the outset for a productive design. At the moment, the discourse on digital media is often shaped by the postmodern perspective of loss, a critique, that still assumes that one has the possibility to choose another world that is not digitally based. Instead of accusing kids and lamenting about the fact that the world has become like this, I would raise the question: how can we shape "inclusion", how can we include ourselves, and yet, how can we by pedagogical means enable to participate in life on earth? In other words - and this is my first point - we can no longer regard being in the body as granted by nature and natural development, but should begin to make it a question of culture and in this way kindle a pedagogical issue.


Pedagogy of the protecting hand

The second question: How can the Waldorf educator approach the issue in concrete terms? I think it worthwhile to start with the motifs Steiner mentioned in his second lecture in the “Meditative study of Man” (GA 302a), as opposed to taking up established Waldorf pedagogical traditions, which of course also were once new discoveries and contributions to developing issues. The motifs of the second lecture draw attention to the "reverence for everything that precedes a child" on the one hand of a polarity, and a teacher’s "enthusiasm" for the world on the other. And then he develops the gesture of a "protecting hand”.  What would a "protecting hand pedagogy" look like in view of the digital world? What would the teacher’s enthusiasm for the present world look like? Where does a feeling of "this world is actually wrong and should look quite different" undermine the enthusiasm to allow young people to find their footing in today’s world? “A protecting hand" does not mean protecting children from the world. But: How do we accompany these young people with a "protecting hand" into today's world, as it is? In such inner exercises regarding inner attitudes, I see great potential for pedagogical ideas and designs contributing to solutions in the changed situation.


Despite, About, With and By - digital media learning

Thirdly, in my opinion, the question of ICT Learning (Information and Communication Technologies Learning) at school needs to be tackled fourfold:

It needs reflections on (a) "learning despite ICT ", it needs (b) "learning about ICT ", it needs (c) "learning to cope with ICT " and it needs (d) "learning by using ICT ".


(a) Learning despite ICT. The question from a teacher's point of view is: what is the value of being together in a classroom? Why should we be present for example, when it becomes clear that for certain forms of learning, i.e. "blended learning" or "flipped classroom" would perhaps be more efficient than the current learning operations? Is there still a case for it being worthwhile to be together with the pupils?


In view of such and similar developments, the question from a teacher's perspective arises: can we re-address the meaning of school under these conditions? A primary school in Germany has introduced an ad hoc subject "Talking to Each Other”. It was a spontaneous reaction to communicative behaviour in the playgrounds of that school where children stand in a circle and send each other WhatsApp messages, without being able to  write complete sentences. An experienced sixth grade Waldorf teacher told me that he can no longer use the didactic structure, he used for his last class. He became aware of a structural change in the way children think. This he called algorithmic thinking: before the children get involved, they ask if there is not an easier way to solve the problem, implicating that in such a case it wouldn’t be necessary to embark on a common didactic search.


From the student's perspective, too, there are shifts that require a new set-up. One experienced class teacher told me that this time, like never before, he had the greatest difficulty teaching children how to write with a fountain pen. When a quill was used, there was a certain interest to see how people wrote in past times. In our conversation we came to the conclusion that present day children do not see any grownups using fountain pens for their hand written work. From a child’s point of view  point of view writing with a fountain pen may therefore seem like learning a cultural technique from the past, as it was with quills. Writing by hand has become a cultural technique that does not lead them into the adult world, as fountain pen writing used to do, especially when they know that their teacher has his iPad in his schoolbag.


(b) “Learning about ICT". This is about clarifying and minimizing potential dangers. Looking at the teacher’s tasks, one can ask, if they can still fulfil their protective role. For them, this means first of all: do they know what is "going on" in the ICT field, so that they can exercise their supervisory duty? In the worst case, are they able to recognize a student's ICT activity when it is on the verge of turning criminal? If they cannot, such teachers are basically violating their duty of supervision. Teachers today need a minimum level of “knowledge about ICT”.


From a pupil's perspective, a kind of elementary digital "traffic education" is necessary. A ban on smartphones at school may at first provide a shelter from such dangers as cyberbullying. But it also brings problems with it: the educational issue is then simply delegated to the way to and from school. Even at home one can hardly expect active education in this sense. In my opinion it is necessary, that we should create spaces for adults and even smaller children to get to know the digital world together and “learn about ICT”, its limits and dangers.


(c) “Learning to use ICT”: Learning to cope with ICT spreads over the whole field of media education. Edwin Hübner has shaped the productive distinction between direct and indirect media education. Indirect media pedagogy means: which non-medial (school) activities promote a sovereign personality to find a genuine way of dealing with these media? In the field of direct media education, one can ask, what skills and knowledge should young people have acquired in dealing with ICT,  when they leave school? What knowledge and skills enable their sovereignty? Do pupils get to know the technical basics, functions, programming and application of software in such a way that they really understand them? Do they learn to question critically, how digital media work, how to analyse and evaluate images and news? Do pupils learn how to use ICT in an adult manner? Who is going to show them, in concrete terms, how to use ICT for working and not just for "chatting"? 15 years ago, this applied only to mathematics and natural sciences, but today art, languages and the humanities are included.


