Throughout the twelve years of formal schooling, nearly the first two hours of every day are devoted to what is called the Main Lesson. This programme consists of topics which are studied daily for blocks about four weeks and includes subjects such as:
Astronomy, Farming, History of Architecture, Building, Philosophy, History of Art, From Myth to Literature, Inorganic Chemistry, Surveying, World Poetry, Geography, Mechanics, Physics, Botany, Tragedy and Comedy, Clay Modelling, Physiology, Trigonometry and History.
An important aspect of this programme is the rationale that lies behind when and how each of the subjects is introduced: there is a vast body of insight into why a subject is considered to meet and nurture the children’s different developmental stages, some of which will be explained later on when the input for different classes is examined.
The four-week time-span of the Main Lessons allows for in-depth study. It also works with the nature of children’s enthusiasm which tends to rise and fall in intensity – as can easily be observed in the phenomenon of playground ‘crazes’.
All children remain together in the same class for their Main Lessons until their final school year and, irrespective of their exam choices continue to study the broad span of subjects in the Main Lesson programme. This ensures that whether they veer towards the sciences or the humanities in their exam subjects, until they leave school they continue to receive a wide-ranging cultural knowledge that encompasses arts, humanities and sciences. This breadth of understanding has been most favourably commented on by University lecturers and tutors who have had former Steiner pupils in their seminars and tutorials. By this achievement, we are being the change we wish to see.
The Role of Imagination in Steiner Education
Where would we be without our imagination? Our cultural civilisations have arguably been built entirely as the result of our ability to imagine. In order to be motivated to do anything, we need to be able to see in our mind’s eye the result of our work. Without imagination we might still be sitting in our cold caves unable to visualise how things could be any better. Imagination is also crucial to the development of empathy, a quality essential to living respectfully together as a society. One could argue therefore that the lynchpin of any successful education should be the cultivation of the imagination.
The Steiner Waldorf curriculum places a huge emphasis on nurturing the imagination (together with the strength of will needed to put bring imagined ideas into reality). The art, craft work and drama all make a major contribution to developing these qualities. Perhaps more than anything else, however, it is the role of stories in the curriculum that helps to foster imagination in children.
The vital place of stories.
In the past, all cultures told and retold stories to their children. It was their way of passing on their values to them and of ensuring their moral development. In our culture, this practice has become diluted with stories that have lost their power to educate at a deep level.
Carefully chosen stories develop a feeling for beauty and awaken the imagination. Fairy tales, fables, legends and myths are archetypal human experiences clothed in images. They have beginnings, middles, ends and sequences and they give children a conceptual framework with which they can orientate themselves and understand their experiences. They encourage collaborative learning because children become participants in their community and culture. The element of paradox, so frequently found in stories, lays a strong foundation for the paradoxical nature of creative and flexible thinking in later years. They also help children to digest and make sense of their feelings.
Stories form the bedrock of the Steiner curriculum, particularly in the Lower School where children still live and relate to experience in a pictorial way. Stories are told in most subjects with fairy stories, fables, creation myths, Persian, Norse and Greek myths and legends providing a rich source of nourishment for later life. History is presented to younger children in the form of true stories that can fire the imagination.
Although stories are chosen for their inherent moral value, any ‘message’ remains entirely implicit within the pictures of the story and the children are free to draw their own conclusions. The children are, however, nourished with what is essentially a positive picture of the world, where good triumphs over evil, where hard work and courage win through and where creative imaginative thinking can triumph over physical strength.
A further facet of imagination is its link with memory. In order to remember anything, we have to be able to re-create inner pictures in our mind’s eye. Conversely, to imagine anything new, we have to be able to remember where we have seen something that might be a useful ‘pattern’ and then visualise how, metaphorically, we might adapt that ‘picture’ or pattern into something different. This is the basis for all invention. In this way, imagination and memory are therefore interdependent. The Steiner Waldorf curriculum recognises this and in addition to working to strengthen the imagination, it lays great store on the cultivation of memory through the learning by heart of songs, poems, and plays.
Delaying Abstract Reasoning
One of the major areas where Steiner Waldorf education diverges from mainstream is that of the age at which it is considered helpful to encourage children to use the cognitive thinking skills necessary in making judgements, choices and in thinking analytically. In line with Piaget and Vygotsky and an increasing number of contemporary neurologists, Steiner Waldorf education holds that up until the age of eleven or twelve, children are not easily capable of thinking in abstractions, reasoning logically or making critical judgements. Until that age their thinking takes place in a more pictorial way, with the pictures arising out of their strongly developed feeling realm. It is only after the age of eleven or twelve that children can increasingly distance themselves from their feelings and achieve the kind of intellectual, conceptual, analytical thinking which is able to weigh up evidence free from the power of personal emotions.
These are perhaps unusual ideas today, when generally young children are increasingly asked to make decisions or judgements based on an intellectual understanding of facts. It would seem that an earlier start is thought to assure a more effective outcome. However it is the schools’ experience that, as with learning to read which, if delayed until the children are developmentally entirely ready for it, comes easily and joyfully to the majority of children, so if these cognitive skills are not formally exercised until around the age of twelve, not only do the thinking skills and abilities awaken easily, they also possess a real strength of insight and challenging power. This is certainly the experience of those involved in teaching at the University level who recognise former Steiner pupils’ keen thinking and questioning skills.
We also lay emphasis on global issues from a young age, thus opening up our students’ minds to a much deeper understanding of social groups, politics, and economics. We do this primarily through projects to reduce our Carbon Footprint, which is embedded in the very structures and grounds which make up the school. Visit the General Information page to learn more.