How Waldorf Education Works

What is Waldorf education?
Are Waldorf schools accredited?
The Association of Waldorf Schools of North America (AWSNA) is an accrediting body under the National Council for Private School Accreditation (NCPSA). Waldorf schools can elect to become accredited by completing a formal evaluation process. Ashwood has elected to become a full member of and accredited by AWSNA. Joint accreditation between AWSNA and the regional accreditation team such as ISA (Independent Schools Association) or NEASC (New England Association of Schools and Colleges), to name two of the seventeen approved crediting agencies in North America, are also possible. Ashwood Waldorf School has been accredited by NEASC (New England Association of Schools and Colleges) since 2002. Ashwood is also a member of the Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America (WECAN).

How is reading taught at a Waldorf School?
The training of the powers of the intellect begin in Kindergarten with the cultivation of pictorial thinking. This foundation for reading begins by hearing stories and afterwards capturing the inner images in large colorful pictures with crayons. This enriches and encourages the rich landscape of the child’s imagination and gives him/her confidence in their own abilities of cognition. Developmentally this process becomes focused within each child as an individual. Waldorf schools have no requirement when a child must read. Instead, the love of reading is encouraged through analytic, global, phonemic awareness and whole language approaches. The child is led from the whole to the parts. They hear a story, become inwardly connected with the content and then they write a summary which becomes their “reader.” Next, books with controlled vocabulary are introduced and the children exercise their skills in small reading groups until they are able to read independently.

Why do Waldorf schools introduce formal reading instruction in Second Grade?
There is evidence that normal, healthy children who learn to read relatively late are not disadvantaged by this, but rather are able quickly to catch up with, and may overtake, children who have learned to read early. Additionally, they are much less likely to develop the “tiredness toward reading” that many children taught to read at a very early age experience later on. Instead there is lively interest in reading and learning that continues into adulthood. Some children will, out of themselves, want to learn to read at an early age. This interest can and should be met, as long as it comes in fact from the child. Early imposed formal instruction in reading can be a handicap in later years, when enthusiasm toward reading and learning may begin to falter.

If reading is not pushed, a healthy child will pick it up quite quickly and easily. Some Waldorf parents become anxious if their child is slow to learn to read. Eventually these same parents are overjoyed at seeing their child pick up a book and not put it down and become from that moment a voracious reader. Each child has his or her own optimal time for “taking off.” Feelings of anxiety and inferiority may develop in a child who is not reading as well as her peers. Often this anxiety is picked up from parents concerned about the child’s progress. It is important that parents should deal with their own and their child’s apprehensions.

Human growth and development do not occur in a linear fashion, nor can they be measured. What lives, grows, and has its being in human life can only be grasped with that same human faculty that can grasp the invisible metamorphic laws of living nature.

Why do the students ideally stay with one teacher for all eight grades?
Between the ages of seven and fourteen, children learn best through acceptance and emulation of authority, just as in their 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, the 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/her class.

Will my child be taught by any other teachers while at school?
The class teacher is not the only teacher the children experience. Each day, specialty subject teachers teach the children handcrafts, a foreign language, instrumental music, forming arts, and so on. Ashwood class teachers also teach other classes, for example, one teacher might teach another class math, while their own class is taught language arts from another teacher. The class teacher is, however, responsible for the two-hour “main lesson” every morning and usually also for one or two lessons later in the day. In the main lesson, she brings all the main academic subjects to the children, including language arts, the sciences, history, and mathematics, as well as painting, music, clay modeling, and so on.

Are Waldorf schools religious?
Waldorf schools are non-sectarian and non-denominational. They educate all children, regardless of their cultural or religious backgrounds. The pedagogical method is comprehensive, and, as part of its task, seeks to bring about recognition and understanding of all the world cultures and religions. Waldorf schools are not part of any church. They espouse no particular religious doctrine but are based on a belief that there is a spiritual dimension to the human being and to all of life. Waldorf families come from a broad spectrum of religious traditions and interest. Waldorf schools do, however, recognize and honor the child as an evolving spiritual being and they do recognize the four turning points of the year (Michaelmas/Hannakah, Winter Solstice/Christmas, Spring Equinox/Easter, Summer Solstice/St. John’s Tide) and their festivals.

What would happen if my child struggles academically?
Waldorf schools hesitate to categorize children, particularly in terms such as “slow” or “gifted.” A given child’s weaknesses in one area, whether cognitive, emotional or physical, will usually be balanced by strengths in another area. It is the teacher’s job to try to bring the child’s whole being into balance. A child having difficulty with the material might be given extra help by the teacher or by parents; tutoring might also be arranged. In either case, the teacher works closely with the parent to address the child’s needs.

Why do Waldorf schools recommend the limiting of television, videos, and radio for young children?
A central aim of Waldorf education is to stimulate the healthy development of the child’s own imagination. Waldorf teachers experience that electronic media hampers the development of the child’s imagination. They are concerned about the physical effects of the medium on the developing child as well as the content of much of the programming. There is a growing body of evidence substantiating these concerns. See Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don’t Think and Failure To Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds For Better and Worse by Jane Healy; Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander; The Plug-In Drug by Marie Winn; and Evolution’s End: Claiming The Potential of Our Intelligence by Joseph Chilton Pearce. For additional information, visit our Resources page.

