What Is Waldorf Education?

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Waldorf education is a unique and distinctive approach to educating children that is practiced worldwide.  Waldorf schools collectively form the largest group of independent private schools in the world.  There is no centralized administrative structure governing all Waldorf schools; each is administratively independent, but there are some established associations which provide resources, publish materials, sponsor conferences, and promote the movement.

Waldorf education and the philosophies that lie behind it were developed by an Austrian man named Rudolf Steiner.  (For more information on Rudolph Steiner and his philosophies, please visit Waldorf Answers – Who Was Rudolph Steiner). Steiner’s original and sometimes revolutionary ideas have borne fruit throughout the world.  Sounding through these ideas is the central importance of spiritual development as the foundation for healthy social, artistic, and scientific initiative.  This is what led to the beginnings of Waldorf education.  In 1919, Steiner was invited to give a series of lectures to the workers of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany.  As a result, the factory’s owner, Emil Molt, asked Steiner to establish and lead a school for the children of the factory’s employees.  Steiner agreed to do so on four conditions: the school should be open to all children, it should be co-educational, it should be a unified twelve year school, and that the teachers, those who would be working directly with the children, should take the leading role in the running of the school, with a minimum of interference from governmental or economic concerns.  Molt agreed to the conditions and after a training period for the prospective teachers, die Freie Waldorfschule (The Free Waldorf School) was opened September 7, 1919.

Waldorf education now includes schools on every continent and has grown to become the world’s largest independent, non-denominational school system that goes through all the grades.  Waldorf is a system that recognizes and meets the need for strong development of the intellect and it is committed to excellence in all basic academic skills.  It provides a full introduction to the classics, foreign languages, history, geography, mathematics, and science.  Waldorf sees these subjects as the ones today’s child needs as a foundation for tomorrow’s complex and challenging civilization.

Even though every Waldorf school is independent, all share a core of curriculum, methods and beliefs, including the idea that a fulfilled and creative life involves considerably more than mental development or the ability to earn a living.  Important as these things are, every child also needs the balance provided by strong and healthy development in the life of will (the ability to get things done) and in the life of feeling (emotions, aesthetics, and social sensitivity).  Waldorf’s time tested pedagogy is designed to address the whole child: head, heart and hands.  It stimulates the mind with the full spectrum of traditional academic subjects.  It nurtures healthy emotional development by conveying knowledge experientially as well as academically.  It works with the hands throughout the day, both in primary academic subjects and in a broad range of artistic handwork and craft activities.

Waldorf schools strive to awaken and enable capacities, rather than to merely impose intellectual content on the child.  Learning becomes much more than acquisition of quantities of information, learning becomes an engaging voyage of discovery of the world and of oneself. A Waldorf education is meant to be the beginning of a lifelong love of learning.  Many people may wonder what is so different about Waldorf that makes it so unique from other alternatives.  The best overall statement on what is unique about Waldorf education is to be found in the stated goals of the schooling: “to produce individuals who are able, in and of themselves, to impart meaning to their lives.”  

The uniqueness of the Waldorf curriculum lies primarily in how and when children are taught, rather than in what is taught.  In presenting material, first comes the encounter, then encounter becomes experience, and out of experience crystallizes the concept.  Perception, feeling, and idea are the three steps in the genuine learning process that prepares the intellect for the abstract and conceptual thinking which will become possible later, in adolescence.

Waldorf Schools are organized to make the relationship between student and teacher as fruitful as possible.  After all, Waldorf teachers are dedicated to creating a genuine love of learning within each child.  In the elementary grades, this is accomplished by the unique class teacher/main lesson system.  Each morning the children spend the first period of the day, the two hour main lesson, with their class teacher.  During this time when young minds are freshest, they will intensely study a block from one of the core subjects.  In this way the rhythm of the day begins with work which requires the most attention, and each academic subject can receive special focus during the course of the year.  The class teacher has time to enter each subject in depth and to approach it in a variety of ways.  He or she may enliven each topic with poetry, painting, modeling, or a drama.  Thus, intellectual learning is always combined with artistic, rhythmical and practical work.  After about a month, when one topic has been fully explored, a new main lesson block is introduced.

Subjects which require regular repetition in shorter lessons (foreign languages, for example) occupy the later part of the morning.  Afternoons are devoted to activities that are more social in nature: games and sports, painting, handwork, and gardening.  Boys and girls learn crocheting and knitting, simple sewing and woodwork.  There is a wonderful coordination and harmony of subject material throughout the Waldorf curriculum.  What is being taken up in each main lesson block appears in subtle ways in the activities of the afternoon.  The challenges of handwork and the fine arts are treated not as separate, unimportant options or electives but as vital parts of a complete education. 

Two great rhythms work concurrently in the Waldorf grade school: the daily rhythm of lessons and the rhythm of seasonal festivals celebrated throughout the year.  The student of this age needs the ordering quality of rhythmic activity in order to develop the security and confidence necessary for academic achievement and self-disciplined work habits. 

