In Action

Rethinking and Redesigning Waldorf curricula

Kath Bransby
Martyn Rawson

In many countries the state requires Waldorf schools to implement state curricula or at least to demonstrate that the Waldorf curriculum is compatible with state expectations. National education ministries rightly demand that their education systems meet the needs of society and the economy and that no child is left behind. The methods they choose to ensure minimum standards and quality may be tough or involve inspections and tests, but the desired goal cannot be seriously questioned. Laws and regulations are not as a rule created to cause problems for Waldorf schools, but they often have this effect.

The core idea of the Waldorf curriculum – and in our opinion this aspect is what Steiner called the ideal curriculum – is the sequence of developmental steps. These steps are formulated as motifs and activities rather than content.

The basic assumption of the Waldorf curriculum is that education accompanies, shapes and guides learning and development. By doing certain things in certain ways at a certain age, learning is activated and development is triggered. Each successful stage of learning and development opens up new possibilities for learning, and so learning drives development. One step leads to the next. Moreover, since learning takes place in learning communities – that is, in the Waldorf class – of children and young people of the same age, development within the heterogeneous group tends to be aligned and harmonised. The sequence of development tasks is translated into overarching themes for each year.

We can describe the curriculum as a salutogenic process because it aims to create a context in which individuals and groups can develop resilience and wellbeing through the experience of a continuous sense of coherence. This happens when children and young people generally feel that what they have to learn is understandable, doable and meaningful. We recall Steiner's concept of the economy of the soul; we can convey as much content as is necessary in the shortest possible time with minimal resources, as long as not a single child loses the overview, that is, no longer understands the meaning and purpose.

Three-tiered curriculum

We can therefore distinguish three levels of the curriculum:

Macro level: It offers a typical ideal course of developmental tasks that are formulated as developmental themes/motifs.

Meso level: Here learning opportunities are formulated by describing topics and activities that are seen as constituting a general education in the respective culture as well as the knowledge and skills that should be learned (or that are also prescribed by the state).

Micro level: Matching teaching to the learning needs of specific groups and individuals – the field of the art of education.

We consider the macro level to be generally or internationally valid, the meso level to be nationally or regionally valid. The micro level, the "art of teaching", is the responsibility of the teacher. The school leadership is accountable for this.

At the macro level, no specific content is mentioned, only development topics. At the meso level, the curriculum gives examples of content and activities that provide abundant learning opportunities. If the curriculum content at the meso level is to represent a possible answer to the development question posed, then the choice of this content must be educationally justified. So, for example, if traditional agriculture is a topic in year 3, this is justified educationally by reference to the typical ideal development topic, and not just taught because it is in the curriculum. The skills and knowledge learned in the process relate both to the activity and to local social, cultural and often political expectations.

Developing the curriculum

In this project we worked on developing a macro curriculum and a meso curriculum suitable for the British context. Instead of publishing a fixed, paper-based curriculum document, we decided to develop a digital application that helps teachers navigate the information but also supports their creative design of a micro-curriculum for their own class. Rawson and Richter's experience with the curriculum shows that it becomes set in stone once it has been printed and is not revised for years, if at all. Digital texts can be quickly checked and changed if necessary.

We start at the macro level by formulating general descriptions of the developmental tasks for each year of the curriculum. We based these descriptions on existing texts in published curricula in German and English and then reformulated them in contemporary language.

In a second step, we identified which topics are currently taught in all subjects, both in the main lessons and in the ongoing subject lessons. We distinguished between short blocks (main lessons) and long blocks, such as topics or subjects with a longer learning arc. For each block there are suggested content and references to possible teaching methods. Perhaps the most important and difficult step is a brief educational rationale for the block schedule: why am I teaching this material in this way with this class? The teacher can then either formulate their own content or use an existing description from the resource. It is like a curriculum book where it is possible to look up what is recommended in each subject and class. Another advantage of a digital application is that teachers can see not only the recommended lesson plans, but also those of other teachers in their school, for example those of the previous class; in addition they can exchange recommendations for research materials and teaching aids for each block at national level.

Following these steps, the teacher is asked to consider a number of other factors, such as the literature used, measures for inclusion, differentiation of tasks, contextualisation of the curriculum and so on. The following table shows the steps of lesson planning and review that are supported by the digital app.

 

Level in the app

Curriculum content

1

Description of the overarching educational development topics for the year group

2

Possible content of the main lesson periods and subject lessons

3

Educational rationale for each main lesson

4

Short description of the learning and teaching methods and tasks with reasoning

5

The specific learning objectives formulated as learning opportunities, also interdisciplinary

6

Learning level descriptors for the individual subjects

7

Aspects of inclusion, internal differentiation, gender and decolonisation aspects considered

8

Formative, ipsative and summative educational assessment modalities and feedback forms

9

Sources, material, recommended reading, research questions, etc.

 

The final sections contain age-related learning opportunities and learning descriptors. The new curriculum, and with it the Art of Teaching App, suggests the learning opportunities that should be offered in every subject and in every class. These relate to how skills and knowledge are learned and also allow teachers to track subjects across different blocks. They are as a rule openly formulated: for example, "children in year 2 should have the opportunity to observe, explore, encounter, discover, document, practise", etc.

For each subject, a gradation of learning levels is formulated from beginner to aspiring expert. These levels are separate from the learning opportunities in the individual classes, but are of course interrelated.

Skills can also be mapped across subjects and year groups in relation to the overall long-term goals of education. This is about tracking the transformation of potentials into interdisciplinary and specific skills and abilities across the curriculum. This aspect offers schools the opportunity to demonstrate to external bodies how the Waldorf curriculum builds skills and knowledge.

Evaluation

In the pilot phase of this project, an evaluation of the experiences of teachers working with this tool will be carried out. In non-English speaking countries, the content is currently being translated. Currently schools in the UK, USA, South Africa, Taiwan and Belgium are working with the app. Initial feedback from young and new teachers is very positive, while older teachers tend to be sceptical at first. In countries where school leaders play an active role in quality assurance and development in the classroom, this tool has shown itself to be very useful. Stakeholders everywhere have recognised that it poses are many questions about existing practice and its justification, which is both challenging and time-consuming. It proves very useful when schools and associations see the need to revise their curriculum and include new topics (such as media education, new approaches to gender and relationships, and decolonisation).

The app was developed for British Waldorf schools and is based on an updated and revised version of the historical Waldorf curriculum (Avison, Rawson and Richter, 2014). It also takes into account the state requirements with regard to certain specific skills and knowledge, especially in the area of personal, social and health aspects. We proceed from the assumption that the sequence of development topics (macro level) is generally valid for all Waldorf schools. If the app is to be used in another country, it must of course be adapted at the meso level. The aim is first to examine the general validity of the development topics, then to describe and compare current curriculum practice in each country, and finally to support the development of a contextualised and culturally competent local curriculum at national level.

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