In my thirty‐five years of working in and with Waldorf education on different continents and in different settings, I find I have become increasingly concerned by what I sometimes see and hear within schools and from teachers. I see an increasing tendency to make Waldorf teaching a method, teachers being satisfied with recipe solutions, a growing unwillingness to do original creative work and the tendency to rely more on the work of others.
This was put more strongly by Christof Wiechert, former leader of the Pedagogical Section, at a conference in Australia (1). He gave a talk called, “What to do with a ninety‐six‐year‐old lady?” She is now a little older. His opinion was, we need to have a totally new impulse into which the spirit of this lady can incarnate.
Alain Denjean put it clearly in a recent journal from the Pedagogical Section in Dornach.
“The teacher needs to feel free to explore the spiritual foundations of the curriculum day by day, to put it into practice according to his or her insight. If this does not happen, the curriculum first becomes a worn‐out path, then tradition, and finally a mere list of norms that have to be adhered to.” (2)
Where do you stand with this? Your colleagues? Your schools?
On top of this reliance on tradition, following a worn‐out path, has come the rapid and remarkable spread of Waldorf education around the world. This of course started a long time ago, but progress in recent years is truly extraordinary. This has happened chiefly in Asia, above all in China. It highlights a further tendency identified by Martyn Rawson a few years ago. He says:
“Waldorf education is being offered in more than 60 countries and is growing rapidly with major new areas of development in Asia. In the process of becoming global, it has spread from its origins in Europe, yet it has barely begun to reflect critically on what this expansion means in terms of the transmission of ideas into different cultures and different settings.” (3)
How well does Waldorf education travel when it moves out of Central Europe? Rawson’s quote is reminiscent of something from the opening address that Steiner gave before the foundation courses of Waldorf education: Foundations of Human Experience, Practical Advice for Teachers and Discussions with Teachers.
Steiner says: “We want to transform what we can gain through anthroposophy into truly practical instruction … We will practice teaching and critique it through discourse.” (4)
We practice teaching. We are really good at practicing teaching, but I believe we are not so good at critiquing it through discourse. As a movement, we seem better at feeling and doing than reflecting. As we all know, reading Steiner and coming to terms with anthroposophy is hard work. The danger in this is that we start repeating what other people say, repeating things as if they are our own opinions, copying what other teachers do.
Aengus Gordon, the founder of Ruskin Mill in England, puts the expansion of Waldorf education in stronger terms, questioning whether it is a form of colonisation, establishing settler outposts overseas to bring civilising influences to those in need of them.
“There are many different levels of colonialism, not only the economic model but also the spiritual mode, and it would be imperative in any school right now, in my view, to actually do its own audit of time and place.” (5)
Acknowledgement that Steiner education will and should look different in each location appears to be growing. The International Forum for Steiner/Waldorf Education, the international body of the Waldorf education movement, recently stated in an article:
“… in taking up the indications Rudolf Steiner gave for teaching, which for example draw more on western cultural values, these will need to be supplemented or replaced with correspondingly valuable content, provided the pedagogical effect is thereby preserved. The curriculum … is developed depending on geographical and cultural position, time related and political development as well as general or global lines of development [sic]. Each school is located in a cultural, geographical and political space. … Each region and country has its history, which characterises world history from its own vantage point and will also have its effect on the curriculum.” (6) [Emphasis added]
It must be fully acknowledged that there are many teachers and schools who are undertaking valuable work to localise the Steiner curriculum and teaching for their individual situations.
In 2013, I undertook a small study in New Zealand with a number of ex‐students who identify as Māori, indigenous New Zealanders, who were working in Steiner schools or early childhood settings or who were parents of children in Steiner schools (7). All had studied Steiner education at university and were qualified teachers. The majority are fluent Māori language speakers. The study aimed to let the voices of indigenous teachers from Aotearoa New Zealand be heard as they detailed their engagement with Steiner education, to explore what drew them to it and what they see as the commonalities and differences between their own cultural traditions and what they have learned and experienced of Steiner education and anthroposophy themselves.
The participants made many comments about parallels between their own cultural traditions and what they had learned of anthroposophy. Comments included that, in their view, Steiner education is “bringing the spirit [back] into the material world,” and that “spirituality is the key to Māori pulling back from the edge.” All participants observed that Steiner centres and schools offer a “lived spirituality” and the education has a deep connection to the natural world and ecological values. They all mentioned that, in their view, this “lived spirituality” is stronger in Steiner education than other educational movements, including Māori language immersion schools. One participant stated that, in their view, Māori culture and anthroposophy walk side by side, “in tandem,” “not the same, but travelling in the same direction,” and that in Steiner education there is “a breadth of thought, a bringing together of many streams which can appeal not only to the west.” There already exist initiatives within indigenous communities to combine aspects of Waldorf pedagogy and indigenous knowledge.
At the same time, the participants gave strong critiques and valuable insight as to views of Māori experiencing Steiner education in New Zealand. I stress that these are people who have all studied Steiner education and anthroposophy, and who have worked in or send their children to Steiner schools. Illustrative statements included that [for Māori, Waldorf schools] “… could be good, but perceptions of the schools keep many away.” “People [Māori] understand the spiritual aspect but won’t go [to the schools] if they don’t see their culture reflected.” There is a “need to see brown faces among the teachers, parents and students.” Most strongly, the need to feel “culturally safe” in the school environment is not always met. “I grieve when I see my son going out to school every day, though I know this is the best school for him. When he comes back, he will be a little less Māori than when he went out.” (Possibly as a result of this research, it has to be stated strongly that Māori culture is becoming ever-better acknowledged in New Zealand Steiner schools.)
