Current topics – Waldorf education and education studies

By Jost Schieren, October 2018

Waldorf schools are among the best-known and most widespread institutions in the field of progressive education. Despite their overall successful and positive development, it has to be said that in education studies the educational concept of Waldorf education has either barely registered or that its theoretical foundations are severely condemned.

Academic critique

There was no fundamental, still relevant commentary on Waldorf education in the field of education studies until the 1980s after a wave of new Waldorf schools was founded in the 1970s. At the time Klaus Prange in his 1985 book with the arresting title Erziehung zur Anthroposophie (Education in Anthroposophy) described from the perspective of education studies the fundamental problem of an ideologically influenced, dogmatic education geared towards indoctrination. Heiner Ullrich, who in his publication Waldorfpädagogik und okkulte Weltanschauung (The occult world view of Waldorf education) undertook a detailed assessment of the anthroposophy that underlies Waldorf education, reached the conclusion that anthroposophy is a “premodern”, by which he means “pre-Enlightenment mystical worldview” which fails to meet the standard of current academic and scientific thinking.

The position outlined by both authors has remained definitive in education studies to the present day. Heiner Ullrich forcefully repeated it in his most recent publication, Waldorfpädagogik. Eine kritische Einführung (Waldorf education. A critical introduction). According to Ullrich, Waldorf education is ideologically determined by anthroposophy. Here it should be noted that the ideological ballast of Waldorf education seems to weigh a lot more heavily than, for example, the no less incommensurable “cosmic education” of Maria Montessori. But while Montessori education, relatively unencumbered as a “child centred” education, is practised in many state-sponsored schools and is also treated in a largely benign way in education seminars from a neutral and evidence-based perspective, the access of Waldorf education to education studies has so far as a rule foundered on anthroposophy.

All in all, the position of education studies is that the practice of Waldorf education may occupy a place in the private school landscape as part of a liberal education policy, and may also occasionally provide ideas for publicly funded education, but that its success is due in no small part to the comfortable circumstances of middle class homes which nowhere near correspond to the cross section of society.

Empirical turning point

If, on the one hand, the theoretical foundations of Waldorf education are largely rejected or ignored by education studies, it is the case, on the other hand, that in the last twenty years the practice of Waldorf schools has become the extensively researched subject matter of empirical research.

There meanwhile exist more than 100 empirical studies on Waldorf education nationally and internationally. This makes the Waldorf schools the best-researched schools in the field of progressive education. Here we should highlight the empirical studies of Heiner Ullrich, who despite his criticism of the theory of Waldorf education displays an ongoing research interest in the subject and in collaboration with Werner Helsper has presented a comprehensive study on the class teacher period. These studies are supplemented by numerous quantitative studies by Dirk Randoll and Heiner Barz. Beyond that, there are meanwhile also international empirical studies in Great Britain, Sweden, the USA and Switzerland.

Looked at as a whole, most studies give the Waldorf schools relatively high marks. According to the measurement criteria of empirical education research, the Waldorf schools are internationally competitive, whereby the pupils display a high degree of identification with their school. With Waldorf teachers, who are paid less well than mainstream school teachers and are not state employees either, there is also a clear high level of identification with their job and great commitment with a simultaneously reduced risk of burnout.

Waldorf education in an academic context

The sharp rise in the number of empirical studies in the field of Waldorf education is accompanied by a clear change in the training of Waldorf teachers. The latter has become increasingly academicised since 2007. As part of an academically oriented development based on the Bologna process, BA and MA courses for Waldorf education have been developed and accredited in Alfter, Stuttgart and Mannheim with a variety of profiles.

This development also led to a new research and academic culture in Waldorf education. Since as long ago as the 1980s, an initiative of the Freie Hoschschule Stuttgart – Seminar for Waldorf Pedagogy led to a colloquium of education academics and Waldorf teachers who at regular intervals present publications with contributions which give greater visibility to Waldorf education in the academic community.

Since 2010, Alanus University and the Rudolf Steiner University College in Oslo have published the online journal RoSE (Research on Steiner Education) which appears twice yearly (www.rose-journ.com). In addition, the INASTE (International Network of Academic Steiner Teacher Education) initiative should be mentioned (www.inaste.com) whose members include academically oriented Waldorf teacher training centres in Norway, Sweden, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland Austria and Germany.

All these publications, initiatives, research projects and institutional developments show that Waldorf education is beginning to change fundamentally in the twenty-first century. This change is about an academic orientation and a research-based willingness to enter into dialogue with general education studies. Critical voices from education studies are no longer unthinkingly rejected but integrated into an open discourse.

About the author: Jost Schieren is professor of Waldorf education at Alanus University in Alfter/Bonn.

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