Squaring the Circle

August 4th



Squaring the Circle  – On Waldorf Education and Creative Learning

flourishing & belonging | rhythms | accountable creativity | relational learning

4 minute read

“Squaring the Circle” is an apt signpost for contemporary conversations on education, with children, parents, teachers and policy makers. It is both an ancient Greek geometry problem (proved impossible in 1882) as well as a metaphorical description of bridging seemingly opposite poles in any context. In this capacity it is an accurate image of our work to bridge many of the seemingly irreconcilable dilemmas of education, including a primary task to promote creative, inclusive and holistic school provision that is at the same time accountable and professional.

These wider dilemmas are perennial and universal in how they address the very nature of learning, and how learning takes place within wider social structures. They include the challenges of:

  • how we support the flourishing of a child’s individuality and at the same time their belonging within family, tribe and society;
  • how we enable a child to develop at a pace that keeps time with their own rhythms, whilst ensuring that we are not missing any barriers to their learning;
  • how we nurture creative learning cultures that cultivate freedom of thought and are accountable; and
  • how we to children in a way that doesn’t place them as apprentice adults, and instead conveys a deep human respect from which they can build a growing sense of self?

This can be seen, for instance, in the cultural shift where teachers place themselves at eye level to students, or at a proximity that doesn’t crowd, and conveys the relational as a basis for all learning. Have you seen the Edutopia youtube video on “Greeting students at the door.” I find it masterful, and applicable at all levels of school provision, in terms of phases, and teachers’ roles.

Various cultures and nations have approached this range of dilemmas in different ways. I continue to take inspiration from the leadership of the Finns who undertook a decade long journey to reconcile the disparate elements of their education system through a foundation of shared understandings. This often translates to a need to learn how we learn, and know how we know (metacognition), and embedding that approach at all levels, through the classroom, staffroom and boardroom.

This balance of the philosophical and the practical weaves its way through Waldorf Education and is finding new expression in much of the educational research currently proposing new ways to face the challenges coming towards us.

Waldorf Education itself has a lineage of over 100 years in pioneering creative, inclusive and holistic education. Founded by the Austrian polymath Rudolf Steiner, it has been a powerful innovation across the world. It is at times inaccurately described as an arts-based education, for the simple reason that it values the arts and humanities alongside the sciences in a way that is consistently integrated and balanced, in contrast with much of the developed world which tends to side-line the arts as a nice but unnecessary luxury in school provision.

Practically speaking, Waldorf Education tends:

  • to keep a class with the same teacher for up to 8 years in order to establish a relational context for learning,
  • to ask teachers to craft the curriculum afresh for each class so that they “meet the world” in a way that honours the uniqueness of their needs and interests, so increasing ownership and engagement in learning;
  • to structure activities so that a balance of “head, hand and heart” supports healthy physical development as a basis for and partner of emotional regulation and cognitive function;
  • to highly value the arts as a way of supporting sensitivity to beauty, aesthetics and ethics;
  • to guide teachers to practice reflection in order to ensure an authenticity of relating and to sustain a momentum of their own learning as a palpable model for that of students.

Increasingly, creative thinking skills and creativity are being celebrated and promoted by international bodies who correctly identify these once marginalised ‘soft’ skills as critical in our challenge to not commit collective planetary suicide. It is no accident that creative learning and future studies sit easily alongside each other at conferences and carry between them the challenge of “squaring the circle” of our legacy to the next generation, as we restrain our assumptions and set the scene for discovery. As Gert Biesta suggests: “Real educational communication is a radically open and undetermined process.”