Steiner education is a popular choice of alternative schooling in Australia, with more than 40 schools country-wide. Along with other alternatives to mainstream schooling, Australia seems to be pursuing an agenda of educational choice, similar to that in the UK and US. But what is Steiner? And what does the research tell us about it?
What is Steiner education?
The first thing that strikes a visitor to a Steiner school is often the aesthetic quality of the surroundings and the emphasis on artistic activities. The schools are usually small, multi-age, and teachers, students and parents appear calm.
Based on a holistic and integrated approach, the Steiner curriculum aims to develop the various dimensions of the growing child. This includes cognitive, emotional, ethical and spiritual aspects.
A key focus in Steiner education is on age-appropriate lessons aligned with the developmental stages of the child. The early years curriculum is primarily play-based. In the early primary years, there is emphasis on oral literacy, with the children being immersed in the rhythm and rhyme of language, including verse, song, and stories. These activities are intended to form a firm foundation for reading and writing which is introduced later than in most mainstream curricula.
The Steiner curriculum is also arranged in main-lesson “blocks”, where a topic is focused on intensively for a number of weeks. The teacher follows a single class through their entire primary journey, a practice known as “looping”, and there is an importance placed on working through the founding tales and myths of different civilisations.
The integration of information technology is usually delayed until high school, at which point the children have a foundation to apply themselves imaginatively to IT, an approach interestingly not unpopular amongst workers in Silicon valley.
Some Steiner schools run an alternative year 12, for which tertiary entry arrangements exist. While some standards based testing is followed, the emphasis, particularly in the primary years, is on assessment for the sake of improving teaching methods.
The history of Steiner education
The first Steiner school was established by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in 1919, at the Waldorf-Astoria tobacco factory in Stuttgart, Germany, largely as a response to the technocratic trend of education at the time.
Currently there are more than 1200 Steiner schools, also known as Waldorf schools, in 60 countries worldwide. Australia has more than 40, including a small but increasing number of “streams” in public schools. In Australia, like the UK and US, Steiner schools have until recently operated mainly as medium cost independent schools.
Formal research on Steiner education in Australia, as with alternative education in general, is somewhat limited.
The research that does exist on Steiner education reflects positive findings overall. In terms of social and well-being outcomes, a study of graduates in North America found “they are capable of achieving what they want in life and are happy in the process of pursuing their goals” with the majority considering “life-long learning as a significant part of their life journey”.
A similar investigation, which focused on the adjustment to tertiary study of students from alternative schools including Steiner schools, found that they report “less anxiety and depression symptoms”, and showed “greater life satisfaction and academic achievement”.
In terms of academic outcomes studies have found that students, as expected, perform below mainstream counterparts in grades two and three, but catch up, or perform better, by year eight. This finding is also reflected in reports from the UK.
As Steiner education has moved more into the mainstream it has not been without its detractors. In the US and UK, the claim that Steiner education is religious, and as such is inappropriate for secular education, has emerged in some instances. This claim is denied by Steiner educators, who point out that the schools are non-sectarian and non-denominational.
Another occasional claim is of a racial component to its curriculum. A Dutch government inquiry in 1995 found that, outside of a single unrepresentative incident, there was no evidence of racism in Steiner schools. This finding was corroborated by a more recent study in Germany that found that Steiner students exhibited the lowest levels of both xenophobia and right-wing extremism of any of the country’s three-tiered schooling system.
Where these issues have received attention they have sparked often passionate debate. On a more practical level, due to the generally smaller scale of the schools, subjects offered may be limited at some Steiner schools.
So does it work?
Through its focus on capabilities, creativity and resilience, Steiner education aligns with many of the goals of 21st century education. The view of Rudolf Steiner was that the human being must be free and autonomous. The research, although limited, appears to endorse the effectiveness of Steiner education in attaining its broader goals.
For parents considering Steiner education it is useful to remember that each Steiner school is run independently and as such consideration should be given to the particular school as well as the overall system.