An education starting with the child

By Henning Kullak-Ublick, April 2019

Where other types of school separate out pupils in accordance with set learning and performance schedules, Waldorf schools allow each pupil to develop their maturity until they are ready. This educational challenge also turns every teacher into an education artist.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

Robert, let’s call him that here, started his school career under the table. There he took up residence as a fledgling class 1 pupil and only came out again when he was offered a silk cloth which he was allowed to drape over himself as a “tent” whenever he needed a bit of time out. This quiet child was – as it soon turned out – highly intelligent and a profound dreamer. He was able to spend hours talking about the whole worlds which opened up to him from a plain watercolour painting, but he couldn’t write or read a single word until his fifth year in school.

Then his class teacher began to tell about the campaign of Alexander the Great which took him as far as India. A few days later I heard that Robert was working his way through a stack of books about Alexander which he had taken out from the municipal library. At the end of the main lesson, he ceremoniously handed me a long, polished, although hard to decipher, essay about Alexander’s campaign.

From this main lesson onwards he read everything he could lay his hands on and wrote wonderful essays, preferably about historical subjects. Should I have made him write at an earlier stage?

Singing, gardening, painting, recitation, drawing, wood carving, knitting, ironmongery, sculpting, drama, baking, clay modelling and eurythmy – these things and more are what most people associated with Waldorf schools. And they are right.

But what is less well known is that these fields of artistic and craft practice are not the main thing about Waldorf education but only particularly eye-catching parts of an overall educational concept which takes thinking, feeling and the will of each individual child equally seriously in learning, and acknowledges that children learn in very different ways at different ages.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus expressed a thought 2,500 years ago which still applies (here in the words of François Rabelais) as much as ever: “Children do not want to be filled like barrels but rather to be set alight like torches.”

What does that mean for educational practice? How can we light this torch?

School in constant renewal

When Rudolf Steiner at the request of the industrialist Emil Molt took on the leadership of a school for the children of the workers of Molt’s Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart in 1919, he already had decades of research on the physical, spiritual and psycho-social interplay in the biographical development of a person behind him. What made the education he developed at the start of the twentieth century different from other forms of progressive education was above all the fact that he did not install an educational programme but encouraged the teachers to observe the individual and joint development of the children closely and keep adjusting their teaching methods accordingly. He derived his suggestions about methodology and teaching methods essentially from his anthropological and anthroposophical research. That is why Waldorf education is not a static model but engaged in constant development and has been able to spread worldwide into very different cultures.

Embarking on a joint voyage of discovery

Children learn in very different ways in different phases of their lives. The poet Jean Paul Richter said about the first years of life that a child learnt more from their nurse than a world traveller did throughout the rest of their life. It is indeed so that small children take everything in and assimilate through imitation what goes on in their environment with a devotion which we cannot match as adults. At the same time their body is also developing with particular speed. In the interaction between their active exploration of the world with their senses and their physical maturing children build the constitutional foundation for the whole of the rest of their life. 

Learning at this age is a constant creative process which should not be disrupted through premature intellectualisation. That is why Waldorf teachers create an environment in kindergarten which provides lots of models for imitation in an exemplary manner and in which the children can develop through movement, rhythm and differentiated sensory experiences in a healthy way.

As they grow older, the children learn increasingly to direct their attention specifically at a particular thing, develop their memory, and don’t just experience connections but also identify them. That is the time when learning in a class community can begin. Together with their teacher, the pupils embark on a long joint voyage of discovery during which the teacher guides them from arithmetic to mathematics, from learning to read and write to literature, from local history and geography to general geography and history, and from farming to biology, chemistry and physics. 

That makes great educational demands of the class teacher who is already prepared during their training to familiarise themselves thoroughly with various subjects, teach them creatively and subsequently to continue to keep learning. But above all it accommodates the need of the children for a reference person whom they can rely on and trust. In the language of his time, Rudolf Steiner referred to this as the “beloved authority”, making clear at the same time that authority is not an entitlement but has to be earned through authenticity.

Creating – describing – identifying

The younger school children in particular gain access to the world through their movement, their imagination and the use of their senses, taking with them, alongside their reason, also their heart, curiosity and interest in everything. Learning takes place in the three steps of creating, describing and, finally, forming a concept.

What applies to each individual learning process characterises at the same time the priorities of the work with the children: to begin with, the world is experienced primarily through doing, followed by precise observation and dealing with the subject matter in an artistic way; with puberty, the formation of abstract concepts takes up an increasing amount of space.

In this way the Waldorf school follows the principle of “learning through discovery” which offers the children increasing numbers of ways to deal with a subject. In the local history and geography main lesson of a class 4, this can mean that the pupils build a wax model of their town in the Middle Ages. In doing so, they learn to understand the importance of the town ramparts, learn the old songs and folk dances of their region and at the same time discover the origin of the street names and the economic and political reasons why their town arose in the first place. In the school jotters they prepare themselves, the “main lesson books”, they record the most important things they have discovered and design their book themselves. Such multiple forms of access to the subject matter can be developed in every subject and offer each child the opportunity to come alight in at least one of these activities and to progress from there. This is an extremely economical way of teaching because it develops interdisciplinary skills which are of use, in turn, in other areas.

In the chemistry lessons of a class 7, that is at an age which is already clearly influenced by the emotional roller coaster of puberty, we can work wonderfully with fire, acids and bases and discover how substances change, how things fizz, boil and explode – and that all these things can be controlled. Here once again the following applies: carry out an experiment, then describe precisely what has been observed, record the important parts, and only then formulate the laws. In this way knowledge arises from experience and observation. Such a main lesson is also appropriate for reciting in chorus Goethe’s highly dramatic “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”. When in subsequent German lessons the pupils study Goethe or in physics lessons the problem of nuclear fission, they possess an additional experiential basis.

From the ninth year of school onwards, work experience plays an ever greater role. The pupils work on farms, in forestry, choose a social placement, spend several weeks surveying a landscape and gather experience in business, a trade or social institutions.

Art, crafts and knowledge are not in competition in Waldorf schools but complement one another to form a whole. This whole is the human being themselves who develops their individuality in the creative encounter with other people, with the world and ultimately also with themselves.

The Waldorf school is not a perfect universe and no Shangri-La. Pupils pass through crises in Waldorf schools as well. Here too an effort has to be made to learn; here too plenty of mistakes are made; here too there are good and bad teachers; and here too it can happen that parents or pupils turn way in disappointment. But since every Waldorf school only exists because concrete parents have wanted it, who see that their children (mostly) like to go to school, and because with few exceptions only teachers work there who have consciously chosen this school with its system of education, a dynamic is built in which keeps allowing new things to happen and with which crises can also be overcome. Waldorf schools refer to “parent-teacher sponsorship”. That demands interest, a willingness to be involved and patience. But the reward is a life of the school in which everyone can have the experience: every child can do it. Like Robert. Incidentally, he subsequently studied German and history. 

About the author: Henning Kullak-Ublick was a class teacher at the Flensburg Free Waldorf School from 1984 -2010. He has been a board member of the German Association of Waldorf Schools since 2004 and its spokesman since 2010. He coordinates the celebrations for the hundredth anniversary of the Waldorf schools in 2019 (waldorf-100.org). His book Jedes Kind ein Könner. Fragen und Antworten zur Waldorfpädagogikwas publisched by Verlag Freies Geistesleben.

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