The term “reform pedagogy” is used in many ways and sometimes in contradictory statements. Nowadays, however, the term is mainly used for the period from 1890 to 1933. Even though the first pedagogical reforms were made as early as the 17th century by Johann A. Comenius, who called for compulsory education for both boys and girls, as well as learning by doing and non-coercive teaching.
Also, one should not forget that pedagogical measures are passed on, extended or changed from generation to generation. No generation starts from scratch when it comes to education and care. Therefore, reform pedagogy must also be viewed from a historical perspective.
Furthermore, reform pedagogy must not be seen as an independent pedagogical reaction against the old school of the Wilhelmine era. Because during that time, reform education was a struggle of many.
In those days, the social classes were clearly distributed. The poor received instruction in the poor school, the working class sent their offspring to church schools (where children were usually taught little beyond Bible knowledge as well as some writing and arithmetic), and the children of wealthy parents received their instruction through private teachers or private schools. For example, this classification was fought against.
There was also a struggle for the self-administration of schools and, in particular, for the decoupling of schools from church supervision. So a great deal of political and social upheaval took place during this period.
Ultimately, regardless of many views on the beginning and end of reform pedagogy, the approach of seeing and developing pedagogy from the point of view of the child, with all its multi-layered facets, currents and methods, applies.
History of reform pedagogy
Education has always been an individual and socially necessary process to improve human development fields. (cf. Keim and Schwerdt 2014, p. 363).
During the turn of the century to the 20th century, a paradigm shift took place, away from the authoritarian old school, towards a pedagogy that is seen starting from the child. However, reform pedagogy did not come alone, but began at a time when there were also strong upheavals in society, for example, due to industrialization and materialism. This is important to know, because the Lebensreform as well as reform pedagogy were in a reciprocal referential context. (cf. Idel and Ullrich 2017, p. 46).
In particular, the opening speech of Emperor Wilhelm II at the school conference, which took place in the period from December 4 to 17, 1890, should be mentioned here. In it, he clearly criticized the humanistic grammar school and the curricula of higher education, which were far too extensive in terms of subject matter.
Based on the Lebensreform movement, the child is seen as an important link in the social chain to be able to achieve a better future. Here, a child’s learning is seen as a natural process that, in principle, does not need to be set in motion by third parties. If a child refuses to learn, it is because of wrong methods and not because of the child itself. In contrast to the “old school”, measures such as coercion, pressure and discipline are not accepted towards the children. The problem is basically with the pedagogical method and not with the child. However, a child’s motivation can only be solved through the child’s self-activity. For this, direct frontal teaching must be avoided and naturally flow into the child’s activity. (cf. Fees 2015, p. 243).
This gave rise to many pedagogical currents, especially in the USA and Germany, with significant contributions and milestones.
Milestones of reform pedagogy
During the reform pedagogy in the period from 1890 to 1933, there were many significant milestones as well as diverse pedagogical concepts. However, there were outstanding achievements of individual educators, who developed special works in that period, and which are still effective today.
These include in particular:
Maria Montessori was an Italian educator and physician who was the first woman in Italy to earn a doctorate in her field of study. She focused on healthy as well as mentally handicapped children. In doing so, she found that the handling and treatment of mentally handicapped children was deficient and in many cases there was an educational problem rather than a medical one.
As a result, by 1907 Maria Montessori had developed her own anthropological-biological-educational theory, which in particular increases children’s attention and ability to concentrate.
Of far-reaching significance was the observation of a three-year-old girl who, despite external influences, continued to play mindlessly. Maria Montessori later called this observation “polarization of attention.”
In 1924, with the support of Mussolini’s ruler, Montessori education was introduced in Italian schools. Maria Montessori died in 1952. (cf. Fees, p. 258).
Peter Peterson was a German teacher and a student of philosophy, in the field of which he received his doctorate in 1908 and even his habilitation in 1920. He joined the national as well as international reform movements of the time. He was appointed by the then SPD/USPD to the professorship of education. During this period, there were also efforts within these parties to create a unified school. Peterson introduced his Jena Plan pedagogy with the reestablishment of an exercise school. In them he was able to implement his reform pedagogical approaches and the basic idea of his pedagogy, namely that of a community of life.