Though such a situation is reflected clearly in ‘non‐Steiner’ literature, I am not aware that the aspect of ensuring cultural safety for students and families has been discussed in the context of Steiner schools. When asked what ‘cultural safety’ might include, answers encompassed that cultural values would be clearly respected and promoted through the choice of languages taught, should be present in every subject, through the arts, in science, in history (especially), the story of the land, the choice of poems, pictures on the wall, fables, myths, biographies and so on.
Audit of place
Waldorf education has been acknowledged by academics as being the first ‘place‐based’ pedagogy. Place‐based education, or pedagogy of place is nowadays a movement which understands the students' local community and surroundings as one of the primary resources for learning. Thus, place‐based education promotes learning that is situated in what is local. It is experiential, ‘real’, in tune with nature, with the community, in touch with the history of the location, the environment, culture, economy, literature, and art of a particular place. Students become familiar with and learn through interacting with what is immediately around them, be it their garden, schoolyard, neighbourhood, town or community. According to this pedagogy, lower school students often lose what place‐based educators call their “sense of place” through focusing too quickly or exclusively on national or global issues.
As Waldorf teachers, we have been promoting place-based learning for the best part of 100 years though the initiative now appears to have been taken up by others. The big question for me is, do we actually offer a place‐based education? My initial response when I first came across Waldorf schools in England was, no, they felt German (8).
Let us take a child in kindergarten or in class one. Are the local geographic setting and local flora and fauna reflected in the choice and content of songs, poems, plays, craft materials and resources, stories, images, etc., or are these frequently ‘imported’ from elsewhere?
The ‘hidden curriculum’ was a term coined by Benson Snyder (9). It has come to refer to the values, norms, attitudes and beliefs unconsciously transmitted within the classroom and the school environment. Within its scope fall relationships, the way we talk to people, power structures, authority structures, the use of language, choice of teaching material, songs, poems, images, messages children receive about gender values, cultural values, the teaching of history and many others (10). It is an area of study that has been extensively mapped over the last forty years, by authors such Henry Giroux, bell hooks, and John Gatto, particularly concerning how it can disadvantage minority groups.
I am not aware that the commonly taught Steiner curriculum has been investigated to any significant degree to see what aspects of a ‘hidden curriculum’ can be identified and how they manifest. Consider your teaching, consider what materials and resources you use and look at them afresh through the lens of, do they spring from where the child is? This is much more relevant to younger children before the gradual expansion of geographical awareness within the curriculum begins.
Do the Waldorf curriculum, school activities and materials ‘grow out of’ the land your feet are on or are they more imposed on it from somewhere else? How can ensure that the birds a child hears when she wakes up, what she sees out of the window, on her way to school, walking down the street are then reflected and supported by what goes on in the classroom?
It seems to me that an increasing number of people are wanting to investigate these kinds of questions, explore the spiritual foundations of the education and see how Steiner's indications can be developed to meet the varied needs of children and school communities around the globe.
Neil Boland is senior lecturer and programme leader at the education department at the Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand. His research interests are: Steiner's indications on music for young children, the contextualisation of Steiner education in non-European cultural and geographic settings, and issues around assessment. His work involves promoting the conversation between the Steiner education movement and other educational philosophies.
(1) Wiechert, C.: What to do with a 96-year-old lady? Steiner Education Australia National Education Conference: The meeting point: Transforming understanding into action. Cape Byron, Australia. July 2015.
(2) Denjean, A.: Curricula in Kiswahili, Arab [sic], French ... Journal of the Pedagogical Section, 51, 19-22. 2014.
(3) Rawson, M.: Sustainable teacher learning in Waldorf education: A socio-cultural perspective. RoSE Journal, 1(2). 2010.
(4) Steiner, R.: The foundations of human experience (R. F. Lathe, Trans.). Great Barrington, MA: Anthroposophic Press. 1919/1996.
(5) Hougham, P.: Dialogues of destiny: A postmodern appreciation of Waldorf education. Malvern Hills, United Kingdom: Sylvan Associates. 2012.
(6) International Forum for Steiner/Waldorf Education: Essential characteristics of Waldorf/Steiner education. Journal of the Pedagogical Section, 55(2), 13-19. 2015.
(7) Boland, N.: The globalisation of Steiner education: Some considerations. RoSE Journal, 6, 192-202. 2015.
(8) Boland, N.: Sticking wings on a caterpillar? Journal of Waldorf/Rudolf Steiner Education, 16(2), 8-9. 2014.
(9) Snyder, B. R.: The hidden curriculum. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. 1970.
(10) Freire, P.: Pedagogy of the Oppressed. OrellFüssli. 2000.
Oberman, I.: The Waldorf movement in education from European cradle to American crucible, 1919-2008. New York, NY: Edwin Mellen Press Ltd. 2008.
First published in the Pacifica Journal 50(2), 2016, from lecture notes to the Pacific Rim Waldorf Education Conference, Honolulu Waldorf School, 2016. Abridged by Katharina Stemann for Waldorf Resources, with kind permission of Neil Boland.