Twinkle Twinkle Little Steiner (continued)

MAN! I feel like I’ve landed on a polemical goldmine!

It was no mistake I ended my last post where I did. I simply had no time or energy to continue on what is a difficult subject, especially one so close to my heart. I fear I might have presented myself as entirely won over by Steiner schooling.

Still, the replies have kept flooding in and everyone has a story to tell. To those of you who feel you have been unhelpful: please don’t. I am grateful for the opportunity to see this whole schooling fiasco in a multi-dimensional way. The premise is that we felt completely out of the loop with regard to how to secure a decent State funded education for our son. I guess it’s a side effect of coming into parenthood when we had not prepared for it.

A CUT ABOVE THE REST?

We both had misgivings about the possibility of introducing our kiddie to an ‘alternative’ method of teaching  right from the moment we stumbled upon Steiner.

The first that springs to mind is that ‘safe’ and ‘protected’ are both synonymous with ‘sheltered’.

Ok.

Yet this is a stereotype which is commonly applied to all private school education in the UK. It is so easy to paint everyone with the same brush.

Both me and my ex (I’m tired of referring to him like that – From now on, he is  ‘Daddya’ – see my post ‘Swings and Roundabouts‘) have been educated privately and in UK State schools at different points in our lives. Since I moved here many years ago I’ve seen how bitterly resented this division in British society is – and now, having no real resources to fund a creme-de-la-creme education for my child, I can see why, even though neither is a guarantee of future success.

However, I take the view that despite some formidable schooling being offered on the State, you get what you pay for. It’s just the way it is. For example, I buy Sainsbury’s ‘Basics’ smoked salmon; it tastes fine but comes in smaller pieces, almost like salmon mince. It does the job pretty well on my toasted bagel but it’s not quite up to the standard of the Wild Alaskan ‘Taste the Difference‘ range. OBVIOUSLY. We can grumble about the difference in the quality of public and State school education until we’re blue in the face but it doesn’t change the fact you are likely to get more if you are prepared to part with the cash. Sucks to be skint like me, but that’s life.

I think this bitterness underlies a lot of the prejudice against Public school educated children in this country. Are plenty of them sheltered? Of course. Are many of them snobs? Naturally. But that will never be the whole picture. It’s as ridiculous as saying every State educated child is down-to-Earth, unprejudiced and well-integrated. NONSENSE.

But then, there’s sheltered and there’s completely, harmfully alienated…

THE WORLD AND THE OYSTER

My biggest concern about the whole Steiner malarkey is that it is radically different from anything else being provided in the UK. They follow their own curriculum, at an entirely different pace. Their insistence on avoiding intellectual exploits until the age of 7 means that the children learn to read much later. I was an avid reader as a child and I think I would have been very frustrated to be infantilised in this way. A friend of my aunt’s expressed the same opinion. Rudolf Steiner was a pragmatist and tweaked his curriculum so that there was some cross-referencing with more conventional types of schooling, but really? I read at least three books to my son every night and he’s recently been expressing a keen desire to learn to read himself. In fact, the new routine is that once I’ve read to him, I let him flick through a book on his own for five minutes before lights out.  I know him well enough to know he’s an independent little thing and I don’t think holding out on learning to read will be beneficial in any way.

Another thing I find quite hard to come to terms with is the almost complete rejection of modern technology. In the school’s prospectus they have printed a  really plausible and compelling argument for this (bear with me, long quote):

‘Television, as well as videos, film, recorded music, computers and electronic games have a very powerful effect on children. It can take several days for the effect of a single video to wear off. (…) Many children now speak a lot of the time in ‘cartoon’ voices, make ‘sound effects’ to accompany their jerky movements (kicking, punching) and compulsively repeat lines from videos they have seen over and over again. This is now seen as ‘normal’ childish behaviour, but it comes from these media, not from the children themselves.