There are many other features which make Waldorf education a distinctive way of educating children and young adults.  The first is that academics are de-emphasized in the early years of schooling.  There is no academic content in the Waldorf Kindergarten experience and minimal academics in first grade.  Reading is not taught until second or third grade though the letters are introduced in first and second grade.  Although reading is not stressed, cultural literacy is a key concern throughout the Waldorf program.  From kindergarten through high school, students learn poems, stories, and historical cultural information from all over the world.  Workbooks and textbooks are skewed in favor of direct study of Greek and Babylonian myths, Aesops fables, Shakespeare, the Renaissance, botany, Arthurian legends, Hindu epic poetry, and the discovery of the New World, among a wealth of other subjects. 

The guiding premise of Waldorf education is summed up by M.C. Richards, author of Towards Wholeness: Rudolf Steiner Education in America:  Childhood is the time to store the memory with cultural riches, which later can be conceptualized and subjected to independent judgment and criticism.  The Waldorf approach to the basics is also in keeping with current theory that early learning should be multisensory, acquired not only through sound and sight but also through imagination, touch, movement, and feeling.  All the senses are engaged to teach the three R’s.  Color plays a major role, and children do most academic writing with brightly hued pencils and crayons.  Movement activities are incorporated with mathematics and reading: to learn multiples for the times tables, students march around the room clapping and counting out loud, and they act out the week’s reading in skits.  Vivid images are used to teach the alphabet – for example, the letter S might be introduced through the metaphor a snake.  The children might here a story about a snake, put on a play about it, paint a picture of it, or mold a snake out of beeswax – and in the process they would see that a snake can assume the shape of a S and that it also makes a similar sound.”

Another distinctive feature of Waldorf education is that during the elementary years, the students have a class teacher for the main lesson who stays with the same class for the entire eight years of elementary school.  The Waldorf philosophy is grounded in the idea that between the ages of seven and fourteen, children learn best through acceptance and emulation of authority, just as in the earlier years they learned through imitation.  In elementary school, particularly in the lower grades, the child is just beginning to expand his or her experience beyond home and family.  The class becomes a type of family as well, with its own authority figure, the teacher, in a role analogous to parent.  With this approach, students and teachers come to know each other very well, and the teacher is able to find over the years the best ways of helping individual children in their schooling.  The class teacher also becomes like an additional family member for most of the families in his or her class.  A very common concern among parents is how personality conflicts between students and teachers are handled.  In practice, this situation seems to arise very rarely, especially so when the teacher has been able to establish a relationship with the class right from the first grade.  Given the sort of person who is motivated to become a Waldorf teacher, incompatibility with a child is infrequent.  Understanding the child’s need and temperament is central to the teacher’s role and training.  If problems of this sort should occur, the faculty as a whole would work with the teacher and the family to determine and undertake whatever corrective action would be in the best interests of the child and of the class.

The final unique feature of a Waldorf education stem from the idea that Waldorf is a noncompetitive activity.  There are no grades given at the elementary level.  Instead, the teacher writes a detailed evaluation of the child at the end of each school year.  Along with the noncompetitive environment goes the discouraging of the use of electronic media, particularly television, and most importantly by young children.  The content of television programs is questionable in the eyes of the Waldorf educators and can lead to competition in the classroom.  Educators also believe that there are physical effects on the developing child by hampering the child’s imagination – a faculty which is believed to be central to the healthy development of the individual.  Computer use is also discouraged for this reason.  (For more information please see my posts on The Waldorf View of Television Part 1 and Part 2.)

Waldorf education is a successful holistic education model designed to provide the right stimulus at the right time and allow each child’s abilities to fully unfold.  The early childhood, elementary and high school curriculum, working out of the philosophy and methods of its founder, recognizes that as children pass though different developmental stages, specific forces and capabilities are at work and so children have very particular needs from the adults around them.  For Waldorf enthusiasts, the true meaning of education is to lead out rather than put in.  Waldorf Education is dedicated to awakening the faculties that lie dormant within each child, thereby preparing young people to discover with in themselves the strength, enthusiasm, and wisdom to bring out the best qualities in children.

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  1. says

    I am thrilled that you are writing about Waldorf as this is the educational philosophy that I resonated with the most as well! When in college in Early Childhood Education, I did some research into the system for a project and visited the two local established school in my area and was blown away by how HAPPY and KNOWLEDGEABLE the children in those school were. Since then I have become adamant that my children will attend this school and no other. I’m so excited for your new posts on the subject!

  2. says

    Thanks so much for writing this, Jennifer.

    In reading, it occurred to me that we’re pretty good complements of one another/near opposites in some respects. You write about Waldorf, I write about Montessori. You write about traditional foods and I write about veganism, but boy do I ever respect you and enjoy hearing your perspective! That says a lot! I’m grateful to have you in my “network!” <3

  3. Jenn @ Monkey Butt Junction says

    I love when you answer questions that I haven’t yet asked. We’re starting to open discussions on how we want our son’s education to evolve, and Waldorf is something we are beginning to research.

  4. African Babies Don't Cry says

    Thanks for this thorough introduction. I stumbled across Waldorf about two years ago and fell in love with its ways. Im looking forward to reading your future posts in this segment 😉

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