No plastic toys, no TV, no reading until seven years old: Rudolf Steiner education is one of the most intriguing educational approaches around. JUDE BARBACK looks at the origins, methods, providers, and students of Steiner education.

An acquaintance once offered me all her children’s plastic toys because she had decided to “go Steiner”. However, a closer look reveals there is much more to Steiner education than ridding your household of Fisher-Price.

History Lesson

Rudolf Steiner education (also known as Waldorf education) is an international movement founded in 1919, arising from the philosophy and indications given by Austrian philosopher and scientist, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). Steiner was the founder of anthroposophy, a spiritual philosophy that strives to bridge the clefts between the three main areas of human culture – the sciences, the arts, and spirituality – in an effort to achieve an understanding and respect of humanity.
Steiner education is all about fulfilling the objectives of anthroposophy and does so by integrating practical, artistic, and conceptual elements. Indeed, ‘holistic’ is a word often attributed to Steiner education, as the mind, body, and soul are all incorporated into a child’s learning.
The Steiner approach takes into account a child’s development stages and aims to deliver the right stimulus at the right time. Learning is seen as a journey of discovery, both of the world and oneself, and to this end, the imagination plays an important role in learning.
The first Steiner school was founded in 1919 to serve the children of employees at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany. Today, there are approximately 1000 schools and 2000 kindergartens across 60 countries. Homeschooling environments often draw upon Steiner methods, and other ‘mainstream’ schools are increasingly using methods drawn from Steiner education. According to the Federation of Rudolf Steiner Schools in New Zealand, there are 10 schools and 24 kindergartens currently operating in New Zealand. Eight out of the 10 schools are state-registered.

What is unique about Steiner education?

In applying the philosophy of anthroposophy to Steiner education in today’s setting, there are many factors that differentiate Steiner education from the mainstream and other forms.

One of the most well-known facts about the Steiner approach is that children are not taught to read right away – writing is taught first. In years 1 and 2, the children explore how each letter of the alphabet evolved out of a pictograph, and the ability to read is said to evolve from there.

A predominantly oral approach is taken throughout Steiner schooling, and this is seen as the foundation of literacy. The oral tradition starts with telling fairy tales in kindergarten. There is no abstract content in the kindergarten experience and minimal abstraction in year 1.

Indeed, the academic side of schooling is de-emphasised in the early years of Steiner schooling. Textbooks aren’t used from years 1 to 5. Instead, the children compile their own main lesson books, which they fill in during the course of the year, recording their experiences and what they have learned.

Steiner education aims to be non-competitive. No grades are given in the early years. Rather, the teacher will provide a detailed evaluation of the child. Reading and maths skills are tested at ages nine and 11 for appraisal purposes.

There is huge emphasis on what other schools might term ‘extracurricular activities’. Art, music, gardening, and foreign languages are among the activities that are central to Steiner schools. In the younger classes, all subjects are introduced through artistic activities because children respond better to this medium, it’s believed.

In addition to art, eurhythmy, a dance-like art form in which music or speech are expressed in bodily movement, is a central component of Steiner education. The rationale is that children respond to its simple rhythms and exercises, which help strengthen and harmonise their body and life forces.

One activity unlikely to be found in a Steiner class is one involving technology, particularly in the earlier years. The use of electronic media, particularly television and computer use, by young children is strongly discouraged in the Steiner approach. Children are rather encouraged to discover their own world through play as imagination is believed to be critical to the healthy development of the individual.

A parent of a student at Tauranga Steiner School told me the school felt like one big family. Apparently, students have the same teacher right through the primary years.

She also informed me that it was very structured. Steiner schools introduce core curriculum material in the main lesson time from 9am to 11am, for two to three weeks at a time. This allows the child concentrated time to absorb and digest new material. After morning break, time is allowed for practice lessons where repetitive activity and skills take place.

Spirituality is central to Steiner education. While the beliefs of a particular religious denomination or sect aren’t subscribed to, Steiner schools are based on a generally Christian perspective. However, children of all religious backgrounds attend Steiner schools. The historic Christian festivals, and those of other major religions as well, are observed in the classrooms and in school assemblies.

Who teaches Steiner teachers?

Steiner education certainly presents an intriguing blend of pedagogical concepts and philosophical beliefs. Although it is not for everyone, it is understandable why an increasing number of mainstream schools are adopting Steiner methods. Yet there are still a small number of providers of Steiner education.

The Federation of Rudolf Steiner Schools in New Zealand lists two main education providers of Steiner education: Taruna New Zealand, an adult education centre based in Havelock North that is dedicated to applied anthroposophy, and AUT University’s School of Education.

AUT introduces specialities in Steiner as well as Montessori and Pasifika education to education students in the first and second year of their Bachelor of Education (BEd) course. Second-year students are given the opportunity to visit the different kinds of schools, hear more about the education speciality, and then decide how they want to specialise in their third year, whether it be in Steiner, Montessori, Pasifika, or mainstream education. Student teaching in the third year involves two five-week placements in one of these speciality schools.

