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Jean Piaget and Rudolf Steiner: Stages of Child Development and Implications for Pedagogy


by Iona H. Ginsburg - 1982

The views of Jean Piaget and Rudolf Steiner concerning children's stages of development are compared and related to present-day instructional practices used in the Waldorf schools, which employ Steiner's ideas. Educational principles and practices used at the elementary school level are discussed. (Source: ERIC)

I shall attempt in this article to compare the stages of development in children as conceptualized by Jean Piaget and by Rudolf Steiner and to discuss some aspects of how Steiner’s view of developmental stages is applied in teaching students enrolled in present-day Waldorf (Steiner) schools. Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) was an Austrian philosopher whose interests were wide-ranging and whose ideas of human development form the backdrop of the Waldorf School movement, which started in 1919. There are presently 17 such schools in the United States, 130 in Europe, and 14 in the rest of the world.


The notion of a specific sequence of stages in child development is a relatively recent one, not much older than this century. Although it had been widely recognized for centuries that children are, in fact, rather different from adults, children had been perceived as small adults, as detailed by Aries.1 They attained adult status as soon as they were physically able to assume adult tasks. Many Christian sects held that children were the respository of original sin and had therefore to be morally cleansed: this was a major goal of training and education. There were dissidents from these dour and, to the modern temper, dubious views, notably Rousseau, who in Emile painted a romantic portrait of the child as noble savage and advised, “Leave childhood to ripen in your children.“2 However, it was not until the last years of the nineteenth century that childhood was considered a subject for serious study—that there were events and changes during childhood that were not understood but that were worthy of understanding and should be subjected to sober, consistent, scientific scrutiny.


The work of Freud, his colleagues, and their multitudes of students sparked a vivid awareness that each human being has a complex, mysterious, largely unknown inner life that starts in infancy. With the delineation of the stages of psychosexual development, it became clear and eventually acceptable to conceive of human development as passing through certain definite stages, ordained by biological imperatives with complex and necessary psychological implications (oral, anal, genital, latency, adolescence). The impact of the environment (i.e., interpersonal relationships, cultural influences, etc.) came also to be recognized as a powerful factor in modifying the emotional, intellectual, and behavioral content of these stages, which were described in somewhat different terms. But the fact of a specific sequence of specific stages in the inner psychological development of the child was generally accepted, along with the awareness, emphasized in articles and case studies in the psychoanalytic journals, that if blocks to normal development, such as deprivation or overindulgence, occur, then the subsequent stages will not proceed normally.


The idea of perceiving childhood as a more or less orderly sequence of developmental stages was further popularized by the careful descriptive studies of Gesell and Ilg and their co-workers, which stress the child’s inner readiness for maturation.3 It is not within the scope of this paper to discuss the impact of this notion on child rearing, but the impact on primary education has on some levels been profound, on others nonexistent. Most conscientious teachers are surely aware of psychological factors in their own and in their students’ behavior and interests in the classroom, and yet the structure of the curriculum and the expectations of teachers, have, in general, been modified very little.


It is the work of Jean Piaget, dealing in an extraordinarily focused way on the development of cognition, that one might expect to find applied to what is actually done in the classroom.4 Although his work has influenced mathematics curricula and “active schools,” his views of the cognitive stages have not sparked any major reforms. Perhaps one reason for this is that his view of the child as a creature who must pass through several inexorable stages, which occur spontaneously as the child matures and cannot be speeded up, before achieving formal operations and abstract thought does, as has often been pointed out, leave out vivid and vital aspects of the child’s total development—feeling, attachment, impulse, fantasy, and their impact on cognition itself.


In Steiner pedagogy cognitive development is viewed as inextricably interwoven with the development of the child’s emotional life, which includes fantasy and imagination, and of his will life, which deals with behavior, morality, action-in-the-world. The idea of an unvarying sequence of levels of development in childhood in which the child thinks and relates to the world in ways very different from those of the adult is shared by Piaget and Steiner. Steiner, however, emphasizes that if children’s needs, at any stage of “consciousness,” are not fulfilled, then not only his intellect but the development of his unique individuality will be stunted and distorted.5


It must be stated clearly and unequivocally that the world views and working methodology of Steiner and Piaget are poles apart. Piaget was by temperament and training a scientist. Although his work has been criticized for lacking scientific rigor, his realm is that of the scientific method, objectifiable fact, data gathering, hypothesis, theory testing. Steiner, on the other hand, although he was trained as a scientist, came to his views through intuition and observation: He was primarily a philosopher, sure of his insights. Piaget, the “genetic epistemologist,” focuses virtually exclusively on the structural changes during cognitive development; Steiner on the totality of development. Piaget’s concern is with the structure of knowledge, Steiner’s with the unique being of the knower. The details of Steiner’s world view are not relevant to the present discussion. What is highly relevant is a view of developmental stages that has been implemented in a specific pedagogy in several hundred schools in Europe and in the United States since 1919.


