Wednesday 9 February 2011

Child-centred education: 2

More notes from a work in progress.

Another great figure in child-centred education is Rudolf Steiner (d. 1925), the founder of a school of spiritual philosophy called Anthroposophy and the inspiration for around 1000 Waldorf Schools around the world, including this one in Edinburgh. The schools began in 1919 when Steiner was invited to create one for the children of workers at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory, based on the ideas in his 1909 book, The Education of the Child. Steiner believed in the need to educate with the spiritual as well as emotional, cultural and physical needs of children in mind, and believed that they progress through a series of developmental stages corresponding to the evolution of human consciousness itself. Abstract and conceptual thinking develops late, around the age of 14, and so the early years are more focused on art, the
imagination and feeling. Subjects tend to be presented in a pictorial way, usually involving music, rhythm, routine and repetition (exposure to television and computers is minimized). The system relies on a strong relationship with a Class Teacher who normally stays with the same children from ages 7 till 14. Prior to that, the children attend a kindergarten where child-led play alternates with teacher-led activities in a carefully structured environment. The Upper School curriculum fosters independent thinking and is taught by specialist teachers.

Waldorf Schools are run collegially rather than by a head teacher, and assessment is by the teachers' observation of the children in their care rather than by formal examination. The children are helped to compile their own lesson books by hand in the Lower School, which prepares them for independent note-taking in the later phase. In general, this holistic approach seems to work - children are happy and sociable, and academic standards are often judged to be higher than in conventional mainstream schools.

The Italian doctor, Maria Montessori (d. 1952), a devout Roman Catholic, developed her ideas around the same time as Steiner - by 1907 she thought she had discovered the true "normal" nature of the child by working with the disabled, and her work subsequently was to create an environment in which children (especially young children, up to the age of six) could direct and pursue their own learning. The normalization of the child took place through a state of deep concentration, evoked by some task of the child's own choosing. The younger child has an immense capacity to absorb experiences and concepts which become foundations of the later personality, and a particular sensitivity to music, although abstract reasoning only develops later. The curriculum in a typical Montessori school or play-group is not pre-set, but consists in a series of challenges introduced by the teacher when the child seems ready for them.

Other examples of child-centred pedagogy might be mentioned, but the basic principle is clear. After observing children with loving attention, each of these educators came to certain conclusions about the nature of the child and the developmental stages that need to be taken into account. Each tried to devise an environment in which the child's natural question for beauty, goodness and truth might be pursued and facilitated. There are of course many differences in the exact delineation of the stages, but the rough pattern is similar in each case. The basis for a good education is a certain trust in the self-motivation of the child, combined with a reliance on the creativity, responsiveness and love of the teacher, who sets the terms for the learning environment and allows the child to flourish.

1 comment: