The Center for Contextual Studies via Waldorf Today
By JON McALICE
In envisioning and developing the approach to teaching and learning that underlies Waldorf education, Rudolf Steiner placed the child at the center of his considerations. This constituted a radical change with then contemporary educational thought. For Steiner, a teacher could only discover what was required in education by deepening his understanding of child development and thus honing his ability to perceive in the encounter with the learning child what was needed. It is a child-centered, responsive approach, which finds its direction through the ongoing dialogue between the creative teacher and the real developmental needs of the growing child, the child becoming.
Child development does not occur in a vacuum. It expresses itself as a progressive, intimate, mutually responsive dialogue between the individual child and his natural, cultural and spiritual environment. It is a contextual reality. As the developmental environment changes, so do the child’s developmental needs. As these change, education must also.
A growing number of educators and educational writers have become aware of the need for change in recent years. In 2005, in his book Last Child in the Woods, David Louv made a compelling argument for sensory-rich, experiential learning in response to what he termed nature-deficit disorder. Roland Barth and others have called attention to the effect school culture has on student learning and engagement. The current literature is full of references to project-based learning, collaborative teaching, classroom differentiation, individualized learning goals, integrated curricula.
In a book titled A New Culture of Learning, Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown venture the statement that the essential question in Twenty-first century education is: “[ ] how do we cultivate the imagination?” All these discussions share a common thread: In this age of digitalization with its easily accessible overabundance of information divorced from any directly experienced context, we are being challenged to reconsider the relationship between children and what they learn. In doing so, we find ourselves questioning many traditional assumptions we have concerning education, the role of the teacher, the nature of a classroom.
What is missing from the discussions, however, are questions concerning the impact these changes have on the spiritual path of the incarnating child.
The Center for Contextual Studies grew out of a series of dialogues hosted by colleagues from Waldorf schools in different parts of the US beginning in 2001. Some of these were with groups of younger colleagues, others with experienced colleagues. During these meetings, we worked through some of Rudolf Steiner’s essential pedagogical writings with the question: What are the pedagogical questions coming towards the Waldorf school movement? What are the pedagogical challenges that will shape the next 20 years of our movement? Common to each of the gatherings was the willingness to question our own assumptions in light of the experiences we were making with the children in our classrooms.
The way of working cultivated in the Center’s endeavors can be described as a focused dialogical approach with dynamically evolving content and structure. Individuals need to be able engage one another in dialogues, which challenge each participant to reach through reflected experience from the known into the unknown.
This is a method of discourse that lies at the core of Rudolf Steiner’s work on the creative social encounter. It rests upon the three archetypal gestures of the engaged self: intentionality, listening, and speaking, and challenges participants to speak out of rather than talk about the topic at hand. In general, the dialogues serve to lead all the participants to a deeper understanding of the question or topic being addressed, although not necessarily to answers to the questions or explanations about the topics. The latter tend to move one to a cognitively safe distance from the unknown, whereas the goal of this approach is to engage more closely with the focus of attention. This shared striving to move towards rather than away from a question or riddle can lead to those rare moments of grace in which one has a deep consciously moral experience of the inner nature of what one has striven to understand.
Over the years the dynamic in the meetings changed as colleagues began to share not only their questions but also their ideas and experiments. They began to be a birthing space for initiatives, the conversations giving rise to conferences, new approaches to the curriculum, experiments in collaborative teaching, working colloquia on various subjects, as well as new ways to address school governance and leadership issues and enliven faculty study and inquiry. New questions arose. What are the contextual requirements of meaningful or commanding concepts? How do we support embodied learning? What role does direct sense experience play in the child’s grasp of reality? And finally: How do we become able to participate so deeply in the learning process that our learning becomes an experienced part of the child’s world?
In an attempt to take steps towards a better understanding of these questions, CCS is ‘going public’ this summer with its first summer teaching/learning colloquium. This collaborative pedagogical working conference is aimed at deepening our understanding of the learning process and coming to a clearer picture of the relationship between the teacher as learner and the learner as teacher.
To learn more about the Center for Contextual Studies’ summer colloquium, just click here to read the brochure.Scholarship assistance is still available.