Education should awaken abilities. How the Waldorf curriculum enables individual development

Tobias Richter

In her memoirs, the former Waldorf pupil Roswitha Rasch describes an experience in a maths lesson in class 12 shortly after the Stuttgart Waldorf School had reopened: the calculation of a terribly long sum was being shown on the blackboard which led to several pupils switching off during the 60  minutes it took. Towards the end of the job, the face of the respected maths teacher took on a “childlike trusting expression when he said: ‘Dear God, please make it be correct!’” The general laughter released the tension in the one set of pupils and led the others ... to switch on again.” No one, not even a god, could change the honestly and laboriously undertaken work any longer.

Looking back, the former pupil noted a “side effect”: what she had experienced and heard became for her, who later became a priest in the Christian Community, a “super religion lesson, the content of which only became clear much later: God himself keeps to the laws incorporated into life on earth.” Something had happened which remained unforgotten, even if it was only recognised much later. Unintentionally, as it were, there was contact with a “future stratum” which had not yet come to appearance.

No determinism in the curriculum

In the advanced training course for Waldorf teachers given by Rudolf Steiner a year after the opening of the Waldorf school in Stuttgart, he explained that the education system he established was never set up to be deterministic: it was not the goal of the lessons to prepare the pupils in a technical or academic way for certain occupations but it should be the aim of the teacher to awaken abilities in the children which they already brought with them. The task was to recognise these dispositions. Steiner was thus referring to his concept for a curriculum which he had described one year previously thus: “... which had to approach this curriculum in such a way that we put ourselves in a position of actually shaping it at each moment in ourselves so that we learn to identify in years 7, 8, 9, 10 and so on what we should do as teachers.”

What Steiner sketched out here as the basic ability to be acquired by the teacher with regard to a general developmental dynamic was then to be applied in respect of every single child. Such a “physiognomic education” is possible if the teacher is concerned with the fundamental expression of I-you – as Martin Buber calls it – in the encounter with the child. Such an encounter based on a respectful attitude then allows the intention of the pupil to appear which is waiting to be recognised. It was Steiner’s intention to grant it the space to live and come to expression, as can be seen in his suggestions for a curriculum in combination with his notes for teachers’ meetings on child observation.

Awakening to independence

When Caroline von Heydebrand published a first presentation of her curriculum six years after the start of the Waldorf school, she noted both on the basis of his sketchy way of doing things and her experience of the way he challenged the teachers to be creative in their teaching methodology that anything of a programmatic or dogmatic nature was alien to Steiner.

Being guided by the “changing image of human nature as it develops at various ages” always stood in a living dialogue with the individuality of the pupils and teachers and the prevalent social, cultural and geographical conditions. And the above motif, “putting curriculum content and methods rigorously in the service of individuation and personality development”, can be found in all subsequent written presentations on the Waldorf curriculum.

If we now attempt to formulate a “basso continuo” for the range of content of the horizontal curriculum,  a motto which in the most generalised form summarises or headlines what is taught during the school year, two different movements become evident: from the openness and breadth of childhood to the solidification of the world of facts at puberty and from there in increasing independence to the responsible realisation of freely chosen tasks.

The education researcher Peter Schneider in the first of his seven theses on its sustainability designates this intention of Waldorf education, as given concrete form in the curriculum, to be maieutics, midwifery, because it wishes to create the growth conditions “under which the self being realised in the child manages to realise its potential”.

Here Schneider builds on Steiner’s three-births sketch which he draws in The Education of the Child in the Light of Anthroposophy: after physical birth, a second one follows with the eruption of the permanent teeth in which the forces which build and shape the body are “born” or released for new tasks. They shape mental images and the memory and thus create the foundation for targeted learning. The so-called third birth takes place at the time of puberty when the emotional independence from the world and other people is articulated and “the confrontation with the experience of determination and an intuition of freedom is conducted always in a unique way”.  

