The Dawning of Conscience: Moral Education and the Waldorf Curriculum in Class Four

by Deborah Leah

(Reprinted with kind permission from Steiner Education, Vol.31, No.2)
Steiner Waldorf education recently celebrated its seventieth anniversary: it has been practised for one whole human life-span. “How is it changing and developing to meet the needs of the times?” is a question often raised. Steiner foresaw the outer and inner turmoils humanity would face at the end of the twentieth century, also the rapid march of technology which transforms our lifestyles in every decade. What did he offer, and what still lives in Waldorf education today that meets contemporary ethical problems? How can we offer children moral education? How can we prepare them for positive actions in a society where commonly held ethical values face aggressive questioning, and adult responsibility is often undermined?

Aristotle pointed to an aspect of ethics which is relevant to any approach to young people: “Moral virtue has to do with pains and pleasures.”1 He quotes Plato concerning “the importance…. of having been brought up to find pleasure and pain in the right things. True education is just such a training.”2

The Pearl in the Class Teacher’s Oyster Shell
The class teacher in a Steiner Waldorf school is enjoined to bring living pictures to the children in all branches of teaching.

“From seven to fourteen, the image is the pearl in the class teacher’s oyster. At this age, one can truly say that a child thinks from the heart and through the heart… An outstanding quality of a good image is that it is ‘unfinished’.”3
Steiner Waldorf education aims primarily to reach and work with the children’s emotions during the central years of schooling, ages seven to fourteen. Whether pupils are absorbing new information about the world, improving their skills, or slowly developing ‘good’ habits, all teachers need to reach the children and their capacities by first engaging their feelings. “Boredom occurs when one’s feelings are not involved or aroused.”

The curriculum of Class Four (age 9-10) epitomises Steiner’s guidelines for meeting and developing the dawn of conscience. Conscience is the “still small voice” which Elijah heard in the solitude of the cave, not outside in the elements, but within the inner space of his own self.4 Nine year-olds have experienced inwardly their own ‘expulsion from Paradise’: they know temptation and their own capacity to do wrong and feel guilty, however slight the misdemeanor might appear to adult eyes.

Why Teach Norse Mythology Now?
Many a parent, or a teacher taking a class for the first time, has reached a new milestone in the curriculum and asked: why should this topic be brought just now? One hallmark of the Steiner Waldorf curriculum is the precise nature of the subject matter for each year of children’s growth. Every teacher is expected to research for him/ herself why this is so. Answers often come from the children as a new topic unfolds.

The wealth of humanity’s collective imagination lives in the many mythologies which have been handed down through the ages. Steiner recommended Norse myths specifically for Class Four. Apart from their drama, humour, high literary quality – all of which give them universal appeal – why are they received so enthusiastically by successive classes of nine-and-ten-year-olds?

The children are touched deeply by the battle between light and darkness, extremes of cold and heat which threaten Asgard, the preserve of the good and the beautiful. Over all hangs the question: will it survive? Will Ragnarok, the Last Battle, cause the eventual destruction of the home of the gods? Despite Odin’s wisdom, Thor’s strength, Loki’s inventive schemes, Tyr’s bravery, and all the ruses and alliances which protect Asgard, uncertainty underlies each drama. Uncertainty colours the child’s experience of life at this age, when cold realities of everyday existence impose themselves more strongly than the colourful world of imagination which hitherto reigned supreme.

Fairy tales, the ‘staple diet’ of Kindergarten and Class One, presented pictures of good and evil in clear polarities of beauty and ugliness, reward and punishment, success and failure. The moral effectiveness lies in the picture itself, not in conceptualised ‘moralising’:

“The child is enabled to carry the thought or idea inwards. The child thinks with it, dreams with it and sleeps with it. In so doing, the child ‘completes’ the picture and has the opportunity to ‘own’ it in an individualised , form.”5
These imaginative pictures remain in the ‘ children’s consciousness through to Class Five, when the Indian Ramayana tells how the hero fought with demons and a dragon. Graphic illustrations are proof of the psychological realities in these ancient tales. Children need to externalise the forces of darkness; then they can face and later deal with them.

Gods and Goddesses in a Fallen World
Asgard is inhabited by many different characters who seem, uncannily, to find their counterparts in every Class Four, for example:

Thor: loud, strong, respected, well-meaning, sometimes tactless to his own embarrassment;
Freya: a beautiful, willful but beloved goddess, who falls prey to greed for a necklace and behaves shamefully in order to acquire it;
Odin: the wise and noble leader, who nevertheless enjoys a teasing riddle, and makes use of cunning ruses; and
Loki: the entertainer, the mischief-maker, the witty teaser, the artful schemer. It is Loki who indulges so deeply in his own pleasures that his deeds bring evil into Asgard in the shape of his hideous progeny.

Early on we have heard how greed for gold has begun to corrupt the pure ideals of Asgard’s dwellers. Jealousy, trickery, dishonesty, mistrust exist amid the noblest deeds of sacrifice and bravery. The children follow the successive tales of Loki’s doings with feelings that range from delight and admiration to horror and disgust. Their burgeoning feeling life now gives them sympathetic understanding for the whole gamut of these traits.

