Waldorf pedagogy: its pedagogical keys and its philosophical foundations

In April 1919, a philosopher of Austrian origin named Rudolf’s stonesr gave a talk at the Waldorf-Astoria tobacco factory in Stuttgart, Germany. Before an audience composed mainly of working class members of the tobacco company, Steiner spoke about the need for an educational model not based on the assumption that human beings must learn to adapt to the demands of governments and big business.

Schools, Steiner said, should serve to develop all human potential in a natural way, not to equip young people with the tools with which they will later be forced to continue to operate the cogs of state and society. ‘industry.

A few months later, at the request of the general manager of the factory, the philosopher create the new educational center for workers at the Waldorf-Astoria factory. The first of the so-called Waldorf schools had seen the light of day. Today, there are more than 1,000 in the world.

Understanding the origins of Waldorf schools

The ideals of which the Austrian spoke in his lecture on tobacco were part of the germ of a new way of understanding the teaching and the possibilities of personal development of what will be called later Waldorf education, An educational system proposed by Steiner himself and still applied today in many private schools.

Why has it become so popular since the founding of the first Waldorf School? Probably play in his favor rejection of formal education which saw a new impetus of the New Age movement of the 1970s and which gave oxygen to various “alternative” education initiatives in which regulated teaching and the imposition of rigid behaviors are rejected wherever possible .

While the Waldorf pedagogy got its start in a time of economic and political instability where the risk of poverty threatened significant sections of the population, today’s welfare states have found a hole for these alternative schools as evidence. Confident of the freedom with which some people can opt (if they can afford it) for the type of education that best fits their philosophy.

What are the characteristics of Waldorf education?

It is clear that if there are schools in the tradition launched by Steiner it is because there are people who recognize their qualities and know how to distinguish them from others, Since it is essentially private schools. Now what are these characteristics?

It is difficult to summarize in a few points the differentiating aspects that characterize Waldorf pedagogy, especially since not all affiliated schools do it in the same way, but the following points can be highlighted:

1. Adopt a “holistic” or holistic educational approach

Waldorf pedagogy stresses the need to educate not only the intellect but also the human qualities the scope goes beyond rationality, Such as mood management or creativity. In practice, this means that aspects and skills are worked on in Waldorf schools, the potential is, according to Steiner followers, insufficiently exploited in most schools.

2. The idea of ​​”human potential” has spiritual tints

Education is not conceived as a transmission of knowledge or a process of teaching and learning, the fruits can be assessed with standardized tools for assessment and achievement of objectives. It is, in any case, a dynamic between the student and the educational community which must allow them to develop both in objectively measurable skills and in a spiritual plan.

3. Flexibility and creativity in learning are improved

Curriculum content used in Waldorf schools much of it revolves around arts and crafts. In this way, students learn through the artistic representation of the content of what they are taught, either by creating their own stories related to what they have learned, by inventing simple choreographies, by drawing, etc.

4. Emphasis is placed on the need to create educational communities

From the Waldorf pedagogy strategies are sought to strengthen the involvement of parents in the education of their children both at home and in extracurricular activities. At the same time, a large part of the activities that take place in the classrooms of the Waldorf School are related to the daily activities typical of domestic life. In short, the emergence of network training in which both relatives and educational professionals participate is encouraged, so as not to reduce the teaching space in the school.

5. Emphasis is placed on the uniqueness of each student

From Waldorf pedagogy, particular emphasis is placed on the need to offer personalized treatment to students, which translates into flexibility in assessing the progress of each learner. In this way, in many cases, standardized tests are only used when it is essential and when the legality of each country requires it.

6. Education is adapted to the three phases of youth development

Steiner theorized that during the first years of life, all human beings experience three stages of growth, each with an associated type of learning. According to this thinker, we learn by imitation until the age of 7, through rhythm, images and imagination between the ages of seven and fourteen, and abstract thought later. In short, these three stages are ordered from a phase in which students can only learn from images with which they are directly confronted to a phase in which they can freely make conjectures about the reality around them.

From the idea of ​​development in three phases, Waldorf teachers are concerned with adapting the quality of learning to the stage of growth that each student theoretically goes throughAnd they believe that exposing a person to a type of education they are not prepared for can be detrimental to them. This is why, among other things, Waldorf schools are notorious for not teaching their students to read until they reach the age of 6 or 7 (a little later than usual in the rest of Waldorf schools). ). like computers or video games until students reach their teens, with the belief that these devices might limit their ability to imagine.

Progressive schools?

Waldorf pedagogy seems advanced in its time in many respects. For example, the idea that education goes far beyond the classroom is something that has only recently been picked up in the predominant education systems of some Western countries. Likewise, not so long ago the notion of learning that is not based on the accumulation of memorized practices and lessons has become widespread in schoolsBut by taking advantage of the tools provided by the teacher to learn certain things when the stage of development is adjusted to these objectives, neither before nor after.