(d) How can one develop “learning by using digital media”? That is a question of didactics in their relation to ICT. How can I teach history, how can I teach English by using ICT, not just augmenting former techniques, but using ITC didactically to lead to better results in a certain subject. This is a very difficult question, which cannot be simply answered.


The idea of using only laptops, iPads or smartphones in class, fitted with learning software or colourful presentations to make history lessons better from a didactic point of view has scientifically been proved wrong. The decisive factor, if and how ICT is used in teaching, as we know today, is closely related to the teachers’ convictions about ICT, about learning and good teaching.


A specific category of teaching competence is increasingly being considered: what is required to achieve better learning results through ICT? (An example of the academic research in this field is known as 'Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge', TPACK). Here, too, initial examples can be given on the basis of empirical research: In physics, students should learn the relationship between acceleration and gravity. An example: They use their own smartphones or those from the school, on which an app has been installed, to record the data from the gyroscope (acceleration sensor). Then the students use the swing in the playground, with their smartphones in their pockets. The data is then read and evaluated, formulas reconstructed and so everyone could finally calculate, who was swinging how high. The accompanying research showed that the much better learning effect, compared to learning on the model in the classroom, was not primarily due to increased motivation, (because the children were allowed to use smartphones), but to physical experience and their own involvement in the experiment and in its reconstruction. This is perhaps a very early example of “subject learning by using digital media”, but it shows how didactic perspectives can be created and used to validate the use of ICT for each subject in view of its own teaching objectives.


Shaping Digital Change

The fourth aspect to which I would like to draw attention in concluding this article, focuses on the criteria for shaping digital change. The cultural shaping of the industrial revolution was gradually guided by the unconditional dignity of the individual, sometimes modified after making horrific mistakes. It was towards this dignity within society, that the shaping of the essential institutions in Western countries began to orientate themselves. In its wake pedagogy began to focus on the development of the individual.


Now we can ask ourselves, in what way does the digital world continually generate new ideas and designs, thereby deceiving and disrupting the foundations of our individual culture? If digital change is not completely rejected and contested, which is quite understandable from the just mentioned point of view, it may be necessary to consider a change in values that gives cultural and educational concerns a new orientation. In this way it would enable us to actively participate in the shaping of digital change.


Translated by Ronald Templeton



Robin Schmidt studied philosophy and cultural history, then educational science (focus on adult education) with philosophy as a teaching subject. Robin Schmidt has been head of the “Cultural Impulse Research Centre” (“Forschungsstelle Kulturimpuls”) since 2001 and is currently working on the project "Humanism of a Digital Modernity". Since 2016 he has also been a research fellow at the University of Education of Northwestern Switzerland, with a research project on teaching and learning in digital change.



(1) Honegger, Beat: „Mehr als 0 und 1. Schule in einer digitalisierten Welt.“ Hep Verlag. 2017. ("More than 0 and 1. school in a digitized world.”)

(2) Te Wildt, Bert: Digital Junkies. Internetabhängigkeit und ihre Folgen für uns und unsere Kinder. (Digital Junkies. Internet dependency and its consequences for us and our children). Droemer TB. 2016

(3)  ZHAW, Zürcher Hochschule für Angewandte Wissenschaften Departement Angewandte Psychologie (Hrsg.) (2017): JAMES. Jugend | Aktivitäten | Medien – Erhebung Schweiz 2016. Ergebnisbericht zur JAMES-Studie 2016. (ZHAW, Zurich University of Applied Sciences Department of Applied Psychology (Hrsg.) (2017): JAMES. Youth | Activities | Media Survey Switzerland 2016. Report on the JAMES Study 2016.)
Lorenz, Ramona; Bos, Wilfried; Endberg, Manuela; Eickelmann, Birgit; Grafe, Silke und Vahrenhold, Jan (Hrsg.) (2017): Schule digital – der Länderindikator 2017. (School digital - the country indicator 2017) Münster: Waxmann.

(4)  Steiner, Rudolf: „Grundlinien einer Erkenntnistheorie der Goetheschen Weltanschauung.“ (“The Theory of Knowledge implicit in Goethe’s World Conception”) Rudolf Steiner Nachlassverwaltung. 2001.

(5) Maffesoli, Michel (2014): Die Zeit kehrt wieder: Lob der Postmoderne. (Time returns: Praise of Postmodernism) Berlin: Matthes & Seitz.

(6) Han, Byung-Chul (2014): Psychopolitik: Neoliberalismus und die neuen Machttechniken. (Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and the New Power Techniques) 5. Auflage Aufl. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer.

(7) Baudrillard, Jean (1992): Transparenz des Bösen: ein Essay über extreme Phänomene. (Transparency of Evil: an Essay on Extreme Phenomena). Berlin: Merve Verl. (= Internationaler Merve Diskurs 169).


(x) Translator’s footnote: The ‘I’ is seen here as the opposite of the self centred ego.


Summary of a talk on September 22, 2017 at the Goetheanum within the framework of the conference of the Pedagogical Section "Digital Time - Pedagogy - Perspectives"

Edited by Walter Riethmüller, shortened by Katharina Stemann

First published in: Lehrerrundbrief (teacher’s newsletter) 107, Educational Research Centre at the Federation of Free Waldorf Schools in Germany, 2018.



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