Nurturing emotional and cognitive intelligence
Underpinning Steiner-Waldorf education is a belief that children should be enthusiastic about, and enjoy, learning for its own sake; not to pass exams. As a result enquiry and exploration are encouraged.
In 1919 the Austrian philosopher and scientist, Rudolf Steiner, began a school in Stuttgart for children of the workers at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory, using a curriculum based on nurturing emotional and cognitive intelligence. With a strong emphasis on creativity, Steiner education aims to develop the whole child. Steiner believed in fulfilling potential but not in pushing towards adult goals.Today 958 schools and 1,600 Early Years Centres in over 60 countries now use this holistic approach, making it the fastest growing independent education system in the world. Their curriculum is unique with younger children taught 'through the teacher and not via text books'.
Play, storytelling, drawing, and nature are fundamentals for younger children, with the three Rs reserved principally for the post-7 brigade, yet foreign languages are taught from an early age. Children are often immersed in a subject over a prolonged period. Steiner schools (several are featured in this Guide), have a ‘college structure’ rather than a headteacher and the usual hierarchy. Often seen as a helpful alternative for children who don’t ‘fit the box’, but not totally alternative: Steiner education still offers a route to GCSEs and A levels.
The Steiner parent
Parents can be roughly divided into three groups – the New Age-ers (instinctively want their children to have as much of a childhood as possible before being forced into tests), the Anthropops (done a lot of reading on the Waldorf Steiner philosophy) and the Cosmopolitans (moved from Holland, Germany or a Scandinavian country where their children attended a state-funded Steiner school). Lots of Steiner pupils send their children to a Steiner school and many return to teach or volunteer. NB Prospective parents not familiar with the Steiner philosophy, anthroposophy, should bone up on it before committing. Entrance - the younger the better’ and natural breaks in the Steiner curriculum occur at 6 and at 14 years old.
College of Teachers
No head, instead a Chairperson of the College of Teachers is appointed annually, a system is designed to avoid hierarchy and the transfer of skillful teachers into managerial positions.
Some parents may find the lack of direct accountability disturbing, especially when faced with the substitution of specialist staff and/or the management of high-spirited children.
Some Steiner schools outside the UK have a principal – particularly those that are funded by the state, where this role is a legal necessity. Teachers are trained in part or full time courses, some in Steiner schools.
The Steiner classroom and curriculum
Classroom layouts tend to be traditional and children are taught to write before they read (7 or 8 – usual in mainland Europe, startling in the UK) – they learn manually and are encouraged to do before they understand. This doesn't preclude free ranging discussions and the mnemonic power of holistic links cannot be underestimated
Caesarean sections while talking about Rome?
Younger children are often left to find their own level of creative play and imitate the adults with plenty of repetition and ritual.
Balance between practical and academic disciplines is the aim. Everyone learns woodwork as well as to knit and sew, moving from a case for their flute to their own shirt. In art colour is the essence of the work until at the age of 15 when there's a period when only black and white is used – this is to link in with the ‘I love this, I hate this’ period of development. Drawing is also integrated into all topics eg while studying the Renaissance, everyone will draw a room with perspective.
And there's Eurhythmy – described by Rudolf Steiner as ‘visible speech and music’. At first glance it looks like a bunch of kids clanking metal pipes to the accompaniment of a piano, but there's no denying that it aids the development of rhythm, teamwork and coordination – and it's fun. Waldorf Steiner development philosophy encourages upright throwing of a ball rather than kicking and heading.) Steiner schools from all over the UK take part in their ‘Olympic games’ with enough categories to ensure everyone receives a medal.
There are no external targets or tests until mock GCSEs. Subject cross-pollination is ubiquitous; in one school we visited a maths lesson on golden geometry leads to an exhibition at a London gallery and pupils compose a haiku. In a science lesson, children cling to each other in threes mimicking atoms combined together to make a molecule of water. A recent student initiative resulted in a hand bound book of work in the School, a beautiful record of an individual education.