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Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) - Steiner's Pedagogical Approach

human education waldorf physical

Educator, philosopher, artist, and scientist, Rudolf Steiner founded the Freie Waldorfschule (Independent Waldorf School) in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1919; its establishment led to the Waldorf educational movement with more than 800 schools worldwide in the early twenty-first century. Steiner's spiritual—scientific research is known as anthroposophy.

Rudolf Steiner was born in Kraljevec, Austria-Hungary (now Croatia). His father was stationmaster on the Southern Austrian Railroad. Rudolf Steiner first attended the Volksschule, then the scientific Realschule in Wiener Neustadt, and graduated from the Technical University in Vienna in 1884. In 1882 he was offered the editorship of Goethe's natural scientific writings for the Kürschner edition of German national literature. Steiner was called to Weimar, Germany, as collaborator at the Goethe-Schiller Archives in 1890, and remained there until 1897. His principal publications during the Weimar period were Wahrheit und Wissenschaft (Truth and science) in 1892; Philosophie der Freiheit (Philosophy of freedom) in 1894; and Goethes Welt-anschauung (Goethe's world conception) in 1897. Moving to Berlin in 1897, Steiner became the editor of the weekly Magazin für Literatur. He taught history at the Berlin Workers' School from 1899 to 1905.

In 1900 he was asked by leaders of the Theosophical Society to speak on his own spiritual—scientific research. This led, in 1902, to his being asked to head the newly established German section of the International Theosophical Society. By 1912 it had become clear that the insights derived from Steiner's spiritual—scientific research led in a different direction than those represented by the Theosophical Society. Early in 1913, those members who wished to follow the path described by Rudolf Steiner established the Anthroposophical Society. Steiner served as the new society's adviser and mentor. His principal publications during this period were Theosophie (Theosophy) in 1904; Wie erlangt man Erkenntnisse der höheren Welten (How to attain knowledge of higher worlds) in 1904/1905; and Die Geheimwissenschaft im Umriss (An outline of occult science) in 1909.

During the years from 1910 to 1913, Steiner wrote and directed four dramas portraying the destinies of a community of spiritually seeking individuals. Plans developed for a festival center in Munich that, in fact, led to construction of a festival and study/research/teaching center in Dornach, Switzerland. The original building, designed by Steiner, came to be known as the Goetheanum. Under construction from 1913 to 1920; the Goetheanum burned to the ground on New Year's Eve 1922/1923. It was replaced by the present building of reinforced concrete, according to Steiner's sculptured model, created in 1924.

In 1917 Steiner completed thirty years of research on the threefold nature of the human being. These findings became the basis for his later work in education, medicine, social science, and the arts and sciences. Rudolf Steiner died in Dornach, Switzerland. His written and published works total more than thirty volumes and some 6,000 lectures, many published in book form.

Steiner's Pedagogical Approach

The distinguishing feature in Steiner's educational philosophy is that it is based on a perception of the human being as threefold, comprising body, soul, and spirit. In Steiner's view, the human bodily organism, in the mature adult, is built up of four interactive members, of which only the physical/mineral body is directly perceptible to the physical senses. The three supersensible members manifest in and through the physical organism and are directly perceptible to spiritual perception and cognition. Sustaining the life and growth of the physical body is the human "etheric" or "life" body, a characteristic held in common with the plant kingdom. Penetrating the physical and etheric bodies is the "astral" body, instrument of consciousness and emotion, which is shared with the animal kingdom. Penetrating physical, etheric, and astral organisms is the human ego, unique to the human species. The human soul, which mediates between the human spirit and the bodily organism, is endowed with the capacities of thinking, feeling, and will. It is the task of education, from birth to adulthood, to exercise and nurture the human bodily instruments and the soul, to become as responsive, as flexible, and as readily available to the individual human ego as possible. The true fruits of education in childhood come to full expression in the later years of human life.

The developmental process underlying Steiner's education is the result of the unfolding of the three supersensible members from birth to the "coming of age" at twenty-one. This process proceeds in three stages of approximately seven years each. During the first phase, from birth to about the seventh year, the etheric or life body gradually penetrates the physical organism, culminating in the change of teeth. The astral, or "soul" body, penetrates the physical/etheric organism approximately from seven to fourteen years, culminating in the reproductive, sexual changes at puberty. And the ego gradually penetrates the physical, etheric, and astral organisms at about twenty-one. Psychologically, this latter culmination manifests in the individual's ability, not only to know, but to know that she/he knows. Consciousness is transformed into self-consciousness.

The educational insights arising through this developmental process are characterized in Steiner's pedagogy in the following way: During the first phase (0–7) the child's basic cognitive faculty is imitation. With the change of teeth, a significant portion of the etheric-formative forces that have shaped the child's organism are released and become available to the child as the awakening faculty of imagination. With the physical changes at puberty, a significant portion of the astral forces is freed from the organism and is now available as intellectual cognition and emotional response. During adolescence, the "personality" gradually yields to the "individuality." Language reflects this. Per-sonare means to "sound through." As in Greek drama, in which the god speaks through the mask, personality is the "mask" through which the individual sounds. The individuality is that in the human being which cannot be further divided, is "indivisible."

This developmental picture gives rise to Steiner's pedagogical approach in practice. The key to preschool education is imitation, not intellectualization. In these years it is primarily through the imitative will that education occurs. The key to elementary education is learning through imagination–through story, myth, art, narrative, and biography–and doing. In these years, human feeling is the primary focus. And the time to exercise and challenge the intellectual intelligence, human thinking, is primarily in adolescence.

The original Waldorf School in Stuttgart began with 253 children in eight grades. It soon grew to be the largest private school in Germany, with more than 1,000 students, through high school. When Hitler came to power in 1933, there were seven Waldorf Schools in Germany, all of which were closed by the National-Socialist government. The Stuttgart school reopened in 1945 under the auspices of the American Occupation Forces in southern Germany. In the early twenty-first century, there are more than 180 Waldorf schools in Germany. The first school in the English-speaking world opened in England in 1925. In 1928, the Rudolf Steiner School opened in New York City. There are 152 Waldorf schools in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, and there are 11 Waldorf teacher training centers. They are represented by the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America (AWSNA).


Barnes, Henry. 1980."Waldorf Education: An Introduction." Teachers College Record 81 (3):323–336.

BARNES, HENRY. 1991. "Learning That Grows with the Learner." Educational Leadership: Journal of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development 49 (2):52–54.

BARNES, HENRY. 1997. A Life for the Spirit: Rudolf Steiner in the Crosscurrents of Our Time. New York: Anthroposophic Press.

HARWOOD, A. CECIL. 1982. The Recovery of Man in Childhood. New York: Anthroposophic Press.

STEINER, RUDOLF. 1971. Human Values in Education. London: Rudolf Steiner.

STEINER, RUDOLF. 1986. Soul Economy and Waldorf Education. New York: Anthroposophic Press.

STEINER, RUDOLF. 1988a. Kingdom of Childhood. New York: Anthroposophic Press.

STEINER, RUDOLF. 1988b. The Child's Changing Consciousness and Waldorf Education. New York: Anthroposophic Press.


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