This came out last week; yet another stark reminder that for our governing bodies, education exists to serve the needs of the econ omy rather than the needs of the child.
So it seemed a good time to muse out loud (as promised) about why it is we at Chez Soup have chosen a particular education for our children. I have had queries from friends both in the real world and the virtual o ne regarding Steiner (Waldorf) education and why we chose it, and as it is impossible to provide a ten second soundbite explanation, I usually say Go explore this.
Well okay, I usually do say a bit more, but a lot of it is there. If you really must have a soundbite, I would say Because it is about the child; the whole child. The head, heart and hands.
Steiner education is based on the philosophies of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosophe r who was born in 1861 and died in 1925. Many of his beliefs drew upon the philosophies of Goethe, and share similarities with those of Piaget; he developed ideas and theories in fields as diverse as education, architecture and agriculture. (He is the father of biodynamics, for example). His philosophy became known as anthroposophy, and it embraces a spiritual view of the human being and the cosmos, but its emphasis is on knowing rather than faith. Those interested can find plenty of information on Steiner in books and on the internet, including the story of the first Waldorf school, which was created for the children of the Waldorf cigarette factory workers. That said, one does not have to be an anthroposophist to send one's children to a Steiner school, nor does one ha ve to be able to pronounce it. Anthroposophy has a lot to say about the spiritual nature of mankind and the cosmos, and its role in social renewal. However I am not going to say any more here as it is not taught to the children, and it is not a religious cult, etc etc, but it is relevant to mention as it is the philosophy that lies behind all of Steiner's work, including his theories on child development and therefore education.
Some of the hallmarks of a Steiner education are an emphasis on the arts and the importance of aesthetics in all aspects of life. So, every piece of work the child (and the teacher) creates is intended to be beautiful, whether it be a book, or a science project, or a piece of art or craftwork. The classrooms too are carefull y created. There is an absence of clutter, and an intention to make the room a place of beauty and calm. Natural materials abound, from the playthings in the younger classes, to the beeswax crayons, wooden pencils, and wooden desks and the natural silks, wools and cottons of the soft furnishings and craft materials. This emphasis on natural materials helps to connect the children to the natural environment, and as anyone who has worked with nylons and acrylics and plastics before turning to natural med ia such as wool, glass, clay, wood and metals will know, these natural materials contain a positive life force, or energy within them that is healthier, not to mention more conducive to creativity.
The curriculum is full of song, music, art, cooking, gar dening and rhythm. Rhythm is everywhere in a Steiner school, and rhythm, as in the ebb and flow of energy, is very different from 'schedule'. Each day has a certain rhythm, as does the week, as does the year. Each of the seasons is celebrated with fest ivals, stories, craft activities and seasonal trinkets from nature. There is a focus on simple, soul-nourishing activities, and a turning away from pop culture, technology and the media in the primary school years. Huge emphasis is placed on the childre n being given the gift of childhood; being kept sheltered and safe from the intrusions of the wider world until they are at an age where they are physically, socially and emotionally more able to cope with it. The various stages and characteristics of early childhood, middle childhood, and adolescence form the basis of what is brought to the children, and when.
It's partly for these reasons that we chose this holistic and gentle form of education. When we stumbled upon it, it just felt right and it fitted so well with what we were already doing in our household with our children who were at that stage only a toddler, a baby and non-existent, respectively.
I like that this form of education shows reverence for each individual child, while at the same time stressi ng the importance of them being part of a group, a community. In the Steiner system, the children stay with the same teacher and the same class for all the primary years. Each class becomes a second family for the child, and the bonds between them are m eaningful and committed. As you can imagine, the type of teacher who chooses to do the extra training required, and then makes the commitment to take a group of children for that many years, is more often than not a dedicated and exceptional teacher.
I like the simplicity, the protection of innocence, the spirit and the community fostered by a Steiner education.
