Developed by Rudolf Steiner in 1919, Waldorf Education is based on a developmental approach that addresses the needs of the growing child and maturing adolescent. Waldorf teachers strive to transform education into an art that educates the whole child—the heart and the hands, as well as the head. For more information, please see the Waldorf Education – An Introduction section of the Why Waldorf Works site.
These two educational approaches began with a similar goal: to design a curriculum that was developmentally appropriate to the child and that addressed the child’s need to learn in a tactile as well as an intellectual way. The philosophies are otherwise very different. In Waldorf schools children are taught as a whole class, then after the teacher has introduced the content of the lesson, children work individually to create “main lesson books.” The arts of music, movement, drawing, painting and modeling are integrated into all academic lessons. A class teacher in a Waldorf school will journey with the children over several years, some even for eight years. Waldorf schools include the practical arts of knitting, crocheting, sewing and woodworking into the curriculum.
Waldorf schools are non-sectarian and non-denominational. They educate all children, regardless of their cultural or religious backgrounds. The pedagogical method is comprehensive, and, as part of its task, seeks to bring about recognition and understanding of all the world cultures and religions. Waldorf schools are not part of any church. They espouse no particular religious doctrine but are based on a belief that there is a spiritual dimension to the human being and to all of life. Waldorf families come from a broad spectrum of religious traditions and interest.
Preschool and Kindergarten children learn primarily through imitation and imagination. The goal of the kindergarten is to develop a sense of wonder in the young child and reverence for all living things. This creates an eagerness for the academics that follow in the grades. Preschool and Kindergarten activities include:
* storytelling, puppetry, creative play
* singing, eurythmy (movement)
* games and finger plays
* painting, drawing and beeswax modeling
* baking and cooking, nature walks
* foreign language and circle time for festival and seasonal celebrations
Elementary and middle-school children learn through the guidance of a class teacher who stays with the class ideally for eight years. The curriculum includes:
* Language Arts on world literature, myths, and legends
* history that is chronological and inclusive of the world’s great civilizations
* science that surveys geography, astronomy, meteorology, physical and life sciences
* mathematics that develops competence in arithmetic, algebra, and geometry
* foreign languages; physical education; gardening
* arts including music, painting, sculpture, drama, eurythmy (an art of movement), drawing
* handwork such as knitting, weaving, sewing and woodworking
It is easy to fall into the error of believing that education must make our children fit into society. Although we are certainly influenced by what the world brings us, the fact is that the world is shaped by people, not people by the world. However, that shaping of the world is possible in a healthy way only if the shapers are themselves in possession of their full nature as human beings.
Education in our materialistic, Western society focuses on the intellectual aspect of the human being and has chosen largely to ignore the several other parts that are essential to our well-being. These include our life of feeling (emotions, aesthetics, and social sensitivity), our willpower (the ability to get things done), and our moral nature (being clear about right and wrong). Without having these developed, we are incomplete—a fact that may become obvious in our later years, when a feeling of emptiness begins to set in. That is why in a Waldorf school, the practical and artistic subjects play as important a role as the full spectrum of traditional academic subjects that the school offers. The practical and artistic are essential in achieving a preparation for life in the “real” world.
Waldorf Education recognizes and honors the full range of human potentialities. It addresses the whole child by striving to awaken and ennoble all the latent capacities. The children learn to read, write, and do math; they study history, geography, and the sciences. In addition, all children learn to sing, play a musical instrument, draw, paint, model clay, carve and work with wood, speak clearly and act in a play, think independently, and work harmoniously and respectfully with others. The development of these various capacities is interrelated. For example, both boys and girls learn to knit in grade one. Acquiring this basic and enjoyable human skill helps them develop a manual dexterity, which after puberty will be transformed into an ability to think clearly and to “knit” their thoughts into a coherent whole.
Preparation for life includes the development of the well-rounded person. Waldorf Education has as its ideal a person who is knowledgeable about the world and human history and culture, who has many varied practical and artistic abilities, who feels a deep reverence for and communion with the natural world, and who can act with initiative and in freedom in the face of economic and political pressures.
There are many Waldorf graduates of all ages who embody this ideal and who are perhaps the best proof of the efficacy of the education.
Our aim in Waldorf schools is to teach reading in such a way that a child will love to read for the whole of life. We do this first by not forcing reading at an early age before the child is developmentally ready. For example, the left side of the brain needs to be fully developed and the eyes mature enough to focus on print. When phonics is introduced before this developmental milestone, children rely solely on the right side of the brain which is the side for whole word learning. Subsequently, the child can only read the beginning and end of words and they guess at the middle, causing reading difficulties.
Writing is a much more concrete skill and in Waldorf schools is taught before the highly abstract skill of reading. The child learns first to read his own writing which is taken from verses and poems that have been memorized by the whole class.
When the letters of the alphabet are introduced through imagery in 1st grade the children learn the sounds that the consonants and vowels make, so that a combination of whole word and phonics is used in the teaching of reading.
The foundations of reading are laid in kindergarten when children are listening to the daily story that is told and are making their own inner pictures. This image-making is what builds the capacity for comprehension later when reading.
Children who transfer to a Waldorf school in the first four grades usually are up to grade in reading, math, and basic academic skills. However, they usually have much to learn in bodily coordination skills, posture, artistic and social activities, cursive handwriting, and listening skills. Listening well is particularly important since most of the curricular content is presented orally in the classroom by the teacher. The human relationship between the child and the teacher is the basis for healthy learning, for the acquiring of understanding and knowledge rather than just information. Children who are used to learning from computers and other electronic media will have to adjust.
