“We've got to turn Waldorf schools on their heads” – Self-directed Learning at Waldorf Schools

Youths with microphone and camera working on a media project for school
Waldorf School Media Project Supports Self-Directed Learning, Photo: C. Fischer

Since 2005, a practical research project titled “Self-directed Learning in Waldorf Schools” has been carried out by developmental facilitator Michael Harslem and Dirk Randoll, Professor for Empirical Social Research at Alanus University for Arts and Social Sciences near Bonn. They recently published a book that presents the theoretical foundations for self-directed learning (SDL) as well as over 40 practical projects developed in Waldorf schools. We interviewed the authors as well as Annette Neal, a teacher at a Waldorf school in Bochum-Wattenscheid and a member of the research group. They explain how students are able to work independently, even in first grade; why self-directed learning corresponds to the ideals of Waldorf education; why Waldorf schools need to change dramatically in order to enable this type of learning; and what consequences this will have for future teacher training. What they established: self-directed learning is a question of confidence in the joy of learning and believing that children and adolescents really want to learn.

Learning in Waldorf schools takes place largely without grade pressure or the danger of being held back - isn't a high degree of self-responsibility inherent?

Michael Harslem: Not in my opinion. The mental models that teachers employ in teaching are based mostly on how they themselves learned during their time at school. And teachers usually didn't learn in a way that is self-directed and self-determined, but rather predetermined and in very specific patterns. Most Waldorf teachers were themselves not Waldorf students, but have an entirely different educational background, and this shapes their teaching model. So it is not necessarily the case that students are responsible for their own learning at Waldorf schools.

Dirk Randoll: For Waldorf schools, there is the so-called Richter curriculum as well as books on Waldorf curricula by Götte, Loebell and Maurer. These books describe, sometimes very particularly, what teachers must teach to their students in what grades. Of course this is always connected with the risk that teachers will simply copy. Carving a wooden spoon, which all Waldorf students do in the 5th grade, is one example of this. Rüdiger Iwan notes that Rudolf Steiner mentioned carving a wooden spoon only as one example of a practically relevant lesson in the classroom - but it could therefore be something else. At Alanus University we've carried out a number of studies on curriculum planning in Waldorf schools, and we've realized that teaching is to a large degree teacher-focused and -dominated, even in the upper classes. This does not exactly reflect a culture where students take responsibility for their own learning.

Anette Neal: To the question of whether self-directed learning is implicit at Waldorf schools, I would answer: no. Waldorf schools are not a system. Learning is very dependent - more than in public schools - on the teachers' personalities and how they plan their lessons. My question regarding self-directed learning is a different one: how do we ensure that students continue to find joy in learning? I would say that children naturally learn in an independent and autonomous way. That's why we should offer children different possibilities and methods according to their development, and not be too one-sided.

To the keywords “autonomous learning” and “the joy of learning”: what is missing, in your eyes, from the teaching at Waldorf schools, and where there is a need to catch up?

Harslem: There is a lack of reflection on Waldorf education. Waldorf education is about being child-oriented - and that means leading students toward self-directed and autonomous learning. But Waldorf schools have become a system that alters the original impulse of Waldorf education. So it's not easy for teachers who want to reconnect to the original ideas of Waldorf education. The original curriculum, written by Caroline von Heydebrand, gives teachers a lot of freedom. For every age group there are three to four guidelines with hints that help to orient the teacher. The teacher has complete freedom in how to go about it.  In recent years, even decades, this has been starkly reduced. What a Waldorf school has to do has become more and more form and system. This has a lot to do with the formation of Waldorf teachers. Waldorf teacher training communicates entire system elements, and not the principles of orienting oneself to the children and developing lessons based on the individual children. With our practical research projects, we have tried just that. And we've noticed how well that reaches children and adolescents.

Randoll: On the subject of SDL and teacher training, we can mention Montessori education as exemplary. An essential element in the Montessori method is so-called open learning, in which the students work on a subject independently and autonomously - individually or in groups. “Help me to do it by myself” is a key principle. Ways to organise this are communicated to teachers as a part of their additional training to receive the Montessori diploma. Self-directed learning is therefore integrated into Montessori teacher training by default. In the training of Waldorf teachers, so far, there has been nothing focusing on this topic.

