True Education;

fostering the development of each child’s unique and innate talent

 

How children develop has a critical effect for good or ill on the cohesiveness, health and continuation of society. It also impacts greatly on human happiness and on the ability of governments either to serve or to control the population at large. It is not surprising therefore, that a great deal has been written on the subject and from a variety of different perspectives. Many have written detailed instructions on how to train a child to serve the needs of a prevailing adult fashion. Simon Underdown, Senior Lecturer in Biological Anthropology at Oxford Brookes University, comments; “Educational theorists have an inglorious history of inflicting potentially harmful ideas on children”. (Letters, the Independent, 19th March 2007). Governments are increasingly tempted to substitute real education for training in how to best serve the short-term needs of a market economy. Currently the trend is to propose “educational” policies, the aim of which is to ensure that children grow up to be compliant and preferably passive, consumers.

 

Only a few writers on the subject of education have given precedence to the development of the natural, innate capacities of the individual child as the focus and motivating force of their particular proposals. Few have taken the trouble to observe children and to ask not “what does our economy or this administration need?” but rather; “What do they, the individual children  need?”. And also more specifically, not what does this particular group, at this time and in this place seem to need in order to keep up with the current adult fashion, but rather, “what needs are all human children born with? What constant requirements have children always had and will always have, in order to grow and flourish”

 

Two educators who asked this question were Rudolph Steiner and Maria Montessori. Both were working in the early 1900s; both felt great empathy with and respect for the individual child and both were prepared to observe the children in their care with a dispassionate eye, with a view to finding out what their charges really needed to support their development. Both consequently avoided the constricting presuppositions and pedagogic methods which stunted the intellectual and psychological growth of most children of their time. This disregard for received opinion on the subject of child-rearing often made them enemies in high places. Steiner and Montessori schools were later both closed down under the Nazi regime in Germany for failing to train the children as the government told them to. Because of their combination of empathy and yet also professional objectivity, Rudolph Steiner and Maria Montessori discovered many of the same objective truths about what children need.

 

Steiner education is very successful for small children because it provides a surrogate home environment. But as Steiner observed, each individual’s observations as well as their capacity to educate will inevitably be coloured and shaped by their world view. Rudolph Steiner had a view of the world which he based on private revelation.

 

Rudolph Steiner was an anthopophosist. Maria Montessori, on the other hand, was a Catholic with a deep faith.

 

Now a Waldorf teacher may not necessarily be an anthropophosist just as a Montessori educator does not have to be a Christian. Both schools of thought acknowledge that what the individual educator believes will be probably the most powerful influencing force on children especially in the first seven years. But even if the educators do not believe in the intricacies of the philosophical system on which their pedagogy is based, the means and norms of that pedagogy still have a great impact on the way that children are taught and on the outcome for the child. Studies have been done which do show different outcomes.

 

A four-year-old will constantly ask “How ? Why? Is it real or pretend?”. We, as educators, need to answer these questions at the time they are asked, as fully and honestly as we can. I saw the problems of children who did not have a good grounding in practical reality when working as a secondary school teacher. It is painful to observe adolescents of 12 and 13 trot out a scenario they have seen on TV and to present it as (and believe it to be) highly creative, because they have been told that it is. Such children have often reached a stage at which they are no longer capable of producing anything original. In order to imagine a really compelling convincing dragon, you have to know how a lizard works and moves and to learn about this at a time when you are receptive to this information. Tolkien’s works are so engaging because his imagination was so richly endowed with a grasp of how the world really is, both physically and psychologically. His character Golum for example, is such a heart-rendingly original creation, because it is firmly grounded on how human beings move, experience, touch, taste, behave and react.

 

It seems to me that there are several  pitfalls in an exclusively Steiner education; But many of these pitfalls are also shared by current, mainstream education, which additionally bases its curriculum on relativism, deprives children of the company of their siblings, fails to provide children with the right sensory stimulli at the right stage and increasingly sees itself as the primary educator both of children and of their parents. Many parents opt to send their children to a State school because it is “free”. The fact is, there is no such thing as a free education. Mainstream education comes at a price; the price is the parent and child’s willingness or acquiescence in having the child’s development and needs subordinated to the needs of the State and of big business and to be to be shaped and moulded accordingly. Conventional private schools may have some advantages, but many fall victim to the same pressures as State sector education and focus on processing children and making them fit a predetermined mould rather than on meeting their needs.

 

A four year old who wants to trace the shapes for os and ps today, will be gently distracted by a Steiner educator and given something else to do. The same child in a mainstream setting or conventional private school is likely to be told “today we are doing ds and bs” so just sit down, stop fiddling and fidgeting and listen!” It is only in a Montessori environment that he or she would be given the support and freedom to use sandpaper letters to feel the texture and shape of those much desired mysteriously useful shapes and then to form the same ones in paint or sand.

 

There has been recent and widespread embarrassment and sadness expressed as a result of the UNICEF study finding that Britain is bottom of the list when it comes to happy and well-adjusted, well-educated children. A great problem to date in addressing the many problems that our children face has been the deep denial by many politicians and some parents of the effect and extent of them. Whenever someone tried to point out how stressed, unhappy and underachieving children generally are in our society, the constant refrain has been; “they’re fine!”. Well, the inconvenient truth is that all is not fine with children. Given this research and recent other studies, it is now just as impossible to deny this fact as it has become to close your eyes to the implications of the melting ice caps. What is the point, we now need to ask ourselves, of trying to save the world, if we also raise a generation of children too stressed and disaffected to care about themselves and each other, let alone the good stewardship of our planet?.

 

Looking at how we deprive children of their parents at an early age, corral them into large groups and subordinate their needs to the priorities and concerns of the economy and of government, the UNICEF study should come as no surprise at all.  I have taught in mainstream schools and in Special, education, worked with under 5s and their families for several years and also experienced the positive power of placing our own children and their learning at the heart of what we do as a family. It seems clear to me that there is a way out of the mess we are in. Children’s needs could be far better met, if parents recognised their competence and authority as educators, took this job at least as seriously as any paid employment and stopped expecting the State to bring up their children. Small educational establishments need to act in concert and to support each other, whether they base their approach on Steiner, Montessori or some other pedagogy. Local networks of small, mutually supportive, yet distinct, parent-led, educational cooperatives, would go a long way towards meeting or children’s needs and ensuring that in 20 years time, we don’t look back and exclaim in anguish ;”where did we go wrong?”. Is such mutual parental initiative and cooperation a dream?  Maybe, but dreams can become reality if we as parents take time to understand and to support our children and above all, to enjoy being with them. If we have the desire to support the development of our children, the confidence to assume our divinely ordered role as educators and the willingness to support each other in our crucial and ultimately, non-delegable role, the future is bright.

 

Do we, as 21st Century parents have the love and the will to give our children the education and confidence they deserve and to experience the joy of sharing with them the voyage of discovery that is learning and growing up?

I hope so,

 

 

Karen Rodgers,

Cambridge

Pentecost 2007

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