Those children who enter a Waldorf school in the middle grades often bring much information about the world. This contribution should be recognized and received with interest by the class. However, these children often have to unlearn some social habits, such as the tendency to experience learning as a competitive activity. They have to learn to approach the arts in a more objective way, not simply as a means for personal expression. In contrast, in their study of nature, history, and the world, they need to relate what they learn to their own life and being. The popular ideal of “objectivity” in learning is misguided when applied to elementary school children. At their stage of development, the subjective element is essential for healthy learning. Involvement in what is learned about the world makes the world truly meaningful to them.
Children who transfer out of a Waldorf school into a public school during the earlier grades probably have to upgrade their reading ability and to approach the science lessons differently. Science in a Waldorf school emphasizes the observation of natural phenomena rather than the formulation of abstract concepts and laws. On the other hand, the Waldorf transferees are usually well prepared for social studies, practical and artistic activities, and mathematics. Children moving during the middle grades should experience no problems. In fact, in most cases, transferring students of this age group find themselves ahead of their classmates. The departing Waldorf student is likely to take along into the new school a distinguishing individual strength, personal confidence, and love of learning.
A central aim of Waldorf Education is to stimulate the healthy development of the child’s own imagination. Waldorf teachers are concerned that electronic media hampers the development of the child’s imagination. They are concerned about the physical effects of the medium on the developing child as well as the content of much of the programming.
There is more and more research to substantiate these concerns. See:
* Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don’t Think by Jane Healy
* Failure To Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds For Better and Worse by Jane Healy
* Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander
* The Plug-In Drug by Marie Winn
* Evolution’s End: Claiming The Potential of Our Intelligence by Joseph Chilton Pearce
Waldorf teachers feel the appropriate age for computer use in the classroom and by students is in high school. We feel it is more important for students to have the opportunity to interact with one another and with teachers in exploring the world of ideas, participating in the creative process, and developing their knowledge, skills, abilities, and inner qualities. Waldorf students have a love of learning, an ongoing curiosity, and interest in life. As older students, they quickly master computer technology, and graduates have successful careers in the computer industry.
For additional reading, please see Fools Gold, a special report from the Alliance For Childhood.
Waldorf students have been accepted in and graduated from a broad spectrum of colleges and universities including Stanford, UC Berkeley, Harvard, Yale, and Brown. Waldorf graduates reflect a wide diversity of professions and occupations including medicine, law, science, engineering, computer technology, the arts, social science, government, and teaching at all levels.
According to a recent study of Waldorf graduates:
* 94% attended college or university
* 47% chose humanities or arts as a major
* 42% chose sciences or math as a major
* 89% are highly satisfied in choice of occupation
* 91% are active in lifelong education
* 92% placed a high value on critical thinking
* 90% highly values tolerance of other viewpoints
Eurythmy is the art of movement that attempts to make visible the tone and feeling of music and speech. Eurythmy helps to develop concentration, self-discipline, and a sense of beauty. This training of moving artistically with a group stimulates sensitivity to the other as well as individual mastery. Eurythmy lessons follow the themes of the curriculum, exploring rhyme, meter, story, and geometric forms.
This question often arises because of a parent’s experience of public school education. In most public schools, a teacher works with a class for one, maybe two years. It is difficult for teacher and child to develop the deep human relationship that is the basis for healthy learning if change is frequent.
If a teacher has a class for several years, the teacher and the children come to know and understand each other in a deep way. The children, feeling secure in a long-term relationship, are better able to learn. The interaction of teacher and parents also can become more deep and meaningful over time, and they can cooperate in helping the child.
Problems between teachers and children, and between teachers and parents, can and do arise. When this happens, the faculty studies the situation, involves the teacher and parents—and, if appropriate, the child—and tries to resolve the conflict. If the differences are irreconcilable, the parents might be asked to withdraw the child, or the teacher might be replaced.
In reality, these measures very rarely need to be taken. A Waldorf class is something like a family. If a mother in a family does not get along with her son during a certain time, she does not consider resigning or replacing him with another child. Rather, she looks at the situation and sees what can be done to improve the relationship. In other words, the adult assumes responsibility and tries to change. This same approach is expected of the Waldorf teacher in a difficult situation. In almost every case she must ask herself: “How can I change so that the relationship becomes more positive?” One cannot expect this of the child. With the goodwill and active support of the parents, the teacher concerned can make the necessary changes and restore the relationship to a healthy and productive state.
The class teacher is not the only teacher the children experience. Each day, specialty subject teachers teach the children eurythmy, handcrafts, a foreign language, instrumental music, and so on.
The class teacher is, however, responsible for the two-hour “main lesson” every morning and usually also for one or two lessons later in the day. In the main lesson, he or she brings all the main academic subjects to the children, including language arts, the sciences, history, and mathematics, as well as painting, music, clay modeling, and so on. The teacher does in fact deal with a wide range of subjects, and thus the question is a valid one.
A common misconception in our time is that education is merely the transfer of information. From the Waldorf point of view, true education also involves the awakening of capacities—the ability to think clearly and critically, to empathetically experience and understand phenomena in the world, to distinguish what is beautiful, good, and true. The class teacher walks a path of discovery with the children and guides them into an understanding of the world of meaning, rather than the world of cause and effect.
Waldorf class teachers work very hard to master the content of the various subjects that they teach. But the teacher’s ultimate success lies in his ability to work with those inner faculties that are still “in the bud,” so that they can grow, develop, and open up in a beautiful, balanced, and wholesome way. Through this approach to teaching, the children will be truly prepared for the real world. They are provided then with the tools to productively shape that world out of a free human spirit.