Steiner Education: A Holistic Response to the Developing Needs of the Growing Child

By Pearse O’Sheil (Lifeways Ireland)

(Notes from an address to the Galway Steiner Conference, November 2014)

Any holistic response to the needs of children such as that indicated in the title of this talk requires us to address not only the developmental process taking place within the growing children but also the process of teacher development and to place the relationship between teacher and child at the heart of the educational enterprise. If it is the case, as Parker Palmer has it, that “we teach who we are” (Palmer 1998) then a holistic response requires us to come to know who we are and to teach from that integral core. Thus the channel through which we teach and learn is the human relationship with all its complexities, uncertainties and challenges and the artistry of teaching is to marry the requirements of the profession with the personal capacities of the teacher. In this talk I will focus on the understanding of child development indicated by Steiner and developed in the many hundreds of schools on all continents that have developed his pedagogical insights over the past hundred years or so.

One of the earliest tasks that Steiner took on as a young student was the editing of Goethe’s scientific works and he took from Goethe the notion of the creative force within nature of the dynamic movement between polar opposites. Steiner identified the poles within the human psyche or soul as those of willing and thinking and the mediating centre as that of feeling. Thus we have a threefoldness that remained central in his thinking throughout his life and it can serve as a lens through which we can gain insight into the developmental process within the child. If I represent this in a simple graphic it is not to be taken as a definition but rather as a characterisation that can provide a framework as we follow along the themes I will take up this morning (see below).

I will characterise Steiner education as having as a pedagogical priority the developmental needs of the child in contrast to the more traditional curricular approach where the focus is on the curriculum as content and in which the primary role of the teacher is to impart this content. Thus the educational content as well as the methodologies employed are determined by reference to the developmental needs of the children in any particular class at that particular stage of their development and the curriculum is seen as a resource from which the teacher may draw content to meet those needs. The process of human development takes place over time and while this may seem too obvious to warrant mention it is the nature of the experience of time that gives the process its particular character. Time is always experienced in association with rhythm, whether it be the rhythm of the day and night, the seasons or rhythmic patterns extended over years and Steiner took the rhythm that is discernible in all living things as the basis for identifying the rhythmic pattern in human development as that of periods of seven years. In terms of teaching and learning in childhood this gives us three periods of seven years with a clearly discernible transition from period to period and, for Steiner educators, it is important that each period or phase be given its full time. Because the developmental process is not simply quantitative, getting bigger etc., but qualitative and concerned with the whole child it is accurate to characterise the transition from phase to phase as involving a transition from one experience of the world to another and as we are considering a question of education it seems appropriate to characterise the human orientation in the world as that of inquirer – what is the world and how do I find my place in it ? Thus we can look at the developing child as the inquirer seeking to make sense of the world whose questioning is qualitatively differentiated from phase to phase and, while a two year old and a five year old obviously require different responses, the process of development retains its overall integrity within the (approximate) seven year periods.

Birth to seven.

I choose to use the word ‘participatory’ to describe the child’s experience of the world in this first phase of life. She does not yet experience herself as separate from the world in the way we, as adults, do and she imbues all she encounters with her life. For the child the moon is alive as is the doll and the toy truck in its own way. She has not yet developed the ‘observer consciousness’ that divides the world into the observing subject and the observed object, a perspective on the world with which we adults have grown all too familiar. We must call on our own imaginations to gain a sense of this world of the young child and perhaps the best way to do this is to imagine that the young child directs their inquiry into the world from the periphery, from their fingertips. They take hold of the world through their sense impressions, through their senses of touch, hearing, seeing etc. and they exhibit in its purest form the inquiry that will exercise the (awake) human being through life – what does the world mean to me and where is my place in it? What does it taste like, feel like, sound like etc.? This inquiring orientation needs to be met by the appropriate response. We need to provide the opportunities for the child to encounter the world in all its goodness and so kindergarten is the educational setting for ‘doing’. We could describe the first seven years as the time of ‘doing’ and the educational task as that of providing the activities and the environment that respond to the child’s need to be actively engaged in coming to know the world.

Because children is so directly connected to what they encounter through their senses they are always inwardly active in response to it and it is not hard to find examples of where children will begin to imitate what they encounter not as a result of any instruction but as a given response to the activity itself. Thus imitation is the mode of learning for the young child and in recent years the importance of imitation in learning is increasingly recognised (McGilchrist 2009, p121). The challenge for the teacher of young children is to create an environment and a range of activities that are worthy of imitation and that meet the expectation of the child that the world is ‘good’ – good to touch, to hear, to see, to eat etc. The teacher thus aims to meet the child’s capacity to live in the moment and to respond to the devotional character of the child’s attention to what they are doing. Children live in the ‘now’ and the capacities required of the teacher are those that can provide the care, support and encouragement that children need while recognising the value of the child’s experience of and in the world.

