13 July 2006

Why we chose what we chose

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.


BabelBabe said...

How lucky you are to have found such a perfect fit.

Although Primo's school is not a Steiner/Waldorf (the closest the Pgh public schools officially come to anything like this is MOntessori...and that not well...), what drew me to the school we picked was the obvious concern and caring for each child, the way the kids there were clearly being nurtured and taught and also were respected and expected to be respecting....maybe I should just move to Australia and send them to your school...

here the minimum age is 5, with the child having to have turned five by Sept 30 of the school year in which he enrolls. some leeway is given, like if a birhtday is Oct 2 or whatever...but mostly here, parents hold the kids back if it's close....

telfair said...

I think this sounds like an amazing educational system for children. I love the thoughtfulness and consideration that it seems to give the children -- such an amazing change of pace from a lot of the world around us, it seems. It sounds like it raises children to be the kind of adults we need more of in the world. I'm interested in checking around my home state in the US to see if this is an option for us, someday. Thanks for sharing more about this -- I've read your posts about your children's schools with great interest, and always had a curiosity about Steiner / Waldorf, and now I know enough about the system to be even more intrigued!

shellyC said...

Thank you Suse for writing this. I am a fan of Steiner Education although distance and money mean my children attend the near by public school. I am very interested to hear about the Steiner classes running within mainstream schools. As I continue my studies to become a teacher I hope to be able to visit the Steiner school for part of the "professional experience" I must undertake.

Really what teacher wouldn't want to look each child in the eyes each morning while shaking hands and to finish each day with a song.

herhimnbryn said...

Hallo Suse,
Hope you are feeling better.
This is a facinating post. I knew nowt about Steiner and feel a little more informed now. Thanks.

jess said...

Whenever you talk about Steiner stuff I get nostalgic for the three years I spent in a Waldorf-inspired school. Everything had a story attached, from math lessons to watercolors.

There's a big Waldorf school across from my library - we hold our annual book sale in their gym and I love peering in the classrooms on my way to the bathroom. It's private and spendy, but I've heard of some public schools in California that have Waldorf streams, like you described, because the private Waldorf school had become so popular and was pulling so many families away from the public schools.

Mama Lamb said...

Amen... thanks for the wonderful overview of Steiner schools. As you know, my three attend one here in the US. We love the school and what it has done for our children, one of whom is dyslexic and would have drowned in the beaurocracy of Special Ed long before now had we gone public school.

Unfortunately, the school is quite expensive, and we are not wealthy. So this year, with our third child starting the kindergarten, I returned to full time teaching in the public school. It is a bit hard for me to reconcile the philosphy I have to teach by as dictated by the public school, with my private feelings about the Steiner philosophy. I teach High School math, and at least at our Waldorf High, the methods employed at that age/stage of development are very similar to what I have to do in the public school.

A lot of sacrifice on our part keeps the boys there. We have never owned a new car in 16 years of marriage. We have a leaky roof and a very outdated kitchen by American standards. For a long time we had no dryer or dishwasher.. in the winter the cloth diapers hung in the kitchen on lines to dry! We do now have both...very used appliances, but I am greatful to have them. All this to say how much we are behind the philosophy.

So this fall, my 5 almost 6 year old will attend his second year of the kindergarten, which is half day and non academic by American standards... he cannot attend first grade unless he is 6 by June 1. Very different than the public school here. Not sure if we will do Waldorf high school... it is even more expensive, and by then, our youngest will be full time tuition wise. It takes my entire teaching salary to send the three to school, and then a bit more!

Daisy said...

Suse - thanks for a beautiful post - I can clearly see your passion!

My kids go to a Montessori school, and while I know the underlying philosophies are very different, I think the two communities have a lot in common. Our classrooms are also very uncluttered and calm, and the rhythm of the days and the weeks is steady and sure. Also, I think the same sorts of incredible people are drawn to work at Waldorf and Montessori schools.

Many of our kids attend summer camp at our local Waldorf school, too!

Thanks again for sharing -

jorth said...

Wonderful post, Mrs Soup. We're considering sending Grumbles to a Steiner school, so I'm very grateful to hear your perspective of it. Ta!

littlejennywren said...