I also like the thoughtful and meaningful way concepts are introduced. For instance, when the children learn the alphabet, each letter is brought to them from a picture. So the letter M for example may begin as a picture of a Mountain. When they learn numbers, they learn the Roman numerals first, with an explanation of how each symbol emerged from the fingers of a hand: I, II, and so on, the V shape the hand makes when all five fingers are shown and the thumb extended, and the X of the two arms crossed, displaying all ten fingers. Only when they have this understanding of how numbers evolved are they taught the Arabic numerals. Similarly, w hen measurement is taught in Class 3, the children learn how inches came from thumbs, yards from a stride, feet from um, feet, and even the archaic measurements such as a cubit (tip of finger to elbow). The decimal system comes later, once they have an understanding of how measurements came about in a practical sense. Taught this way, subjects and concepts have a deeper meaning for a child. In Class 4 there is a main lesson on the history of writing which explains how it emerged from hieroglyphics, then gradually moved to letters. The children make their own clay writing tablets, learn about parchment and vellum, and finally, make their own ink and feathery quills. It is quite a sight, watching twenty-five heads bent over their desks, tongues poking out in concentration, plumes wafting as they scratch their stories out onto handmade paper. At the conclusion of this three or four week block of lessons, each child receives their own fountain pen, as until then, they have been writing with pencils.
Mostly I love the gentle, thoughtful yet firm way the children are treated. Voices are not raised, children are respected, nurtured and expected to behave considerately. Most of the time, it works. I love the way the teacher shakes hands with each chi ld every morning and looks them in the eye while greeting them. I love the way the class says a blessing together before hoeing into the contents of their lunchboxes. And I love the way when the bell rings at the end of the day, rather than exploding out of the door in a mad stampede of escape, the children instead form a circle and sing with their teacher,
Guarded from harm,
cared for by angels,
here stand we,
loving and strong,
truthful and good.
Then they rush out the door. But hopefully feeling cared for and respected.
Most Steiner schools are private fee-paying schools, but here in Victoria and now gradually elsewhere in Australia, more public schools are starting to open up a 'Steiner Stream' which runs alongside the 'mainstream'. It is a school such as this that my children attend. They attended another Steiner stream, bigger and more established, in the inner city before we moved house at Christmas. There has been a fair bit of controversy surrounding these Steiner strea ms in state schools, both from within the mainstream and Steiner communities. Some 'Steiner purists' believe it can only ever be a diluted form of Steiner education. Others such as myself believe this form of education should be open to everyone, not on ly the middle and upper classes. I mean, look at the socio-economic class of the children of the original German Waldorf school. Steiner himself believed education was one of the keys to social renewal and global healing.
Steiner education is the fastest growing educational system in the world, with new schools springing up everywhere.
Someone asked me how Steiner schools are perceived in Australia. I'm not sure how to answer this, coming from the inside as it were. Some may see it as 'that educati on where all the hippies send their children', and it certainly has more than its fair share of dreadlocked, barefoot, rainbow families. (Although in the private schools they are wealthy hippies!) Most of us however, are normal everyday folk, who have thought carefully about the kind of education we want for our children. Some people do perceive Steiner schools to be free and easy, the 'alternative' education you choose when you don't want the rigid structure of a mainstream education. This is a mist ake, as unlike some alternative educations, Steiner education is not a free-for-all, let the children run wild, or let the children lead their own learning type of system. There is a strict timeline of what is appropriate to be introduced and when. Like all schools, each Steiner school has its own flavour; some interpret Steiner's indications more loosely than others who may adhere strictly to a curriculum that was developed one hundred years ago. Most schools are flexible enough to move with the time s though, and also be sympathetic to their geographic environs, while staying true to Steiner's principles.
I think I should finish here. I'm not sure if I've adequately answered the questions that were raised, but I could rattle on for ever as it is so mething I am passionate about. No really, I am. Can you tell?
If I've missed anything vital, I'm sure you'll let me know. If you've read this far, thank you.
(I should make the disclaimer that I am not a Steiner teacher, nor am I an anthroposophist. Also, I have to concentrate really hard in order to be able to pronounce it.)
I will leave you with my favourite Steiner joke, to show you that although some people may think we're pedantic, over protective, a bunch of Luddites, too hippyish, too obsessed wit h nature and environmentalism, and far too fond of candles, we CAN laugh at ourselves.
Q. How many Steiner teachers does it take to change a light bulb?
A. Six. One to light the candle, one to say the verse, one to consider whether natural light woul d in fact be more beneficial to the child, one to consult Steiner's indications, one to change the light bulb, and one to lead the closing song.