Waldorf pedagogy is based on the assumption that the child must be not only allowed but encouraged to behave and to learn in ways appropriate to his developmental stage, roughly correlated with age, so that the full flowering of his potential can occur. Learning can occur, in Piagetian terms, only when the inner structures, most likely on a biological, perhaps partly on a psychological and cultural basis, mature.6 Then children can assimilate what the environment presents to them. If the environment presents them with material to learn before these structures have matured, they will not learn.7 According to Piaget, “Learning cannot explain development but the stage of development can in part explain learning. Development follows its own laws . . . and although each stage is accompanied by all sorts of new learning based on experience, this learning is always relative to the developmental period during which it takes place, and to the intellectual structures, whether completely or partially formed, which the subject has at his disposal during this period.“8


Piaget’s stage of preoperational representation (the intuitive level) at ages 4-7 corresponds roughly to Steiner’s stage of imitation, which Steiner places from infancy to age 7. Piaget’s stage of concrete operations (6 or 7 to 11 or 12) covers the same period as does Steiner’s stage of imagination, but the characteristics focused on are quite different. During the preoperational or representational period, Piaget points out that children build on the foundation of the sensorimotor period and learn to use symbols: language itself as well as mental imagery. They immerse themselves in the make-believe of play and symbolically assimilate into themselves the basic assumptions, roles, attitudes, and feelings of the people they deal closely with and of the society and world they live in. In reciprocal fashion, by accommodating themselves to this world, they gradually learn to adjust to it by imitating older children and adults. Deferred imitation—the imitation of a remembered model—would be especially important in formal learning.


During the stage of imitation, according to Steiner, the infant and young child feel at one with the world and tend strongly to identify with and imitate many aspects of it, especially the reactions and attitudes of the family. Similarly, in delineating the categories of egocentric speech in Language and Thought of the Child and discussing repetitive prattle, Piaget says,“ At his most imitative stage, the child mimics with his whole being, identifying himself with his model”9 Steiner points out that during the stage of imitation,“ the child is one great sense organ. . . . Everything from without is reproduced in his inner being. He imitates his whole environment . . . [especially the unspoken] attitude of heart and mind.“10


Therefore, in Steiner school kindergartens much stress is placed on the logic of activity and on providing worthy things for the child of age 3 to 5 to imitate. Fairy tales, songs, circle games, baking, crafts, imaginative play, the opening verse, the formal experience of snack time with a lighted candle on the table and a grace thanking the earth for providing food—these are the content of the experience, with the impact on the individual child depending on the emotional climate and the nature of the specific interactions within the kindergarten as well as a host of other factors, such as whether he was shouted at or kissed as he left home.


So-called reading readiness, with the teaching of letters and sounds and numbers, is not presented at all, on the assumption that the child’s important work at this stage is elsewhere, primarily in strengthening his physical organization. In fact, the children are prepared for the conceptual and intellectual work of the early grades by being told stories, which they then retell, by active games in which they become aware of order, sequence, bodily left-right orientation, and so forth. Piaget’s reference to a Ministry of Education report is noteworthy in this regard.


