‘Each individual is a species unto him/herself.’ ~ Rudolf Steiner From Theosophy: An Introduction to the Spiritual Processes in Human Life and in the Cosmos (1904)
Rudolf Steiner was a pioneer in alternative education. He created a movement that saw individuals as spiritual beings rather than economic fodder or shapes for society to mold.
According to the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship, ‘the priority of the Steiner ethos is to provide an unhurried and creative learning environment where children can find the joy in learning and experience the richness of childhood rather than early specialisation or academic hot-housing.’
Though the works of Steiner are extensive and would require several essays to reflect upon, his writings and talks on the three stages of development a child must pass through to achieve a successful integration of the self, can be the perfect place to start.
In being introduced to these, we might have insight into how Steiner graduates have achieved emotional maturity and a rounded and grounded sense of self, one that is progressive and able to create independent thought and compassionate values in their adult lives.
‘Where is the book in which the teacher can read about what teaching is? The children themselves are this book. We should not learn to teach out of any book other than the one lying open before us and consisting of the children themselves.’ ~ Rudolf Steiner, Human Values in Education
The Physical: Birth – Age 7
Physical Expression: Metabolic/Limb System
Psychological Expression and Developmental Mode: Willing
Spiritual Expression: Sleeping
Cultural Orientation: Religion
The first stage on the path to ‘ethical individualism’ is that of the physical where the child, having recently left the ethereal plane, has gently integrated the physical body through ritual, a safe environment and a deep connection with nature.
The child learns through non-self-conscious imitation in a nurturing environment to help them with this; the kindergarten is decorated like a home, kept warm and they are encouraged to help out with physical activities such as chopping vegetables to make their own soup, painting or polishing wood, and simple crafts like finger knitting and sewing.
Rather than being directly ‘taught’, the imagination and thought processes are allowed to develop through song, story and puppet shows of their own accord and pace, discipline delivered through gentle song (basically a telling off told in a loving and forgiving way) and daily work and play outside to keep them grounded and steeped in reality.
The religious element is designed to be much more about ritual and celebrating festivals than enforcing any ideology on the child, and in an ideal environment, to show the child that the world is good and that their every need is met.
The teacher may observe their play and reflect back to them their processes but avoid labeling and practice non-attachment with each child.
Teachers in the Early Years in Steiner education generally do not pick up children, instead taking them on their knee if they’re upset and although the emphasis is put on nurturing the child through their engagement in day-to-day activities and self care, they become highly self sufficient, seeking answers and direction from within rather than the external. The teacher keeps commands and input to a minimum, simply holding the space and being in the background.
‘Live through deeds of love, and let others live with tolerance for their unique intentions.’ ~ Steiner, Philosophy of Freedom
The Imagination, Age 7 – 14
Physical Expression: Heart/Lungs
Psychological Expression and Developmental Mode: Feeling
Spiritual Expression: Dreaming
Cultural Orientation: Art
Deciding when the time is right to bring a child into slightly more formal classroom settings where they can begin to learn the alphabet and numbers depends on how formed their character is and is usually dependent on whether they are losing their milk teeth, which is the body’s indication they are ready for the next stage of development.
Children between seven and fourteen will be assigned a class teacher who teaches the majority of subjects to them without becoming a figure of authority in order to upkeep their assertions of self and an autonomy to their learning processes.
As with the early years, the teacher encourages learning through physical movement, poetry and story and becomes a nurturing figure who oversees a class who stays together for many years with abilities mixed together in a familiar setting.
Song and story still play a big role in allowing children to access academic tools to further their educational enquiry and the imagination and feelings of the pupil are the key elements being developed between these ages.
For example, a biblical story – invariably one about the angelic realm – is told to demonstrate the rules of grammar. One angel represents a command, another represents a question, a third represents a statement, and so on.
“If we do not believe within ourselves this deeply rooted feeling that there is something higher than ourselves, we shall never find the strength to evolve into something higher.” ~ Rudolf Steiner
The Spirit, ages 14 – 21
Physical Expression: Nerves/senses
Psychological Expression and Developmental Mode: Thinking
Spiritual Expression: Waking
Cultural Orientation: Science
From ages fourteen to twenty one children, having connected with their bodies and hearts can now be taught in a more logical, structured fashion. Students are allowed to focus on certain subjects that explore their interests having embraced their true selves and been given a grounded foundation in the world.
As the body becomes disrupted and transformed with adolescence, children are encouraged to embrace freedom and their role in the outside world. Specialist teachers will come in and they are able to spread their wings a bit more and take influences from outside forces.
Students can enjoy the slow pace of their former years where they were able to develop their social skills and emotional needs in their own time without the pressures of formal testing.
It is in this stage that pupils may enjoy their emotional maturity and see the fruits of being more in touch with their core and inner voice, a gift that allows them to choose more directly what they want to do in the world without external confusions.
And the development doesn’t stop there! Steiner went on the describe the karmic stages beyond normal school age:
‘The next three seven-year segments are associated with the Sun (21-42 years old), and the elements of sentient soul, intellectual soul, and consciousness soul.
The next seven-year segment is associated with Mars (42-49 years old), when the soul works hard to impress the full forces of its personality upon the world. At this time, the soul has the opportunity to a higher state of consciousness called Spirit Self.
The following seven-year segment is associated with Jupiter (49-56 years old), when wisdom is dawning and the ego needs to unfold the Life Spirit.
The final seven-year period is associated with Saturn (56-63 years old) when Saturn completes its second “return” (e.g. comes back to its position it had at one’s birth), and the soul can manifest an event higher element of Self called Spirit Man.’ ~ Thomas Armstrong
For more information, see Steiner’s Karmic Relationships Vol. VII, lecture two.