In Steiner Waldorf schools the teaching relies very much on the child taking in the content of a lesson, going home and sleeping and then coming back the next day to recall and work with it. During the night, the lesson will have been digested, together with the mental pictures made by the child himself, and he is able to relate to and understand it better than he could the previous day. If children are watching TV, or using any of the other electronic devices mentioned (…)the strong images and noises overwhelm the subtle pictures they have formed within themselves with their OWN imagination and shut them out, so that the child, when you say ‘princess’ or ‘frog’ will only be able to picture Disney’s Sleeping Beauty or Kermit from Sesame Street (SIC!!!!); the opportunity to use his own imagination is denied him (…)’

I can totally see where they are coming from. I’ll be the first to admit that I feel my son watches more television than is desirable, it’s something I hope to improve on. Recently the new Ben 10 craze has really annoyed me – even without ever having watched a single episode, my son is obsessed. He loves He-Man (yes, vintage 80’s cartoons) too, and draws out a toy sword that he’s tucked into his shirt and exclaims ‘By the power of Greyskull!’ on a daily basis. Is that really so bad?

I admire this Steiner incentive to exercise imagination and creativity but it requires a continuous abstinence from external stimuli. It’s an interesting idea – that certain types of sensory deprivation can force the brain to create.  But living in this manner in today’s world requires enormous determination and I am not sure that I am the right person to do it. I witnessed my friend try and stop her daughter playing with my son’s toys over and over again and it just seemed horribly frustrating for both of them. To try and put this into practice with my son would require limiting contact with certain friends and family; it would mean not sitting down to watch Mary Poppins with his little cousins at Christmas; it would mean he could never become a Beatlemaniac at the age of 6 like I did.  Furthermore, the media is ubiquitous these days. It’s often not pretty, there’s a lot of it I try to shut out, but it is a universal point of reference. I feel blessed to have grown up with things like music, good cartoons, good films. I had fun playing computer games with my friends. Here I am on my laptop, writing this blog. As lovely as this Steiner concept is, it would mean my son wouldn’t understand what his cousins and friends were talking about when they mentioned Fireman Sam; on top of that, he wouldn’t be allowed to share their electronic toys. I can’t help feeling that in today’s world this is very isolating. Sad but true.

SEEING, BELIEVING, AND ALL THAT ENTAILS

So me and Daddya went to see the School. We were very impressed by the playground, with interesting toys and plants. Much more inviting than the inner city dump. We were greeted warmly by some of the parent’s and teachers, who offered us a wide selection of teas (green, rooibos, mint, chamomile, blah blah blah and English breakfast – guess which one we chose?)and cake, and shortbread, and grapes… How lovely. A group of confident children started to show us around rather casually. They took us to one of the Kindergarten classrooms to speak to a teacher. The room had a very domestic feel to it, it was quite cosy, with pictures everywhere, wooden toys, and a fully operational mini kitchen. The teacher was veeeeeery placid and sweet, with earnest, kind eyes. She explained that mixed age learning is central to Steiner philosophy, and how it teaches children to be considerate to one another and understand each other’s different needs –  so in every class there are two age groups. Every day at the school has a very definite rhythm and activities repeat themselves. The younger kids would have outside play, then inside play with dancing and singing, listening to stories and acting them out. They would prepare a small meal together, often with ingredients they grew themselves, and sit down to eat it.  They observed the passing of the seasons and the cycles of nature and they even had a Maypole, as it is the seasonal thing to do. There was a really pagan sort of feel to the whole thing, I couldn’t help feeling a bit like I was in The Wicker Man.

After kindergarten, a daily ‘main lesson’  would be introduced, where children would be taught one single topic in great depth over a period of a few weeks before moving onto something else. Nothing is forced. Each teacher stays with the same children for 7 years and it’s up to them to judge when an individual child is ready and open to be taught a particular subject.  They cultivate a rather appealing sort of natural empiricism to their teaching of the sciences, experimenting by themselves before being taught that Einstein or whoever came up with the same conclusions. Upon going to look at other classrooms we found beautifully bound and illustrated notebooks on several different topics, all made to a very high standard. The parents remarked on how happy their children were. Growing up, the children would gain a lot more autonomy about what, how and when they wanted to study. They also do not have any examinations. Everything about the school just seemed to belong in this lovely lovely utopic la la land.