What does Waldorf say about computers in education?
Waldorf teachers feel the appropriate age for computer use in the classroom and by students is in high school. They feel it is more important for students to have the opportunity to interact with one another and with teachers in exploring the world of ideas, participating in the creative process, and developing their knowledge, skills, abilities, and inner qualities. Waldorf students have a love of learning, an ongoing curiosity, and interest in life. As older students, they quickly master computer technology, and graduates have successful careers in the computer industry. For additional reading, please see Fools Gold on the Alliance For Childhood’s web site, and The Future Does Not Compute by Steven Talbot.

How well will my child transition into high school?
Nearly all do well after a period of adjustment. It takes a few months for them to adapt to the use of textbooks and the taking of standardized tests. On the other hand, they often find themselves ahead of their peers initially in the areas of history, natural sciences, creative writing, public speaking, visual arts, music, movement, and social skills. More important, they bring with them an unusual passion for learning; a respect for other people, cultures, and points of view; and a desire to make a meaningful difference in the world.

High school teachers from public and independent schools have told us that our graduates raise the intellectual bar in their classrooms, that they are naturally curious and respectful, and that they know how to use their many talents to advance the common goals of the group.

How does Waldorf compare to Montessori?
These two educational philosophies actually started with a similar goal: to design a curriculum that was developmentally appropriate to the child and that addressed the child’s need to learn in a tactile as well as an intellectual way. Maria Montessori did her early work with street children in Italy who lived too much in their limbs and not enough in their heads. Rudolf Steiner’s work began with children in Germany who lived too much in their heads and not enough in their limbs.

A fundamental difference between these two forms of schooling has to do with the role of the teacher. Montessori teachers act primarily as facilitators, intervening only when a child requests help with an independent learning activity that has been selected by the student. In a Waldorf classroom, on the other hand, the teacher is an authority who leads the class in a variety of teacher-directed activities. This means that Waldorf children participate in activities such as singing or acting or math games or juggling that they may not have chosen to do on their own. Balance, rather than specialization, is encouraged.

In the social realm, Montessori students are taught not to interrupt their peers while they are working, but are encouraged to help younger children complete a task with which they are unfamiliar. Waldorf education, on the other hand, puts particular emphasis on the development of the young child within a group. Barbara Shell, a teacher who worked in public, Montessori, and Waldorf schools, put it this way:

“Waldorf teachers orchestrate this [social] development by modeling good social behavior with their children, by getting the children to join together in movement activities, by introducing songs and games that develop group consciousness, and by helping children learn to work through disagreements.”

Another distinction between Waldorf and Montessori preschool programs involves the role of fantasy play. According to Ms. Shell:

“In Montessori, there is a feeling that because young children have difficulty distinguishing between reality and fantasy, fantasy should be postponed until the child is firmly grounded in reality. The tasks and activities the children do are reality-oriented. . . . . In Montessori, each manipulative material has a step-by-step procedure for being used and is focused toward a specific learning concept. Example: Math counting rods are not to be transformed into castle walls. In Waldorf, we feel that it is essential to realize the value of toys to help children to re-enact experiences from life as they actually happen. The less finished and the more suggestive a toy may be, the greater its educational value. . . .Toys in the Waldorf kindergarten may be rounds of wood cut from birch logs, seashells, lengths of colored silk or cotton for costuming or house building, soft cloth dolls with a minimum of detail in faces or clothing, allowing for open-ended imaginative play.”

As Ms. Shell pointed out in her writings, both Waldorf and Montessori teachers recognize that a child longs for rhythm and order in the world. But they interpret this need in quite different ways. Madame Montessori described the classroom as a place where children are free to move about at will and where the day is not divided between work periods and rest or play periods. Protection of the child’s choice is a key element of the Montessori method.

In contrast, Waldorf teachers see the child thriving in a rhythmical atmosphere created by the teacher that includes a balance of what we call “inbreathing” and “outbreathing” activities. In a Waldorf kindergarten, Ms. Shell said, “there are times for coming together and working as a whole group, and times for playing individually or with a few friends. There are times for directed activity like crafts or baking or painting and times for creative play-acting of a story through movement. There are times for doing finger games and times for watching a puppet show.” Students in a Waldorf classroom know what to count on from day to day and week to week.

A regular rhythm of age-appropriate activities is also employed in the elementary school. Each morning lesson has a three-step rhythm that includes recall of previously presented material, presentation of new material, and independent work. Similarly, each day and each week have a rhythm of more intensive and less intensive activities. A concentrated rehearsal of a Shakespeare play, for instance, may be followed by a 45-minute scrimmage on the basketball court.

Eventually these external rhythms are internalized by the child, so that he or she is able to take up and complete the more challenging tasks of later life with purpose and conviction.