A Steiner Classroom and Representational Imagination
Every morning begins the same way. Children who have been playing in the classroom go out the door and line up. The senior teacher, Shirley, stands at the entrance. When she decides the children are neat and quiet, she lets them move forward, one by one, to shake her hand. One by one they enter the room, walk across, and shake assistant teacher Paul’s hand and then my own. With each shake they greet and are greeted by name. Once they have done this, they form a circle: ‘Quietly’, Shirley reminds. They begin to sing ‘Morning has Broken’. After a series of songs (some sung in rounds) they might recite a poem, chant together a times-table, or learn a simple circle dance. When this is complete they sit on the mat, still in a circle, to identify which students are not at school today and to hear the day’s timetable and notices. Then, after a break to go to the bathroom, they sit again on the mat, wherever they choose now, for the morning story. In the practice of telling the morning story, we will watch imagination being made: a set of bodily routines that call up pictures in the minds of the students.
We met this teacher, Shirley, in the introduction. There she told us that young people’s imagination is our hope for solving social, economic, and environmental problems. Now we will see how she works in practice to teach her students how to do an imagination that might generate these wholly new solutions. And readers might be surprised, as I was, to find that key to the practice of imagination here is representation.
Teaching imagination in this classroom means teaching children to do the Platonic job of projecting images on the walls of their minds to bridge the gap between the world ‘out there’ and our knowledge ‘in here’. Only when children have realised themselves as capable of representing the concrete world in this way might they become able to further realise themselves as capable of abstract thought. Because of the centrality of imagination as representation in this classroom, I too perform some representation.
This performance is play, and dangerous play, as I will show at the end of the chapter. There is much that slips out from underneath these representations when we are honest about our own situated and emotional experience of the events we seek to represent. Thus readers are reminded that representational imagination is a performance – as are the other modes of imagination I discuss.
I will include in this chapter something usually edited out: my at times strong emotional reactions to the classroom practices I was involved with. While this is often implicit, it is included to remind readers that I betray the picture of social science researcher as unbiased objective observer and recorder of facts. I neither pretend to be a removed, judging observer nor aim to represent what happened. I do not ask ‘is the imagination I met in this Steiner classroom a true representation of real imagination?’
Exploring what this representational imagination is and how it is done will be my first task. I do this by making the morning story stand for – represent – what imagination is in this classroom more generally. For teachers in this class, the representational imagination is a central element of what makes this education distinct from others. Seeing how teachers describe their own work will be the second task of this chapter. In the third section, I will draw a comparison between this way of representing teaching and one articulated as ‘mainstream’. This is based on specific and differing visions of the ‘natural child’. Each of these three sections will do a version of representation: in the first, certain events are made to stand for the whole; in the second, imagination is used by teachers to symbolise their educational traditions; and in the third, modes of imagining are used to stand for good and bad education in the local media. Focusing on representation in this way is part of my work to give a symmetrical account of my classrooms. I talk about representation because this is the imagination I see practised in this classroom. But I only go so far with this vision: in the concluding section, I discuss the limits of representation for making an ethical assessment of this classroom.
Imagination as Representation: Pictures in the Mind
Shirley, the teacher, is seated on a chair with the children gathered around her on the mat. She begins by recounting what happened in the story she told yesterday: Odin invited the gods to a feast but Baldur planned to disrupt it. Then she begins proper, with neither book nor props, to tell the story from her memory. This is strict: teachers do not read the story from a book because it must come ‘alive’ from the teachers’ own mind when they memorise the story each night. They must ‘clothe the story in their own mental pictures’ (Steiner School, author interview with assistant teacher, 15 June 2007). As the teacher, either Paul or Shirley, tells the story, the children sit still and listen.
What we see during the morning story is a daily process designed to build in children particular mental pictures as well as the more general capacity to build such pictures. During the morning story, children are to imagine the narrated events as pictures in their minds. As Shirley tells it, imagination ‘is very pictorial. […] Even for aural people, there’s always a picture element to it’ (Steiner School, author interview with teacher, 15 June 2007). Visual representation in the mind is told here as the necessary element of imagination.
