One of the prospective Steiner free schools, Bristol Steiner Free School, offers this presentation of Steiner education. To begin with, they neglect to present Steiner himself in an honest way which would shed light on who he was and what he accomplished not as an academic but as a founder and leader of an esoteric movement.
The school boasts about ‘joy in learning’ and ‘experienc[ing] the richness of childhood’; one can argue that these are misleading claims, or, in any case, that waldorf education does not set itself apart in this regard. But I will focus on a few other aspects of the presentation. This is a particularly bold claim:
The Steiner curriculum is a flexible and adaptable set of pedagogical guidelines.
For a type of education that has looked pretty much the same for 90 years, that shuns development and new ideas, that avoids to bring in anything modern (including technological aids), the statement would be surprising, were it entirely honest. An education which, many decades later, diligently follows the advice and ‘indications’ presented by its founder, Rudolf Steiner, the ideas about child development put forth by anthroposophy (more or less considered immutable truths, as far as education is concerned; at least, so-called spiritual science is not doing anything much to improve on or modify these ideas) and is ultimately governed by the anthroposophical movement (which, on the whole, has not proven itself to be particularly flexible and adaptable). Moreover, whatever the Bristol Steiner Free School claims, there’s not much room in waldorf education for flexibility and adaptability concerning the education of the individual child. The education is for the most part a collective experience — the children all do the same thing, at the same time, at the same pace. For example, there are no text books, so all students are supposed to copy the subject matter at the same pace from the blackboard and be able to follow the teacher’s instructions, given verbally and collectively. But these are just examples. The school explains: ‘Whole class, mixed ability teaching is the norm’. What that means, in this context, I do not know.
Let’s continue to another bold claim, no, an audacious claim.
‘… Steiner schools have an enviable reputation for imbuing an ethos of intellectual curiosity, motivation, creativity and self-expression.’
Is that so? Not only a reputation, but an ‘enviable’ one. I agree that some former waldorf students are capable of self-expression, but having seen some others express themselves, my respect, over all, is quite weak. The claim about the ‘ethos of intellectual curiosity’ leaves me quite baffled. What does the Steiner school offer to back up this ‘enviable reputation’?
For example, an Australian study comparing the academic performance of students at university level found that students who had been at Steiner/Waldorf schools (the terms are interchangeable – the Waldorf School was the first school run according to Steiner’s educational principles) significantly outperformed their peers from other schools in both the humanities and the sciences.
So that’s another study — I haven’t read it, and first didn’t know what they were talking about.* They don’t offer a reference, so how are people going to know and how are they going to be able to check it out for themselves? Often with these studies, there is a lot to be said about methods, interpretation and, finally, the presentation of the results by the waldorf movement for promotional reasons, which is why providing a proper reference is paramount. In short, the research, upon closer inspection, is often found lacking rigour, it is flawed and interpreted dishonestly… and presented deceptively. As for this study, I don’t know it. (There are other studies. I’d like to recommend Ulf Ärnström’s comments in this thread, and here.) In general, good research on waldorf education is sorely lacking. In addition, they then claim that the ‘Steiner Academy Hereford has built a strong record of educational excellence within the state-funded sector’, a claim which is highly questionable. (Hereford and its results have been discussed in several places on the blog, for example here, there are relevant links to inspection documentation in that thread.)
The new free schools, they write
… can have a great deal more freedom in how they teach and in how they measure success.
This, of course, is what waldorf schools have always wanted. More money, less accountability. They want to teach their own curriculum, based upon anthroposophical ideas and ideals, and they want to control, inspect and evaluate their own work according to their own standards. The problem is — they should have to show that how they teach works and that they are successful first. Only then is it possible to discuss whether it is — academic results apart — a reasonable idea to state-funding of an education based upon an esoteric worldview. It might be, but the burden of proof is on the waldorf movement.
There’s an interesting FAQ as well, I thought perhaps we could discuss it, too, in the comments. If you want.
*As I was finishing this post, I got to see this post on Sune’s blog. I assume that’s the Australian study the Bristol School is talking about (why no reference?). I’ve not read it, but have come across Gidley’s name before. It would be interesting to hear if anyone knows about this study (viewpoints? links? criticism of it?). I’d caution you to take Sune’s post with an entire ocean of salt. As usual. I mentioned other studies and their flaws. But I guess Gidley’s study may be the exception to the rule — maybe this is the one?? If so, you’d still have to weigh it against the results from the other studies. Here’s an article by Gidley in the Waldorf Library (and here’s another selection of writings). She is, apparently, a waldorf school founder and waldorf school teacher, later turned academic, with 30 years total of waldorf experience. Interpret that as you will. That list of her articleswill probably seem a bit suspect to the skeptically inclined reader. Here’s Gidley’s PhD thesis: ‘EVOLVING EDUCATION: A Postformal-integral-planetary Gaze at the Evolution of Consciousness and the Educational Imperatives’. I like that: a postformal-integral-planetary gaze.
Addendum: no, it was another Australian study, not the one Sune mentions. See discussion thread.