We have considered many different ideas about how we learn, especially in regard to how knowledge and memories are developed and retrieved. Humanism can help address the question “How can we learn more effectively?” and support our understanding of learning in a more holistic way. Waldorf education (also known as Steiner pedagogy ), founded in 1919 by Rudolf Steiner, embodies the Renaissance practices of humanism. This approach supports a learner’s development via instruction in literature, art, history, and self-reflection, and an overarching goal is to increase the learner’s level of personal knowledge. In addition, this applied pedagogy indicates that learning and educating one’s inner self involves much more than reading, writing, and arithmetic and should include social advocacy, peace, empathy, and respect for nature and one another (Easton, 1997). According to Rudolph Steiner (1972),
At the Waldorf School, value is placed upon artistic rather than intellectual training at the beginning of the school life. The teaching is first pictorial, nonintellectual; the relation of the teacher to the child is pervaded by a musical quality, and by such methods we achieve the degree of intellectual development the child needs. (p. 123)
Children planting vegetables.
Children learning in a Waldorf education environment may participate in storytelling, music, crafts, and outdoor learning. This Steiner pedagogy takes a humanistic approach, as it emphasizes a self-paced setting and a more well-rounded education.
However, this method of learning, often considered too loose and playful (Cook, 2014), also has its controversial aspects (Dewey, 2012; Staudenmaier, 2012). Concerns about the prevalence of bullying, low cultural-diversity inclusion (Cook, 2014), and a historically religious foundation all spark questions about the intentions of this method of education. For example, Rudolph Steiner developed his beliefs about learning and educating based on his spiritual philosophy, known as anthroposophy, which promotes intuition, clairvoyance, and reincarnation of spirit (McDermott, 2009). Current educational Waldorf/Steiner institutions often indicate that anthroposophy is not the foundation of their organizations, although sources have suggested that while students are not taught lessons about anthroposophy, the teachers are (Uhrmacher, 1995). Much like Renaissance humanism, the developmental stages suggested by this educational framework promote humanistic learning and are clearly based on anthroposophy.
Some research has suggested that this type of learning environment increases performance and success in the areas of learner satisfaction, college entrance exams, and reading (Easton, 1995; Gidley, 2002; Larrison, Daly, & VanVooren, 2012; Suggate, Schaughency, & Reese, 2013; Woods, Ashley, & Woods, 2005). These results, however, may be attributed to the social status of the students accepted at these schools (Schreiner & Schwantner, 2009). It is also important to note that though Steiner pedagogy began prior to the humanistic approach suggested by Rogers in the mid-1900s, the holistic attention to learner effectiveness and the development of one’s self clearly aligns with the more current understanding of humanism as applied to learning psychology.
The excerpts featured in this section are from Easton (1997). Waldorf education embodies a humanistic model for learning, which helps us to better understand the framework, but it is important to restate that humanism applied to learning explores the question “How do we learn more effectively?” rather than “How do we learn?” This discussion does not negate the previously discussed theories (e.g., behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism). It guides you through these researched methods in a way that emphasizes the importance of the inner person and one’s potential and individual needs.
Excerpts from “Educating the Whole Child, ‘Head, Heart, and Hands’: Learning From the Waldorf Experience”
By F. Easton
Waldorf theory (also known as Steiner pedagogy) is based on the work of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher, scientist, and educator who lived at the turn of the last century (1861–1924). Steiner said his purpose was to create a new impulse in education that would enable learners from diverse backgrounds to develop the capacities necessary to cope with the demands and challenges of a post-industrial world. Steiner’s thesis was that as cultures become more technologically advanced human beings need to become more conscious of their capacity to become fully human, if they are to resist competing pressures toward dehumanization. Waldorf education resonates with increasing numbers of educators and parents today because it provides a framework that informs and inspires educators to think about ways to create a learning community that nurtures learners’ capacities to become whole human beings in a world that is becoming increasingly mechanized. [. . .]