Imagination has long been associated with images in the mind of absent things. As Kant put it in the Critique of Pure Reason, ‘[i]magination is the faculty of representing in intuition an object that is not itself present’ (Kant 1929:165). In its first syllable of imagination, ‘image’ is conjured. This idea is referred to in phrases like ‘the mind’s eye’, and developed by associations between imagination and visualising, or picturing. This is to suggest that imagination is representation. This way of talking about imagination has led to work done in psychology and neuroscience designed to examine the physiological nature and limits of imagery (Kosslyn 1994; Frawley 1997). This leads also into the close associations made between imagination and fantasy, delusion, or hallucination that relate imagination to things pathological. These associations wonder about whether the picture in someone’s imagination is a copy of something real or of something unreal mistaken for the real (see Woolley 1997; Hersch 2003).
As the morning story is told at Steiner school, there is no querying of its truth or falsity. Instead, for this grade, the Norse myths are told as if they are true, their artfulness never highlighted. In one story, when Odin whispers something to another character, Shirley reports that ‘no one has ever known what that was’ (Steiner School, author field notes, 6 June 2007). These are said to have happened ‘a long time ago’ (Steiner School, author field notes, 17 June 2007) and when a child asks where Denmark is, Shirley tells him that it is where the stories happened (Steiner School, author field notes, 7 June 2007). They are told as if they represent the past, not as if they represent some people’s allegories, fears, or codes of behaviour. They are told as history, not as myth. This blurring of historical and mythical is considered unproblematic as long as the teacher has control of it. However, if children independently begin to believe that the unreal is real, teachers become concerned. They explain that worrying imagination is that which loosens its bond with the real to become fantasy or escapism. To have no basis in reality would be ‘bizarre’, ‘not healthy or something’ (Steiner School, author interview with assistant teacher, 15 June 2007). It would be to lose the ‘moral element’, to ‘live some other weird parallel existence’ (Steiner School, author interview with teacher, 15 June 2007).
The aim is not to encourage children to think critically about the stories; it is rather for them to feel an emotional response. In the Steiner tradition as Shirley reports it, emotionally charged mental pictures buttress the possibility for later learning. She explains the fundamentals of the education at this age as ‘not about the intellect. It’s about warm feelings and the imagination’ (Steiner School, author field notes, 6 June 2007). It is commonplace in scholarship to associate the mental imagery with emotional affect. When we picture something we might also feel some reaction welling up. These links have been explored variously by Sartre (1948) and throughout the (psycho)analysis of dreams. Imagination as copies of the world is assumed to open up into the world of unconscious or emotional personal meaning.
Children in this classroom are told as living in their imaginations. There is no separation made between the child at play and the child thinking: they are in imagination at all times. Thus, imagination is practised as the basis for learning in this classroom. As Shirley explains: ‘Steiner said everything a child learns should be from the world and from [mental] pictures’ (Steiner School, author field notes, 6 June 2007). These mental pictures, and the physical and verbal playing they might lead to, ‘are the foundation of abstract thought’ that will grow and take over from a predominately imaginative way of being in the world (Steiner School, author interview with teacher, 15 June 2007).
Imagination at the Heart of Learning
Imagination, then, is taken to be the foundation for learning in this classroom. By what practices is this achieved? Teachers, I will argue here, have three sets of techniques to keep imagination at the heart of learning. These are to help children make their mental images concrete; to let children’s knowledge flow from images, either concrete or mental; and let children learn from their concrete mental pictures instead of conceptualising.
The first techniques are those aimed at helping children to externalise their mental images. Drawing is a method for doing this, though it is not the only one. These children, to my eye, are very skilful representational artists, and this is partly due to the drawing lessons they receive, sometimes as part of their ‘main lesson’. This is the core learning period of the day, undertaken in the morning while the children are believed to be freshest.