Neil Boland, Steiner specialist in AUT’s teacher education department, says the number of students opting for the Steiner speciality has increased steadily since AUT started offering the speciality in 2005. Of the BEd students, 30 are currently taking the Steiner option. This is a significant increase compared to when the option was first offered. At postgraduate level, however, numbers are still small and differ from year to year.

Those students going on to complete a Master of Education (MEd) degree must complete a thesis in addition to four papers, one of which must be the Academic Research paper. With the availability of a Steiner-specific Masters paper and independent studies papers, MEd students can complete their degree almost entirely in Steiner education, if they so choose. Alternatively, they may wish to do the one Steiner paper, allowing them to keep their professional options open.

Steiner and the mainstream

Boland says that students have been successful in applying both to mainstream and Steiner schools following their teacher training at AUT.

“I do not in any way expect everyone who studies Steiner education at AUT to teach in a Steiner school,” he says.

In fact, Boland says he finds Steiner and mainstream education fit well together. “I find everyone has things to learn from everyone else,” he says. “Most Steiner schools in New Zealand are integrated, so are state schools, regardless.”

While some students have gone through the Steiner system themselves, not all choose the Steiner speciality. Boland says often these students say they want to study an approach with which they are not so familiar in order to broaden their knowledge of education.

One such student is Dirk Steiner – no relation, I’m told! – who is currently working towards his PhD in Steiner education at AUT. Dirk, originally from Germany, did not attend a Steiner school; like 95 per cent of German children, he attended a public state school. He says that his experience of the state school system in Germany was one of the main factors propelling him towards Steiner education. He says his memories are not all positive.

“The pressure to perform while drowning in abstract, prescribed, often ‘dead’ knowledge to be memorised, as well as being almost exclusively defined on the basis of one’s academic performance, did not inspire me very much,” says Dirk.

“Looking back, it reveals that no one is actually interested in the student as a person. My distinct wish to become a Waldorf teacher and bring about change in the way schooling works today had already emerged during my years at high school.”

Boland believes there are pros and cons to coming from a Steiner school background.

“The plus is that they have an instinctive understanding of how the schools work and ‘feel’ and are comfortable with the approach of a Steiner school,” he says.

“The downsides are that they tend to regard whatever they have experienced at school as being Steiner education, and need to become aware that all the schools are different and not all teachers are the same. Also, at a Steiner school, nothing is taught at all about the education, why things are done as they are, and what lies behind the education. This is a totally new way of thinking about what they took up unconsciously as children – most people find this no bother, but it makes a few think hard about what they recall from their own school days,” says Boland.

Dirk Steiner’s Steiner story

Dirk’s recollection of his school days led him to pursue Steiner education in his tertiary studies. He completed an honours degree in Steiner/Waldorf teaching and a postgraduate diploma in experiential education at fully accredited ‘anthroposophic’ universities in Germany. Therefore, his qualifications in Steiner teaching are recognised by the state.

Interestingly, Dirk’s study was not only Steiner-specific in terms of its contents, but also structured and carried out in a Steiner/Waldorf-pedagogical way. This included examinations; apart from testing formal pedagogical knowledge, assessments were project-based, allowing the student more freedom to be pedagogically creative.

“I benefited hugely from this structure since it enabled me to actually motivate myself through what I chose to work on,” says Dirk.

Dirk was on holiday in New Zealand during a sabbatical when he stumbled upon the AUT course information office. Upon discovering the university offered a Steiner speciality, he got in touch with a professor who encouraged Dirk to submit a proposal, which was subsequently accepted.

His research is about enlivened learning and is philosophical in nature. It aims to explore how experiential educational strategies, amplified by the concept of holism, can enhance learning within compulsory educational settings, so that meaningful and lasting learning experiences can take place.

Dirk hopes his research will have some influence on future decisions concerning educational systems and help bring about changes to current educational practices.

“I am an advocate of Steiner’s educational concept because it is so well thought out in terms of relating to the child’s development in a holistic way. And particularly in this day and age, the needs of children – to develop in a healthy way – are getting more and more important. I am able to relate to Steiner’s concept very well because he creates the overall picture and out of that understanding develops all aspects to it. Everything is interrelated and that, to me, makes a lot of sense.”

Dirk says there is an expectation for him to train teachers once he has finished his PhD, which, at first, felt disappointing.

“I was looking forward to working with children again,” he says.

“On the other hand, I guess, teaching university students might just be the next stage. I could definitely imagine a combination of both, being involved with teaching at school as well as university, while continuing to being involved with research work as well.”

Dirk says that although he is missing teaching, he finds research fascinating and can see how the process is furthering him, both scientifically and personally, every day.

It is clear, however, that at heart, Dirk is a teacher.

“Educating young individuals by awakening their interest for the wonders of our world, as well as helping them discover their potential and ‘grow’ during school time, makes teaching one of the greatest and most important professions in our society,” he says.

While many might deride the Steiner attitudes toward television and plastic, and show bemusement for its methods in reading instruction, there is certainly something to be said for an approach to education that is about awakening an interest in the wonders of the world.


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