1.9.2 Critical Pedagogies 2: Steiner

Learning objectives for this chapter

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to:

- understand and explain clearly what Anthroposophy is and summarise Steiner's view of childhood

- understand and explain how this theory applies to education

- critically evaluate and discuss the strengths and limitations of this theory

- link this theory to educational practice

What is Steiner's theory of Anthroposophy?

Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) was an Austrian thinker and educationalist who developed a whole new philosophy which he called "Anthroposophy". This word is derived from the Greek words for human being, and wisdom, and it means literally the study of humanity. In fact, however, the theory is much broader than this, and takes in the cosmic dimension of existence, and various non-Western ideas as well as traditional thinking. Steiner's study of classical and modern philosophy brought him to a realisation that materialistic views of the world can lead to a loss of the sense of awe that human beings historically have felt in the presence of natural phenomena. His thinking rests on classical philosophical premises about the importance of the moral and aesthetic qualities that human beings have, and the concept of wisdom, which incorporates these qualities alongside theoretical and practical knowledge. His view of the child is summed up as "a spiritual being bearing gifts" (Clouder, 2009, p. 18) and it follows, then, that it is the job of adults to help the child to open up these gifts and discover what they are and how they can be used. He believed that children require healthy and nourishing food, plenty of opportunity for physical play, and an environment that would inspire them and foster their imagination.

Steiner's view of human development envisages a series of stages in blocks of seven years as follows:

  • 0-7 years (in which the personality of the child develops from what is inherited from the parents into a new, individual being)
  • 7-14 years (a time when feelings and imagination dominate)
  • 14-21 years (a time when higher thinking takes root, and strong impulses emerge)

The theory goes on to postulate further seven-year stages throughout the whole of life, and to relate them to astrological theory. The key point to remember is the relatively long period between each stage, and the focus on separate areas of development in each stage.

A distinctive feature of Steiner's theory is the emphasis that it places on the human body and its physical development. It is widely recognised that children need outdoor play and physical education, because this helps them to develop motor skills and social skills such as team building, as well as contributing to the health of the child. In Steiner's philosophy, however, there is much greater emphasis on the body, and it is linked with aesthetic and musical appreciation and other kinds of activity.

How does this theory apply to education?

The aim of this first Steiner/Waldorf school, set up in 1919, was "to support all pupils to develop their potential for clear thinking, sensitive feeling and motivated doing through teaching the Steiner Waldorf curriculum" (Taplin, 2011, p. 87). There was also no gender segregation in Steiner's schools, even though this was standard practice in Austrian schools at the time. Collaboration with industry and commerce, usually in the form of funding and access to premises is a feature of Waldorf/Steiner schools that continues to this day. This allows Steiner schools to offer free places to children whose families would not normally be able to afford this alternative form of education.

Unlike the Montessori theory, which was discussed in the previous chapter and which has a similar emphasis on viewing the child as the centre of education, the Steiner theory is applicable to all ages from the age of three right through to the age of eighteen or nineteen. Education is seen as a long-term and holistic process and many children remain within the Steiner school environment all through their childhood and adolescence. There are stages of progression, of course, and children are grouped into mixed ability classes, with separation between major stages, but the community ethos of a Steiner school encourages mingling of all ages together, and joint efforts that cross age or stage boundaries.

The continuity and social unity that characterises Steiner schools comes about largely through the relationships that teachers form with the children. From the very beginning, children are integrated within a group led by one teacher. This adult is a fixed point in the school routine for that group, and he or she takes special responsibility for the progression of each child in the group. In some ways, this relationship echoes the role of a parent. In the first stage of development (0-7 years) learning is integrated with the business of daily living, and there is no subject-based teaching. Daily tasks such as cooking or are used as ways of exploring the language of weights and measures, for example, and children learn many different crafts and creative activities. Stories, role-plays, rhymes and games are designed to practice language skills. Clouder (2009, p. 5) notes that "the integration of these activities cultivates a love of language, develops speech and allows children time to become really familiar with the spoken word-the best preparation and foundation for the subsequent development of more formal literacy and numeracy".

This educational method places quite heavy demands on the teacher to maintain a certain role, observing children's behaviour and demonstrating behaviours, skills, and applications of knowledges when she judges children to be ready for these things. It obviously helps if the teacher has had long experience of this method, since it will become second nature to behave in this deliberate and controlled way in front of the children. Teachers who are new to the Steiner philosophy, however, or people who are temperamentally more impulsive, may find this method difficult to sustain all the time. Teachers and students alike must adapt to the Steiner way. There are some Steiner management practices which are quite different from the majority of mainstream schools in most Western countries. There is no head-teacher, for example, and so all the teachers share out the administrative and leadership tasks that arise. A teacher will also tend to stay with the same children over several years of education, sometimes even through the whole primary school experience rather than switching to a different class each academic year (Gray and MacBlain, 2015). This reflects the Steiner philosophy which sees schools as a kind of community which should build long term relationships and sustain continuity and harmony.

