Friday, September 19, 2014

A Brush with Steiner...

I've never worked in a Steiner/Waldorf centre and my reading about them is limited to some critical articles, hearsay, and brief mentions during my time at Uni.

Prior to starting a new job where a couple of the teachers indicated that they were either Steiner trained or strongly influenced, I read the classic 'Free to Learn' by Lynne Oldfield which, while very rosy in its portrayal of Steiner Education, offered me enough to hopefully build pedagogical bridges with my new colleagues

What I discovered was that the good stuff is easily recognisable and becoming quite mainstream in New Zealand. For instance:

The ideas around routine and natural rhythm are familiar to those who follow Pikler/RIE philosophies where following a child's natural cycles of eating, sleeping and playing rather than working to a time schedule offers a more respectful, relationship based way of working/learning with tamariki. Happy children, emotional stability, increased learning opportunities. Tick.

Candles, flowers, karakia, real plates and cups, natural wood etc all work towards setting the fixed points in the day/place as a ritual that is both magical and grounded - a point in learning itself rather than rushed through to get on with the next 'activity'.

Freedom of movement is again strong with Pikler/RIE as it is generally with what is now considered best practice in ECE. No high chairs or other restrainers and a hands-off approach to teaching that allows for natural physical development.

Another core philosophy that reflects the era of educational thinking that Steiner was exposed to is Free Play. There are numerous criticisms of this constructivist approach to learning learning, mainly based around the limitations on a child's knowledge-base when no intentional teaching is occurring. I've written oodles about this here on this blog. Yet Steiner does try to balance this position with daily teacher-led activities but unfortunately this fails spectacularly in my opinion. Moments of intentional teaching are tightly controlled experiences with no input from the children as to content and direction. For example, wet paper painting with primary colours only and puppet stories - they appear almost identical in any Steiner centre in any country and are a tightly controlled 'Steiner best practice'.

However, at the other end of the intentional teaching spectrum...

Steiner practice the concept of 'good work' whereby teachers model life in a functioning community - they bake food, garden, repair, clean etc - they keep pretty busy as teachers and the potential learning opportuniest are fantastic. I'm totally into this. Closely related to all this work in the gardens is celebrating the seasons and this is another example a practice that is becoming mainstream.

So we have beautiful natural centres, bake bread everyday, awesome gardens, festivals and the children roam free for most of the day....

but there's the homogenised learning experiences, no reading books, and no black or brown paints and pencils because they are inferior colours....  Steiner... 1930's Germany... a hippy take on contemporary eugenics ideas that proposed several stages of reincarnation to become a white person... oh dear.

Yes Steiner is very 'white and middle class'. He was essentially a fucking nutcase and gave us the educational version of Scientology complete with Atlantis, goblins and aliens, but he stole most of his educational ideas like all the great educationsalist did/do. Pikler, Tolstoy, Ferrer, Montessori, Froebel etc were all active in this period and their ideas merge in many areas. Yet Steiner has serious baggage, lots of it. The main problem with this baggage however is that the movement tries to keep it secret - the racism, the weird spiritualist take on Christianity or 'Anthroposophy' as he coined it which is deeply infused in all the teachings, the anti-science and technology stance...

So I'm not at all interested in claiming to be 'influenced by Steiner' - there's just  no need to be linked with all his bullshit. Take the good bits and call then your own,  I like a lot of what Steiner does - but I'm not 'Steiner influenced' - I seek best practice.

We're having some very interesting discussions at work and on a pedagogical level it's sweet.