Neal: The Waldorf learning concept, if you want to call it that, is strongly focused on the teacher. Waldorf education is based on a certain understanding of human beings from which the curriculum in Waldorf schools is derived. But in contrast to the Montessori method, which does not have its own particular understanding of humans, it is complexly oriented towards the development of the child. The content of lessons is derived from this. This is a great opportunity. On the other hand, it is necessary to observe the development of individual children and to enable new ways of learning. This remains true to the origins of Waldorf education - and that is exactly the great opportunity for SDL in Waldorf schools.

Why is it important for students to learn independently?

Harslem: My question has always been: why do children, who almost without exception enter school curious and eager to learn, so often lose this joy of learning - even in Waldorf schools? How can we preserve the joy of learning? If children aren't offered the right things, they lose this joy. For projects, such as yearlong projects and theatre plays, self-directed learning in Waldorf schools is entirely appropriate. Projects are free spaces in which teachers can design things differently. But in lessons this is not possible.

Randoll: For me, SDL has a lot to do with self-efficacy. There's a large difference between being expected to learn something that was given to me, or working something out for myself. From research on resilience we know that the feeling of effectiveness is an important factor for sustaining health. There is a fundamental difference between being the recipient or the designer of my own learning processes.

Neal: For us it was never a matter of making a first grader completely responsible for his own education. He can be responsible for his own coat rack and his shoes, and those are the first steps to independence. That is different from what I expect from a twelfth grader. But you have to look at development: independent tasks turn into independent learning, in which the student takes responsibility for the results of learning. There are different levels. But after twelve years I want to see graduating students who are responsible for their own learning.

Does SDL mean a complete change in teaching method - for example, doing away with lecture-style teaching?

Randoll: Good frontal teaching remains just that. That doesn't speak against SDL.

Harslem: But one doesn't learn anything solely from a good lesson from a teacher. Learning means self-acquisition. In a lesson I can make a good presentation. The question is: does the individual have an opportunity to deal with the content on his own? Or does he have to do that within a given schema? Learning must be individualized, so that students can develop their own tempo, their own approach, their own ways of handling the material.

How do the tasks and the role of the teacher change through self-directed learning?

Neal: Enormously. Especially the self-understanding of the teacher. One is no longer the “all-knowing” one who is responsible for everything. But you have to allow it. I've learned to hold back and to enter into an exchange with the students. Students tell each other how they learn best, and what methods they have used. I can no longer imagine teaching any other way, than with this role. As a teacher, I allow for the development of the children. I no longer try to make all the children learn with the same methods, aiming for the same results - for example in creating their own textbooks. My students' books are very different and individual.

Randoll: In studies we have discovered that it is obviously not easy for Waldorf teachers to hold themselves back in the classroom. Many take themselves too seriously and display tendencies towards a certain “self-aggrandizement”. As part of SDL, it is imperative to understand oneself as a facilitator and not as a learning manager - this is certainly also a task for the education and training of Waldorf teachers.

Harslem: The teacher must pay more attention to the learning process and less to the content. Teacher education is very much focused on content and not on learning processes.

Are your suggestions only applicable to Waldorf schools?

Randoll: The focus of our project is on Waldorf schools and the reform of Waldorf education. There is an urgent need, in my view, for Waldorf education to change, to modernize. We get very different reactions to our ideas for SDL, from enthusiasm to rejection.

Neal: But the book offers many point of contact and above all many ideas, in more than 40 practical examples, that will be interesting for every public school teacher.

Harslem: Many of the suggestions could be implemented especially in primary schools, where there is hardly any lecture-style instruction. There, however, the methodological aspect is paramount. At a Waldorf school, the content aspect is also relevant. This raises another question: what content does a child or adolescent need for his spiritual development?

Can interested schools or teachers join the project?

Harslem: Yes, anyone can participate and will be advised, assisted and supported in implementing SDL.

Do SDL and lifelong learning go hand in hand?

Randoll: Of course there will be lifelong effects if I know how to acquire material on my own and if I learn how to learn.

Neal: What also interested us about this project, as practical researchers, was how learning pleasure and accountability can be maintained beyond graduation.

Harslem: The word “learning” has a positive connotation in SDL. As Mr. Randoll already said, it's about experiencing self-efficacy in learning.

What prompted you to explore self-directed learning in Waldorf schools?

Harslem: SDL has interested me my whole life. While teaching at the university in Constance, as a teacher in a Waldorf school, I was initially shocked at how little freedom the students had. I tried to give it to them nevertheless. In this sense the topic has been “pursuing” me for a long time already. I always regret it when someone does not have fun learning. My motive is to enable and impart a joy of learning with students and adults - because only then do they really learn.