Me and Daddya stopped to talk to one of the older teachers and started to ask him a few hard questions. How did the kids adapt to normal schools? Obviously they have to take GCSEs and A-Levels, but how do they get on with the national curriculum? The answer is that Steiner school finishes at age 14 in London, so they have to do the national curriculum as well at some point and they are not used to the concept of exams. He wasn’t very clear on how well they adapt, but said that Steiner kids tended to do significantly better than the national average. We asked how religion was presented, and he said that religious festivals are celebrated but religions are taught within a historical context, which I quite liked. He said Steiner are working with EdExcel to get accreditation for the Steiner curriculum but that this is unlikely to come through for a while yet. I couldn’t help wondering… How can I trust this man to know exactly when my son is ready to receive some particular piece of knowledge… And if he teaches all disciplines, can he truly be an expert at all of them?

All of this made me and Daddya feel a little bit uneasy. We got in the car to drive home and our immediate verdict was ‘very lovely, but it’s all a bit wishy-washy’. We think it would be lovely for our son to go there for this year but we’d want him back on the national curriculum soon. We both feel we want him to be prepared, and to succeed at whatever he sets out to do, and the lack of Steiner accreditation could prove disastrous. I don’t know if, as parents, we’re cut out of the right stuff for Steiner, because as fascinating and warm as it was, we found it a little bit drippy. I think that putting kids through Steiner education successfully requires absolute faith and determination. Obviously we do not want Mr. Gradgrind for a teacher but maybe we are too result-driven after all! Not knowing anyone who went to Steiner I can’t really judge on overall progress. The deal breaker, however, was the distance from my house to the school — It would be a nightmare trying to get there and back every day. I’m not sufficiently converted to put up with it.

Nevertheless, this has been very interesting. I have often felt the national curriculum can be limiting and that children are taught to jump through certain hoops rather than be fascinated by the knowledge they are receiving. I was extremely upset that I wasn’t allowed to take History and Geography together at GCSE, for example. The national curriculum is a standard, and it is there for a good reason, but I feel sometimes it prevents students from realising their full potential in certain categories. I can honestly say I would have loved to go to Steiner, though. It’s a tough call. If Steiner’s methods were more widely recognised and accredited perhaps I wouldn’t be so fearful, but as it stands they are not. And I have serious doubts about how well it can prepare children for the real world, where people are stressed out, need things done to order and under tight deadlines, where most of us will do boring and stressful jobs that require little brain power. But then, does Steiner offer a genuine opportunity to break free from all that?

I guess it all boils down to the parents’ own outlook on the world. I do believe Steiner can provide a wonderful and exciting education but I worry that the world is not always wonderful and exciting. We either sink or swim. Thank you all for your insight and opinions, and please feel free to comment, because the journey has just begun. I have not yet found the answer. Have you?

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2 Responses to “Twinkle Twinkle Little Steiner (continued)”


  1. 1 Elijah May 17, 2010 at 10:47 pm

    It’s hard to give up on the early academics…I was alarmed at the thought…but in reality some children learn to read earlier and some later – the teachers at our Steiner school didn’t get upset one way or another, just kept moving them at their own pace.

    Employers (and increasingly, universities) are looking for social competencies and creativity…and complaining that these are harder and harder to come by. One thing I’m sure is that the children at Steiner schools have these two qualities – they really can get along with and find the best points of anyone at all. That’s more than I can do…

    It takes courage…when I begin to wonder again I try to talk to alumni of the school. They are breathtaking and are so happy with their education – I hope that my children will be as happy as this 10 years from now…

    • 2 Professional Housegirlfriend May 18, 2010 at 9:56 am

      Thank you for your comment! Still trying to find a way, and it’s incredibly difficult to shun convention when it’s my son’s future at stake — I did feel that I would have liked going to Steiner myself. How old are your children?


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