Dealing with the “curriculum” – a question of attitude

November 2021

In conversation with Christoph Doll, class teacher for many years at the Waldorf school in Karlsruhe and at the intercultural Waldorf School in Mannheim, co-founder of the intercultural Waldorf school in Berlin as well as the Waldorf school in Alanya/Turkey. Since 2010 director of the Seminar for Waldorf Education in Berlin. His keynote presentation on “Questions regarding an adequate approach to contemporary issues in our system of education”, which he gave at the curriculum symposium in Kassel, prompted us to ask him a few questions.

Photo: @ Charlotte Fischer

Erziehungskunst | Are there any topics in the lower and middle school curriculum that you would rework or reposition from today’s perspective?

Christoph Doll | Basically, it is a matter of reflecting on the perspectives from which the topics were given in certain age groups and checking again and again whether the reasons why a class teacher picks up a certain topic are appropriate for the class they are teaching at the time. I assume that most teachers do this. No matter whether it is Waldorf or not. If everyone does this, then perhaps we won’t need the Waldorf movement anymore, because then everything will be “Waldorf” because it is good for the children.

The danger is that topics for which there was once a reason will continue to exist and be copied only because they are traditional. On the one hand, this would not be surprising for a school movement that is over a hundred years old, but it is all the more important to look at how contemporary aspects can enrich the curriculum tasks.

EK | An example: in lower school, the subject matter includes the creation myths, Norse mythology, especially the Edda. Why are they taught?

CD | The possibility of telling a story offers an opportunity for a variety of considerations and points of view – as does naturally any teaching content in the different classes – which can stand side by side. As a teacher, I have to weigh up and decide what is right for my class or what is conducive – this is where my sovereignty as a teacher lies. Well, let’s take the creation story in class 3: we all know about the Rubicon. That children at this age often carry the question: “Where do I come from?” is something we have all experienced. And generally we answer this question with the creation myth of the Old Testament – Genesis. This is also good and right in our culture, in our socialisation environment that shapes us.

A myth is a world event captured in a big picture that people seized a very long time ago and continued to tell each other. If this myth is now told, this should only happen if the teller actually connects something with these great human images, if they can internalise them and turn them into pictorially powerful linguistic events. To come back to the question: how about taking up the idea of telling creation myths from different cultures and regions of the world? It broadens the feeling for the world without the child being ejected from of its familiar environment. The stories of the Maori, for example, or the myths of the Inuit are wonderful pictorial events in which the children immerse themselves with enthusiasm and experience depth – of course, it is true here, too, that the story tellers should in each case first bring these images to life within themselves. Because the class teacher “transmits” these images, diversity enters the experienced unity of the world, without separation or isolation, but out of the expansive attitude of the teaching personality. Religious feeling in the broadest sense is initiated here – it is, after all, a central concern to stimulate social, aesthetic and religious feeling. Precisely the same also applies to the story material of class 4.

What aspects speak in favour of Norse mythology? We understand the situation of the children at the end of the Rubicon, the relationship to the world has changed: “The world no longer speaks to me, the gods have left me”. Such a twilight of the gods can be found, for example, in the Edda, where the battle leading to the downfall of the gods is reported in great images and only a luminous god may become active for the future. This can be a reason. However, these myths and legends about the twilight of the gods can also be found in other cultural areas.

The Edda can be difficult to bring to life and “grasp” its images for a variety of reasons. Again, there is no requirement to tell this myth in class 4. If a teacher decides to do so from a certain perspective, then it may be the right thing to do. But there are probably alternatives, even if the world of knights, of Wieland the blacksmith and the artful dwarves seems right for the pupils of a class 4 in this powerful linguistic garb. Perhaps, however, other stories can be found that support this developmentally appropriate impulse for children to experience their I.

There is no rule which says that particular story material or a particular myth has to be taken up in a particular region of the world, as this is a purely educational decision. But the rule does apply: there is no prescribed story material, ultimately there is only the educational decision of the teacher!

EK | You also experience the children in accompanying the practice placements. Do you notice any changes? What about the children’s ability to imitate in the first years of school? How is the personality of the teacher perceived by the children? Is there still something like the “beloved authority” described by Steiner?

CD | Even though it is of course true that children who have reached school readiness carry within them the possibility of imitation, we must be aware that these powers are not simply available but are influenced by socialisation and conditioning and no longer act only unconsciously. This means that the often quoted words: “Children in class 1 imitate everything” are not true in this short form. But the words we hear more often today, “Children no longer imitate”, are not true either. Rather, I perceive that it is a matter for the teachers to be worthy of imitation for the children in their attitudes, in how they are. This is a schooling path for teachers; a task that recognises that the children have a possibility to subtly perceive who or what they are imitating. By this I mean that perhaps today it is even more important to make ourselves worthy of being imitated! It is a process, not a given!

When I set out on such a path, I may be fulfilling the condition of being accepted as a beloved authority – but according to my observations this no longer necessarily happens as naturally as it used to.

EK | Has something also changed on the part of the students?

CD | I notice in the students that they embark on the path to their profession with great seriousness and sensitivity. The respective spiritual search and the discussion in the team play a big role. There is a great openness, a culture of constructively critical exchange and a deep respect for the child and the responsibility of the profession.

The willingness to consider all people involved in the child’s upbringing is immense. Much more attention is paid to the individual person and the moment of encounter. The different life situations of the parents are taken into account individually and ways are sought together – on an equal footing! This can be experienced especially also in the socially integrative context of the intercultural Waldorf schools.