Prescholastic education “should limit itself to a sensorimotor education” and “systematic learning in the fields of reading, writing, and arithmetic” should not be undertaken before primary education begins . . . these sensorimotor manipulations will lead to “the acquisition of numerical notions and forms.” . . . [Over] and above these first steps in numerical and special intuition the activity proper to this stage also prepares the child for logical operations themselves, insofar as logic is based upon the general coordination of actions before formulated at the level of language.11


It is striking that Piaget’s The Child’s Conception of the World so concretizes and dramatizes Steiner’s intuitive view of the content of the inner world of the young child.12 In the animistic world view of children in the representational stage, the entire world, the cosmos itself, is full of will, intention, and activity—just like themselves! Everything is conscious, everything has a purpose connected to man, all nature is alive and has feeling. It is only gradually that children come to differentiate themselves from the external world and begin to see themselves as individuals surrounded by other human beings, by animate creatures and inanimate objects; it takes some time before they can clearly distinguish what is psychological from what is physical. The consensus of current psychiatric thought about early development is that the infant gradually differentiates himself from the mother, the symbiotic phase being followed by separation—individuation—as the child forms a sense of his own separate existence and becomes more capable of object relations, that is, of relating to other human beings.


Piaget’s studies show that before a child is 6, that is, roughly during the kindergarten period, every object that is active in any way, even if stationary, is considered conscious. From 6 or 7 to 8 or 9, roughly grades 1 through 3, only things that can move with a purposive force, including the sun and a bicycle, are held to be conscious, knowing, and feeling. From 8 or 9 to 11 or 12, the child in grades 3 through 6 has decided that things moved by outside agencies are not conscious, while those that move of their own accord are.


Tracing the changes also in the child’s view of dreams, names, memory, consciousness, causality, origin of phenomena of nature, it would appear from Piaget’s evidence that children in the age range of 7 to 11 are still, to a considerable extent, enmeshed in a world they believe is moral and with which they are at one in a holistic way, their thought sporadically being egocentric and syncretistic—logical operations develop gradually, intertwined with the earlier modes. So even though in Piaget’s scheme the stage of symbolism and representational thought occurs as the major mode of thinking much earlier, it actually does exist in the school-age children in a minor key, as they gradually develop the capacity to acquire reversibility, conservation, and the ability to reason about concrete matters.


Thus during the stage of concrete operations, as children gradually become capable of logical thinking about concrete objects and situations, their view of the world and the way living beings and inanimate objects behave is still sporadically and inconsistently permeated by animism, and so forth. Piaget also indicates that any one child may shift from one stage to another in dealing with various questions.13 This accords with the many experimental observations by those working with Piagetian concepts that a child does not achieve reversibility in toto but rather does so in some test situations and not in others that are similar, or a child may oscillate from one Piagetian substage to another, and the same inconsistencies are observed with animistic responses.14


During the time in which children work their way gradually to the concept of conservation (the idea that a change in appearance of a substance does not alter its quantity, weight, or volume when there has been nothing added or subtracted from it), which Piaget asserts is a prerequisite to logical thinking,15 the children also come to a more solid view of themselves as individuals with a basically unchanging essence—what a useful concept to have achieved before the dramatic physical changes of adolescence appear!


When Piaget presented the data that led him to characterize the child from age 7 or 8 to 11 or 12 as typically in the stage of concrete operations, he referred solely to the structure of his cognition. In various works he traced aspects of moral development, but it is thought that is ever his primary focus. Waldorf pedagogy takes as its primary concern the total development of the child as a unique individual, not intellectual development alone. Of course, all schools talk of educating “the whole child” and then often enough focus single-mindedly on academic achievement, usually tacking on, as expendable extras, art and music. How does Waldorf pedagogy actually deal with the child from roughly age 7 to age 12—the Piagetian stage of concrete operations? During Steiner’s stage of imagination, what is the curriculum and how does it mesh with what Piaget has shown to be the content of the child’s “spontaneous attitudes of mind”?16 Does the curriculum provide any support for the maturing inner structures that make possible the gradual acquisition of operational thought through manipulation of and interaction with the environment? Piaget writes, “Let us suppose that the structural variations of the child’s thought are determined from within, bound by an immutable order of succession and an unvarying chronology, each stage beginning at its appointed moment and occupying a precisely ordained period in the child’s life . . . then the consequences would be incalculable for education: the teacher would be wasting his time and effort attempting to speed up the development of his student, and the problem would simply be that of finding out what knowledge corresponded to each stage and then to present it in a manner assimilable by the mental structures of the age level in question.“17 I daresay that the matter of designing a curriculum appropriate to each stage is not so simple a matter as Piaget would have it.


The curriculum in Steiner schools for grades 1 and 2 starts where the 7-or 8-year old is: in Steinerian terms, still highly imitative but entering more fully into that stage of consciousness where imagination and fantasy are dominant and all-important, where rhythm and harmony are essential for all aspects of growth; in Piagetian terms, on the border of the intuitive level of the preoperational stage and that of concrete operations.