From 7 years to 14 years

Taking the imagination of the peripheral consciousness of the child in the first seven years where the inquiry is directed from the sense impressions we must try to imagine that, for the second phase of childhood from 7 years to 14 years, the focus of the inquiry becomes more centred moving from the periphery but not yet confining itself to the conceptual world of abstract thinking and so finds its place in the heart. The inquiry is no longer directed at what the world is to touch, taste etc., of course these elements are retained, but the focus now is on the affect. What is the world like? What is it like to live in Italy or what was it like to live in the 16th. century in Ireland? The child approaches the world with the question ‘what is it like?’ and it is not enough to respond with the facts alone. There must be facts, of course, but the child’s interest is in the feeling and so the teacher is faced with the task of providing and experience of the world. To provide an experience of what it is like in Italy to a group of eleven year old children in Galway, for example, is clearly more than can be provided by the facts and certainly more than can be provided through textbooks. It is an artistic task that requires the teacher to create the experience, as much as it is possible to do under the circumstances, for the children by drawing on all the resources at hand but particularly by drawing on whatever capacities the teacher has herself as a creative and enthusiastic person. She is the authority on the world for the children. She has been there, in the world, and the children rely on her to inform them and to do so in a manner that informs their hearts not only their heads. It is a great benefit to children if their teacher can speak to them of her own experience in the world and it is, therefore, good if Primary School teachers have spent time away from school gathering, as Martin Buber would have it “the forces of the world…to draw into himself” (Buber 1947, p138). It is these ‘forces of the world’ that the children need.

At this age the use of textbooks is minimised and the children create their own record of their learning. While this allows the children to use their own artistic abilities it also ensures that the lessons remain alive because the teachers must prepare them from their own research using the curriculum as a guide. This points again to the emphasis that is placed on the relational nature of the educational process and to the reality that the identity and integrity of the teacher are the key factors (Palmer 1998). However much we hear about curricula, methodologies and techniques of teaching it is the relationship between the teacher and the children (and between the children and children) that forms the channel or conduit of learning. It is for this reason that in Steiner National schools teachers have remained as class teacher with the same group of children for a number of years. While these relationships are valued they are not static and the teacher is challenged to match the growth and development of the children with her own continuing learning and development. The responsibility for maintaining the health of the relationships rests with the teacher in her dealings with the children, their parents and her colleagues. Thus the pedagogical management of the schools is the collegiate responsibility of the teachers working together in the best interest of the children.

The Steiner National School

While compromises have been made in the Steiner national Schools in Ireland to comply with the practice required by the Department of Education and Skills the schools have retained features that arise from the developmental approach and that are particular to this pedagogical approach. In the interest of integrating the curricular material in a way that matches the experience of the children the day is structured around what is called the “Main Lesson’ which takes place at the start of the day and will last for 1.5 to 2 hours. Into this lesson are woven all the different elements that are appropriate to the subject being studies including the artistic elements that enliven the lesson and that make it possible for this extended lesson to become an experience for the children rather than a lesson dealing mainly with the facts of any particular subject.

The use of textbooks by the children is minimised and they record their learning in large format books in which they can write, draw and maintain as a valuable personal history of their learning. The children retain these ‘Main Lesson’ books and the teachers may record in them the assessment that is based on their knowledge of the child and of her progress.

Another facet of the Steiner National School that differs from traditional practice is that the teacher remains with the children for a number of years. This gives rise to the question as to how to deal with a teacher who is not liked by a child or visa versa and, while the view is taken that the responsibility rests with the teacher to heal any such situation, it can happen that relationships are strained as they can be in any school or classroom. However, the need to take fully into consideration that teachers are also in a caring relationship with the children and that this is best fostered over a longer time outweighs other considerations. In coming to know the children over several years the teacher is able to provide the appropriate response to them based on a relationship which is concerned both with their learning and their care.

14 years to 21 years

While the onset of puberty is generally earlier for boys than girls and has tended to come still earlier as a result of diet and other factors it is still a clear signal that the young person is entering a new phase of development and there is still the danger that we rush them into a new way of learning before they are fully prepared to encounter the world in a new way. They have now entered the phase of development where the inquiry is directed from the head (cognition), and a new way of thinking is beginning to develop. The capacity to deal with concepts begins to emerge and this needs to be met by teachers who are able to bring to them the ‘truth’ of the subject under study. The teacher must now have a certain level of expertise in their field and the students need to trust that what they are being taught meets the standard of truth. This does not mean that all creativity in teaching is left behind but that creativity is now in the service of the inquiry that seeks the ‘truth’ of the world and the relationship between the teacher and the young people is characterised by this mutual concern for truth. Thus the teacher must be, in this sense, an idealist for whom this venture (one might even say adventure) with the students is of the greatest importance for them and for him. Perhaps the best way to convey the nature of this idealist relationship is to name its opposite as that characterised by cynicism. If the teacher is cynical about their work or about the prospect of the students learning then the relationship is a poor channel of learning.

Birth to 7 years 7 years to 14 years 14 years to 21 years

(How the child makes the world meaningful)



Heart Head
Learning through Doing Feeling


Teacher as Devoted (presence) Artist Scientist
Mode of learning Imitation Authority Ideal
Value Goodness Beauty Truth


Buber, M. (1947). Between Man and Man. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and His Emissary:The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale: Yale University Press.

Palmer, P. (1998) The Courage to Teach: exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. San Francisco: Jassey-Bass.