Waldorf education in the world’s cultures

Katharina Stemann

The Christian festivals of the year, above all Christmas, Easter, St John’s Tide and Michaelmas are closely connected with the seasons in central Europe. These festivals coincide in the calendar with a specific position of the sun or moon. Furthermore, many people experience a particular mood in nature at particular times of the year. Easter, which takes place in the European spring, is associated with new growth and Christmas, at the time of the Winter solstice, celebrates the awakening of light at the darkest time of the year.

It should therefore be investigated how the Christian festivals are associated with local events and moods of nature. Should we not raise questions as to the extent to which weekly verses, seasonal festivals or central European story materials are suitable for other cultural regions?

Neil Boland, a Waldorf teacher in New Zealand, questioned teachers at Waldorf schools who came from a Maori background. One result was that a “Eurocentric view” adheres to Waldorf education. Boland has called for the curriculum to be re-examined to see how it fits into the local context and for an investigation as to whether the school community takes the perspective of minorities into account. The point is to connect this system of education with the local place, time and people.

Let us look at examples in which the local culture has come to expression in Waldorf education. In a research project, Carlo Willmann studied the question as to how the specific educational concept in Waldorf schools is applied with a view to so-called “religious education” in a non-Christian context. To this end he studied the Sekem school in Egypt and the Israeli Waldorf schools in Harduf and Jerusalem.

Willmann shows that Steiner created a concept of religion in education which is concerned less with the aspect of the content of a religion than to encourage the feelings and the will, such as for example trust, wonder or reverence. In terms of teaching practice, this is implemented through pictorial teaching, through language, gestures, images, music, symbols and metaphors which in practice are mostly accompanied by religious motifs. Thus in European Waldorf schools there are religious songs, seasonal tables, the celebration of Christian festivals, myths and legends.

At the Sekem school, Willmann notes, religious education occupies an important position in the life of the school and in his research interviews he often heard the words: “Everything is religion” because in an Islamic context education is part of religious life.

“As an example, we can look at a regular work sequence from the teachers’ meetings which was described by the founder of Sekem, Ibrahim Abouleish. According to the Islamic tradition, Allah has 99 names which at the same time represent positive attributes of God and are intended to permit the imperfect human cognition a more detailed qualification of the fundamentally intangible being of God. One name of Allah is regularly meditated in the teachers’ meetings and related to the educational activity. If “The Patient One” is a name of Allah, the teacher can meditate this name and draw the strength from it for themselves to let the gift of patience flow in increased measure into their teaching practice.”

Story material

What selection of story material from legends, symbols and stories do the teachers in the Israeli schools and Sekem school make in a Waldorf educational context? Willmann describes how at the Sekem school prayers, verses and stories from Arabic culture and Islam are used. The Israeli schools even developed their own curriculum for classes 1 to 8. In the second year of school Jewish legends about great rabbis are told, for example; in class 4 the focus is on the stories of the Judges Debora Gideon, Samuel, Joshua und in class 5 on the story of David.

It becomes clear that the selection of story material says something about the own culture. On the basis of this example, the task might be to reflect on the importance of such references for pupils, how it  grounds them in a location and a time, teaches them values (as in Sekem) regarding the important cultural virtue of purity or how through the great rabbis in an Israeli context courage and wisdom come to expression.

Seasonal festivals

Rhythmically recurring seasonal festivals are a significant part of culture and important for the child’s “understanding” of cultural influences on location and time. Festivities and rituals reflect culturally established knowledge and are therefore an ideal framework for cultural researchers in particular to learn something about the society concerned.

For the actors themselves they are important moments in the course of the year which give them stability and orientation and by means of which they express their particular cultural characteristics.

Vera Hoffmann studied the seasonal festivals at the Waldorf schools in Kusi Kawsay in Peru and Nairobi in Kenya for her doctoral thesis. The Andean Kusi Kawsay Waldorf school lies at a height of over 3,000 metres near Cusco. Its seasonal cycle is guided by the ancient rituals of Andean culture. The school community for example together celebrates the ritual honouring “Pachamama”, Mother Earth.

Hoffmann further describes the search of the internationally oriented Nairobi Waldorf school for new forms. Previously it was guided by the Christian festivals, today it celebrates a festival of lights in which elements from all world religions have found a place.

Silviah Njagi from the kindergarten of the Nairobi Waldorf school und lecturer at the East African kindergarten teacher training seminar describes how the transition from the dry to the rainy season represents an important moment in the kindergarten and the school. “Thus we take for the seasonal table bare twigs, stones and ants seeking food during this time. And suddenly, in the middle of March, the heavy rain starts and within two days everything is green. That nourishes us and it is time to celebrate the rainbow festival with all the colours of this transitional period.”

A further aspect cited by Njagi is the African tradition of storytelling. She keeps noticing that it is easy for the students at the East African teacher training seminar to tell stories from memory. It is part of their culture.

Curriculum in Kiswahili, Arabic, French ...

A “curriculum” in a Waldorf school is not like a normal curriculum with fixed learning content. It is an open concept which is guided locally by the individual, social and regional options.

According to Martyn Rawson, a Waldorf curriculum should present experiences, activities, subjects, stories and phenomena which are part of the learning environment of the children and young people so that through it they can find expression, train their abilities, cultivate their feelings and always find their relationship with the world and others anew.

It is always a matter of giving the curriculum new life in the different cultures and bringing together the own cultural background with the development of the children.

Alain Denjean writes about working with the curriculum in different cultures: “Recently a colleague teaching German told me about the way she discusses the figure of Dietrich von Bern in detail when teaching the Song of the Niebelungs in class 10 because he embodies a great ideal for young people: the victory over his enemy is not used to strengthen his own power and self-image but he attempts to honour his opponent and create a better world with him in peace.

“Now, she said with a big smile, she found precisely such an attitude towards people in Nelson Mandela, who had recently died. Her pleasure highlighted for me the wealth of the curriculum which does not prescribe that South African pupils should be taught the Song of the Niebelungs but that an entry should be found in each culture to discussing anthroposophical themes which at the appropriate time carry forward the souls of the pupils in their development.”

This is an interesting example: on the one hand it means for the teacher concerned that they must find examples located in their own home culture, on the other hand it can also mean finding the example appropriate for the development of the pupils in another culture which at the same time offers the opportunity to extend our own horizon.

Is an international Waldorf curriculum feasible? Christof Wiechert, former head of the Pedagogical Section at the Goetheanum, uses fairy tales to outline the following image: “The criteria for an international curriculum can only be given in abstract form: first, a thorough knowledge of the material is required and, second, a thorough knowledge of developmental psychology, particularly the anthroposophical understanding of the human being.

“For fairy tales – but also for other story material – the following criteria should, for example, apply: the story has to have archetypal images, so-called archetypes, such as for example the evil witch, the good fairy, the innocent child, the good deed, the bad deed. Then the story should illustrate development so that it develops from an initial to a higher state, thus a kind of accomplishment, sometimes also with a crisis involved. And finally, a fairy tale or story should have a happy ending.”

This means that an international curriculum would be feasible, but not one which prescribes a specific content but sets out criteria by means of which the content from the respective cultural region can be worked on.

About the author: Katharina Stemann works for the online platform “Waldorf Ressourcen”, for the Pedagogical Section and the International Forum. www.waldorf-resources.org