The approach to the traditional curriculum of first grade—introducing letters and numbers, followed by reading and the four arithmetic processes, appeals to imagination in the literal sense of having to do with images, to the pictorial and the dramatic. For example, the class, imitating the teacher, will draw on a large sheet of strong paper a simple house out of which the letter H will emerge. There will probably be a story told in which a house figures prominently and the story will be a fairy tale. The children will then practice drawing the abstract forms H and h. The child is thus taught to write before he is taught to read, activity thus preceding and leading to the acquisition of the symbols of letters and words. Parenthetically, this also entails a condensation of the way written language was developed—from pictures—during the course of human history. The literature curriculum also follows a historical design: fables and legends in grade 2, Old Testament stories in grade 3, Norse myths in 4, Greek myths in 5, Roman in 6—shading then into the study of history in a formal way. The substance offered the children as they learn the rudiments and then the more complex skills of reading, grammar, and composition is extraordinarily rich. They focus not on Dick and Jane nor on simple stories bearing on modern urban life but on content that sweeps along the stream of the development of Western civilization.


Not until grade 3 will there be a focus on housing as such, with any degree of abstractness. At a Steiner school the young child is taught pictorially—literal pictures made with crayon, pencil, and paint, form and color, and word pictures, with vivid and dramatic imagery; thus are fantasy and imagination purposely fostered. The concreteness of the image coincides with the concreteness of the child’s thinking. Here, on quite different levels, from quite different points of view, Steiner and Piaget would seem to be in some accord. The early grade school years see the maturation of the inner structures that permit the child to reason logically about matters that he can touch or otherwise perceive in concrete terms. Steiner pedagogy works with the child’s concrete thinking, but with the allusiveness and richness brought by play, myth, beauty, rhythm, and image.


There are few texts used at all during the grade school years. In essence, each child makes for each block his own textbook, which is an individual permanent record. These “good books” are beautifully illustrated and decorated, the awkward and delightfully naive efforts of the early grades developing, as the children develop better coordination and come to perceive the world in a different way, into an illuminated manuscript that testifies to the unique vision of the individual child. This involves the child wholly and actively and creatively in learning to read, but this is not, I think, at all what Piaget refers to as the “active education” he espouses.


Piaget points out that play enables children to develop their perceptual ability and intelligence and provides them with opportunities for socialization and experimentation with everyday reality. “This is why play is such a powerful lever in the learning process of very young children, to such an extent that whenever anyone can succeed in transforming the first steps in reading, or arithmetic, or spelling into a game, you will see children become passionately absorbed in those occupations, which are ordinarily presented as dreary chores.“18


Counting in a first or second grade Steiner school classroom is often done in circle formation with stamping and hand-clapping on the proper number: 1-2-3-4-5-6. This rhythmic play in which voice, large-muscle activity, and intellect interweave is a source of keen delight and counting by three’s and then the three-times table often enough are learned thoroughly without the child’s realizing that this is mastery of tools he will be using for the rest of his life.


Aebli, who worked with Piaget in Geneva, suggests that operations expressing the properties of reversibility should be incorporated into the students’ programs— “in the case of reversibility, this would imply that multiplication and division, as well as addition and subtraction should be taught together, in alternation.“19 This is the way these subjects are in fact taught at Steiner schools.


As the middle grades are reached, ages 9-11, and the material presented becomes still richer and more complex, and, presumably, most children attain the stage of concrete operations, there is a consistent attempt to retain the artistic-imaginative approach, to combine the beautiful with the utilitarian and practical. In presenting a math block in business arithemetic in sixth grade, there may be a discussion of taxes in ancient times. Poems written by Blake and by children in the class are scattered amid the essays and drawings related to the earthworm or the bird in fifth-grade zoology. A block on geography may start with an ancient Babylonian aphorism. What may be suggested to the child by this is that all knowledge is a totality and that beautiful imagery and vivid color are part of life in general and are not limited to the painting lesson or to any one small corner of living.


Is there a connection between pictorial thinking and creativity—the capacity to make original connections between areas of knowledge? Accurate observation, sound judgment, new solutions to everyday problems, are facets of creativity. In Of Other Worlds, C. S. Lewis indicates that in some of his writings, the creative process always started with a specific vivid picture in his mind, an actual picture.20 But this fascinating question cannot be explored here.


