On “What Every Parent Should Know About Steiner Schools”

Last night I went to Andy Lewis’s talk on “What Every Parent Should Know About Steiner Schools”. I’d blogged my current thoughts about Steiner education the day before, just out of curiosity to see how my opinions might change. Briefly: I enjoyed my education (at a Steiner school) but I am worried about the connection between the ‘spiritual philosophy’ of anthroposophy and the actual practice in Steiner schools, as it is the former is somewhat odd and not entirely wholesome.

First of all, Andy (@LeCanardNoir) is a great communicator and an entertaining speaker. I hadn’t heard him talk before, and if you get a chance to hear him speak about this or anything else, you should take it. He spoke for around an hour and worked hard to cram in a very broad ranging look the history, philosophy and influence (both global and local) of Steiner. He started out talking about broader theosophy movement of which Steiner was a part – I could happily have listened to a talk on that for the whole hour, as it sounds like fascinating slice of social history. The talk brought things right up to date with the involvement of Steiner schools in Michael Gove’s free school scheme which has already seen the establishment of a second state Steiner school in the UK.

I discovered how far anthroposophy reaches – not only are there anthroposophical schools and anthroposophical cosmetics (Weleda) which I knew about, there’s even a bank (Tridos) and a software company (Software AG). There was a point where, as he acknowledged himself, Andy sounded a bit like a conspiracy theorist. If these companies want to fund educational initiatives, why does it matter if they chant in the mornings? I don’t have to be religious to recognise the good work that churches are doing with the poor and needy. But where there is a problem it is where their philosophy/morality influences the work being done – the Catholic church and its position on birth control influencing its work in Africa, for example.

I was surprised how sad I felt hearing the audience laugh as Andy described some of Steiner’s more surprising beliefs. Not because they’re not funny – more because they’re jokes I’d heard before, and I was thinking about the way in which, as an esoteric philosophy, many creative and talented people are involved in the schools who perhaps don’t know, and certainly don’t fully subscribe to all the wacky nonsense. Chatting to Andy it was clear that from all the discussions he’s had with ex-pupils, parents and teachers he’s well aware of this. I’m not sure everyone in the audience picked up on all this subtle yet significant point, since several other skeptics wanted to know of me, when I said I’d been Steiner educated, whether I believed in Atlantis or reincarnation or whether I had been taught of the superiority of the Aryan race. A couple of questions boiled down to: Why would anyone see any attraction in a Steiner school in the first place? Ah well, I think that’s inevitable when there is so much novel and surprising (and entertaining) yet not widely known, in anthroposophy, and only an hour in which to try and cover it.

The argument Andy kept returning to was the problem of secretiveness. He emphasised the point that it’s very hard to know to what extent anthroposophy as described in the works of Steiner is bought into wholesale within the schools or whether they have reformed views, because (and this was the nub of his argument) they are very secretive about how deeply these mystical beliefs are actually informing educational practice in today’s schools. It’s a problem with a solution, though: talking about it – and that’s what we did last night (he had a list of questions for parents to ask of Steiner schools which, unfortunately, I cannot find online to link to). He made the contrast with (other) faith schools which have a religious agenda (which skeptics as atheists may well find unsympathetic) but at least it’s clear what it is.

For me, though (already knowing quite a bit about anthroposophy) the issue is the way in which the spiritual may have a direct influence on educational practice. In most faith schools, the actual content of the curriculum lies for the most part outside the religious domain (and it’s where knowledge and faith sometimes clash – such as with evolution – that the real problems arise). But if it is a requirement that anthroposophy inform all educational activity in a Steiner school, then that is a barrier to progress, preventing teachers from moving away from out-dated practices like meticulously copying passages from the blackboard (for example) or from embracing the use of technology in learning.