The higher level subject matter of a curriculum before puberty is thus to give the “newly born” forces of learning nourishment without the child thereby being alienated from the world. On the contrary, they should feel at home in it – and in themselves. Such an encounter with the world and themselves wants to realise itself in shaping and creating; in inner participation and questioning; in the acquisition of knowledge and the development of intellectual abilities and the experience of being able to do things.

The time following puberty is governed by the challenge of training the power of judgement of the young people and offering them the opportunity to become independent through the lessons and many work placements. In Steiner’s view, it is this which Waldorf education should primarily do: “Fundamentally Waldorf education does not aim to educate but to awaken.”

If we look at the lesson subjects from this perspective, we can notice how by repeated referencing – after appropriate breaks to allow the subject matter to sink down and be apparently forgotten – the young person can acquire knowledge through enlargement and deepening. A lonely business – because everyone has to do it for themselves:

Thus the path goes from the farming main lesson in the third year, in which all the work from ploughing and sowing to baking the bread is physically performed, through the encounter with this subject in the history main lesson (fifth year), at a later stage to horticulture, dietetics and, in upper school, a farming or ecological work placement; it goes from form drawing through freehand geometry and geometrical proofs to projective geometry. The spiral or mirror structure in Waldorf education makes sense because of the awakening process through the recurrence of subjects. Here the concepts which are introduced in lessons must be capable of developing as well.

It’s the teacher – not (only) the curriculum

A curriculum does not guarantee good teaching, however much it may be formulated in an interesting and freeing way. It is always dependent on whom and what it causes to create something original – and whether this is wanted at all. Steiner wanted it like this – and also wanted that not just each teacher for themselves but teachers in collaboration developed content, subject matter, and forms of teaching for a subject or an age group – and that they should do so with real children in mind.

Such living curriculum development then supports the individual child to discover their abilities and the world. Such a general climate of readiness to adopt an open attitude towards the child means affirmation and welcome. And this is precisely what is described by many former pupils as essential for their biography, most recently for example by the theatre and film actress Juliane Köhler in Zeit Magazin: “I forced myself to go on journeys by myself to overcome my fears. I probably owe it to the Waldorf school that I managed to do that at some point. There I was given the feeling that I was OK with all my fears and weaknesses.” And she describes how this affirmation supported her and gave her the strength to pursue her dream of finding peace.

The golden sphere in the wood

The  response of the child and young person to such affirmation can come to expression in a trusting attitude. Only on such a basis is the child able to reveal their treasures – even if they don’t yet know what they are themselves: “In the dark wood lies the golden sphere; patience, patience, you’ll soon find it here.”  A seven-year-old girl whispered this rhyme into the ear of her future teacher who was not sure whether he had the confidence to take the girl into his class because of her disability. The girl turned out to be right: the “golden sphere” was found – not least because the teachers also had confidence in the girl that they could expect a lot of her in overcoming her disability in handwork and eurythmy lessons. Berenike Nass became an animal keeper and writes that the Waldorf school had awoken the love of nature and animals in her.

Her experiences in second year may have been important when listening to or acting out the legend of St Francis of Assisi with his infinite love for the animals, or the arable farming main lesson one year later, perhaps also anthropology and zoology in year four – milestones on the path to finding the “golden sphere”.

Supporting development through trust always demands openness because no one knows what the other person takes up and develops from what has been offered – in inner dialogue with the “future stratum” referred to above. Steiner considered such educational consistency to be very important – particularly with regard to the progress of humanity towards individualism: “Trust in a very concrete sense, individually formed, is the most difficult thing to struggle to emerge from the human soul. But without an education, a cultural education oriented towards trust human civilisation will not progress.”

About the author: Tobias Richter was for many years a class teacher, subject teacher (music and puppetry) and upper school teacher at the Wien/Mauer Rudolf Steiner School. Since 1980 he has worked in Waldorf teacher training in Austria and abroad.