This also means that it is not standards that are decisive for the recognition of the other but the individual person as they are. And that we are called upon to become aware of our prejudices so as not to exclude anyone, even unconsciously. This is something that today’s students constantly demand, and rightly so!

EK | Sensitivity towards diversity is a particular concern for you.

CD | The fact that this issue is surfacing with increasing ferocity shows that we have not succeeded in what we have always preached: the recognition of the other person. If we want a modern system of education, we should deal with this issue. Even a curriculum must not leave this out of consideration in its development because it is precisely in the first seven year periods of a person’s life that prejudices are formed. We are all familiar with them, the judgements that emerge from the depths without us knowing where they come from – that is, we judge before we perceive.

In the final analysis, so-called sensitivity towards diversity is nothing other than the full recognition of our human existence and the dissolution of fixed norms resulting from cultural conditioning, religious precepts or traditions and gender-specific concepts, and the complete elimination of racial categorisation.

The sensitivity in relation to dealing with diversity that has been becoming more and more evident for many years is a symptom of us individually grasping our own humanity – we might also say: finally we are seeing the obvious, we anthroposophists!

If I speak to people and afterwards individuals come to me and say that they feel provoked or even hurt by certain statements because I did not formulate them sensitively enough, then this is something that I naturally do not want to make happen. I can only avoid this if I develop the attitude that the sensitivity of my counterpart is always justified and that I am also developing sensitivity – despite or precisely because I may be socialised differently and carry certain “patterns” within me. This can be exhausting because I have to question my attitude and be prepared to engage with the sensitivity of my fellow human beings.

EK | A school child still feels at one with the world in the first years of school. At what age do you think it makes sense to address differences? Doesn’t this reinforce alienation?

CD | If we set out on the path described above and are also worthy of imitation, then this attitude speaks from the beloved authority in everything that happens in the classroom – there is no need to formulate differences, because the world and humanity is one in all its diversity. The school child needs adults around them who have formed this attitude and have points of view that promote such development in an age-appropriate way.

EK | How do you notice that children really suffer from discrimination in which they are not just parroting adults? How can we react to this in an educationally meaningful way?

CD | When I look at our Waldorf work materials, we have a lot of catching up to do in some areas in creating teaching materials that are sensitive to diversity – here, too, the attitude of the respective authors comes to the fore. I also, for example, consider the way we celebrate the Abitur university entrance exam in many of our schools to be discriminatory because everything is subordinated to the diktat of maintaining or raising the Abitur pass rate and other ways are not recognised in the same way, at least not appreciated outwardly. Here we find our societal pattern again that says that university access – that is, the opportunity for an academic career – is better than anything else. And it is can be demonstrated that people with other educational backgrounds are more often exposed to discrimination in our society than people with academic degrees.

EK | How do you work with Waldorf education students on these issues?

CD | We try to reach the students through content, that is, to encourage them to permanently engage with themselves and the environment, to wake up to the inspiring points of view that can enrich every lesson in recognition of individual humanity. This also requires, perhaps more than was the case even ten years ago, the facilitation of direct experiences in nature in various social encounters and the expansion and refinement of the possibilities of sensory perception. For in fact we observe that although there is a certain superficial knowledge of many things, a general education saturated with experiences which grows by relating the latter to one another has become rarer. In this time it is important to intensify essential experience. In order to support the development of the personality, artistic work is done at all levels because of course nothing leads so strongly to inner movement as artistic work. Through this kind of training our own attitudes and unconscious prejudices are repeatedly illuminated, which can then be tested in joint discussion against what can be demanded of a future teacher in the classroom.

EK | If we makes changes to content, we must know what the original intentions were, based on their understanding of the human being, which are, so to speak, timeless and only committed to healthy child development. Isn’t there a danger of adapting to social mainstreams?

CD | The opposite is the case. As described above, it is about the attitude of the teachers who have to discover the material they choose in such a way that they are inspired and, through their activity, are able to transform this inspiring content in such a way that it is beneficial for the pupils’ development at that moment.

That is, the question is not whether I follow some random mainstream moment, but whether I develop such an attitude that I no longer need to talk about diversity at all, in recognition of all the differences that exist. The socially integrative approach of intercultural education and the inclusive approach are basically sub-areas of the whole diversity issue that we are gradually and painstakingly taking up as a movement. It’s bad enough that we still have to talk about it. Gender star discussions and quota concepts can be exhausting, but they are symptoms of what is happening within society. They are the edges that are bumped against because they question the familiar and at the same time they are necessary because the familiar has to be questioned in an education for the twenty-first century, for an awakening society.

And sure, the overriding perspectives that Rudolf Steiner developed in his understanding of the human being will continue to endure. The content and methods that he gave as examples in his time must and can be questioned. And that is something we also develop with our students: “Have the courage to question the given and to examine traditions for their effectiveness. Especially once you have arrived at school.” We often experience in our training that courageous and creative people are not allowed to test themselves in schools and can hardly develop because they are held back, not to say suppressed, by Waldorf traditions.

In conclusion, let me say that a “curriculum” for Waldorf schools can only really be grasped if it is formulated in an open way and deals sensitively with differences. We service too many old patterns, we shape too many clichés through the images we pass on – a curriculum guide must also draw attention to this. We must count on the free, responsible human being and entrust our education to them. The line between freedom and arbitrariness in education can only be drawn by people who develop the attitudes described above.

The questions were asked by Christian Boettger and Mathias Maurer.

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