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Where Do We Start?


Somewhere to Start?©


In teaching, you have to start somewhere. The trick is to know what you’re starting from & why. For example, you might start from the proposition:


“I know many things & have skills the children do not. Therefore, my job is to explain & show them the things they don’t know & can’t yet do.”


Isn’t that an obvious & simple beginning?


Simple & straight-forward, even so self-evident as to be “philosophy-free”, perhaps. Except the philosophers got there first. Although the idea of the new-born child as a blank slate, awaiting what the senses bring as experience, is most often attributed to John Locke, he stood in a long line of thinkers from Aristotle, to the Islamic scholars, Avicennca & Ibn Tufail, & Rene Descartes. All of these proposed a similar notion, which, unless we think more deeply, might seem convincing. How might the principle of “child as empty bucket waiting to be filled” work out in the classroom? The question becomes both one of theory & practice.


The most evident flaw in the blank slate theory presents itself as soon as we meet children. They are active beings, curious certainly, but nothing like open-eyed recipients of any & everything you might want to teach them. Imagined as buckets, not only are some of them leaky while others have eccentric covers that resist filling, but these are containers that move, or want to move about, all the time: they have minds of their own. In other words, children have personal agency. They are not at all passive vehicles, even for the most well-meaning teacher. In reality, the well-meaning teacher always knows this, although their method might still boil down to “be still & listen to what I have to tell you…”. At the extreme, authoritarian education ignores, or refuses to allow, that children have an in-built sense of agency, & so resorts to compulsion, usually with small rewards & bigger punishments to ensure compliance. To understand the why & what of education is not trivial & it is a form of philosophy. Good theory in-forms practice, both explicitly or implicitly.


If we agree that this, theory of the obvious - presented in an extreme form here – (& which I’ll call “didactic”, from Greek: “didaktikos”: “to teach”) - might be flawed, where can we go next? Should we see what the opposite approach would look like? Of course, extremes are rare. Just as there are relatively few teachers who choose to use an entirely didactic-authoritarian style (although there are national education systems that promote this – such as that of England, for example), the opposite type of education is also unusual in any absolute form. Pupil-directed education, the “free school” model, involves passing responsibility for learning entirely, or predominantly to children themselves. Although that approach is often attributed to Jean-Jacque Rousseau, Rousseau’s model of education, as set out in his novelistic treatise, Emile, is nothing like the free-school type of education represented by A.S. Neill’s Summerhill School.


Neill was influenced by the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud & the American educator, Homer Lane. After teaching in Scotland & Vienna & following military service, Neill opened the residential Summerhill School, which continues to this day in Leiston, Suffolk. The keys to Neillian schooling are that children from Primary to Secondary age are free to choose what lessons they wish to attend & whether to attend any lessons at all; school rules are made by a weekly meeting of staff & pupils at which every member of the community, adult & child alike, holds one vote each. Neill himself stated that he had little interest in teaching methods. He gave priority to “freedom & happiness”. Internationally & within the UK, there are a number of other “democratic”, & “free” schools, working with similar ideas & with principles of “pupil-directed”, which we might call “heutagogical education”.


We can now step back & look at each of these as starting points. Remember any teaching is more-or-less certain to include a mix of didactic & heutagogical approaches. We might say that the first of these assumes that the adult always knows best, not only about what the child needs now, but, because education must be future orientated, what the future adult will need. For that reason, teaching material, content & knowledge, which it is the teacher’s job to instil in pupils, take centre stage. With an extreme heutagogical approach, by contrast, the teacher’s role is diminished & learning content depends entirely upon the wishes of the learner, the child in this case.


Rudolf Steiner, according to an anecdote I heard from one of the first UK Waldorf teachers (I cannot verify this as genuine, but it seems apt), once said, “In the classroom, two things oppose one another: what the teacher wants the children to do, & what the children themselves want to do”. He went on to add, “Neither of these should prevail”. In other words, Steiner envisaged teaching & learning as a process in which the opposites meet & something new comes from the meeting, neither what the teacher has planned, nor what the pupils want to do, but something between these. The process of education is thus a matching the needs of children with skills capacities & content that is not fixed to the here & now, but gives them seeds for their individual futures: the teacher adapts the world to the child &, as they develop, these same young people develop what they need to be active adapters to the needs of the world. As developing humans – beings of soul & spirit – we gradually learn to come to take hold of reality & by doing so can become people with initiative & will to serve. We may become “world servers” insofar as we have capacities & competence to be effective: abilities to read, write & reckon & perform many other useful skills. Through these we have the potential to find personal meaning & fulfilment in life.


Not every task of learning will be easy. Not every task of learning will give immediate satisfaction, or happiness! By their nature some things are difficult & call for application, even struggle. The path to learning how to play a musical instrument, for example, may include passing through a vale of tears from time to time, yet the musician often finds a far deeper satisfaction in music-making that easily balances any pain & repetition involved. When 6 or 7 year olds are learning to knit, for some there will be dropped stitches & frustration at first, but that disappears when the basic skill has been entrained. Many a young enthusiast will then find every spare moment to practice & embed the new ability, but, by then, the excitement of new projects & more complex knitting predominates over further difficulties; indeed, many children welcome these. What these young children do not know – it’s not relevant for them at this stage - is that the fine motor control they are developing through their handwork lays down important foundations for “advanced” academic skills. A stereotypic “professor”, unable to sew on a button, or cook a simple meal is, after all in reality, as “disabled” as someone who is illiterate.


As teachers in Waldorf education, we ourselves need to be learners so that the growing points in us converge with those of the children. We work to nurture the learning child by being learners & a major part of our learning is in observing & discovering better ways to meet their needs, without forgetting that wants & needs are not the same thing. A child may “want” only to splash through puddles & catch the reflected sun on the end of a stick, but – not dismissing the first as mere nonsense – we should be secure enough in understanding what is “needed” in order to engage them with as much puddle-splashing-&-sun-catching joy as possible in lessons that will prepare them to grow into adulthood.


That is something we can only learn as we walk beside the developing child.


©Kevin Avison 21-02-2023

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[1] John Locke, English philosopher 1632-1704. In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) he famously described the child as a “tabla rasa”.

[2] Aristotle, 384-322 BCE; Avicenna (Ibn Sina), 11th century; Ibn Trufail, 12th century; Descartes 1596-1650

[3] Jean-Jacque Rousseau, Swiss/Genevan writer & philosopher 1712-1778

[4] Sigmund Freud 1856-1936, medical doctor/psychologist, founder of Psychoanalysis

[5] Homer Lane (1875–1925) was an American-born educator who believed that the behaviour and character of children improved when they were given more control over their lives. Bertrand Russell called him "one of the best men of his generation".

[6] Summerhill School, founded 1921. Today under the Headship of Neill’s daughter, Zoe Neill Readhead & her sons, Henry & Will are also involved in the school’s work. I am told that modern Summerhill is rather stricter & more overtly “organised” than in Neill’s days

[7] “heutological” – literally “self-directed learning”, from Greek, “heutiskein” coined by Stewart Hase – Hase, S, Self-determined Learning: Heutology in ActionBloomsbury, 2013

[8] The restaurateur, celebrity chef & food campaigner, Jamie Oliver, commenting on a scheme he set up to reduce fast & unhealth food in school meals in England said that when he has been a teenager “all me & my mates wanted to read was motor magazines & porn”. He added that it was a “very good thing” that school had forced them to read – for example – Shakespeare…!

[9] One wisdom of Waldorf education lies in providing space & time to allow puddles & spontaneous joy in what the world holds to mature, especially during the first seven years






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