How the Waldorf approach aligns with Islamic ideals of education
There are many philosophies and approaches to educating a child. Sometimes being a homeschool mother, wading through the sheer amount of educational philosophies can be overwhelming and confusing. They all seem to “speak to you” or conversely make you feel like you are doing nothing right.
I am in my second year of homeschooling my children, and this year, more than any other year, I have spent exploring (and dabbling in!) ALL the various educational philosophies. From the Classical approach, to Montessori, Unschooling, Charlotte Mason, Steiner... you name it, I’ve tried it. Somewhere along our third try at the “Morning Basket” and the tenth “living book” we read, I started to doubt my eclectic home educating style and stress that if I didn’t consistently stick to one method, my kids would end up confused and lost and ultimately achieve nothing as adults and of course, I AM TO BLAME.
Yep. I’m a typical catastrophiser (I promise it’s a thing, even if Microsoft Word doesn’t recognise it as a true word).
But! All the educational philosophies have their merits and set out important reminders and paths for us as home educators to lean on, learn from and apply in our teaching. In this post I am going to explore the merits of only one- The Waldorf-Steiner method. I have chosen this one because I feel that most Muslims cast it off as having odd spiritual elements that could conflict with our religion, and I acknowledge that some of these concerns have merit. At its foundational level though, I believe that the Waldorf-Steiner approach is ultimately a beneficial approach for our children because several of its core tenets align with our own tradition.
I’m going to be using two texts here as evidence. The first is “Educating Children: classical advice for modern times” or “Riyadatul Sibyan” by Imam Muhammad bin Ahmed al-Ramli, translated by Abdul Aziz Ahmed. The second is “Understanding Waldorf Education: teaching from the inside out” by Jack Petrash. So, let’s get straight into it shall we?!
For those who don’t know, here is a quick background to the Waldorf Steiner philosophy. It was invented by an Austrian philosopher named Rudolf Steiner, who went on to teach the children of workers at the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory un Stuttgart, Germany after WW1. Hence the name, “Waldorf-Steiner”.
I’m going to start off with the 7/7/7 paradigm. And I want to start with this because I strongly believe that understanding where your child is at, developmentally, and what they need at each phase is crucial knowledge if you want to educate (and raise) your children well- and in fact, make parenting “easier” for yourself.
What I refer to when I mention “the 7/7/7 paradigm” is the saying from Ali Ibn Talib (ra) to:
“Play with your children for 7 years; then teach them for the next 7 years; then advise them for the
next 7 years; then befriend them...”
This theory has significant consequences for how we should educate/raise our children. It is a common trend today that formal instruction of reading, writing and math begins before the child turns 7, both in a secular and religious setting. If we were to disregard the fact that the 7/7/7 advice is in fact part of our own tradition (which also seems to be trend in our Muslim community these days- disregarding parts of our own traditions), and looked at modern research, we can find much evidence which confirms this saying. Scientific evidence is mounting- allowing children to explore and play freely in the first 7 years helps to develop their sense of being, and fosters “superior learning and motivation” in later years
But, we cannot disregard the fact that it is part of our tradition. And firmly so. Even religious instruction in a traditional madrassa setting did not start before the age of 7. It was only from the age of 7 that children partook in memorisation of the Quran (Shaykh Abdul Hakim Murad talks about this in a series of lectures about Islamic education).
The Steiner method also strictly adheres to these 7 year phases. No formal instruction of reading and writing begins before the child turns 7. They list in detail the physiological, emotional and biological changes a child must go through to display “reading readiness”, even from stressing the need for the first teeth to fall out! The first seven years are considered to be an imitative phase, one where the child is a “wholly sense organ” where they live in the sensorial world of active exploration. Jack Petrash says that play “gives rise to imaginative and divergent thinking...” It is through play that children are given natural learning opportunities, by being surrounded by a rich oral story telling tradition, which develops their imaginative capacities, their memories and of course, the development of speech. Children in this phase, in a Waldorf setting learn primarily through doing, and exposure to nature and playing outside is highly encouraged. Children are also encouraged to engage in “work” by participating in the everyday chores of cooking and cleaning with their parent. The protection of these 7 year phases continues in the Waldorf tradition- with clear descriptions of how the child grows in each 7 year phase, what emotional changes occur at certain changes, and how to respond to the child’s changing needs. This will ensure that the whole child is developed.