His pedagogical school was closed by the SED only in 1950, because they were afraid of a pedagogical relic of the Weimar period. (cf. Fees, p. 267ff.)
His school concept is recognized and continues to have an impact to this day. He has also been active in qualitative social research and published several volumes on topics in pedagogy and educational science.
(cf. Idel/Ullrich, p. 132).
Hermann Lietz was an educator and founder of the Landerziehungsheime in Germany. He lived from 1868 to 1919 and studied German, history, theology and philosophy. With his doctorate, he achieved the degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Hermann Lietz worked as a teacher and was concerned with reform issues.
(cf. https://www. lietz-schulen.de/die-lietz-idee/unsere-geschichte/?L=0)
His stay abroad in Abbotsholme from 1896 to 1897, which he completed in a small boarding school run by Cecil Reddie, had a formative influence on Lietz. Because of the influences, he did not want to become a teacher or a clergyman. For as a teacher he saw himself, on the one hand, as a servant of the prevailing school system. On the other hand, as a pastor, he was no longer free in his religious worldview. (cf. C.H. Beck, p. 88ff).
In 1898, for example, he founded the Landerziehungsheim Ilsenburg in the Harz Mountains, which no longer exists today. For many decades, country homes stood as a model for a new kind of education. The Odenwald School was also a school based on the reform pedagogical approaches of Hermann Lietz. (cf. Idel, p. 106ff).
Pedagogical movement from the point of view of the child
From the children’s perspective, the reform movement plays a far greater role than in comparison to the impact on parents and society. On the one hand, through the reform educational movements, children of lower and lowest classes have access to better education. On the other hand, the comprehensive promotion of each child is another important point. Because the goal of a reform pedagogical school is: to create optimal conditions for a child’s development, through better forms of learning and teaching.
Moving away from the values of corporal punishment with the rod as well as the partial discarding of performance assessments through grades. Teachers no longer face children as authority figures, but as partners and supporters on the journey of learning. Children should now follow their own inquisitiveness through self-activity and learn naturally, without the coercive measures mentioned above. They are encouraged to create things themselves for once and to strengthen personal responsibility. In many cases, reform pedagogical currents also placed great emphasis on self-determination.
Acquiring knowledge is no longer just a cramming task, but also takes place through experimentation, research and simply trying things out. Especially in kindergartens, the now well-known topics such as free play, finger games as well as singing songs are an achievement of reform pedagogy with immense benefits for the children. For kindergartens now also had educational pretensions.
It can be stated that the reform movement was an immensely important event, knowing that reform pedagogy is a process that never ends and is still happening today! For even today, research is conducted on topics of pedagogy and current actions are scientifically scrutinized. Nevertheless, immensely important advances in the way children are treated, cared for and educated took place during this period that continue to have an impact today and have given millions of children a more carefree, non-violent and educational start in life.
Pedagogical currents of the present & modernity
There were many different pedagogical concepts of the reform pedagogical movement. In the following you will get an insight into what I consider to be the most important pedagogical currents of the present & modern age that are still effective today.
Especially nowadays, many alternative school concepts meet the desire of many parents for holistic education and support. For many, the pressure to perform or the rigid and inflexible curriculum is a thorn in the side. Often, a more intimate teacher-child relationship is also seen as particularly outstanding compared to public schools. It is important to know that the respective pedagogical concepts sometimes differ significantly.
The main reform pedagogical approaches in this period are:
- Waldorf education according to Rudolf Steiner
- Montessori education according to Maria Montessori
- Jena Plan Pedagogy according to Peter Petersen
- Reform educational country home movement according to Hermann Lietz
Because of the partly different and wrong perceptions of Waldorf education, I have chosen these exemplarily from the group mentioned above, in order to clarify in more detail the reform educational approach.