But drawing is just one way of making mental objects concrete. We see other methods during a lesson conducted when they are beginning project work. This lesson also shows the teachers’ insistence that learning begin by externalising mental pictures. Each child chooses an animal for their project. Paul instructs them that it is very helpful to begin by imagining how their animal moves. They are asked to imagine a horse, and are talked through some words that describe a moving horse: gallop, canter, walk, trot, buck, run, rear (writing these on the board, Paul does not include suggested words from dressage or showjumping: these are not the movements of animals in nature). Next, some children are chosen to bodily imitate how a horse moves. They trot and canter in front of their classmates. These are ways of externalising the image of a horse using language and bodies. Next Paul moves onto the work that would be included in the physical project. He says, ‘I’m going to get you to close your eyes and I’m going to give you two minutes to imagine how your animal moves’. Then straight away and without talking they are expected to start their drawings. After the two minutes is up a hand goes up. ‘Can I use a book?’ ‘No,’ Paul says, ‘just from what you imagined,’ and, touching his forehead, ‘you have a picture in here’ (Steiner School, author field notes, 7 June 2007).
Here we see several ways of making the mental pictures concrete, ranging from finding words to describe, performing mimes, and drawing. These have all begun with the instruction to imagine an animal, and, when it comes to drawing their own, they are told to focus, eyes closed, on this mental picture. And this, as I’ve indicated, is to be used as a starting point for their project learning. Gathering an understanding of the animal’s movement by their mental picturing is to be a necessary condition for learning more factual information.
The primacy of picturing for later learning is highlighted when, after having been on a class trip to the zoo, several children decide to change the animal they are working on. Shirley tells them that they must start by drawing these new animals, even though the rest of the class are now reading for and writing in their projects. One boy decides that his project is now going to be about butterflies. Shirley asks, instructing, ‘can you close your eyes and see how it moves?’ She tells him that when she mentally sees a butterfly it is taking off from a flower. The boy replies that he mentally sees his butterfly flying. ‘That’s fine’, Shirley says, emphasising that his picture should be different from hers because they are personal. Only then is he allowed to start making this mental picture concrete by drawing his imagined butterfly. He will be days behind his classmates in the project (Steiner School, author field notes, 17 June 2007).
What we see here is that learning in this classroom is to be made meaningful by the affective and personal moment of mentally picturing. We find this again and again in this class: long division is learnt by starting with a story about Odin’s feast; past, present, and future tense are introduced as three weaving goddesses from the Norse myths; years earlier they learnt the alphabet with the story of a gnome meeting letter-shaped obstacles (mountains like M’s, valleys like V’s). Only after these images have been formed in children’s minds is the more formal learning to begin.
But crucially, and this is our third point, generalisations, objectifications, or conceptualisations are never the goal of formal Steiner learning. Understandings should be about the concrete or particular, not about the abstract or general. On my first day, Shirley reprimands me after a girl tells me her name is the same forwards and backwards, and I respond by saying that these are called palindromes (Steiner School, author field notes, 4 June 2007). This is considered bad because it conceptualises and generalises the particular experience of having such a name. This avoidance of concepts produces some strange results, since they are very hard to avoid altogether. Instead of dry categories from the outside world, children are taught to classify through their visual imaginations. For example, instead of learning about the zoological division of the animal kingdom, children learn to place animals in the categories of ‘head’, ‘trunk’ (or torso), and ‘limb’ animals. Which category animals will be placed in is to be obvious from the children’s picturing of them, and seeing which anatomical part they seem to favour as they move. Picturing each particular animal will tell children where they should fit in the general scheme.
So in this Steiner classroom, imagination is practised as emotionally charged and personally meaningful copies of the real world. This is to form the basis of all later learning. Particular objects are not meant to stand for the abstract whole as at other schools, the learning is ‘really’ about the whole. Instead, pictures of concrete parts will eventually add up to emotionally meaningful pictures of concrete wholes.
Why is learning at this school practised in this way? If we listen to teachers we will learn that they believe their practices are a part of a particular philosophical tradition that includes a theory of child development and learning. As a result, their classroom represents the beliefs of Rudolf Steiner in its material arrangements. To express this vision, teachers use particular representations of imagination and of the natural child.