In addition, the need to educate young people in aspects that go beyond the use of the intellect is becoming increasingly important, something which is similar to Steiner’s educational ideal, in that that all the potentialities of the human being will be developed at the same time. time, in all human dimensions and in as many contexts as possible (at school, at home, in volunteer activities …). In this sense, Steiner’s ideas seem closer to the goals set by current educational models than to the philosophical foundations of most schools of the early twentieth century. It is only recently, and in parallel with what Waldorf pedagogy has been offering for decades, the hegemonic ideal of what education should be oriented towards a holistic approach to teaching and the need for teachers, parents and guardians to educate and cooperate from their different areas of action.

However, this image of a progressive education system does not cover all aspects of Waldorf pedagogy. Indeed, although Rudolf Steiner proposed a holistic approach to educating young people, he offered no approach. holistic, not one that has served the good (in the abstract) of the students. The theoretical and practical principles of the educational system developed by Steiner are linked to a current of spiritual thought that Steiner himself designed. and that, of course, is unconventional today.

This is an intellectual current often compared to the type of religious philosophy of sects and also far removed from the secular view of the popular educational models, which increasingly rely on the use of the scientific method to investigate the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of certain methods. This is why, before considering the possibility of resorting to a Waldorf school, it is worth knowing something about the type of esoteric thought on which they are based: anthroposophy.

Anthroposophy: transcending the physical world

When Rudolf Steiner laid the foundation for Waldorf pedagogy, he did so with a clear eye: change society for the better. This is something he shares with other thinkers linked to the world of education, such as Ivan Illich, and of course, important philosophers for the first time have glimpsed the social and political repercussions of pedagogy, their potentialities and the dangers that can lead to stop paying attention. the dilemmas that arise in it.

However, in order to understand Waldorf pedagogy, its methods and its objectives in particular, it is not enough to take into account the claims that Steiner nurtured during the development of his ideas. You also need learn how this thinker conceived the reality and the nature of the human being. Because Rudolf Steiner was, among others, a mystic who believed in the need to access a spiritual world for human potential to fully develop.

The whole original theory of Waldorf pedagogy has its raison d’être in the anthroposophy. This means that in order to fully understand the educational system proposed by this thinker, it must be assumed that it is linked to a philosophy that addresses theological and esoteric questions very far removed from the ways of understanding life and nature in Western countries. ‘today. It is in this perspective of reality from which Waldorf pedagogy takes on its full meaning, since its methods are not based on solid scientific evidence.

Among the postulates of anthroposophy there is the hypothesis that there is a spiritual world that affects the physical world, that in a certain plane of reality there is reincarnation, that past lives affect the direction in which young people can develop and that human beings have the potential to develop organs to access the spiritual world through some kind of self-realization. These ideas are not just a theory to fill textbooks with, but model the type of teaching given in Waldorf pedagogy and the goals of each of their teachers’ actions.

Of course, the content of the lessons is also affected by this esoteric cultural baggage. Some of the teachings associated with the Waldorf schools are the myth of Atlantis, creationism, the existence of a spiritual world which only initiates can access, and a “spiritual science” which can be understood, to access this alternate reality.

The conflict with science

As an esoteric stream of thought, anthroposophy is in itself a black hole for the scientific method, although very concrete conclusions are drawn about the functioning of the physical world. This brings it into conflict with the forms of pedagogy that want to mark the educational agenda on the basis of empirical evidence. to check which educational methods work and which do not.

For example, dividing the ontogenetic development of the human being into several stages of growth, with all the observable changes in physique and behavior, is something evolutionary psychologists do regularly. The development stages proposed by Jean Piaget, for example, are a good example. However, Steiner’s theory of child development is not based on a series of scientifically verified checks, but is based primarily on his beliefs about the separation of body and soul and on concepts of a theological nature of which they dismissed their explanations.

Thus, the methodology used by traditional Waldorf pedagogy does not meet the criteria provided by exhaustive scientific research on the most effective ways of teaching and learning, but is based on a legacy of myths and theories impossible to verify. Waldorf pedagogy does not have the approval of science as we understand it today. However, this does not mean that anthroposophy is not installed in several relevant entities.

A legacy that goes beyond theory

The field of credulity is so wide within anthroposophy that it is not surprising that it has flourished in many theories and even artistic styles. In fact, the Waldorf pedagogy is not the only product of anthroposophy, but its main contribution to the field of education.

This school of thought makes forays into all kinds of subjects studied for centuries by philosophers and scientists, resulting in disciplines of a marked pseudo-scientific nature. like biodynamic agriculture or anthroposophic medicine. This explains why Steiner’s intellectual heritage is still present in all kinds of entities and organizations, from research groups to, for example, Triodos Bank.

The role that these entities play in the political and social sphere, although marginal, is nonetheless remarkable given that they can act as pressure groups. It is not uncommon for friction between the guidelines to be followed in schools for providing state and supranational bodies and the principles of anthroposophy, linked to the presupposition that there is a spiritual world that only a few initiates can know.