Basic to Waldorf’s philosophy is a complex image of the learner as a threefold human being—body, soul, and spirit. Each of these three dimensions is related to four senses, thus expanding our customary view of five human senses to 12 (Soesman, 1983). The arts play a significant role in developing the capacities of each learner to perceive both one’s inner and outer world. When we actively contemplate, practice, or create artistic work, we become more aware of our sensations, feelings, and thoughts.
The aim of the Waldorf model is to educate the learner toward a holistic thinking that integrates knowledge gained from thinking, feeling, and doing. Holistic thinking within this framework also refers to the integration of knowledge that is derived from considering beauty, goodness, and truth as complementary ways of more fully understanding reality.
Views on Development and Learning
Waldorf educators share a comprehensive theory of child development that shapes its educational practices. Waldorf learning views the learner’s trifold capacities as unfolding in 7-year rhythms from birth to age 21. They view each individual as being born with a unique inner self that is capable of evolving toward freedom, responsibility, and maturity if appropriate stimulation and nourishment are provided at each developmental stage: the pre-school years (0–7), the elementary school years (7–14), and the adolescent years (14–21).
During the first stage, the child experiences the world through physical activity and learns through imitation and play. Stories, songs, quality materials, and behavior worthy of imitation stimulate physical growth, language development, and curiosity, thus laying a sound foundation for the later development of imagination and thinking.
With the change of teeth, the child enters a second stage that continues until puberty. During this period, the child draws nourishment from experiences that develop consciousness of feelings and feed the imagination. Now stories become opportunities to create mental pictures that do not depend on immediate experience. This is a time when the senses become differentiated and refined through direct participation in a wide variety of visual, musical, and tactile artistic activities. Waldorf theory emphasizes that the child needs to have a caring authority figure make critical decisions until the child gains sufficient experience on which to base meaningful choices. It highlights that if children are given choice before they acquire the ability to consider the long-range effects of their decisions, a pattern of immediate gratification is reinforced.
The high school years, when the child’s capacities for abstract thinking unfold, become the third stage of child development. Students need experiences that enable them to understand and reflect upon the relationships between ideas presented in different subject areas and to make judgments about what is meaningful to them (Steiner, 1965). In an effort to develop holistic thinking, an appreciation of beauty and a sense of ethical responsibility are incorporated in the teaching of all subject areas. This is achieved in part by integrating information and consideration of how knowledge is gained and used. An emphasis is also placed on the form in which teachers present material and students present reports and projects. [. . .]
Waldorf provides a framework for envisioning a renewal of thinking that integrates imagination, inspiration, and intuition into our ways of knowing (Sloan, 1992). It recognizes the essential role of artistic work in educating children toward a holistic thinking that encompasses aesthetic and ethical considerations.
Artistic work provides opportunities to become more conscious of our inner and outer worlds. It helps learners learn to concentrate, pay attention to detail, and envision the whole. It encourages the free expression of the human spirit in more disciplined ways and strives to balance freedom and discipline. By educating “head, heart, and hands,” Waldorf education seeks to nurture a self-esteem that encompasses aesthetic and moral sensibilities as well as intellectual competence. Waldorf aims, theories, and practices can inspire us to rethink our educational paradigms and structure conversations about how we can respond more creatively to the particular needs of learners from diverse backgrounds in our pluralistic society. [. . .]
Source: Easton, F. (1997). Educating the whole child: head, heart and hands. Learning from the Waldorf experience. Theory Into Practice, 36(2), 87–94. Taylor & Francis, Ltd. Copyright © 1997 Routledge.
Waldorf education (Steiner pedagogy) presents a contextual model that stresses creativity and inner development to support the effectiveness of one’s knowledge acquisition. It offers conceptual ways to take what we know about learning and adapt it to models that may place more emphasis on distinct aspects of the learner’s development. Facilitators focus on an individual’s development of self. The learning contexts based on humanism are learner centered, but the Waldorf model offers learners more freedom to explore and uses the arts and other humanities content to support learning. There are several learning models built upon humanism’s positions, and the next section discusses two models that will help us better understand the perspectives supported by a holistic approach to learning.