Steiner Says: Representing Teaching Work
Teachers at this school tell me often about their teaching practice and beliefs with the phrase ‘Steiner said’. Here are some: ‘Steiner said that you must love the child for any teaching to happen’; ‘Steiner said spirals are hygienic’; ‘Steiner said everything the child learns must be from the world and from pictures’ (Steiner School, author field notes, 5, 6, 7 June 2007). These are also used to explain the education to me during interviews. Paul tells me that ‘this curriculum to me is based, Steiner says, on where the child is at that age, so there’s this fit, not just with the head at that time, but what’s going on with them emotionally and otherwise’ (Steiner School, author interview with assistant teacher, 15 June 2007). Steiner’s words are presented as making sense in relation to modern science and common sense. What he is said to have said is interwoven with the machinery of modern childhoods. Shirley tells me, for example, that
Steiner indicated clearly, and other studies are now starting to talk about, that free imagination, that free play, that pure imaginative play is not playing Simba, you know, is not playing the Lion King, it’s playing from one’s own volition, that is the foundation for abstract thought (Steiner School, author interview with teacher, 15 June 2007).
In these quotes, teachers tell us that their teaching and curriculum, the routines of the school day, their focus on play and away from media, all represent the wisdom of Rudolf Steiner. They aim to re-create in their school the conditions that Steiner advocated for ‘natural’ child development (emotional and intellectual). The classroom this work takes part in is designed as a re-creation, a copy, of the classrooms that Steiner advocated as ideal. This ideal is one of the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. In its material and temporal arrangements, this classroom is intended to represent Steiner’s vision.
The children sit at their desks – which are wooden and made especially for use in Steiner schools – arranged in four rows. It is time for the main lesson held in the morning when children’s learning is said to be the best. They are asked to get out their equipment for writing: their wooden pencil boxes all bought from the same speciality shop and the fabric crayon holders they have made in craft lessons. These have a woven exterior and a cotton interior with separate pockets for each colour. No black crayon is included: Steiner said that children of this age are not ready for black. At the front, Paul opens out the hinged blackboard so that the two panels that have been visible reveal the four beneath. On one panel, he has drawn a penguin.
This school is materially equipped as a school might have been in late nineteenth century Europe, indeed as the primary school that Rudolf Steiner himself attended might have been. Blackboards, and crayons, and wooden desks; a brass bell; wooden play equipment, and knitted socks. At no point during the school day will children interact with articles made from synthetic materials. Instead, they are to occupy a world made from things that humans have been interacting with throughout the centuries of cultural evolution up to the end of the nineteenth century.
These material relations do more than produce a child as part of an older world. They also work to build the child’s physical senses of the natural world, unmediated by the materials of the largely human-made contemporary world. And they form one side of a dualism of the familiar nature/culture dualism, as we shall see in more detail in the next section. This is then connected to the experience/concepts dichotomy. Knowing nature via experience is to form the basis for ‘real’ imagination as opposed to the meaningless escapism of our culture’s conceptual imagination. We experience nature directly, therefore it is real. We do not experience concepts, therefore they are not. It is for this reason that computers and television are strongly discouraged, and these, along with books, are never used by the teacher as teaching aids (this is not a complete ban: children are encouraged to read at nine years though not explicitly taught, and use books from the school library for their projects.) The experience/concepts dualism is also the reason that I am asked not to speak in terms that objectify real experiences – not to tell children the word ‘palindrome’ after they boast of names that are the same backwards as forwards. This is what Shirley means when she says that free imagination rather than playing The Lion King is the foundation for abstract thought. It is also why imagination for Shirley never strays from the real, and when the stories told are really myths, their mythical nature is ignored.
What these material arrangements and avoidance of modern culture represent is a particular notion of the natural child. What is a child and what is their natural potential? What do they need and what must they avoid in order to develop naturally? These questions are central to the educational endeavour. The premises about child naturalness that schools run on are taken as obvious to those involved. Sometimes, however, answers clash.
