The educational significance of practical learning

By Wilfried Gabriel, April 2018

Which skills and abilities should schools give to children and young people so that they are prepared to confidently confront the challenges of the future? On what basis can these increasingly bigger and more complex seeming tasks such as globalisation and digitalisation, peace and social justice, and responsibility towards the earth and its inhabitants be tackled? From the point of view of Waldorf education, the school’s contribution when it comes to overcoming these challenges can only arise through a human-centred understanding of education.

The concept of education that Goethe once painted with lively strokes in his “Pedagogical Province” had the sound of symphonic poetry and galloping horses, and still had the smell of wood and practical, physical work. He incorporated the powerful unfolding of the free personality with an appreciation of that which is beneath, around, and above it.

As long ago as the 1980s, the well-known educational researchers Wolfgang Klafki diagnosed a “history of decay in the concept of education” in Germany. Problem solving strategies and skills for the job market are primarily what is demanded. It is a colourless education, diluted down to social rules of behaviour and merely knowing what to do. It is taught less and less through the use of role models, books and libraries, but rather through smartphones and the all-pervasive Internet.

At the same time, we are clearly coming to realise that our societal tasks and problems cannot solely be solved and shaped by the promotion of the head and of artificial intelligence. The educational researcher Klaus Zierer is of the opinion: “If educational investment or educational endeavour are solely devoted to the cognitive domain, this will sooner or later lead to the loss of what makes us human.” In light of this, we can also recall Rudolf Steiner, who pointed out, when founding the first Waldorf school, that there is a divergence between intellectual and moral development in the modern era and linked this to a pedagogical mandate.

Between the conflicting priorities of polar forces

The human personality sits in the centre between two fundamental polarities: an anthropological dimension arising from the polarity between cognition and action. This refers to a form of learning employing “the head, heart and hand” – which metamorphoses in terms of the organisation of teaching into cognitive, artistic, and practical craft provisions.

The polarity of individuation and socialisation demarcates the second, social dimension. A person’s sense of identity cannot be found and sustained alone, but rather only in combination and with the aid of others. It also is the source of other forms of polarity, such as self-perception and empathy, distance and proximity, identity and social role. This can be observed in the field of learning through, for example, self-directed learning and group work.

A third dimension, the socio-cultural one, concerns the polarity between tradition and innovation, in which, for example, the past and future, as well as the communication of values and ideals resonate, in addition to established models of practice and creative methods.

The delineated polarities are mutually dependent in the sense of the Goethean idea of “polarity and enhancement”. These indications can suffice to show that this basic shape is not meant to be understood in a static way: it concerns not only to the internal constitution of a person but also to the corresponding organisation of the school and the structure of our education system. Only through comprehensive educational provision that fosters and challenges the appropriate polarities can the inner impulses of human individuality unfold and grow. In a holistic education system, these appropriate polarities have to be related to one another to a much greater extent.

The separation of general education and vocational training – Humboldt’s unredeemed legacy – means that individual areas tend to be addressed and weighted differently. Here it might be an introduction to science, there it might be more action oriented, practical learning. Here more self-directed learning processes, there more work in teams. This can lead to education becoming quite one-sided.

Practical learning is practical

The educational significance of practical learning is not only due to the fact that, in addition to cognitive and artistic learning, it represents an essential aspect when approaching education from a holistic point of view, it is also due to its own quality in and of itself. Practical learning also fosters and develops essential skills, when it is structured according to the pupil’s age. On a physical level, it is able to impart direct, sensory experience as well as physical dexterity. It facilitates the vibrant development of children when they produce meaningful products themselves and, in addition, are allowed to experience exactly what they are capable of through clear processes. As a result, a healthy attitude towards life is able to develop in a salutogenic sense.

On a psychological level, the planning, realisation and examination of our own activities fosters self-reflection and trains the will. The convergence of the “logic” of concepts with the “logic” of facts strengthens the pupil’s trust in their own ability to act. When approaching this from a social point of view, the experience of work in terms of doing work for others fosters an altruistic attitude. This leads to the pupils learning to value the things they deal with. In addition to this, basic ecological and economic methods and modes of thought can be imparted in a similar way. Not least, practical methods of learning help to prepare pupils for digital change in a healthy way. Interaction with digitalisation requires abilities that can’t be acquired in the digital world. Only those who are able to handle the real world are able appropriately to rank the virtual one.

In the transition from play to work, the practical technical learning that takes place at Waldorf schools nurtures each pupil’s individual skills and offers both initial vocational qualifications as well as ultimately the foundations of the ethics of responsibility at the respective differing stages of development. If Waldorf schools were to continue to strengthen this area, so that it leads to a corresponding qualification in parallel to the arts and cognitive qualifications (centralised examinations), this would both send an important signal and set an example in terms of the reform of the education system. It could be implement as a “practical all-rounder” portfolio within the framework of the Waldorf school leaving qualifications, to be submitted at the end of the course. This could then form a foundation upon which further vocational qualifications could build. It would mean that one further step would be taken towards the goal of a holistic general education.

About the author: Dr. Wilfried Gabriel works at the Schloss Hamborn Waldorf Vocational College as well as at the Research Centre for Waldorf Occupational and Vocational Education at the Alanus University in Alfter.

E-Mail: waldorf-berufskolleg(at)