Updated: Jun 27, 2022
Waldorf education is not something you can buy, plug in, or put on a table with a lovely plant-dyed silk. It’s a daily practice, and an ongoing exercise: finding connections with the physical world, with people, and with the spiritual world. It’s not easy!
After 100 years and the massive global spread of Steiner/ Waldorf education, made so obvious by online connections, this way of educating children is being stretched and challenged to meet new times and places. Many voices are calling for change and updates to what we teach. How can we manage this tension between the needs of the children and the traditional curriculum we have been working with? How do we find the balance?
In recent handwork conferences and courses, we have become even more keenly aware of the need for relevance. As just one example, teaching children to card and spin wool in 3rd grade is almost completely irrelevant in the Philippines, where there is no sheep farming or wool production, and importing wool is ridiculously expensive.
So how do we know what to do? Here is a quick outline, drawn from Martyn Rawson’s 2021 book “Steiner Waldorf Pedagogy in Schools: A Critical Introduction” of the evolution of what most teachers depend on and refer to as “The Curriculum”:
Steiner’s indications about what would be appropriate to teach children were first gathered in 1925, shortly after his death, by Caroline von Heydebrand, and this is what she wrote:
What is presented here . . . should not be taken dogmatically as a rigid law. The ideal curriculum must follow the changing picture of human nature in the different age-groups, but like every ideal it must deal with the reality of life and adapt itself to this.
What most teachers accept as The Curriculum were largely responses to questions posed by Steiner’s contemporaries, who were asking if the teaching practices familiar to them (from their own education) would be appropriate for the brand-new school for the children of workers in Emil Molt’s Waldorf factory. Steiner’s responses were gathered into what von Heydebrand called a Lehrplan – an outline for teaching or a ‘lesson plan’. They were mostly ‘micro-level’ descriptions of what was done by a certain teacher with a certain group of students in one particular place, but they have become almost a blueprint - translated, applied, and even at times subtly imposed and accepted without much restraint or reflection.
The Curriculum as we commonly call it has undergone some modifications over the years, but even the habit of using a definite article (The) and capitalizing Curriculum fixes and rigidifies what was meant as a starting point for further thought and research. A close reading reveals there are many contradictions and gaps, and in fact, since 1921, Steiner himself had intended to write a more complete and formal curriculum, outlining educational outcomes to comply with state regulations, but this did not happen before his death.
In 1951 Karl Stockmeyer broadened the relevance of von Heydebrand’s descriptions to a more generally applicable level, hearkening back to Steiner’s more broad indications.
In 1966, Eileen Hutchins provided a translation into English, and this was edited and published in 1989.
In 2003, Tobias Richter updated these guidelines and made them relevant specifically for teachers in Austria. His extensive work (growing from 600 to 900 pages by 2016) was broadly and internationally accepted as the new standard with little general or international debate.
Several German-speaking authors also wrote subject-specific reference handbooks for teachers, but only some of these were translated into other languages. This narrowed the foundational resources for teachers, as they became internationally known and widely used.
Richter’s ‘Yellow Book’ was made relevant to the UK at the government’s behest by Rawson and Richter in 2000 and because of the enormous popularity of this valuable reference book (which has been translated into at least 18 languages) it also runs the risk of being the one main ‘go-to’ source.
In 2014 this ‘Yellow Book’ was newly edited by Kevin Avison, and is the current most available and comprehensive reference for many teachers and homeschooling teachers who are looking for an accessible and easily understandable guide to what Waldorf Education “is”.
Although very few busy teachers have the time or inclination or to work back to and through Steiner’s original guidelines and indications, we should be aware of potential dangers in abdicating our responsibility for crafting a cohesive educational program. For example:
capitalizing The Curriculum (even in our thinking) normalizes it, and having just one reference source can lead to an unconscious tendency to become too fixed, and use it as a checklist
there are many unfounded Waldorf Myths which have grown from apparently authoritative sources, but which grew from suggestions or assertions in a particular situation, and which are now taken - undigested - to be firmly fixed cornerstones.
looking for “equivalencies” in other cultures can also be a red herring, and lead to a superficial exchange rather than a re-examination of what is needed.
there is in fact no central authority, and looking for one abdicates our own responsibility to carefully consider the children we have in our care. The Waldorf educational program must be constantly emergent.
But how can we know if we are on the right track if nobody tells us what to do?
Here are some key points that emerged in our recent discussion with Betty Staley in our handwork teacher training program.
In order to stay true to the guiding principles of Waldorf Education:
understand the nature of the human being according to Steiner’s perceptions and insights
acknowledge that human beings develop and change over time and that what we teach must be an answer to the (mostly unspoken) questions the students pose
hone our skills of perception and responsiveness. Effective teachers must be on some kind of path of self-education. Whatever it is “just do it”.
Test some of these ideas out yourself.
Ask yourself what brought you to Waldorf education?
What keeps you engaged?
In your teaching practice, what would you miss without it?
Do you still want a Waldorf Kit or a pre-set, unchanging, rigid, inflexible, frozen (capitalized) Curriculum?
(I personally would sometimes welcome a blueprint, as it is truly a great deal of work to re-invent and refine my teaching on an ongoing basis, but then I probably would not have been doing this for so long, or found such satisfaction in this work).
What do you think? Are you interested in engaging in further conversation? Would you like to explore some innovative handwork projects with other handwork teachers? Join us at our next handwork conference for teachers and homeschoolers on the 20, 21, and 22 February, 2022. Registration opens on January 1st.