Waldorf education is based on the anthroposophical movement of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). The first Waldorf educational institution was opened in Stuttgart on September 7, 1919, with the support of the Stuttgart factory owner Emil Molt. Today it is considered the mother school of Waldorf education. (cf. Fees 2015, p. 263).
The first Waldorf School in Stuttgart still exists today under the name “Freie Waldorfschule Uhlandshöhe”. It is state-approved and open to all children and young people. In 2017, the anthroposophical movement offered over 2,000 Waldorf kindergartens as well as over 1,000 Waldorf schools worldwide. These institutions are of fundamental importance within the movement, as it is through them that the tradition of the anthroposophical movement is passed on and a recruitment of young people takes place. (cf. Idel and Ullrich 2017, p. 118).
The Waldorf School was the first community school in Germany, which was open to all social classes. In Waldorf education, there are special methodological-didactic measures in comparison to other educational concepts, whereby an excerpt of the most important measures is presented below (cf. Idel/Ulrich, p. 124):
- Class teacher principle
A class teacher generally teaches across subjects and themes in the first eight years of school. At the end of the eighth grade year, a change of classroom teacher occurs through a separation process. This change of teacher is part of the development and maturation process of the students in Waldorf education.
- Class size
In earlier times, large classes were formed to represent a cross-section of society. (Strata, parents’ occupations, character and others). In modern times, there are now also smaller classes in the Waldorf School.
- Epoch Teaching
There are also thematic lessons in contrast to the classical lessons with daily changing subjects. This usually comprises two hours a day and usually takes place in the morning. The lessons are interdisciplinary and deal with a topic from a variety of perspectives (e.g. topic of the sea = geography, structure of the sea, economic factor of the sea, living area of the sea, etc.).
- Waiver of textbooks
Classical textbooks are not used in Waldorf schools. Cross-thematic, so-called epoch notebooks are used, in which the children themselves record and document the material covered in class.
- No performance appraisals
No grades will be given. The assessment runs through a kind of portfolio, which includes strengths, weaknesses and other characteristics of the child, so that a holistic view of the achievement level of each child becomes visible.
- Monthly celebrations
Monthly celebrations are held together with all ages and cover topics such as eurythmy, songs, and poems from German and foreign language classes. These community events are designed to strengthen the school community and also serve to teach school knowledge.
Eurythmy is a movement art that tries to unite language, music and human movements and make them visible.
Criticism of Waldorf education
Waldorf educators have until recently rejected empirical research, believing that educational teaching takes place at a level that is intangible to rational science.
This also raises the question of whether Waldorf schools are so-called worldview schools and whether the anthroposophical movement is beneficial for children and young people. It should be noted that compulsory subjects and indoctrination on topics of the anthroposophical worldview make the Waldorf school a worldview school. (cf. Böhm 2012, p. 99).
A similar opinion to Winfried Böhm (Böhm 2012, p. 99) is also held by Till-Sebastian Idel and Heiner Ullrich (Idel and Ullrich 2017, p. 126). However, they are also paying increasing attention to empirical studies as well as statements by well-known newspapers.
The former Waldorf upper school teacher Rüdiger Iwan put a variety of Waldorf dogmas to the test and is nowadays considered a critic of Waldorf education.
- Winfried Böhm: Die Reformpädagogik, Verlag C. H. Beck, ISBN: 978-3-406-64052-0
- Konrad Fees: Geschichte der Pädagogik, ein Kompaktkurs, Verlag W. Kohlhammer, ISBN: 978-3-17-028739-6
- Till-Sebastian Idel / Heiner Ulrich: Handbuch Reformpädagogik, Verlag Beltz, ISBN: 978-3-407-83190-3
- Wolfgang Keim / Ulrich Schwerdt:Handbook of Reform Education in Germany, ISBN: 978-3-631-62396-1
- Lietz Schools Website
Götz, S. (2021). Reform Pedagogy in Germany. From the point of view of children during the period 1890-1933. ISSN: 2748-2979. Accessed 01/15/2021. Available at: https://krippenzeit.de/die-reformpaedagogik-in-deutschland/