Visionary who gave us food for thought

15th September 2006 at 01:00
Great thinkers in education. Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925)

A century before Jamie OIiver got in on the act, Rudolf Steiner was promoting diet as an aid to education. Yet that was just one of his modern ideas, writes Hilary Wilce.

He believed in re-incarnation, astral planes, and ethereal bodies, and said mothers should stop breast-feeding at eight months in case their babies drew too much of the life force from them. He rejected evolution, believed young children should never be allowed to use the colour black in their drawings, and thought people had not five senses, but a dozen.

So why are the ideas of a man whose critics accuse him of promoting magic and the occult being considered for public funding through the Government's academies programme?

The answer is that Rudolf Steiner was a mixed bag. On the one hand, many of the notions of this prolific, turn-of-the-century Austrian lecturer and philosopher seem bizarre.

On the other, his core vision for education - that children should be gently helped to develop their heads, hands and heart - has struck a chord with many parents over the past century. Indeed, there are now 31 Waldorf schools in the UK and more than 800 worldwide, as well as thousands of teachers and home-schoolers who follow some of his ideas.

Visit the Hereford Waldorf school in Much Dewchurch, Herefordshire, and it is easy to see why. At this small rural school, pupils and teachers seem happy and engaged and the atmosphere is calm and creative. It is here that the first Government-sponsored Waldorf academy will be built if the idea advances from its feasibility stage. The school says local interest has mushroomed with the news that it might soon be possible for parents to send children here without paying fees.

It operates in a converted barn, taking 300 children aged 5 to 16.

Government funding will mean new buildings, as well as some tweaking of the school management structure and accountability systems to bring it in line with the national education system.

But the Steiner curriculum will remain untouched. In the kindergarten, children play with wooden toys to develop their imaginations; in the garden, they develop their connection with nature.

When they move up, they stay with the same class teacher for eight years, taking a two-hour lesson every morning which follows a single subject for three weeks - maybe The Tempest, maybe the physics of light.

Children begin the day with a physical activity and something that draws them together: a song, a game, or playing recorders. Later in the day, they have other lessons, as well as arts and crafts, and a form of ritualised dance called eurythmy.

Many things seem strange in comparison with today's hi-tech emphasis.

Pupils use few books and copy from blackboards.

They come to reading and writing late and embark on it with a huge pencil.

Art and science facilities are modest. While the artwork that is produced is stunning, it is also closely controlled, following Rudolf Steiner's theory of colours.

At the beginning of each day, children recite a "verse" affirming the spirit of life, and they almost never encounter a computer.

Yet the pupils are confident, have good concentration, and seem refreshingly open, inquisitive and nice to each other.

One teacher says that while people think Steiner children do what they like, "they are actually schools where children like what they do".

The first Steiner school was founded for workers of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Germany in 1919 after its industrialist owner was impressed by a series of lectures given by Rudolf Steiner.

Steiner was born in 1861, the son of a station-master in a small village which is now in Croatia. He was an avid learner, and by his twenties he was a linguist, classicist, mathematician, scientist and historian, with Goethe as his philosophical role model.

While working as a Goethe researcher in Weimar, he also worked as a private tutor, which helped him to develop his ideas.

"What you say to a small child, what you teach him, does not make much impression,"said Steiner. "It is what you are, whether you are good and manifest this goodness in your behaviour. One can say that he is a sense organ reacting to every impression to which he is subjected."

Steiner's interest in spirituality led him to become involved with the Theosophical Society of London, which drew in elements of both western and eastern religions, but he later split with them to help form the Anthroposophical Society in Germany.

Steiner's basic view of lifewas that it should be based on spiritual as well as material truths. This, coupled with his energetic and questing mind, led him off in all directions. He helped to set up Weleda, the company that produces homeopathic and herbal medicines, and was involved in developing "biodynamic" agriculture, which today we call organic farming.

In education, he believed schools should be designed to meet the changing needs of children as they developed physically, mentally and emotionally.

Nothing was to be rushed. Potential should be developed, but children should never be pushed towards goals set by adults.

However, Steiner did not believe in children running wild. His ideas included specific curriculum suggestions. In art, for example, he followed Goethe's theory of colours, believing that all colours had soul properties, and that children should only be introduced to them one at a time.

How closely these ideas are followed today varies. Some Steiner schools, particularly in the US, are so uncompromising that parents who confess to having a TV can feel as if they are about to be drummed out of the fold.

Others have allowed Steiner's core beliefs to evolve to fit the changing times. Some children flourish under the Steiner regime, but some kick against its closely structured nature or find that it cannot meet their special educational needs.

But few people doubt that Steiner was, in his own way, a visionary. For example, in the 1920s, long before the BSE crisis, he warned of the dangers of feeding meat to ruminants.

Strip away the 19th-century spiritual jargon, and you find a man whose educational ideas are still relevant to the 21st century. In promoting children's health and welfare, he was way ahead of Jamie Oliver and the idea that a good diet aided children's growth and learning.

He understood the importance of physical exercise. His eurythmy offers the kind of cross-lateral stimulation that is now believed to help brain growth and alertness.

Many of his spiritual ideas boil down to the need to unify the mind, body and spirit, a thought that is now commonplace.

Steiner died in 1925, aged 64. Some years later, his Stuttgart school was closed by the Nazis and all its records destroyed.

As technology came to prominence in the post-war years, his ideas fell into decline and his pronouncements came to seem arcane and irrelevant. But from the 1960s there was a resurgence of interest in them and a growth in the number of Steiner schools.

Had Steiner lived through the 20th century, his ideas would almost certainly have evolved to fit changing times. As the Steiner authorities and the Department for Education and Skills attempt to bring a Steiner school alongside the mainstream, this could prove a useful model.


Core philosophy

* Children should play, draw, tell stories, and explore the natural world

* Children under seven should not be taught to read

* Children should be taught to write before being taught to read

* One teacher should be allowed to carry on teaching the same class for seven years

* Children should be allowed to concentrate on one subject at a time, following one subject for two hours a day for several weeks at a stretch

* Art and science should be linked

* The teacher should engage with the child, and encourage them to be enthusiastic about material covered

* Children need a moral lead, but should not be taught a particular set of beliefs

* Learning should be done for its own sake, not to pass exams

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