In fact, the fit between the Waldorf educational model and national education regulations has also proved somewhat problematic, and organizations linked to anthroposophy are constantly fighting so that the educational guidelines given by public administrations do not suffocate as the Waldorf schools do and for anthroposophic centers to be eligible for public funding (which has happened in some countries). An example of this can be found in the Open EYE campaign, an initiative in which teachers at Waldorf participated and which aimed to lobby the UK Department for Education to shape its guidelines on what to do. Education should resemble children up to 5 years of age, so their methodologies were not excluded.

Uncertainty around Waldorf schools

Is it possible that the divorce between the scientific method and Waldorf pedagogy does not make this educational system a bad alternative? It’s hard to say, since Not all Waldorf schools operate in the same way, nor should they fully embrace the esotericism with which Steiner expressed himself.. Likewise, it is difficult to know where the line lies between an orthodox Waldorf school and a school which is simply influenced by the methods of Waldorf pedagogy or which copies its strategies, having nothing to do with anthroposophy. Many times the legal loopholes and lack of regulation in naming centers make it difficult to make informed decisions about whether a particular Waldorf school is a good alternative.

On the one hand, many parents’ associations complain about the legal loopholes in which certain Waldorf schools operate and therefore ask for the establishment of specific regulations which will apply to them. make it possible to be sure of the type of activities and methodologies used in the centers. . On the other hand, the efforts of many Waldorf schools to meet the demands of demand and public regulations make them, in practice, little guided by Steiner’s principles, and therefore difficult to know what to expect from them..

Despite the informative limbo in which schools related to Waldorf pedagogy seem to float, it should not be forgotten that the fact that Waldorf pedagogy renounces the scientific method means that the more these schools conform to Steiner’s beliefs, the greater the risk that they implement measures that protect the integrity of very young boys and girls. The lack of certainty as to whether what goes on in most Waldorf schools is appropriate for students is, in itself, a negative thing. For that, the best way to judge how well a Waldorf school works is to visit that particular school and judge on the ground.

Is Waldorf education harmful?

There is a relevant question which goes beyond the question of transparency, organization and functioning of Waldorf schools. It is the effects that teaching based on this education system can have on the mental health of students, Especially those who come into contact with such schools at a very young age. After all, teaching lessons on certain topics and spreading certain beliefs does not necessarily imply that students’ psychological integrity is undermined or that their learning is delayed in certain areas, no matter what is taught. contrasted study of history, but the method of teaching and approach to learning certain skills may be inappropriate.

The truth is that the only conclusion that can be drawn is that research is needed in this regard, because the lack of information is absolute. Few independent studies have been done that touch, even incidentally, on topics that have to do with the effects of Waldorf pedagogy on student psychology, and are in themselves insufficient to shed too much light on the subject. Most of this research focuses on the age at which it is best to start teaching younger reading and writing, and no major differences have been found between boys and girls who start learning in the classroom. receive their first lessons on the subject from the age of 6 or 7. So, at this time, there is nothing certain about the effectiveness or negative effects of this style of teaching.

some recommendations

Beyond scientific research specifically focused on aspects of Waldorf pedagogy, some recommendations can be made based on common sense. For example, young people diagnosed autism they might find it difficult to adjust to an educational model that places so much emphasis on flexibility and the lack of structure of activities and games, so the Waldorf pedagogy does not seem to suit them.

Likewise, many of the advantages that Waldorf education seems to offer are not exclusive to them, but are specific to private education in general. The clearest is the option of having classes with few pupils in which a personalized treatment with the teaching staff towards the pupil is possible due to the economic situation of the school. Today, what opened the door to this possibility was not the essentialist philosophy of a thinker, but economic relief, Wherever there is one.

Bibliographical references:

  • Cunningham, A. Carroll, JM (2011). The development of early literacy among children attending Steiner and Standard. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 81 (3), pages 475-490.
  • Ginsburg, IH (1982). Jean Piaget and Rudolf Steiner: stages of child development and implications for pedagogy. Teachers College Record, 84 (2), pages 327-337.
  • Steiner, R. (2001). The renewal of education. Great Barrington, Massachusetts: Anthroposophical Press. Originally published in 1977.
  • Steiner, R. (2003). A modern art of education. Great Barrington, Massachusetts: Anthroposophical Press. Originally published in 1923.
  • Steiner, R. (2003). Economics of the Soul: Body, Soul and Spirit in Waldorf Education. Great Barrington, Mass .: Anthroposophical Press. Originally published in 1977.
  • Suggate, SP, Schaughency, EA and Reese, E. (2013). Children who learn to read later catch up with children who read earlier. Early Chilhood Research Qarterly, 28 (1), pages 33-48.
  • Uhrmacher PB (1995). Infrequent Education: A Historical Look at Rudolf Steiner, Waldorf Anthroposophy, and Education. Consult the curriculum, 25 (4), pages 381 – 406.

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