This happened in a series of newspaper reports published in the year I undertook my research.
Telling the Natural Child
These reports flared with the contestation over running Steiner classrooms in Victorian government schools. While Steiner schools have run in Australia since the 1950s, until the late 1990s they operated as institutions providing an alternative type of education (for a history of Steiner education in Australia, see Whitehead 2004). In the late 1990s, a Melbourne school, Footscray City Primary, proposed opening a Steiner stream. This proposal was subject to investigation and report by the local office of the State Department of Education. The authors of the report, Janette Cook and Pat Hincks, recommended that the proposal be rejected. Regardless, the school opened its Steiner stream in 2001. Now Steiner education was being offered as an alternative educational philosophy within government schools instead of an alternative to the government sanctioned education system (Rood 2006: 11).
The Victorian State government officially legitimised the education in a policy released in September 2006 allowing Steiner streams to be run in government schools, but during the subsequent years, the programmes caused division between parents and schools. One such conflict was taken by a parent to the national newspaper, The Australian (Rout 2007: 3). Accompanying this report was a photo of a Steiner classroom that I recognised as the grade three classroom of the school I worked in. The photo, however, was mislabelled and said to represent a classroom in a Sydney Steiner school. This mistake may not have mattered to many people – the photo was intended to represent Steiner schools as a general category, not any one particular Steiner class or school. The report did the same: what was said of one parent’s experience of a particular Steiner classroom was to be read as pertaining to all Steiner schools. That the category ‘Steiner School’ calls up universalist thinking is not noticeable unless one knows about the concrete here-and-now of Steiner practice.
The report opens, significantly, with the story of a father’s shock that his son was to repeat a grade because his soul had not yet fully incarnated. This is a discourse about what should be important in a stage model of child development. That which the Steiner philosophy was told as operating on – a stage model that takes souls into consideration – was in opposition to that of this boy’s father. ‘I just looked at my wife and we both thought, “We are out of here”’ (Rout 2007: 3).
The article tells us more about the stage model underlying Steiner practice: age restrictions on the use of crayon colours, only reading and writing after age seven, discourses of ‘emerging personalities’ and developing children’s senses of the physical world. It tells us what is deemed by its authors to be notable or odd things about the Steiner logic of child development.
Two aspects of these stages are explicitly compared to the expectations of government schools. One is the restriction of literacy: the ‘“antithesis” of the government program’. The other is the ban on computers and multimedia, ‘in “direct contradiction” to departmental policy’. In both these examples, appeal is made to readers’ sense of developmental stages, with the norm presented as that of the government. Steiner stages are ‘the antithesis’ of the norm, are in ‘direct contradiction’ to the norm, and this language helps to produce those norms. The article goes on, quoting at greater length the 2000 report that opposed Footscray’s request for a Steiner stream. ‘“Steiner education is based on a philosophy of cocooning children from the world to develop their imagination,” the report says. “This is in direct contrast to, for example, the studies of society and environment […] where the emphasis is on the study of family as a ‘starting point to help them understand the world in which they live”’ (Rout 2007: 3).
Right here this article articulates the two themes central to the dispute between the stage models of imagination operating in Steiner and government schools. At Steiner schools, readers are told, children are ‘cocooned from the world’. Additionally, according to this report, children at Steiner schools ‘develop their imaginations’ whereas children at state schools engage in ‘studies’. Here we find a division made between the softness of developing imaginations and the rationality of study. So, not only we do learn much about the competing stage models of these two educational practices, we learn too that the debate between Steiner and government approaches is represented in the public realm as sourced from competing stage models of what is ‘natural’ child development.
What is being contested, in part, are representations of the ‘natural child’. Central to the dispute are considerations of what the child’s imagination should be. This turns on two issues. What is the relationship between the child and the social and adult world? And should the child’s learning begin from inside or outside a person? Steiner schools are told as envisaging a child kept separate from the adult social world and whose learning begins from their emotional centre. They should freely imagine, not rationally think. Government schools, by contrast, are told as envisaging a child for whom the social and adult world is natural, and whose learning begins from their interactions with this world. We see these two issues refracted through the contrasting models of the natural child.
