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Waldorf education on the move in Asia

More than 900 people attended the recent Asian Waldorf Teachers’ Conference in China.

In 2019, Waldorf education will celebrate its 100th anniversary since the founding of the first Waldorf School in 1919 in the German city of Stuttgart. With this anniversary fast approaching, the international Waldorf movement gathered further momentum with a major meeting in China. From 28 April to 5 May more than 900 participants from Asian countries and regions including mainland China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Nepal, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam gathered at the foot of one of China’s most famous Buddhist mountains – Emei Mountain – to attend the 7th Asian Waldorf Teachers’ Conference in Chengdu to discuss “Cultural Identity and Individualisation in Educational Practice”. NNA China correspondent Anne Hu also attended.

CHENGDU (NNA) – The Asian Waldorf Teachers' Conference (AWTC) was first hosted in Taiwan in 2005 by Zhan Yazhi and her colleagues in Cixin Waldorf School in Taipei. Before this conference, the Waldorf community had noticed the dynamism of the Waldorf movement in Asia and was looking for a new channel of communication in order to find solutions to its challenges. It was also aware that there was an urgent need for in-depth communication especially among frontline teachers in kindergartens and schools rather than each country being represented by only a few people.

Since that time, the AWTC has been held once every two years in Asian cities: Bangkok (2007), Manila (2009), Hyderabad (2011), Seoul (2013) and Tokyo (2015), and has borne witness to the vigour of this system of education in the oriental world. Finally, the seventh conference came to Chengdu, China to finish its first cycle. Nana Goebel from the Friends of Waldorf Education, also one of the general coordinators of this conference, said in the opening speech that the Waldorf movement had entered its twenty-first year in Asia. Just as 21 represents the start of people’s adulthood, the Waldorf movement had reached a stage of maturity in Asia where it could be open to further change in the future. It required examination and was seeking new steps.

In contrast to many people’s impression of Waldorf conferences as airy-fairy, this conference was straight-forward and down to earth. More than 100 people worked conscientiously together to serve this massive conference. At a rough count this included an organising working group of around 40 people, 34 interpreters to ensure smooth communication throughout, and over 50 teaching assistants to assist each workshop (the interpreters and teaching assistants were called the “bumble bees” as they had this pattern on their name tags).

The mountain resort witnessed a lot of busy and hard-working people rushing to different places, enjoying and absorbing a wealth of information. People from different countries met and connected with each other, self-organised study groups were seen every evening in public areas, creating a joyful and lively atmosphere.

Highlights

Every day, the schedule was full for each and every one at  the conference. Moving from place to place from morning to night was the only way to make sure nothing was missed out. It started with the morning keynote speech given by Christof Wiechert, the former head of the Pedagogical Section at the Goetheanum. On the first morning, the speech was titled “Little Children are Great Teachers”, talking about how respecting children and really seeing their needs can help us to achieve educational goals. On the other days he went on to talk about topics like teachers’ continuous self-development, the Waldorf curriculum, Waldorf schools and children’s changes from lower to upper school.

During this time, 700 sets of simultaneous interpretation receivers were used every day to help overcome the language barrier. During the lively and profound keynote speeches, you could often hear a wave of laughter followed by another one merely two seconds later – the English speakers burst out laughing first and thanks to technology and the brilliant interpreters, the humour was passed on.

Right after, people would head to 54 morning and afternoon workshops given by 57 tutors from all over the world, covering all related aspects in Waldorf educational practices and also including cultural topics such as “Chinese Traditional Painting and Calligraphy”.

There were too many highlights to count, but the workshops on science in the higher classes were especially enjoyable and refreshing. For example the whole-day workshop  “Chemistry from Class 7 to 12” gave the participants real insight into the higher classes in Waldorf schools. As China only has very few schools with higher classes, such workshops were particularly enlightening.

“This is so different than what we imagined!” the interpreter of this workshop Dong Hang said after hearing the Waldorf chemistry curriculum. “The technical part is taken much slower than in public schools. For example, the periodic table of elements was taught only in class 11, also there aren’t many confusing terms at all. However, what students will learn is much more relevant to everyday life.”

Dr. Dirk Rohde from the Marburg Free Waldorf School even used one ancient Chinese character as the symbol for class 7 chemistry.

This character is the ancient pictographic character of “wood”, which symbolises the theme of combustion in class 7. This character includes the vertical stroke as the quality-changing, breaking-down combustion process, the upward curve stands for smoke and the downward one stands for the left over matter.

At the end of every afternoon, a forum was arranged for representatives from Waldorf education in each Asian country to report and discuss their situation or pressing issues.

Last but not least, if you were not exhausted, there was always a performance awaiting, most of which were given by Chengdu Waldorf School teachers, students, drama society, bands and international eurythmists. And on the penultimate evening, people were in awe of all the wonderful, highly cultural performances given by participants from all Asian countries and regions.

Common issues

As the discussion in the afternoon forums showed, the Waldorf movement in Asia is facing some common issues: the most crucial of these is that, even though the Waldorf movement has taken on a momentum of its own and seems quite unstoppable in the Asian countries, many Waldorf schools and kindergartens are still fighting for their legal status.

Almost all Waldorf schools are private initiatives created by parents who want to provide their children with better education. However, educational deeds need a lot of hard work to sustain themselves while non-public schools rarely get support from the government. In order to become legal, many schools have to make compromises, also to ensure that the students have their names on the school roll to attend national examinations. And this is done by, for example, becoming a branch of a public school.

Other than that, just as the theme of this conference implies, schools are moving along a path in search of their own cultural identities in Waldorf educational practices. Even today most of the tutors and mentors in Asia come from Europe or other western countries, but how can teachers in Asian countries substitute the European fairy tales, histories, songs and children’s rhymes with appropriate local counterparts that are relevant to local people? Especially in some Asian countries with a very short period of independence due to a lengthy colonial history, this is a pressing issue.

Vigorous growth

Could Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, have imagined the vigorous growth of Waldorf education in Asia after nearly 100 years? Currently there are 1092 Waldorf Schools and 1857 Waldorf Kindergartens around the world on the Waldorf World List published in March 2017. In merely two decades, 61 Asian Waldorf schools and 148 kindergartens joined the list.

According to the most recent statistics, there are already some 60 Waldorf schools and more than 400 kindergartens that are solely or partly practising Waldorf education in China alone. There are also currently six main Waldorf early years teacher training centres in different parts of China – another one will be opened in 2018 – running at full capacity and providing three-year training courses that aim to produce up-to-standard kindergarten teachers; that is quite apart from the countless other Waldorf/anthroposophy-related training courses and workshops going on every year.

Take Chengdu Waldorf School, the oldest Chinese Waldorf School (started in 2004), it has its own training centre which gives about 30 Waldorf-related training courses and workshops each year with about 2000 people participating in total throughout the year. At the conference, foreign organisers remarked that compared to the slowing down situation in Europe, China never seemed to lack participants!

As the organisers envisioned, they would like to use the series of 100th anniversary celebrations of the Waldorf movement as preparation for the development of the next 100 years. In the first hundred years, the movement successfully spread its sparkle to the five continents, but what will the next century bring? Let us wait and see.

 

END/nna/ah

This story was amended on 5 June 2017 to clarify in the second last paragraph that 2000 people attended the courses and workshops of the Chengdu Waldorf School in total throughout the year and not each individual course. An image of the ancient Chinese pictographic character for “wood” was also added.

Item: 170525-01EN Date: 25 May 2017

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