Outstanding, but could develop further

By Jost Schieren, November 2019

If we try to sum up in a sentence what Waldorf education is all about, then we can say that the whole of its teaching theory and methodology is guided by support for the development of the human personality.

Waldorf education is education of the I

The educational process in Waldorf schools aims for children and young people to experience the strength of their individuality, to experience themselves as an I. This is perhaps the strongest argument to date for parents who send their children to Waldorf schools, namely that they have confidence that there are teachers there who see and understand their children and who are concerned to strengthen the personality of their child.

Individual learning time

Irrespective of the ethos of those involved in the educational process, Waldorf schools guarantee a free and protected space for individual support by virtue of their system. This is because there is no selection. The mainstream school system in Germany works – put positively – on the basis of homogenous groups of learners. It implements such homogeneity of learning groups through rigid selection in that after the primary school period relatively distinct career decisions are already taken.

The educational principle of the Waldorf school has a different focus: the ideal consists of working with mixed-ability learning groups. There is no selection by ability. There is a commitment to diversity. All pupils are to be supported optimally in their own development. By dispensing with grading and holding pupils back a year, the children and young people are guaranteed their individual learning time. Those who learn faster do not learn better for which they should be rewarded, and those who learn more slowly do not learn worse for which they should be punished, as happens in the mainstream school system. Slower or faster learning are not absolutes but, among other things, individual phases of development and can change during the time at school. Waldorf education takes account of that.

Equality of subjects

Then there is the refusal to create a hierarchy of subjects. In mainstream schools, the principal (German, mathematics, English) or MINT (mathematics, information technology, natural sciences, technology) subjects are given a higher weighting than the artistic subjects. Such a hierarchy of subjects, for which there is no social legitimisation and at best a short-term economic one, does not exist at Waldorf schools. This allows them to support individual talents and preferences. That is not all, however, for an education which was guided alone by talent would be too one-sided. But because the pupils can experience their self-efficacy in a subject for which they have an affinity, this gives them greater self-confidence to engage with other subjects with a greater tolerance of frustration. But this does not mean that Waldorf education is purely for amusement. It is performance-oriented but starts with the individual performance capability in order gradually to extend it.

Holistic approach

Waldorf education is focused not just on the rational cognitive side of a person but also understands them as a being with feelings and a will: head, heart and hands. The one-sidedness of a purely intellectual education is rejected because artistic and social as well as concrete (craft and technical) skills and expertise should be acquired in Waldorf lessons at the same time. Everything that is intellectually grasped should at the same time be experienced and tried out by the child or young person themselves. Thus experience and action-based learning is a genuine part of the Waldorf school. Only teaching which is directly related to the world can in the longer term generate responsibility for and awareness of our social and natural environment.

Community

The Waldorf school is the only school worldwide which allows for a class community from class one to class twelve. The communal aspect of social learning in the spirit of group education is crucial for the Waldorf educational approach. Alongside the class community, a living school community which includes pupils, parents and teachers is also considered to be particularly important. The social experience in joint projects and celebrations is one of the central educational aspects of Waldorf education.

Challenges

The particular characteristics of the Waldorf school as set out above continue to be recognised – also from the perspective of education studies – as outstanding. But with a view to a hundred years of Waldorf education there are also challenges for the future. Of the many things that could be listed, we will mention two:

  • School for all: as private schools under the law, Waldorf schools in Germany have become almost predominantly schools for the highly educated, privileged sections of society. Originally it was a school for working class children. Here it is necessary to undertake a course correction and establish more model schools such as the intercultural Waldorf schools in Mannheim, Berlin and Dresden.
  • Pupil participation: there are meanwhile many models for active pupil participation also in the sense of co-determining the development of the school and its teaching. Waldorf schools also, of course, have a school council but this area could be developed further.

But these considerations do not in any way diminish the great and unique value of a deeply humane education which is guided by the individual development of all pupils.

Dr. Jost Schieren is professor of Waldorf education at Alanus University.

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