But does Odin, the All-father, decree that evil-doers be expelled from the glorious garden? No. On the contrary, Loki’s children are given their own places in the order of the Nine Worlds. The Fenris Wolf, the ravaging destroyer, is brought into Asgard itself, bound in chains at the cost of the god Tyr’s sword hand. Sacrifice: this was necessary to hold the wolf in check. Sacrifice, too, was required of Odin before he could win wisdom and share it with humans through the gift of inspired poetry.

Sacrifice, self-restraint, resisting temptation, waiting patiently for the right opportunity… these seem not to be fashionable today. If they are fostered it is despite, not via, the pressures of the modem media, which promotes self-indulgence and speedy satisfaction without considering costs – to oneself and to others. Yet was there ever a time in history when young people faced so many potentially dangerous and evil invitations, which demand their judgement and inner strength, if they are to respond out of a real freedom?

Human Freedom
Studies of nature take in the fascinating variety of the animal kingdom, no longer as fables and fictional stories, but as factual study; helping the nine and ten year-olds to appreciate especially the perceptible forms of creatures whose developed bodies enable them to function in many wonderful, specialised ways. However, the Human Being and Animals main lesson is not an introduction to zoology and its classifications. As with all else in Steiner Waldorf education, one might say, it is yet another attempt to understand and better appreciate the human being, and our own possibilities and tasks in life.

Compared to the dam-building beaver, the tunnelling mole, or the milk-producing cow, we humans are mere embryos in terms of developed skills. But that is the significant point: whilst the wildcat must become a killer, the arctic tern a traveler, the salmon a leaping migrator, the cheetah a sprinter… every human being has the potential to develop in any or each of these directions.

Human hands, which are not specialised, give us the freedom to create artistically and morally, do good or unkind deeds… the children love to think of many, many possibilities.

Uprightness: Outer Picture – Inner Virtue
The fact that our hind limbs alone are needed to carry our bodies – unlike other animals – leaves our arms and hands free. Free to do nothing, if we choose. Free to do acts of generosity or cruelty. Free to serve and free to play. The aim of these first studies is to make the children aware of their own intrinsic capacities for free actions. They are reminded what slow developers humans are: they take 21 years to become mature adults, they need to be about 14 years old, and are usually much older, before they become parents, in contrast to the mouse or rabbit, or even the great cow who is a mother at three years. Her calf stands up a few minutes after birth, and feeds independently a few weeks later.

Human uprightness has to be worked for: witness the efforts of the infant to pull itself up, again and again, and its energetic totterings before it achieves a balanced walk. It takes effort, too, to remain upright, especially in later life.

Within these recognisable pictures lies great wisdom concerning the true nature of the human being. Reductionist expressions that would persuade children (and adults) that people are ‘merely’ higher apes on account of their brains derive from post-Darwinist misunderstandings. Such ideas still permeate our society, and, unfortunately, some children’s books. The image of the human being presented to children determines their evolving self-image and the expectations to which they will later aspire.

Self-Knowledge: When Does It Begin?
Am I a pre-determined set of genes, largely at the mercy of my whims and passions, or am I free to determine my path in life, able to say “no” when tempted (at least sometimes!), think independently, choose my own friends and associates, alter the world around me, for good or ill, and work upon myself and my own development? If these questions live in the teacher s/he will meet the children’s questions in ways that lead them into future discoveries about themselves, when they ask, as Class Four posed recently, What good do mice do? Does the octopus have a heart? Can it feel, like us? Do they go around in groups?

The fox cannot help killing all the chickens, even though it does not eat them. When can we become responsible for what we do? To what extent? This period is a time of many lively discussions, with earnest questions from the children. There is much reference made in the media to teaching morality with floundering public figures trying to point fingers at (failing) parents one minute and teachers the next. What lead does Steiner Waldorf education offer, through the moral maze? Self-questioning, feelings of social responsibility, conscience, a self-image of worth and respect-all these need to be underpinned by the will to put ideals into practice. What’s in a report? Ethics and ethos: how does a school foster its values as living faculties in the pupils? A Waldorf school report may express how diligently a child has done her regular classroom sweeping task as well as mentioning the careful layout of her arithmetic book. Parents new to the school might be surprised when their child brings home an ink-splashed table cloth with the request s/he wash it. The school has a cleaning staff, does it not? And all agree the stain was unintentionally made. It is fashionable to emphasise concepts of ‘blame’ and ‘punishment’, but these are neither helpful nor particularly relevant. What is real are the actual consequences: the ink splashed; the cloth has to be washed. If the child is actively involved in remedying the situation a tiny seed of inner growth has begun to sprout.

“Tell me and I forget; show me and I remember; involve me and I learn.”

The maxim holds good for discipline (i.e. discipleship, and the growth of self-discipline) as well as in mastering new subjects. Rudolf Steiner urged Waldorf teachers to train the will – their own and their pupils’. Was this ever so necessary and challenging as today, in the hi-tech labour saving world of the 1990s. Work, especially manual work, has been vilified, demoted to an inconvenience necessary in life as a mere means to earn money. Our society is learning the hard way: those who have been deprived of meaningful work when unemployed can begin to value work anew and experience how essential it is to a truly human existence.

