CEO Blog: Review of ‘The Secret to Growing Brilliant Children’ by Dr. Jennifer Gidley
The Secret to Growing Brilliant Children
Often, I am asked by educators, fellow academics who have come across Steiner education, and interested parents: can you recommend a book that cuts to the chase about Steiner education? Parents who have had a school tour, or are considering Steiner education for their children, are already in a Steiner school, or even contemplating taking the leap to set up a Steiner school, want a bit more depth. In this age of ‘measurement mania’, educators and policy makers want to know: how do you know that Steiner education ‘works’? Academics are curious about research evidence that helps inform the education and its ongoing development. The Secret to Growing Brilliant Children by Dr Jennifer Gidley is a welcome handbook that addresses these needs.
Dr Gidley does this by taking Rudolf Steiner’s inspiring educational philosophy and re-imagines it in the context of the rapid changes and complex challenges we are witnessing in the early 21st century. Drawing on her extensive research and academic writings Dr Gidley invites the reader to engage with the core essences of Steiner education, and reflect on how this wholistic, imaginative, loving and lively education develops ‘brilliant’ children.
Brilliant children, according to Dr Gidley, are creative, innovative, have moral capacity, agency and social consciousness to grow and develop their highest potential. She also argues why we need to strive for that ‘brilliance’ in our increasingly uncertain world. In doing so Dr Gidley also successfully positions Steiner education as a significant counter to a mainstream educational model based on competition, standardisation, high stakes testing and a limiting view of ‘intelligence’ and success in life that is purely related to the needs of the economy.
I would describe the unfolding of the book as a crystallisation process, as Dr Gidley combines the multiple layers of her research and journal articles over many years to build a rich, multi-perspectival account of Steiner education and its relevance as an education for the future. In chapter one Dr Gidley provides a rich, personal and accessible view of Rudolf Steiner – his vision and legacy. In chapters two and three we gain deep insights and educational implications of Dr Gidley’s early research on young people’s views and visions of their future. Her research demonstrates that holistic, artistic, imaginative and proactive educational input, such as provided by Steiner education, can empower young people for their future lives to create the futures they desire.
Part of this empowerment of young people comes from an education which facilitates the healthy development of an evolving consciousness – a ‘life-promoting, integral and spiritually aware form of consciousness’ and a more suitable form of reason for increasingly complex times. In chapters 4 and 5 Dr Gidley re-presents her substantial research on how this healthy evolution of consciousness is achieved in Steiner education. This is through key pedagogical values which she argues must underpin a wise and revitalised educational framework: the significance of pedagogical love in learning environments; the significance of developing a living thinking through imagination; the significance of multimodal learning in developing wisdom; and the significance of teachers who authentically voice their living presence.
I was lucky enough to have Dr Gidley visit a Steiner school in 2008 where I was Principal. She had just finished her PhD and provided her vision of possibilities of Steiner education for today’s world and the future. She questioned the rigid adherence to methods and even content of the Steiner curriculum, and postulated that it is the processes and general indications of Steiner education which are as relevant now as they were when he created his philosophy. Teachers worked with Dr Gidley on unpacking the themes central to a caring, revitalised and wise education, and, from deep reflection on the underlying Steiner pedagogical principles of love, life (living thinking), wisdom, and voice, the school’s core values of connection, imagination, and initiative evolved. This formed the basis of further collective work on the school’s strategic direction. It was an enriching, transformative experience. With these enduring, robust core pedagogical values, I saw Steiner educators are indeed able to do the dance between holding on to the essence of the pedagogy and transforming it at one and the same time.
In a further practical application of her work, Dr Gidley was involved with Steiner Education Australia in the first phase of the development of the Australia Steiner Curriculum Framework. Her theorisation of the core pedagogical values of Steiner education – love, life, wisdom and voice – continues to serve as the evidence informed underpinning of this curriculum framework, fully recognised by the Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority (ACARA).
Chapter 7 brings the reader to Dr Gidley’s further research conducted for Steiner Education Australia in 2018. Dr Gidley has gathered, collated and organised into themes all the known Steiner-related academic research that is education focussed. From this she has proposed future directions for research to further establish dialogue among Steiner educators, and between Steiner educators and mainstream academics and educators. As Dr Gidley states: ‘Australian researchers have already shown that they can play a significant role in this process’ (2020, p.166).
Dr Gidley is an advocate for this education, but not an uncritical one. Throughout the book, using multiple lenses, she convincingly argues for Steiner education as an education ahead of its times. Across all the chapters Dr Gidley also presents a picture of an education which needs to enter into more conscious dialogue with broad educational debate and research, understand its own vulnerabilities and needs for criticality. It is at once a reference source and a practical tool for use in professional learning, study and as a springboard for profession-led action research.
It is not, however, confined to Steiner educators or parents. Dr Gidley’s book speaks to all educators, parents and researchers interested in the broader questions to do with the purposes of education at a time when we have lost the collective ability ask those questions. Dr Gidley’s work crosses boundaries, drawing the threads together from many disciplines in her theorisation of the core pedagogical values, offering hope for a revitalisation of what matters in education. These values – love, life, wisdom and voice – are truly a call to action for all who aspire to educate children.
Dr Virginia Moller
CEO Steiner Education Australia
 Gidley,J.M. (2020). The secret to growing brilliant children. Ballina: Bear Books.
 Gidley, J. M. (2016). Postformal education: A philosophy for complex futures. Singapore: Springer.
main photo courtesy Aurora Steiner School and Clayton Hairs