Alternative Education: Your Waldorf Questions Answered

You’re looking for a progressive education for your child but the options have you more than confused. You’ve heard some parents tout the wonders of a Waldorf education but need a little more info before you commit. So what exactly is the “Waldorf philosophy” and what can you expect?

The first Waldorf school was started in 1919 at the Waldorf-Astoria Cigarette Company in Stuttgart, Germany by German mystic Rudolf Steiner, the founder of a spiritual movement called anthroposophy. A lecture series at Oxford University led to opening the first Steiner inspired school in England in 1925 and the first school in the United States three years later.

Waldorf schools are the fastest growing independent educational system in the world, with 155 schools in North America and over a thousand worldwide. There are Waldorf-style public schools, charter schools, academies, and also a homeschooling component.

Who was Rudolf Steiner?

Rudolf Steiner was an Austrian philosopher and social reformer who founded an esoteric spiritual movement called anthroposophy. At its core, is the mission to develop imagination, inspiration, and intuition by promoting thinking that’s independent of sensory experience. There is a strong focus on ethics and spirituality, and huge importance is placed on the role of imagination in learning.

Before founding the Waldorf educational approach, Steiner taught history in a German educational initiative for working class adults. His frustration with the then current methods of teaching stemmed from the belief that they focused only on educating the intellect, ignoring other aspects of the pupil like their will and emotional intelligence. As a result, Steiner developed the first Waldorf school to educate the children of the cigarette company’s factory workers.

What is the Waldorf philosophy in a nutshell?

Anthroposophy is the philosophical foundation of any Waldorf school and as such, it defines the educational objective as developing free human beings with a strong spiritual identity. In order to help children achieve this goal, Steiner identified three developmental stages and the appropriate learning strategies for each:

Preschool (0-7 years): The first 7 years are best spent in an environment that replicates a home. Children learn through play, by imitating the practical skills of home life. Formal instruction in reading, writing, arithmetic, and other academic subjects is not introduced until the second phase of development beginning at age 7-14. But exposure to these subjects takes place through dance, mythology, preparation for festivals, art activities, storytelling, and music. Steiner felt that the correct emphasis in education up to age 7 is on imagination and emotional life, with the goal to teach the child that “the world is good.”

Elementary (7-14 years): While the elementary phase does include more formal education, there is still a strong emphasis on imagination, feelings, art, and expression. Much of the academic learning is done through singing, dancing, drama, and crafts. Languages, sciences, and math are taught creatively with focus on a single theme for a month’s time. Children don’t rely on textbooks to learn; instead they work on making their own. The goal for this phase of learning is that “the world is beautiful.”

Secondary (14 years+): During the 14 and up stage of schooling, students are expected to learn through their own thinking and judgment. They are exposed to abstract knowledge and expected to form their own conclusions. The education is more academic, and artistic expression is still integral to learning. The Steiner educational goal for this period of development is to give the young person a sense that “the world is true”. It is hoped they will go into the world as free, independent, creative beings. No educational research has been conducted thus far on whether or not the Waldorf system reaches that goal.

At every stage, students draw, paint, sculpt, sing, or dance to deepen their understanding of the academic material presented. Older students make their textbooks, rather than relying on printed textbooks for learning.

Anthro-What??? Is this a spiritual movement?

What does that mysterious word “anthroposophy” mean and why is it so important to a Waldorf education? Anthroposophy does indeed believe in a spiritual world – one that can be understood intellectually through personal development. As part of educating the child holistically, the Waldorf system aims to awaken not only their intellectual, emotional, cognitive, and social sides – but their spiritual side as well.

To be clear, this is an educational system that originally has its roots in Christian theology but has since expanded to promote pluralistic spirituality. As such, it teaches many local traditions and beliefs, as well as a wide range of religious thought without promoting any single one.

Modern Waldorf schools describe themselves as nonsectarian and nondenominational, with a history rooted in esoteric, mystic Christianity. The school websites tend to emphasize their “truly pluralistic” approach; one which teaches lessons from all faiths. They claim to integrate Steiner’s religious beliefs, yet not promote them.

In some Waldorf schools, your child may be taught daily prayers but they will be called an “opening verse.” Individual Waldorf schools vary in their adherence to Steiner’s spiritual and religious ideas, so check your local school in detail.

So yes, there is definitely a spiritual component to the curriculum. But the degree depends on your individual school.

How is the classroom organized?

Students stay in the same groups with the same teachers for the duration of their Waldorf schooling. Some schools have adopted a flexible interpretation of this model by using specialist teachers as children reach elementary school age. Teachers are seen as role models, as creative, loving authority and as personal mentors. Student/teacher groups establish a quasi-familial relationship which deepens as the years go on.

How will I know how my child is doing?

Part of the teacher’s role is to document the learning of each child in her care. The teacher compiles a portfolio of all your child’s work which will be shown to you and discussed in parent-teacher conferences. Letter grades may be given in the secondary phase of education.

Is there a set curriculum year to year?

Each Waldorf school is governed independently, free to design its own curriculum. But of course underlying anthroposophical guidelines influence the learning. Otherwise, the student’s natural curiosity determines to a large extent what the educational focus will be in the classroom.

Students learn a wide variety of practical arts from gardening to woodworking, knitting, pattern-making, and the like. The core curriculum does also contain traditional subjects like language arts, algebra, geometry, biology, physics, chemistry, etc., that you would find in most schools. Computers and other electronic media are generally absent from the classroom. Games and sports activities are not competitive in the lower grades, and children are taught two languages from their early years.

What are the criticisms and controversies?

In general, students who have gone through the Waldorf system are found to be highly enthusiastic learners. They generally report enjoying school and have a positive outlook on the future. Waldorf students also tend to score very highly on creative thinking ability and feel they have had the opportunity to discover their academic strengths.

On the other hand, Waldorf schools are known for teaching scientific inaccuracies with a curriculum that includes dubious scientific materials. The influence of anthroposophy is thought to be the cause. Yet, students do still exhibit a higher interest in learning sciences despite the inaccuracies in the teaching.

Additionally, many former Waldorf teachers have publicly announced that they were instructed to incorporate Steiner’s religious beliefs into everyday teaching without identifying them as such. Some parents also complain about the religious/spiritual instruction, which isn’t always clearly labeled as Steiner’s own philosophy but sometimes presented as “truths”.

Finally, when it comes to health and safety, Waldorf schools in the US have been identified as having dense populations of unvaccinated children, making them at risk for outbreaks of highly contagious diseases.

Are you considering a Waldorf school for your children? Why or why not?

Tags : preschool   toddlers   Waldorf   

Valerie Rivas
Great quote! Xoxo