Randoll: As a student in high school, I participated in an experimental curriculum from 11th to 13th grades. That's where I became familiar with SDL. It was a very positive experience for me. When my children attended a Waldorf school, I noticed that SDL plays almost no role.

Neal: In my case it started in the 9th grade, as I was no longer satisfied with the evaluation system, and I found the grading inaccurate. At university in Frankfurt I attended seminars with Professor Horst Rumpf such as “Learning to Teach” or “Teaching to Learn.” In these seminars, I “woke up”. It was clear to me then that I wanted to become a Waldorf teacher. But I didn't want to fall into the classic channel of exclusively frontal teaching. What guides me as a teacher in the classroom is my students' enthusiasm for learning, with which they can each find their own respective way. I would like to keep both of these - with SDL.

What do you hope for with your book? What impact would you like it to have?

Randoll: As many teachers as possible should feel encouraged to integrate one or more aspects in their classrooms.

Neal: We've received a lot of criticism. For example, that we think we're doing something completely new, which has actually already been in practice for a long time. Anyone who reads the book can see exactly how we proceeded, and the foundations we established for our work. It is my hope that that is recognized.

Harslem: I wish to see a transformation in schools. If you take the ideas and approaches in the book to their logical conclusions, you have to change the schedule, the daily program - you would have to turn Waldorf schools on their heads and make them truer to life. I hope that Waldorf schools are willing to change. In the book you can read about some first steps in this direction - and it could turn into so much more. I also hope to see more practice-led research in the field of SDL, in which one not only acts, but also reflects on what one does. In our practical research project we find joy in learning, too, and we do ourselves exactly what our students do in SDL: by further developing SDL in research, rather than just carrying out optimisations of certain SDL methods.

SDL and Waldorf education: how can it continue, and how should it continue?

Randoll: One of the next steps should be to anchor SDL in teacher education.

Harslem: I would first like to state that the project wouldn't have been possible without the funding provided by the Software AG Foundation, as implementing SDL comes at a high additional cost. My dream for the future is to be able to observe one class for 15 years, even as the students begin their careers, to see what effects SDL continues to have.

Neal: We and a number of other schools are starting to see SDL as a part of the learning culture. In the future, this should be strengthened and expanded. Not according to the principle of an era of SDL, then back to “normal”. SDL now belongs to the school's identity in the Waldorf schols in Bochum-Wattenscheid, Hamburg-Bergstedt and Salzburg. Learning workshops, for example, can be carried out in all classes and epochs.

Harslem: The basic problem I see when introducing SDL, even if the willingness is there, is a trust issue. SDL is also a matter of trust. Do I place the students' learning in their own hands and trust that everyone wants to learn? I've more often experienced mistrust on the part of parents and teachers. In this respect it's necessary to work on the attitude of teachers and parents. They should trust their children and give them the opportunity to learn autonomously.

Thanks for the interesting discussion!

The interview was conducted by Peter Augustin and Tatjana Fuchs

Book: Harslem, Michael / Randoll, Dirk (eds.) (2013): Selbstverantwortliches Lernen an Freien Waldorfschulen. Ergebnisse eines Praxisforschungsprojektes. Beispiele aus der Unterrichtspraxis. Kulturwissenschaftliche Beiträge der Alanus Hochschule für Kunst und Gesellschaft - Band 10. Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2013. 250 S., 59 farb. Abb. ISBN 978-3-631-64388-4 (Hardcover), ISBN 978-3-653-03487-5 (eBook)

Annette Neal has been teaching at a Waldorf school in Bochum-Wattenscheid for 12 years. In 2011 she began a part-time degree program in education, with an emphasis on practical education research, at Alanus University. She carries out various SDL projects in her classes as a part of the practice-led research project “Self-directed Learning in Waldorf schools”. As a part of her master's thesis, she is currently researching the educational experience of students at the three participating project schools.

Michael Harslem is a freelance development facilitator for non-profit organizations. He guides the research project regarding the conditions and possibilities of self-directed learning at independent Waldorf schools, which is being carried out by the non-profit organisation Akademie für Entwicklungsbegleitung von Menschen und Organisationen e.V. He works together with the research groups in the project schools on a regular basis and observes the projects in the classroom.

Dirk Randoll is a professor of empirical social research in the field of education science at Alanus University as well as a project manager with the Software AG Foundation in Darmstadt. He has been managing the project from the foundation's side since 2006.