Action Research in Waldorf Education
The challenges that need to be overcome by people who work professionally in an educational setting are diverse. Be it kindergarten, school, or a social institution: educators work with young people who are involved in dynamic developmental processes. These pose challenges and require guidance: mental, emotional and volitional development is fragile, and subject to crises. The effectiveness of a teacher’s response to an individual child can hardly be judged from outside the situation. For a teacher to productively explore the question of what worked, or what didn’t work in a certain situation, he or she needs to develop an inner distance to the situation, taking into account not only the circumstances themselves, but also his or her role within them. This process of educational research, known as “educational action research“, focuses not on broadly standardized studies or theories, but on discoveries arising from specific situations within educational practice which are systematically evaluated, analyzed, and set the broader context of education scientific discourse.
Action research is possible within all areas of educational practice. It is becoming increasingly established in early childhood education, in curative education, in social work, in youth work, as well as in other educational contexts. Regardless of pedagogical approach, didactics, or educational resources, education always takes place within the medium of goal-oriented communication. Action research has the advantage of looking not only at the outer factors influencing a teacher’s approach, but also seeing how these play out within specific social interactions.
Educational action research has come to be understood as an important part of professionalization within teacher education (Soucoup-Altrichter, 2012). Educators work with people whose autonomy is not – or not yet – fully developed, and they are in a continuous process of seeking practical solutions in concrete situations. To avoid dichotomous detachment of educational practice from scientific theory, educational action research offers a fundamentally research-oriented approach in which teachers work with their accumulated professional knowledge and experience, and at the same time gradually develop distance to their own work, creating a space in which new theoretical insights can arise.
Educational Action Research in Waldorf Teacher Education
Waldorf education has always held the aim and intention that teachers maintain a consistent inquisitive, investigative, research-oriented approach to their work. Such an approach was taken by the founder of Waldorf pedagogy, Rudolf Steiner, and he recommended it to teachers of the first Waldorf school: their work as teachers should be imbued with continuously revived inquiry, aimed at developing a deepened humanistic understanding of any given situation. He challenged the thinker to always take him or herself – including personal traits and one-sided dispositions – into account. Steiner also emphasized the importance of self-education as a means to correct undue subjective influence in a pedagogic-therapeutic context.
The research-oriented approach characteristic of Waldorf education is not reduced to the activity of individual teachers. Its real profile emerges within collective processes: when teachers share their research in the faculty meeting, colleagues can become engaged in each other’s questions and insights. Steiner expressed this intention in faculty meetings which he led as a contribution to the development and consolidation of the first Waldorf school in Stuttgart: exact observations and notes taken on individual students were discussed in a way that pedagogical understanding and new paths for action could arise (Steiner 1919-22/1998). Such a casuistic orientation within teacher education was unique and unparalleled in 1920, but is now becoming increasingly and broadly established as best common practice (Wernet, 2006).
Learning processes always depend on individual conditions, opportunities, and personalities of students and teachers, as well as the particular situation of schools (or institutions). Because of this, “solutions“ within developmental processes can never be standardized. In an educational context – somewhat similar to an artistic process – research processes require that an adequate and appropriate response be found to meet the individual and particular situation as it reveals itself. The impossibility of standardizing educational practice calls for a quasi-artistic habitus, which adapts to the uniqueness of each individual student and the particular intonation of the situation (see also: Foeller-Mancini 2016). When such an approach to understanding educational practice becomes a topic that is studied and fostered within (Waldorf) teacher education, theory and practice become interpenetrated in a new and productive way.