A unique feature of Waldorf education is that, ideally, a class has the same “class teacher” for the entire eight years of grade school. Imitation of the adult is an important mode of learning on all levels of awareness and it is used as a technique in a quite conscious way. This does not entail a teacher’s merely showing how to do something but, in addition, offering a model in a profound sense—the accompanying attitude, mood, determination, concentration, and so forth. The relationship to the class teacher, not to the learning materials, is primary and is based on the exercise of an authority of a most complex sort, akin to a mutual love and respect. As the children and the teacher grow up together through the years, the relationship shifts and changes. In addition to parents and other family members, who all often unaware are teaching them to be human, children acquire yet another adult who gives them a special sort of model for learning.21 The class teacher does teach as many of the main lesson subjects as he can (English, math, geography, history, the sciences, form drawing, drama) as well as the subjects sometimes taught by specialist teachers (French, German, painting, music). Teachers who know their class and each child’s gifts, capacities, and problem areas are better able to enchance the former and alleviate the latter. Clearly the men and women who become class teachers must be intensely committed to their group of children, as well as to Steiner pedagogy, and have the strong wish to grow and learn with their students.


Piaget discounts the human interaction between student and teacher as a potent force in valid learning. He states forcefully that since knowledge involves operations, internalized activity (motoric or thought) that orders and transforms reality, young children should learn through their own activity and interest with the teacher as guide and helper. In Steiner schools the class is taught as a whole. There is a host of required and largely traditional subject matter, from grade one right through high school, where all students must study physics, chemistry, foreign language, not “spontaneous work based upon personal need and interest.“22 Piaget would no doubt conclude that what makes the child work is “continual constraint exercised by the teacher, even though that constraint may remain unperceived by the student or be accepted by him of his own free will.“23


In Steiner schools, the concept of community is an important one in the classroom and the children have a sense of good fellowship and often help each other in their academic work as well as engaging in lively exchanges during play. The notion of a classroom’s being indeed a paradigm of society, with aspirations toward developing a good one, is actualized in teaching “one whole class,” not singling out the more advanced students or slower ones by giving them different assignments. This does not mean that the academic or social problems and gifts of the individual child are ignored-but the help tends to be given within the content of the ongoing work of the entire social group. When extra help is needed, tutoring outside of class is encouraged. Aebli24 points out that Piaget thought that classroom work by the group was a factor of extreme importance in diminishing the egocentrism of the child’s thinking.


A concept used by Steiner educators to describe their approach is “artistic education.” This refers to the vivid pictorial mode of teaching the classically academic disciplines as well as to the crucial importance of speech, painting, drawing, drama, choral speaking, eurythmy, and crafts as an intrinsic part of the curriculum at every phase of the student’s progress. These subjects are thought to bear directly on the development of the child’s intellect and will, which is involved with right action and vigor of participation.


Steiner schools clearly do not entail “spontaneous work based upon personal need and interest.” But there is enormous room for genuine personal activity. In the middle school years, most material is presented in three-day units. On day one, the subject matter is presented in the artistic, vivid, pictorial way already alluded to—the corresponding experience in the child is “the percept.” On the second day, the material is further worked through, as in discussions, dramatizations, retelling, and so forth. On the third day the concept crystallizes through the children’s inner and outer activity, as in writing compositions and drawing pictures, based on what has been taught, and entering this work into their own “good book,” having filtered the subject matter through their own unique sensibility.


Piaget states that receptivity is as natural to the child as is spontaneous activity. In Steiner schools this receptivity is built on, with imitation of the class teacher, for example, being a primary teaching technique.


In comparing and contrasting the views of child development held by Steiner and Piaget, many of the contrasts are based on profound differences in frame of reference and world view. Piaget, who was not a teacher, focused single-mindedly on the development of the structures of cognition in children, from the perspective of a scientist who studied the changes with age and the growth of the capacity to know. Steiner and the education based on his insights have a view of the stages of child development based largely on intuition, which encompasses awareness of the impact of feeling, fantasy, form, color, and human relatedness on cognitive development.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 84 Number 2, 1982, p. 327-337
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 798, Date Accessed: 12/2/2021 8:13:40 PM

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