Waldorf Education is a child-centered alternative education approach that focuses on developing an individual's innate abilities throughout the schooling years. Begun in Germany in 1919 by Rudolf Steiner, Waldorf teaching methods are based on Anthroposophy, a philosophy that views each child as a threefold being-spirit, soul and body-who unfolds in three developmental stages on the way to adulthood. Waldorf's child-centered educational approach is radically different in concept and methodology from mainstream public schooling.
Keywords Alternative Education; Anthroposophy; Child-Centered Education; Independent Schools; Non-Traditional Education; Private Education; Progressive Education; Public Education; Waldorf Education
An alternative to public education that became established in the U.S. in the mid-nineteenth century to support the needs of a developing industrial society, Waldorf Education is a child-centered methodology that focuses on developing an individual's innate abilities.
Under the public school model, education is provided for children of the general public to build loyal citizens and an effective workforce that fulfills the needs of an evolving society. Characteristics of public education include compulsory student attendance (to a certain age) and government control over schooling content (the curriculum), teacher certification and achievement standards.
The roots of the first alternative education movement came from three European philosopher-educators-Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, and Friedrich Froebel. Their emphasis on the innate potential of human nature strongly influenced two European educational pioneers who designed teaching methods based on these philosophies-Maria Montessori was an Italian pediatrician who opened her first "children's home" in 1907; and Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher, who developed a spiritual science, Anthroposophy, which he applied in the first Waldorf School in 1919 (Miller, 2007).
Barnes (2007) describes the origination of Waldorf Education as beginning in Germany after World War I. Defeated in war, Germany was involved in economic, social, and political chaos. Rudolf Steiner was a spokesman for social renewal and promoted a new way of organizing political and cultural life. The owner of the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory asked Steiner to lead a school for the children of the employees of the company. Steiner agreed but set up conditions which were not in keeping with current common schooling: the school would be open to all children; it would be coeducational; it would be a unified twelve-year school; and the teachers would have control of the school, with minimum interference from the state or from economic sources. The owner agreed to Steiner's conditions and the first Waldorf School was opened on September 7, 1919.
Rooted in the philosophies of Aristotle, Plato, and Thomas Aquinas, a basic tenet of Steiner's Anthroposophy is that each individual-regardless of gender, race, or physical and mental characteristics-has innate ability that, when allowed to develop naturally, will lead to individual fulfillment throughout life (Mays & Nordwall, 2006a).
The Waldorf education model is based on a belief that when children relate what they learn to their own experience, they are interested and alive, and what they learn becomes their own. Each child is viewed as a threefold being-spirit, soul and body-who unfolds in three developmental stages-early childhood, middle childhood, and adolescence-on the way to adulthood (Barnes, 2007). Though Anthroposophy is not taught in Waldorf schools, it serves as a guide for teachers to respect that each child is not an empty box to be filled with information, but a human being with individual potential to be actualized over many years (Woodard, 2005).
The goal of Waldorf Education is to produce individuals who are able, in and of themselves, to impart meaning to their lives. The focus of Waldorf schooling is to educate the whole child-head, heart and hands. Waldorf teachers are dedicated to creating a genuine love of learning within each child and to balancing academic subjects with artistic and practical activities (Mays & Nordwall, 2006b).
Characteristics of Waldorf Schooling
Academics are de-emphasized in the early childhood phase of Waldorf schooling. For example, there is no academic content in the Waldorf kindergarten experience and minimal academics in first grade. Literacy readiness begins in kindergarten with formal reading instruction beginning in grade one. Most children are reading independently by the middle or end of second grade. During the middle childhood years (grades 1-8) Waldorf students have a main lesson teacher. It is considered ideal, although not always feasible, that this teacher stays with the same class for the entire eight years. Most Waldorf students enter secondary education at about the age of fourteen. Then education is taken over by specialist teachers and focuses more strongly on academic subjects, structured to help students develop a sense of competence, to foster an understanding of ethical principles, and to build a sense of social responsibility.
Certain activities are central at Waldorf schools and include art, music, gardening, and foreign languages (usually two in elementary grades). In the younger grades, all subjects are introduced through artistic mediums. All children learn to play the recorder and to knit. There are no traditional textbooks as in the first through fifth grades. Students produce their own textbooks which record their learning experiences. In upper grades, Waldorf students commonly use standard textbooks to supplement skills development, especially in mathematics and grammar.
Learning in a Waldorf school is a noncompetitive activity. There are no grades given at the elementary level. Rather, the teacher writes a detailed evaluation of the child at the end of each school year. The use of electronic media-including computers and television-by young children is discouraged in Waldorf schools.
Waldorf education in North America celebrated its 75th Anniversary in 2003. There are more than 800 Waldorf schools in 40 countries. Over 150 schools are affiliated with the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America (www.awsna.org) that has a mission to further Waldorf education by assisting Waldorf schools and supporting Waldorf teacher certification centers.
Waldorf's child-centered educational approach is radically different in concept and methodology from mainstream public schooling. To illustrate how Waldorf education is unlike traditional education, Chauncey (2006), a Waldorf teacher for 14 years, describes how education takes place in Waldorf classrooms. Her first example relates to developing concepts and critical thinking skills in a science class. She explains that in traditional classrooms, the typical approach is that the teacher will explain a concept to be studied and then use hands-on activity to illustrate the concept.
Inside the Waldorf Classroom
In contrast, Chauncey explains, in a Waldorf science lesson, the concept comes at the end, not at the beginning. When middle school Waldorf students study physics and chemistry, the teacher does a demonstration, without naming a concept or giving definitions. The essential task for the teacher is to allow the phenomenon created in the demonstration to engage the students through all their senses and feelings. In a three-week 7th grade study of the chemistry of combustion, for example, the Waldorf teacher began by building a fire in an ash-pan set on firebricks on a fireproof demonstration table. Most students had prior experience with sitting by a fire and the classroom offered an opportunity to gain knowledge from their experience. The teacher guided them to carefully observe the smoke, the rising currents of air that could be seen to spin a pinwheel, the texture and tactile qualities of charcoal and ash and thereby to derive the essential qualities of burning.
Chuncey (2006) writes that typically in the Waldorf science class, when the demonstration is completed, the class turns to related work, such as writing up a narrative report or completing a journal entry about the demonstration. Then, in a group exercise, the class describes their observations, raises questions and might repeat the experiment to crystallize the crucial concepts of combustion. Because the science lesson begins with direct experience-rather than facts-the learner has space to reflect, to question, to create meaning from an individual experience, and to share understanding with others, rather than just accept information, memorize it, and be tested.
There are no textbooks throughout the entire science course. Instead, each student works to create and compile a personal portfolio...
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