FondsGoetheanum: Education

"I am not only what I am now; I am on the way to becoming what I am not yet".

Is educating children an art?

In Steiner-Waldorf education, art has an important place: not only as the link between will and thinking, but also because of the importance generally of artistic activities.

When one speaks of art, for example, the art of healing, ‘ability’ and ‘knowledge’ form a whole and can be applied together. In Steiner-Waldorf schools, one readily speaks of the art of education because the aim is always to connect capabilities and knowledge.

Genes or the environment?

One often thinks of children as the result of a double influence, genetic predisposition and socialisation. From the point of view of the cognitive sciences, these two types of influence combine in an open neurological system, which in the end gives rise to the human being as we know him. But this also shows that a third influence is present.

The third element

One can define this third element as that which has the predisposition. After all, we do not say ‘I am my disposition’, but ‘I have a disposition’. I am not my socialisation, but I am subject to socialisation. I am not synonymous with all that comes to meet me by way of genetic disposition, socialisation, childhood experiences, the behaviour of my parents, what my teachers bring. In addition to the first two influences, therefore, there is a third – that of the individual human being who is touched by and reacts to the other two.

What does this say about ability?

A great deal. For example, in Steiner-Waldorf kindergartens children are encouraged to play freely because play balances predisposition and socialisation, enabling thereby the children to feel at home in and with themselves. They learn to become ‘instruments’ of themselves.

Play is a great teacher

If there is a difficulty, the kindergarten teacher can intervene by meeting the child where he is. If it is with language, then providing an appropriate therapy. Or in play – do not verses, sounds, care of the senses already have a therapeutic effect?
Whence comes a language problem? It can be, for example, the result of a lack of tactile experience, of having not been touched enough. This can translate into a weak vocabulary. A game guided by such awareness and featuring touch can do much to stimulate speech and thus overcome the initial hindrance.

The school has a social mission – the more heterogenuous, the more the interest, tolerance and working together.

Motivation from within

In Steiner-Waldorf schools, the will to learn is regarded as very important. In Piaget’s terms, this is ‘intensive motivation’, or motivation from within. Consider a student who loves mathematics or chemistry. In a conventional (classic) curriculum, he can engage in this topic at the most, say, 45 minutes at a time and three times a week. With such a pedagogy what does one achieve? A bundle of nerves.
Or one can proceed differently: teach maths or chemistry for two hours a day for four weeks. (This is known as ‘main lesson teaching’.) One is never hurried. One can complete one’s work the next day. One can go into the subject in depth, enriching it, working with it interactively. The students will perhaps themselves construct a hyperbola instead of merely looking at it on a computer. Modern science confirms that delicate, intelligent manual activity stimulates the capacity to learn. Conversely, using only the head exhausts it.

Learn to forget

Steiner-Waldorf schools are different in many ways. They allow students to forget a large part of what they have struggled to learn. This is essential to the development of memory. Forgetting then recalling, albeit guided by an experienced teacher. Working memory and long-term memory are thus trained separately. What can I forget for now and what should I not forget? This principle comes to expression in the curriculum in the form of subjects that entail a lot of exercises and are repeated every week, as in main lessons, where to learn and to understand are the primary elements. It works as a kind of breathing of the intellect.
There was a time when art was considered a luxury, also at school – an idea that we have by no means overcome to this day. But serious researchers know that artistic education is indispensable to creative intellectual activity. The basics of drawing or of painting, for example, create the necessary conditions for orienting oneself in life. This is why Steiner-Waldorf schools emphasise music and plastic arts. Also for students not given to these subjects. For such students in reality do not exist. There again, a ‘right’ curriculum can help the breathing process.

The show, to imitate, to facilitate

Ever since the discovery of the mirror neurons, it has been recognised that little children do not learn with their intellect. They learn by way of example, by imitation. This shows the great responsibility that attaches to teaching, but also the very concrete consequences that this implies. For example, to learn foreign languages early in an intellectual way is a torture: many who have had this experience prefer to forget it. But to learn a foreign language by imitation – as one does one’s mother tongue – because the teacher uses only this language in the lesson, this engenders a natural interest.
The purpose of school is not only education. The purpose, especially in our times, is social. No matter what the context or the district: every classroom is a protected space where one learns what one will require when, later in life, one makes one’s adult way in the world. Here, too, Steiner-Waldorf schools have discovered something – in a class of children, the more heterogeneous their capacities, the more they develop interest, tolerance and mutual help.
Any number of studies have shown that heterogenic education never compromises individual performance. In this sense, education is a mission of our times. And educators need to be masters of their craft.

  Christof Wiechert, Leader of the Pedagogical Section at the Goetheanum