A Closer Look into Waldorf Education
I have always been fascinated by the Waldorf educational system. Waldorf schools offer classical education that integrates experiential and artistic learning, in an environment emphasizing academic excellence, respect for diversity, and reverence for the natural world. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Therese Leaderer and Christina Dixcy, both faculty members at the Housatonic Valley Waldorf School in Newtown, CT. As Waldorf faculty, their mission is to develop each child’s unique capacity to engage meaningfully in the world by inspiring creative thinking, moral sensibility, and passion for learning. Here is some of our conversation about Waldorf education in our modern world.
How does the Waldorf educational philosophy differ from other forms of education?
At its core, the Waldorf pedagogy is based on a profound understanding of human development. Everything we teach is taught at a specific time, in a specific order, so that our students have the needed emotional, physical, and mental capacities that will allow them learn a subject or skill deeply. We like to say that Waldorf education is “on-time learning” (as opposed to, say, “early learning”). The Waldorf curriculum also teaches not only to the intellect, but to the “head, heart, and hands” of each child. We teach with a view of the whole person.
In this day and age of technology, why aren’t computers used in Waldorf classrooms?
First of all, technology changes so rapidly that teaching a child how to use a touch screen today will not necessarily impart a skill they will need to use the technology of tomorrow. We believe that in order to be productive, engaged members of society (computer programmers, if they choose!) our students need to be creative, flexible, collaborative problem solvers. We want them to trust their own minds and abilities first. Unlike the rapid evolution of technology, the human brain still wires itself now the same way it did 100 years ago. If we jump past critical steps in learning and development, we change the way the brain organizes itself to–we believe–its detriment. Additionally, when it comes to use of the Internet in particular, there is such a volume of bad information out there mixed in with the useful, that we prefer to hold off on having our students turn to the Internet as a research tool until they have developed a level of discernment. Our upper grades students do indeed often use the Internet for research purposes. In Waldorf high schools it is not uncommon for students to build their own computers. Very simply put, we are more interested in teaching our students to be producers rather than consumers.
I’ve heard that there is a lot of play in the classroom and outside? What about academics?
There is indeed a lot of play in the early childhood classrooms and even still in the lower grades, but I think it would be a mistake to describe the grade school classrooms as “play-based.” In early childhood, children learn through exercising the will, through “doing.” Creative play is important to this learning both physically and socially. When children are immersed deeply in long-term, group creative play they necessarily exercise problem solving and negotiation skills. They also strengthen their executive function. Of course, play also employs creativity as well! In the grades, the students don’t engage in “play” to the same extent, but many lessons involve movement, which can sometimes look like play. Engaging the body as well as the mind has a huge impact on retention and concentration. Whereas in the early childhood classrooms we teach to the “will” in the grades classrooms we teach to the “feeling” life of our students, so stories (fairy tales, fables, myths) are often used to deliver lessons. Of course, the arts also infuse all of the Waldorf curriculum, which is a sort of play in and of itself. We also recognize the importance of time spent outside in nature, so unlike many schools, we still value outdoor recess.
Will children be behind in their academics and overall learning experience when they leave a Waldorf school and enter another school?
Absolutely not! If our students have not learned a specific subject, they pick it up quickly, and in many areas they will often be ahead of their new peers. They come with a different skill set, one that makes them highly adaptable in new situations. They are never intimidated by learning. In fact, they are inspired by it.
What is actually taught in a Waldorf classroom?
Everything you might expect them to be taught–the “what” of a Waldorf classroom is not unique so much as the “how.” Our students learn to read and write; they learn math, science, and history. They also learn two languages (Spanish and German); they draw, paint, sculpt, play the recorder, and beginning in 3rd grade, play a stringed instrument. Two subjects that are unique to Waldorf schools are form drawing and Eurythmy, both of which serve to orient the child in space, the first in two dimensions, the second in three. As with everything in a Waldorf school, these two disciplines have very practical applications in the development of coordination as well as an aesthetic component.
How are the teachers different in a Waldorf school? Do they receive the same amount of teaching as a public school teacher?
We have teachers from many different backgrounds but all of them attend an accredited Waldorf teacher training program, and participate in ongoing training throughout their careers. Ideally in the elementary grades a Waldorf class teacher stays with their class from first through eighth grade so of course they require specialty training as they approach a new grade.
I’ve heard there isn’t any homework at the Waldorf school – is this true?
Our upper grades students absolutely have homework. In the lower grades, we do not believe homework promotes real learning and can in fact take away from other activities (time spent with their families, time outdoors, time reading or drawing on their own, etc..) that are more beneficial. There is a growing body of evidence that the increase in homework in recent years is a real detriment to student well-being. (See the movie Race to Nowhere!)
With so many young children diagnosed with ADD and ADHD, how does Waldorf education accommodate these students?
This is a hard question to answer, and would really need to be answered on a per-child basis. Our curriculum is not specifically designed for children with ADD, ADHD or other learning challenges. While we do have specialists (our Educational Support Group) who can and do work with children who need extra help, in some cases students are better served by the vast array of services available in the public school system. That said, there are certainly some children who may exhibit ADD or ADHD type symptoms in another educational environment who thrive in a Waldorf school.
Who does Waldorf education cater to? Who is the typical Waldorf student (and family), if there is one?
We have all sorts of families and all sorts of students and I wouldn’t call any of them “typical.” One thing that is important in a Waldorf school is community and I would say that all of our families are committed to being a part of the school community, involvement that can span from something as simple as limiting technology in their home, to being a dedicated school volunteer. All of our families are committed to their children receiving a Waldorf education, in particular. We don’t have many families who are only looking for “a good private school.” But beyond that, they run the gamut of interests and backgrounds.
Why do you see Waldorf education as necessary, in contrast to traditional public education in the U.S.?
At a time when standardize testing has overwhelmed public school teachers and classrooms alike–with tests that were not even written by teachers—Waldorf education and the fundamental tenant of “freedom in teaching” feels more needed than ever before. In a time when student and teacher progress is being measured and classified by machines, we need an education that values the human.
How will Waldorf education prepare children for high-school? For college? For a career and life beyond academia?
A Waldorf student is prepared for life first and foremost by developing a strong sense of self. Walforf students have the foundation to figure out what they want to be when they grow up and forge a path that will get them there. They are confident, resilient, and flexible thinkers. They are self-assured and friendly. They see obstacles as exciting challenges rather than something blocking their path.