I begin by exploring the developmental logic that governs the practices of imagination at this Steiner school.
The Natural Steiner Child: Imagination and Stages of Development
Quite explicitly, Rudolf Steiner saw in his own life a model both of how humans naturally develop and of what transformation they should strive for. These are told as insights from much before the first Waldorf (Steiner) School was set up in 1919, and before he become associated with the spiritual movement Theosophy. Steiner dates his understanding of the task of education to his early twenties. In 1884, Steiner was employed as a tutor for the Specht family, the youngest of whom suffered from what we would probably now call hydrocephaly. From this experience, he reports bringing away a keen sense of what humans were like – a combination of body and spirit – and prescriptions of how education should therefore proceed.
[With the hydrocphalitic student] I had to find access to a soul that was in a sleeping condition and that gradually had to be brought to master the bodily functions. […] The educational method I had to adopt gave me insight into the way man’s soul and spirit are connected with his bodily nature. It became my actual training in physiology and psychology. I came to realise that education and teaching must become an art, based upon true knowledge of man (Steiner 1977: 96–97).
Thus, education for Steiner relied on a joining of body, soul, and mind.
Steiner’s educational theory was also related to a stage model of how children developed towards the spirited body – the body with soul. In cycles of seven years, children would gradually come to have access through their ‘imaginative cognition’ to the spiritual world. ‘Imaginative cognition is nothing more than those forces whose spiritual activity forms the human body and soul from puberty until the age of twenty’ (Steiner 1997: 114). Moving through their natural cycles, children would be recapitulating the supposed history of the human race before the mistaken recent past of materialism. These children would complete the transition that Steiner was convinced must be occurring during his era, escaping the entrapment of the simply bodily and moving beyond into the spiritual realm.
The cycles referred to here are intrinsic to the Steiner educational, as well as wider philosophy. A. C. Harwood, who opened the first Steiner school in the United Kingdom and helped reintroduce Steiner schools to Germany after 1945, describes these cycles in his study of Steiner’s educational philosophy, The Recovery of Man in Childhood (Harwood 1958). This book, recommended to me by Paul, the assistant teacher, outlines the processes of child development. In the first seven years, children are driven by their will, using the extension of the limbs to attain the satisfaction of their desires. From the age of seven until the age of fourteen, the child is said to be driven by their emotional and imaginative life, their heart. Once they reach fourteen, their minds will begin to develop the capacity for abstract thought. Their learning should likewise move from the wilful and emotional heart towards the mental. In our classroom, the children’s reports are based on this model.
There is a collective purpose to this education, tied to the belief in a historical transformation towards a philosophically non-materialist world and the spiritual potential of every human imagination. These beliefs are never spoken of in this classroom, but do animate the logic of the education. Believing deeply in his ability to access the inner world of the spirits through meditation, the sighting of auras, and communication with the dead, Steiner came to believe he was a prophet of the new age. Like him, we could
obtain imaginative cognition when we systematically do quite specific meditations that I describe in the above-named books [How to Know Higher Worlds and Outline of Occult Science], when we train thinking beyond the level of normal life and conventional science. Imaginative cognition first gives us the possibility of developing pictures in our soul life, pictures that are not spatial, not fantasy, but that represent spiritual reality (Steiner 1997: 111, emphasis in original).
An ability to form mental pictures would be necessary to gain spiritual enlightenment.
So we find here the logic of Steiner’s natural child development, consisting in a picture of seven-year cycles, the ideal adult, and the idea of recapitulating human history without becoming stuck in the materialism Steiner abhorred. Imagination will develop over the life course in terms of what it represents, starting with the physical, moving into the emotional, then the abstract, and finally to the realm of the spiritual.
