Gaining new territory

By Matthias Niedermann, December 2021

“Learning Goal: the Capacity to Act” – impressions from a conference in Witten.

A hundred years after the founding of Waldorf education, a movement is emerging within it that aims to give children a new perspective and find solutions to global and societal challenges.

How can we educate a child in a society where interpretations of reality are increasingly drifting apart? In view of the forced digitalisation of education and the loss of common horizons of consciousness, the question arises: on what inner and outer soil can children thrive today? Who and what do they need in order to develop healing powers within themselves – for the elemental world, the plants, the animals, their fellow human beings, indeed, for the starry sky above their heads?

During the conference “Learning Goal: the Capacity to Act” at the Institute of Waldorf Education, no stone was left unturned, educational foundations were questioned and the ground was ploughed up. The participants: all unique. Vigorous farmers who are asking the earth an age-old question anew. Veteran and aspiring teachers looking for new ways, some medical professionals driven to action by their concern for children.

Manfred Schulze described life and work at Hauser Farm. The lecture was one provocative appeal to abandon the old educational forms, radically rethink school, throw learning goals, curriculum and teaching practice overboard, and instead create free spaces in which the life of the earth, the plants, the animals and the acting human being move to the centre of learning and education. Schulze calls this “destroying school” or “learning from the crazy kids”. It is a lecture that is hard to beat in its radicalism, but also brings a glimmer of the future and a refreshing dose of holistic thinking to the discussion. The subsequent panel used this quality for its work. The criticism that arises: Bullerby – cultural regression, or also that not every teacher can live on a farm. However, everyone agrees that for the future the imaginative power of such activity-based education is needed.

On the second day, farmer Martin Mackensen, paediatrician Stefan Schmidt-Troschke and Waldorf teacher Peter Guttenhöfer brought some differentiation into the conceptual template.

Mackensen put ideas about agriculture and nature into perspective. Plant and animal nature as we know it could not be understood without ancient cultural activities which still shape nature today. Agriculture was the predestined cultural location where people and especially children could wake up to the ecological impact of their own actions.

Following Hartmut Rosa’s concept of resonance, Schmidt-Troschke developed a concept of health that points beyond the dichotomous doctor-patient relationship or the monocausal disease-diagnosis-therapy concept. In his view, health as a state that arises and cannot be demanded or schematically produced requires the formation of living relationships with the world and dialogical social spaces.

With his humorous contribution, Guttenhöfer inverted the educational view. He illustrated how educational activity changes when it focuses on manual, mental and spiritual activity and not, as usual, on the formal imparting of knowledge.

The free and moderated discussions were rounded off in the evening with a professional insight into the activities of the Research Centre for Waldorf Work Education and Vocational Training. Tilman Kieser described the concept of the Hibernia School in Herne, developed in an industrial context, which not only enables its pupils to obtain a dual qualification but also imparts security and confidence for life with a focus on practical skills training.

Klaus-Peter Freitag, executive director of the German Association of Waldorf Schools, showed how other types of documentation of learning and performance were gradually being given greater value with the emerging recognition of a graduation portfolio.

The education researcher Wilfried Gabriel rounded off the evening by describing the upper school concept of the Schloss Hamborn Waldorf School. It had become clear that for young people today the question “How and what can I do?” is biographically defining and existential. Schools that wanted to expand their provision in upper school should benefit from this commitment and expert detailed knowledge.

On the last day, paediatrician and author Karin Michael and horticulture teacher Gerhard Stocker outlined the child’s intellectual development needs and prerequisites. Michael described how the development of the child’s own will contributed to their healthy development. The protection of this will already began with the question of the self-determined time of birth and continued during childhood in the sparing regulation of sensory impressions – especially digital ones. Gerhard Stocker complemented this perspective by making it clear that the intellect in the head could achieve nothing without the intellect in the hand. Here a research question of activity-based education became tangible: “What is an action?”

The entire conference was permeated by a joyful attitude of expectation which was supported by a thought of the teacher Anni Heuser: “In times when the forces of decline predominate, everything depends on the deployment of the whole person; on the decision not to swim with the tide or against the tide but to create new territory, in ourselves and in our sphere of activity.” The days in Witten made it clear that new territory in schools – modelled on the “pedagogical province” – needs the cooperation of people from the fields of education, medicine and agriculture.

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