I love the Steiner joke, hadn't heard that one before. You are so lucky to have a choice. We have only one Steiner school in Tasmania since the one in Launceston closed two years ago.We have always been involved with Steiner playgroups and there is some adult education available here. We do what we can at home and have tried to provide a Steiner flavour for our children. Ofcourse they are constantly surrounded by my Steiner dollmaking bits and pieces so they will carry that memory with them.
A friend moved to Melbourne after the school here closed .so that her children could still get a Steiner education . Although she had lived in Melbourne for some years earlier (pre-children) she found that although the school was right she felt her children would benefit more from what she could give them in Tassie so they live in a Steiner home but go to a government school. Life is full of compromises and we give our children what we can.

Surfing Free said...

It does sound wonderful. I am stressing about where I send Miss E next year. She could go to a really exclusive school (because its where my Mum went and descendents of 'old girls' get zipped up the queu), or she could go to the local public school... which is what I prefer. But its such an important decision because I really want her to be happy, and nurtured, and excited, and challenged. Sounds like you made the right decision.

sooz said...

Thanks Suse - there are many people I'll point to this post because I think it's a good rounded explanation. I would so love for my daughter to attend a Steiner school, but I am equally committed to living locally. I don't drive as a deliberate choice and don't want her to spend her mornings on crowded commuter trams and tains. Instead it will be a short and lovely walk down the road to our local school, and I will try to bring as much Steiner influence into her life as I can. But I will always be a little sad that things weren't different.

Camellia said...

Thankyou *heaps* for this nice clear and simple description of Waldorf education. It's not an option for my kids, but I'm looking forward to integrating some of these features into my home.

Lee-ann said...

Suse, Hello I have just enjoyed very much a look at your blog and have read many of your posts.

We have two grandsons going of to school next year and it was a rather large decision by their parents.

I will be back to see your blog again thanks...........O! and you are telling the world about savers tut tut!!:o) my favourite shop to shop until I drop! Will see you there I am sure!

Best wishes

Laura/PFG said...

oh wow :)

i'd never heard of the Steiner/Waldorf thing until i came across your blog. i started reading this yesterday, and then got really ill at work and had to go home, but i finished it up today. and still all i can say is wow :)

it sounds really neat. i'll definitely have to read up on it more.

i was just wondering...have there been any studies as to whether Steiner children fare better academically? or how (i don't know how to phrase this..) they do or don't commit crimes compared to that of children brought up in public schools?

Jerry & Maxy said...

Makes me wish I had attended Waldorf schools...

yaya said...

Thank you so much for this - I found it much more enlightening than anything else I have read on the subject- I intend on training to be a Steiner teacher.....one day
P.S Did you see the piece on education on the "Sunday" program last week? Very disheartening

christina said...

Ahh, I'm so inspired to read this--coming from waldorf, from the inside, it's refreshing to have it articulated from a different angle. You're spot on, and so well said!

My float said...

I loved this explanation of the Steiner program. I certainly have a lot to consider about which school to find for my son.

Apron Thrift Girl said...

I just have to say how much I enjoyed the Steiner/light bulb joke. It was also nice to read your words at why you have chosen Waldorf. Our daughter just finished Kindergarten and is entering 1st grade in the fall.

Bruce said...

Steiner did not draw from Piaget.

Suse said...

Hi Bruce.

The Swiss Psychologist Jean Piaget formulated a theory of developmental stages in children's thinking. His basic premise, that only after the stage of intuitive and symbolic thought is the child's mind ready to translate concrete experience into abstract concepts, is a crucial underpinning in the Waldorf school curriculum developed by Steiner, which is so very play-based in the years up to the age of seven.

simmyb said...

That was a great synopsis of steiner education..well done. My three children go to a small steiner school in England and have done for 5 years now. I teach two lessons of handwork there too. I have to say I love it, we all love it. I always think one of the things it does is give the children a childhood which doesn't seem to happen in the western world these days.

stevec said...

Re: Piaget - Steiner education predates Piaget's published views on child development, and the stages of development underlying Waldorf/Steiner education are more detailed and specific than Piaget's views.

Q. How many Anthroposophists does it take to change a light bulb?
A. Rudolf Seiner gave no indications on changing light bulbs

Gypsy said...

This is probably the most accesable, easy to understand description of Steiner - thank you! It is such a tricky thing to explain to people, and you've got it in a nutshell.

shelleycaskey said...

beautiful post! i couldn't agree more wholeheartedly...

Jen said...

LB went all the way through Waldorf school--Kindergarten through 12th grade. I tease him about having spent his adolescence making little gnomes out of felt and doing eurhythmy (which he still refuses to perform for me), but I do know Waldorf education has contributed to his kind and gentle LB-osity. :)

WV: machen!