What are the strengths and limitations of this theory?

The main strength of the Steiner approach to pedagogy is the attention that it gives to educating the whole child, including the psychological and physical dimensions as well as cognitive dimensions of development. The emphasis on the natural world, and appreciation of outdoor activities, is seen as a healthy antidote to the many pressures and harmful effects of urban living in overcrowded and busy spaces. Many parents and teachers value the Steiner approach because its slower pace and greater provision for individual learning takes pressure away from the child.

Steiner's theories are sometimes criticised because of their tendency to be very idealistic, and to over-protect children in an environment that filters out some of the pressing realities of the modern world. The delay in exposing children to instructed learning, for example, can be seen as a form of developmental hindrance, because it takes longer for children to learn to read and write in this environment. In our highly competitive world, this is seen by some as a disadvantage. The prohibition of screens and gadgets in primary school is also becoming increasingly difficult for Steiner schools to maintain. It is also arguable that children need to develop an awareness of digital technologies, just to be able to function in the modern world. Children who learn in a Steiner environment may lack areas of competence that children in other schools have already mastered.

Although there are many parallels between the Steiner philosophy and current legislation on curriculum in schools, there are some important differences. This means that teachers in mainstream must be wary of adopting Steiner principles without checking that they remain within the Statutory Framework that is set down for all schools. Steiner publications including Clouder (2009) contain explicit disclaimers, underlining the need to adhere to the national legislation, unless an exemption has been granted.

Another criticism that is often levelled against Steiner is that his ideas on education are part of a much wider world view which has heavy philosophical and religious overtones, and he published a huge amount of material relating to the esoteric branch of philosophy/theology known as "Theosophy". He was interested in mysterious and secret forms of knowledge, and his argumentation fuses spiritual and logical reasoning in a way that many educationalists find confusing, or even incompatible with the more materialistic view of the world that many modern societies have.

How can this theory be linked to practice?

Steiner schools remain distinctive, even though some of the ideas that Steiner advanced have become more widely acceptable than they were when he first started writing about education. A more recent movement in and around temporary or permanent "Forest School" learning environments are very popular, and increasingly being offered alongside or even instead of mainstream Early Years provision (Knight, 2013). This dimension of learning has been somewhat neglected, particularly in urban schools where school grounds are often small and paved over, and opportunities for learning in a natural environment are few. Forest schools can be offered as week-long adventures in which children and their teachers set aside their normal routine to focus on open air activities. These activities should present new materials and new activities, which will necessarily involve some element of instruction by teachers and workshop leaders, but in essence, the whole experience should be largely child-initiated and child led. The insights that children gain through this type of learning can be highly personal, with great variation between one child and another. 

Steiner's theory advocates long periods of learning, with opportunities for children to integrate their emotional, cognitive, physical and spiritual learning through extended interaction with the environment. It can be logistically difficult and quite expensive to organise such learning opportunities, and there are considerable health and safety aspects to consider as well. Nevertheless, this style of learning provides opportunities for creativity, awe and experience that are impossible to provide within the constraints of a classroom or small, urban or suburban playground.


This chapter has very briefly reviewed and discussed some of the main tenets of Steiner's theory of Anthroposophy and its application to education, both in Waldorf/Steiner schools and in other contexts. It has drawn parallels with other educational theories, including notably the Montessori method, with which it shares some features. The Steiner approach is not for everyone, and it requires quite considerable study, training and practice before a teacher can fully embody its principles. Some will find its more esoteric aspects difficult to grasp, but there are plenty of very useful ideas and techniques in Steiner schools that are educationally sound, and can be adapted to other contexts. Open-ended and outdoor play, imaginative use of myths and legends, and a strong community ethos based on stable, long-term relationships are just three areas where Steiner's theory can provide inspiration and useful guidance for any teacher.


Clouder, C. (2009) Guide to the Early Years Foundation Stages in Steiner Waldorf Early Childhood Settings. Forest Row: Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship.

Edmunds, F. (2004) An Introduction to Steiner Education: The Waldorf School. Forest Row: Sophia Books.

Ghaye, T. (2011) Teaching and Learning Through Reflective Practice. Second edition. Abingdon: Routledge.

Gray, C. and MacBlain, S. (2015) Learning Theories in Childhood. Second edition. London: Sage.

Knight, S. (2013) Forest School and Outdoor Learning in the Early Years. Second edition. London: Sage.

Steiner, R. (1928) The Story of My Life. London: The Anthroposophical Publishing Company. Available at: http://wn.rsarchive.org/Books/GA028/TSoML/GA028_index.html [Accessed 12 December 2016].

Taplin, J. T. (2011) Steiner Waldorf early childhood education: offering a curriculum for the 21st century. In L. Miller and L. Pound (Eds.), Theories and Approaches to Learning in the Early Years. London: Sage, pp. 86-98.

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