So protecting the early years and following the seven year phases is one similarity. Another similarity is the emphasis on the role of the parents in creating a harmonious home environment, where the parents are upright, gentle and worthy examples for children to look up to and imitate. Imitation is a crucial part of the first seven years. In the Steiner view, children under the age of 7 “learn so readily through imitation because they experience the world with complete openness and without reservation.” So providing them with worthy examples is a responsibility incumbent on the adults the child is exposed to. Parents have the responsibility to provide a nurturing environment for their children from the beginning, and model their family values, what rhythm and routine looks like, how to live a good and healthy lifestyle and so on. In the Islamic context, we know it is incumbent on parents to raise good, righteous children, and the way that they should do this is through gentleness, love, affection and modelling a life that aligns with Islamic practice and values. Parents should recognise that a child’s “heart is like a pure candle, Able to adopt any
form” (Riyadtul Sibyan) and therefore should strive to be good models for their children to emulate.
Working on creating a harmonious home environment sows the seeds for children to develop their “inner world”- it directly addresses a child’s inner emotional state. The metaphor of the tree is apt here. The external, visible branches, leaves and blossoms of the tree can only be healthy and bountiful if the roots are provided with rich and nutritious soil. The mysterious happenings of the roots of the trees can impact the furthest reaches of the external world of the branches. And just so, children also have an inner world that must be acknowledged and nurtured. It is not sufficient to educate children “tacitly and unconsciously through intonation, facial expressions and... books” (J. Petrash). A true education must be an education of the heart, one that helps children “care about their fellow human beings and reassure them that there is beauty and goodness in the world.” In the Waldorf way, this is done through the incorporation of artistic expression in every element of learning.
If you flick through a typical Steiner student’s exercise book you will see how vastly different it is from an average student’s work book. The first is the absence of lined pages, next is the sheer amount of colours and drawings. Every single concept is taught, practised and affirmed through drawing, colour and ultimately; beauty. And as per the Islamic tradition, we know that “Allah (swt) is beautiful and loves beauty”. In every element of Waldorf teaching, a sense of wonder is created by presenting it with beauty. This is especially important in the early years when children have a reverence for the world. And it is not just beauty for beauty’s sake. It is connected to a deep sense of spirituality, so that everything that we observe and learn about around us reminds us of something greater.
Given that I’ve rambled on for far too long (and I could discuss so much more here), I want to give a simple example of a lesson taught in the Steiner method that demonstrates all I’ve discussed so far (this is a summary of a lesson from the Earth Schooling Waldorf curriculum). Let’s say we want to introduce numbers to our 7 year old. Let’s start with number 1- we would focus on the number for a whole week (amongst other lessons of course). We would begin with discussing the number 1 in a conceptual sense, so, 1 as unity, as uniqueness- one earth, one of each person, our Creator. After the discussion we would tell a story (yes, “tell”, not “read”) that shows how many can come from one, and also, how many can go back to one. We might present the children with a chalk drawing related to the story, which the child can copy into their math books. The story would be told a few times in the first week, and you’ll find that the child has easily memorised it, just a day or two in. Every day, a short nature walk (or a “trip” to the backyard) would happen, and on the first day we would focus on the “sight” sense- how can we “see” ONE? The child may point to a tree and relate it to the story of many in one- it is one tree but it has many parts. On the second day of our nature walk, how can we touch ONE? You might pick a long strip of grass and shape it into a Mobius strip (which looks like the infinity symbol) and have the child trace around the strip “one time” (which is impossible because it keeps looping around). Or simply hand them a ball which has one surface. How can we smell ONE? Taste ONE? The children could help cooking a meal that requires many spices to create one spice mix- engaging both smell and taste.
Every sense of the child is engaged in the exploration of a single number. A story helps commit the concepts to memory, and a simple concept such as the number 1 is suddenly expanded beyond a digit. It becomes a real, tangible force that constantly surrounds them. And most importantly, the idea of many coming from one and many returning to one can be linked to the spiritual dimension- We all come from Allah, and to Him we shall return.
And what is the intention of education if not to teach our children to know Allah (swt)...