When it came to asking a question, I fished hopefully for something positive that might be gleaned from the numerous (34 in the UK) Steiner schools as a collective whole where, albeit as a result of spiritual beliefs rather than pedagogical research, some interesting educational practices occur. I wanted to know if Andy thought that, should Steiner schools be willing to share it, there could be useful data from the more practical educational differences (such as learning modern foreign languages at an earlier age, or learning to read at a later age) or whether he thought that the practice was too inextricably bound up in the alternative philosophy to make this possible. As Andy picked up, I had in mind the original purpose of the 2005 DFES report (which he’d already effectively debunked, pointing out that one of the authors is a Priestess of Shekinah and of Divine Mother Sophia, in the Order of Lord Melchizadek and The Violet Robe) but also a recent by post by Edzard Ernst in which he argued that the failings of conventional medicine which drive people to seek alternatives are often basic things which can and should be addressed by putting improvements into place. I suppose it was quite a complex and loaded question to ask, but in his response Andy mentioned the Europa school which is a free school in which children are taught two languages from entry (and which has an emphasis on science). My take away from this was: once a question is raised we can look for the best available data with which to answer it. In Steiner schools (just as anywhere else) we may find interesting questions, but they probably won’t be the best place to find the answers.

“Goetheanum Dornach” photo by Wladyslaw CC BY-SA 3.0 unported.

About Simon Wood

Lecturer in medical education, lapsed mathematician, Doctor Who fan and garden railway builder. See simonwood.info for more...

3 thoughts on “On “What Every Parent Should Know About Steiner Schools”

  1. I’m a Steiner teacher who happened on this blog. I hope you don’t mind my sharing my thoughts.

    My middle child was in a class of 36 in a Steiner lower school, and now is in a class of 30 in the upper school. He still felt and feels embraced and understood as an individual. So the success of the Steiner schools at educating free individuals has nothing to do with class sizes. Nor is it a resource question: there are many areas where Steiner schools are spending less per pupil than state schools, or equivalent amounts.

    IMHO, the key to why you felt met as an individual is that the school you went to placed that very experience at the center of its raison d’etre. From a purely scientific point of view, each person is a confluence of nature and nurture. We are, from our place in nature, animals. Nurture allows us to understand how each person can be formed by the environment.

    Free individuality is neither what we are as animals nor how we have been formed from outside, however. It is neither nature nor nurture. It is a potential for becoming what you are not yet. How can a school or teacher respect that potential if they do not affirm its existence? In many ways, this is the “spiritual” core of Steiner education. You were affirmed daily as an individual with an as yet unknown potential for becoming what you seek to become.

    About 15 years ago, there were many teachers who had transferred from the state sector at our school. They universally commented on the difference in the tone of both casual conversations between teachers and at meetings. At the state schools where they had taught, they said, the teachers mostly moaned about the children and their classes. At our school they virtually never heard complaints: instead there was a focus on positive elements and solutions to challenges. It was a complete turnaround. One of these teachers had spent 30 years as a teacher, assistant head, and head teacher before coming to us. He was astonished at how different our orientation was.

    I don’t claim that any of these things are solely possible in the Steiner environment. Just the opposite: they are possible everywhere. Just not always done.

    So do what you can do as a result of your education in the Steiner system: be a free individual who transforms the world in a positive way.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Of course I don’t mind you sharing your thoughts – I’m delighted to have your reply.

      Your point about class sizes is a useful correction, thank you (our class was 25, so nothing like the 36 in your son’s class). I still feel there is a virtue in smaller classes but I’m open to persuasion of course – but there size also matters in terms of the year group and the school as a whole. Steiner schools I’m familiar with rarely have more than two classes per year group for example. The staff-student ratio will have an impact too.

      I don’t dispute there are state schools where teachers moan (I’ve worked in the sector). But your point about things being possible everywhere is a key one. I used to work in an FE college that was large enough to have several staff-rooms and in some there was lots of moaning and in others the tone was always constructive. In some it was obvious the teachers cared a great deal about their students, in other less so (and, contrary to what you might think, that didn’t always correlate with how much moaning there was).

      But do you really think the ‘spiritual’ core of Steiner education is purely becoming what you are not yet? That sounds a little like those ‘motherhood and apple pie’ statements. We all want to transform the world in a positive way. But if that is all that is at the core of the Steiner philosophy, do you think the schools are capable of maturing beyond their fixed pedagogy and unsupported theory of child development, and embrace modern research-based teaching and learning methods?

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