With more than 900 Waldorf schools and 1,600 Waldorf early childhood programs on five continents, Waldorf Education is truly global-not only in its scope, but also in its approach. Wherever it is found, the Waldorf curriculum cultivates within its students a deep appreciation for cultural traditions from around the world while all the while being deeply rooted in its local culture and context.
A few years ago, the Bonn government in Germany, commissioned an independent study of the Waldorf movement. Researchers found that graduates of Waldorf high schools achieve “an educational plateau well above the average.” The Kimberton Waldorf School in Pennsylvania surveyed its high school alumni and found 23% were engaged in corporate or private business, 22% had entered scientific, technological, or medical professions, 16% had become educators, 16% were active in the arts, teaching, or journalism, and 10% had gone into law.
Anthroposophy is a spiritual philosophy developed mainly by Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf Education, at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. It is a human oriented spiritual philosophy that reflects and speaks to the basic, deep spiritual questions of humanity. While the philosophy is one of the underpinnings of the education, it is not taught in the classroom. Rudolph Steiner stated clearly, “We are not aiming at education for the sake of any special dogma.”
Academic instruction is very strong in Waldorf Education. The academic program does not differ greatly in content from that of many other schools. The differences are a matter of organization and presentation. Some subjects are taught at different ages than most other schools and there are differences in emphasis. The material is presented using an approach in which the material is first encountered, then experienced, and finally out of experience the concept crystallizes. This method has resulted in a strong reputation internationally for academic excellence.
Art is a keystone of the Waldorf curriculum, with artistic activities woven into the entire curriculum. Art is not a compartmentalized “lesson” presented without any relationship to the rest of the curriculum. It is an element not only of every activity in the curriculum, but even of every moment spent in the school experience.
The Waldorf curriculum focuses on oral tradition in the early years. Stories are told, not read, by teachers. This storytelling creates a strong connection with the teacher and sparks the imagination in untold ways. Reading instruction begins in the first grade when studies have shown the children to be ready for it. This skill is acquired with relative ease if taught at the right developmental stage. Some worry this will hamper children’s academic success, but many studies have concluded that earlier introduction of reading does not improve outcomes, and in fact often times leads to greater struggle and frustration.
Instruction begins with the acquisition of a firm grounding in writing through the exploration of how our alphabet came about. The children discover each letter in the same way that its form evolved with the ancients, out of a pictograph. Each letter has a story and the children make related drawings in their lesson books. In this way each letter is brought to life. Thus writing comes out of the children’s art and their ability to read evolves naturally.
Subjects taught in blocks are those in which the goal is to instill concepts, processes and thought. The process of “forgetting”, having space in between blocks of instruction, is part of the process of assimilating the material and sorting out the “facts”. Because the curriculum is cumulative and comprehensive, the children return to each block later on. Other subjects such as English, Arithmetic and Foreign Languages require constant study, and these are taught continuously rather then in blocks.
In the early grades no homework or testing is given. The teacher is always attuned to the students’ progress and shares this information through parent-teacher conferences, individual communication with the family as needed, and thorough end-of-year reports that offer detailed accounts of the students’ progress. Assigned outside work becomes relevant at about the fourth or fifth grade. Such work must be worthy of the student’s time and something in which he or she may take pride. Quizzes in areas such as arithmetic, spelling and foreign language vocabulary are given at the teacher’s option. End of block tests are common after grade 5. Grades are often introduced in grade 7 or 8 as part of the student’s preparation for going on into higher education.
Waldorf teachers prefer that young children not be exposed to TV or computers for many reasons. The developing child is simply too young to cope with the physical effects of these media, not to mention their impact on the child’s imaginative faculties. They often offer inappropriate models for imitative learning and they substitute electronic for human authority. By adolescence, TV and computers are felt to be more appropriate. “There is nothing that ‘isn’t Waldorf. It’s just a question of when,” according to Donald Bufano, former chair of the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America.
At the heart of the Waldorf curriculum is the recognition of just how much children change from year to year. The Waldorf lesson plan places pivotal importance on appreciating deeply, not just intellectually, each age-level’s mental, emotional and physical nature. For each grade it ensures that the material presented, and how it is presented, is precisely attuned to the age group. It sees the teaching process as an art, and it sees the teacher in the role of an artist.
All the children in the same age group study the same subjects at the same time. The challenge is to make sure it is the right material for the age group, presented in the right way. That is the art of being a Waldorf teacher. And while the children may be studying the same subject one child will often be given a more challenging assignment than another. However, the substance will be the same for both.
From the outside, a Waldorf school may appear little different from most other public or private schools. Stepping inside the Waldorf classroom, a host of crucial differences become apparent. The rooms are designed to create the proper feeling for the child’s level of development and stage of learning. In the children’s work on display an artistic quality catches the eye – whether the subject is watercolor painting or writing, clay modeling or geometry. The world of nature and of natural objects is present. The children’s “main lesson” books, their artwork, their handcraft projects – all reflect a budding appreciation for the world’s beauty and a developing pride in each one’s ability to achieve a self-expression with artistic assurance.
As a rule, and especially in the schools accepted for membership in the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America (AWSNA), class teachers have a university degree and teaching certification from a recognized Waldorf Teacher Training Center.
The purpose is to provide continuity and authority. In the elementary school, especially in the early years, the broadening of the child’s horizon beyond home and family are just beginning, and the class becomes a type of “family” as well, with its authority figure – the teacher – in a role analogous to parent. Strong relationships are built and strengthened over time.
Most all children are well suited to Waldorf Education. However, the question is not so much whether the child can thrive but rather, are the parents supportive? A clear understanding of and commitment to the education by the parent determines, more than any other factor, the child’s success at the school. Waldorf schools are conscientiously non-exclusive and hold the ideal of cultural and socioeconomic diversity.
Difficulties coming into a Waldorf school are rare, although the child may have some catching up to do in, say, the foreign languages being taught or in learning to play the recorder; experience has shown that few remain behind for very long. Waldorf schools do often advise parents that transfers out should be avoided during the first two grades because of the deferred emphasis on reading.
When children look forward to school and are stimulated by their lessons, discipline problems are less frequent and less serious. In the early, imitative years, indirect methods, such as the telling of a story based on the same offense and offering a moral outcome, often produce dramatic results. Later on, more specific approaches might be taken, but it is important that the corrective action be productive and appropriate to the transgression. Waldorf teachers are careful to understand each child, particularly in terms of their temperaments. A corrective action or punishment appropriate for one child might not work for another. Some instances of misbehavior are indicative of deeper problems that may require the teacher and parents working together to help find the underlying causes and the best means of correcting them.
The Waldorf School of Santa Barbara receives no state financial assistance, and relies on tuition and private contributions for support. At our school we have put in place an “Accessible to All” (ATA) program. The goal of this program is to offer the education to all children who seek it, regardless of their financial situation. Families unable to pay the suggested tuition work together with the school to establish a payment plan that is both responsible and workable for all.
Each school’s faculty is an independent body, sharing collectively the responsibility for the school and its pedagogy with guidance derived from the general curriculum of the Waldorf plan. There is no “head teacher” but one member is usually selected to serve as “faculty chair” for a prescribed term. Most schools also have a professional administrator. The faculty has full authority over its members for purposes of appointment and performance monitoring. The schools are organized as non-profit corporations according to their own state’s laws. Usually a Board of Trustees or Directors comprised of teachers, parents, and community leaders, has responsibility for the fiscal integrity of the school.