Class Three’s farming lessons allow them to enact the whole process of basic food production from sowing wheat to baking bread. They leam to appreciate the labour and skills involved and human co-operation with nature. Waiting, as well as energetic action, are called for.


From Commandments to Parables
Descriptions of the Steiner Waldorf curriculum usually list the subject matter of each age group. Yet the essence of this renewal of education lies in the methodology: not so much what, as how should we teach? Living pictures, such as those of myth and legend, humorous fables, or self-made tales, convey images which the child can contemplate and respond to in freedom. These are more effective than any amount of moral theorising. Certainly children need to hear with clarity a few basic ‘thou shalts’ and ‘thou shalt nots’, but in the details of daily living ever new creative, imaginative initiatives are called for. Christ himself taught in pictorial stories. From the parables of the New Testament ever new meanings may be drawn. It is time to transcend rule by laws alone. The way for the future requires humanity to develop enough self-restraint to live socially and morally without recourse to codified laws.

When one child has hurt another, there is a difference between ‘making’ him/her apologise and asking “What are you going to do to help put right this situation?” The latter creates a space, where initiative, thinking, one’s own inner self are pricked into action, and what follows can approach the nature of a free deed. Every truly free action enables us to evolve as human beings. The ‘fruits’ of such deeds ripen during sleep: our waking life determines the transforming and renewing capacity of sleep. What happens when we are asleep, and how sleep affects our daily lives as spiritual beings would require a whole study to itself. This dimension of a Waldorf teacher’s work must at least be mentioned if ethics are to be grounded in spiritual realities.

“The entire educative process is deeply connected with the relationship with [spiritual beings] in the night. They do not interfere but they fructify what we bring by way of little gifts when we go to sleep. The teacher must lead the children in this endeavour. Every time that he overcomes himself even only to a small degree, this power of uprightness is present… If the teacher has cultivated this moral- religious ‘uprightness’ the sublime forces of spiritual warmth, of true egohood, will then be present within him – and he immediately has a stimulating effect on the children.”6

The thoughts which precede and determine our words often carry more moral weight to-wards children then we intend. When Rudolf Steiner lectured on education in Oxford in 1922 he challenged teachers to imbue even a subject like mathematics with conscious moral content. He described the foundation of number on the parts of a whole, so that the concept of a sum originates in the division into parts of this whole.

“In this way we get the child to enter into life with the ability to grasp a whole, not always to proceed from the lesser to the greater. And this has an extraordinarily strong influence upon the child’s whole life of soul. When a child has acquired the habit of adding things together we get a disposition which tends to be desirous and craving. In proceeding from the whole to the parts and in treating multiplication similarly, the child has less tendency to acquisitiveness, rather it tends to develop what… in the noblest sense of the word, can be called considerateness, moderation; and one’s moral likes and dislikes are intimately bound up with the manner in which one has learned to deal with number. At first sight there seems to be no logical connection between the treatment of numbers and moral ideas, moral impulses, so little indeed that one who will only regard things from the intellectual point of view may well laugh when one speaks of it. It may seem to him absurd.” 7
“Absurd”, or the seed of a new awakening, in a world that has abandoned so much conventional morality and is in danger of losing its true way? Can we begin to study and understand what Steiner meant? Many historical figures whose ideas and teachings were ahead of their time have been ridiculed by contemporaries, only to be revered by future ages.

The Steiner Waldorf curriculum is a living curriculum, ever flexible, as opposed to a fixed syllabus. It contains possibilities of inner and outer development of all concerned, teachers and pupils. What appears to be the content is actually the vessel, the vehicle on a journey from before birth to beyond death. Norse mythology, the human being and animals; these have been topics for Class Four in Steiner Waldorf education for over 70 years, maybe for the next 700 years. But every lesson will be a new event; every day’s meeting in school of teacher and pupils will be preceded by sleep, our daily visit to eternity; every morning’s work will build on the health- giving transformations of the night, through conscious recall and meditative preparation. In moral education, above all other aspects we deal with ‘wide ranges of ability’, with ‘each one progressing at his/her own pace.’ The teacher must lead the way in effort, not necessarily in attainment. The time-scale for results is unlimited. Continuous assessment is in force. There are many, frequent tests which life itself sets daily. What counts is the ongoing striving of the teacher to meet the children’s needs.

Deborah Leah has been class teaching for many years, formerly at Nant-y-Cwm in Wales and presently at Wynstones.



1 Aristotle: Ethics p.59 Penguin Classics.
2 Ibid. p.59.
3 Mepham, T., ‘The Value of Authority in Education: A Steiner Waldorf Perspective’ in Paideia, No.13, p. 16.
4 I Kings 19 vv. 9-18.
5 Mepham, T., Ibid. p. 17.
6 Smit, Jorgen, Lighting Fires – Deepening Education Through Meditation p.67.
7 Steiner, R., Quoted from Stockmeyer, K., RudolfSteiner s Curriculum for Waldorf Schools, p.59.


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