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Steiner Education and me

I encountered Steiner Education when my first son was 2 years old; we'd just moved to Reading and my wife was looking for a parent and toddler group and found one run by the local Steiner school. I knew nothing about Steiner education at the time but my son seemed to like his time there and both his mother and I liked the calm atmosphere, pastel colours and natural materials, rather than the bright colours, sharp-edged plastics and jangly and electronic toys found in other groups. The groups sessions included craft activities such as modelling with beeswax that parents could do with their children, time for free play, shared snack time and play outdoors in the garden. It all just seemed 'right'.

When our son was about 3 we started him at a regular nursery, run by the staff club at the University where I worked. They had painting and card books and the usual bright plastic toys and the staff seemed pleasant and caring but each day when I'd take him there, and even though I stayed with him and played or read to him for a while, I always had the sense that he wasn't happy there and I felt bad about leaving him. When he was 3½ we started him at the Steiner kindergarten where, once again, he seemed happy, comfortable and quite at home.

As with the parent and child group the kindergarten mornings had a structure to them. There would be (depending on the day of the week) painting, bread-making, crayon drawing and other activities, a period of free play, a snack during which the older children would help set out a table with places for all, distribute the food and clear up afterwards; play outdoors in the garden, a quiet time where the kindergarten teacher told a story, and so on. Our son seemed happy here, and we were happy with it and we didn't much consider not having him progress to the school proper. (There was a sort of watershed as children approached the age of 5 and some went off to mainstream education whilst ours and others stayed on at kindergarten until ready, at 6 going on 7 years old, to start school.) And his time at school was generally educationally satisfactory and excellent in terms of his social development (an appraisal I think I'd have made myself, but which was actually offered recently by my son and a group of his ex-Steiner-school friends, who had all spent the following 5 or more years in various state schools).

During our time involved with the kindergarten and the school I picked up a little of Rudolf Steiner's ideas of 'Anthroposophy'. Not a lot: I found many of them (like angels, archangels and ethereal spirits) quite loopy and not worth learning more about. However I'm sadly aware that fine-sounding utopian social ideas (such as socialism and communism) can turn out horribly wrong in practice so it seemed a pleasant irony that daft-sounding ideas could work out well in practice. I was also reassured to discover that they make a point of not teaching any Anthroposophical ideas to the children — as with the ideas of Piaget etc in mainstream education, they are for the teachers' consumption, not the children's.

I was less easy about the slightly religious undercurrent to the schooling. At kindergarten children used to recite a 'blessing' before meals:

Earth who gave to us this food
Sun who made it ripe and good
Dearest Earth and dearest Sun
We all give thanks for what you've done
I think this is a fine, secular acknowledgement of the wonders of nature that make our existence on this planet possible. I like to think Carl Sagan might have appreciated it! At school, however, references to the "Lord" started coming in. Even so it was nothing like the entrenched religious foundation of my own (state) schooling with its regular diet of Lord's Prayer, 2 hymns and Bible reading in assembly each morning (until I reached 6th form and had the bottle/bolshiness to demand to opt out of the religious parts) plus Religious Education lessons which had nothing to do with learning about Other Faiths; none of which seems to have had any influence other than to strengthen my agnosticism/atheism. I was also glad to find that in Steiner education children learned about Norse, Egyptian, Indian and other god myths, which I think helps put the Christian mythology into context.

As for the educational practice itself: distinctive differences from conventional practice include the later start to formal schooling (at 6-7 years old), the way literacy and numeracy is taught, the breadth of the curriculum, and the system whereby a teacher stays with their class, conducting the bulk of their teaching, for the first eight years. Reading is taught almost as a by-product of learning to write, which itself is approached as an exercise in drawing (which by school-starting age Steiner-educated children have a lot of practice at). So for example the letter 'S' may be illustrated by a swan ("swimming serenely on the sea") and so on. The Steiner approach to numeracy includes rote learning of multiplication tables, often accompanied by clapping and/or stepping; and a practical approach to understanding place value which for one of my children involved the class counting up a huge bucket of conkers by bagging them up 10 to a bag, collecting 10 bags to a box and 10 boxes onto a wagon. Apart from the "3 Rs" the curriculum from class 1 includes usually two modern foreign languages e.g. French and German (taught orally in the initial years, often by native speakers of the languages being taught), painting, drawing, handcrafts, drama, music, dance/movement and other physical co-ordination exercise games and sports.

One may argue the relative merits of these approaches but real test is how well they — and Steiner education in general — work in practice. It is obviously difficult to compare directly with conventional educational settings because factors such as the small class sizes and parental involvement and committment would give different results regardless of the educational approach, but Suggate's study[1] indirectly gives a comparison between Steiner and mainstream approaches to literacy, in the context of of assessing how Steiner education's later school starting age affects later literacy. The Woods Report[2] into Steiner Education in the UK also gives a generally favourable assessment of Steiner pedagogy in a more qualitative way. The Steiner approach also seems to embody some of the key qualities advocated by the Cambridge Primary Review, such as the later start to formal learning, "breadth depth and balance" of curriculum including good teaching of the arts, and paramount value of "language, literacy and oracy". (There may be other relevant research I don't know of: these are just a few works I'm aware of, but I claim no more academic or practical expertise in education than, say, the average government Education minister.)

In terms of personal experiences, my older son is now a young adult whose core group of friends are former fellow-pupils at his Steiner school; I know these young people quite well and they impress me greatly with their intelligence, wit, good humour and resourcefulness. (One of them opined that his Steiner education had made him a 'better person' – with which the others agreed; when I asked what they meant by 'better people' they said they thought they had better social skills than they would have had from a mainstream schooling. They also agreed they'd fared worse at maths than their state-school contemporaries, suggesting they were by no means saying nice things about Steiner education because they thought I wanted to hear that.) I also know (and in some cases am 'friends' on Facebook with) a number of other ex-pupils of the school. Almost all of them have gone on to University, some pursuing arts, others science and technology. My own son is an atheist and a sceptic and I don't think he is out of place amongst his peers in that respect. One former pupil is a political activist, most recently involved in the London #Occupy movement (when he's not studying or juggling!). Two are former educational 'failures' at their former schools who blossomed at our Steiner school. And I know at least three who have formal learning or behavioural difficulties who seem to be accepted without either derision or patronisation by teachers and fellow-pupils alike. (It maybe helps in this respect that many Steiner families would be considered 'odd' by mainstream folks and so pupils are accustomed to 'unusual' class-mates, if not to being considered unusual themselves! Also, however, I think Steiner teachers – my own sons' at least – make particular efforts to develop the social cohesion of their classes and to resolve teasing or bullying issues amongst their children.)

There is more I would like to write about Steiner education but in the time-honoured tradition of the World-Wide Web this will have to be 'under construction' for the moment.

[1] "School entry age and reading achievement in the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)", Dr Sebastian Suggate; Department of Psychology, University of Otago, New Zealand (abstract) (press release)

[2] "Steiner Schools in England", Philip Woods, Martin Ashley, Glenys Woods; University of West of England, Bristol (research brief) (report) Note: at least some of the authors of the Woods report are dyed-in-the-wool Anthroposophists and their report should be assessed with this in mind. One can certainly detect an 'Anthro' perspective in some of it. However it does seem to attempt to address its subject matter rigrorously and fairly, for example highlighting deficiencies as well as benefits of Steiner education in the reports (e.g. in the literature review, page 30, noting that the report being reviewed "raised serious questions about science knowledge content and presentation of Steiner materials was generally unfavourably reviewed").
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