Constructing Embodied Brains:
Stages of Development in ‘Mainstream’ Schools
How does this differ from representations of the ‘natural child’ by the Victorian state government? There children are told as ‘naturally social’. We find a clear articulation of this in the Victorian Essential Learning Standards, or VELS, the latest curriculum being used at Victorian schools. This not only represents the ‘natural child’ but provides the machinery for the production of that ‘natural child’ through their schooling. In VELS no intrinsic separation is made between the child and adult worlds. Instead, the child is to learn from exposure to the world outside their bodies.
As told in VELS, the logic of the developing child moves through a three-stage model that roughly corresponds to childhood (ages five to ten), puberty (eleven to fifteen), and early adulthood (sixteen and seventeen). Constructivism is entrenched in the language of VELS. Primary school aged children, years ‘prep’ (preparatory) to grade four, are ‘laying the foundations’, prior to ‘building breadth and depth’. Learning is told as equivalent to brain development. The two, knowledge and brain development, are told as processes that mirror each other. Just as brains are built as networks of neurons, so knowledge is built as networks of ideas. Learning will not happen unless information has a network of neurons to attach to. As it is said in the ‘Thinking Skills’ section, broken down into stages of learning, ‘Information enters the brain through existing networks of neurons. It is these existing networks, this prior knowledge, which is the basis for constructing new understanding’.5 For this building, the VELS child will call on experience, not just of the natural world, but also social and fantasy environments. ‘We build our brains through experience, both real and perceived’, VELS tells us.6 The ideal adult is to be one capable of a particular type of abstract thought, and not one connected to the spiritual realm. In VELS, the move to abstract knowing is a move towards uncertainty and flexibility. Having been developing their understanding of the adult social world already, the natural child is told as moving away from a belief in a singular and certain world. The overall framework, seeing ‘students tend[ing] to progress from being concrete to abstract thinkers’, is reminiscent of theories of the development of rationality. However, if abstract knowledge is about flexible and transferable patterns of knowledge, and about a comfort with uncertainty, speculation, and possibility, then the link between abstraction and rationality becomes interesting. The last sentence describing abstract thinking is striking in this regard: abstract thinkers ‘are more likely to have insights in random ways’.7
The ‘natural child’ of the Steiner school is to be kept separate from the adult social world, while the VELS ‘natural child’ is said to be always a part of that world. The Steiner child is to learn from their emotional and imaginative hearts, while the VELS child is to learn from the world by adding complexity to their neural networks. The Steiner child circles every seven years closer to the actual spiritual world and its abstract ways of thought. The VELS child climbs steps of increasing neural complexity. Whereas the ‘natural child’ of the Steiner vision is to move up to the spiritual realm, the ‘natural child’ of VELS is to move away from the sense that there is any singular realm.
Conclusion: Ethical Representation and the Problem of the ‘Normal’
Throughout the drafting process, I considered various ways of concluding this chapter. Most were negatively judgemental, trying to show through increasingly more sophisticated arguments that the imagination practised at this school was bad for children. Gradually though, I began to see that my ethical and analytic judgements were based on my own assumptions about what was normal or natural for children and education.
Practices at Steiner School clashed with my own unarticulated mental representation of the normal, including of the ‘natural child’. I could make this child more explicit to myself, but except by beginning to ‘see’ the child as a Steiner teacher did, I could not avoid opposing Steiner practice. And I knew I could not honestly claim to be objectively representing. I seemed to have two choices: to agree or to disagree with Steiner representations of the ‘natural child’. I would get only two options – Steiner schools are either good or bad. But of course things aren’t so simple. The children in Shirley’s classrooms were happy, friendly, and engaged in their learning. There is both good and bad here.
One way out of the bind of thinking about representation in writing is to remember that when we write we are also intervening. (Hopefully) we change something in the ways readers can understand and act in the world. By telling about places where representations of the natural child clash and disturb, and also about the happy group of actual children in the Steiner classroom, perhaps we open some space for a mixing of the two ways of doing ‘natural’ children. Perhaps this looks as simple as having more storytelling in government classrooms, or as complex as a brain science-inflected Steiner programme. But, however it might happen, I hope that the intervention of making explicit might turn into the more significant intervention of hybridity.