Frequently Asked Questions 

 

What is the difference between Waldorf education and Montessori education?

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

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 interests.

How do the Creative Arts fit in?

Prairie Moon Waldorf School is not an art school. It is an academic school that fully integrates the arts into the teaching of a unique curriculum that surpasses all standard educational learning goals and benchmarks. As education research continues to bear out, the inclusion of arts increases aptitude and creative thinking in the traditional hard logic areas such as math and science. Art is used as an intensifier for academic learning. The visual and performing arts are not compartmentalized lessons presented without any relationship to the rest of the curriculum. Rather they are integral, not only to every activity in the curriculum, but also to every moment spent in school.

Why do Waldorf schools teach reading later than in public schools?

There is evidence that normal, healthy children who learn to read relatively later than their public school peers are not disadvantaged by this, but rather are able quickly to catch up with, and may overtake, children who have learned to read earlier. 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, 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.

—From “Five Frequently Asked Questions” by Colin Price; originally printed in Renewal Magazine, Spring/Summer 2003

Are Waldorf students overprotected?

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The school strives to shelter younger children from the distractions of popular culture and from negative influences, particularly because it is important to nurture their magical connection to life and their sense of total safety. Allowing children to develop awareness naturally serves to strengthen them for later accomplishments and challenges. Education is not a race, and childhood is a precious time. Waldorf education supports and reinforces these values.

What is your music curriculum like?

Music is the thread that weaves the academic day together. Preschool and kindergarten children sing with their teachers at circle time and during most transition periods. Nearly all teachers play musical instruments of one kind or another. Music education is not always available to children in non-Waldorf schools but vocal and instrumental music permeates and is integral to life in a Waldorf school. The joy of song and movement are part of every day in early childhood/mixed-age kindergarten classes (ages 3-6). In the first and second grades children sing and learn to play the pentatonic flute. In the third grade the recorder and stringed instruments such as the violin are introduced and carried on throughout middle school. Music is taught in a Waldorf school not only for the joy it engenders, but also because it develops a strong harmonizing effect into the life of the class as a whole.

What is Eurythmy?

Eurythmy is the art of movement that attempts to make visible the tone and feeling of music and speech. Eurythmy helps to develop concentration, self-discipline, and a sense of beauty. This training of moving artistically with a group stimulates sensitivity to the other as well as individual mastery. Eurythmy lessons follow the themes of the curriculum, exploring rhyme, meter, story, and geometric forms.

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 educators observe that electronic media hampers the development of the child’s imagination. They see the physical effects of the media on the developing child as well as the content of much of the programming.

There is more and more research to substantiate these concerns. See:

  • Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don’t Think by Jane Healy

  • 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

Evolution’s End: Claiming The Potential of Our Intelligence by Joseph Chilton Pearce

What about computers and Waldorf education?

Waldorf educators feel the appropriate age for computer use in the classroom and by students is in high school. 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, a special report from the Alliance For Childhood

Does Waldorf education prepare students for the “real world”? If so, how?

It is easy to fall into the error of believing that education must make our children fit into society. Although we are certainly influenced by what the world brings us, the fact is that the world is shaped by people, not people by the world. However, that shaping of the world is possible in a healthy way only if the shapers are themselves in possession of their full nature as human beings.

Education in our materialistic society focuses on the intellectual aspect of the human being and has chosen largely to ignore the several other parts that are essential to our well-being. These include our life of feeling (emotions, aesthetics, and social sensitivity), our willpower (the ability to get things done), and our moral nature (being clear about right and wrong). Without having these developed, we are incomplete—a fact that may become obvious in our later years, when a feeling of emptiness begins to set in. That is why in a Waldorf school, the practical and artistic subjects play as important a role as the full spectrum of traditional academic subjects that the school offers. The practical and artistic are essential in achieving a preparation for life in the “real” world.

Waldorf Education recognizes and honors the full range of human potentialities. It addresses the whole child by striving to awaken and ennoble all the latent capacities. The children learn to read, write, and do math; they study history, geography, and the sciences. In addition, all children learn to sing, play a musical instrument, draw, paint, model clay, carve and work with wood, speak clearly and act in a play, think independently, and work harmoniously and respectfully with others. The development of these various capacities is interrelated. For example, both boys and girls learn to knit in grade one. Acquiring this basic and enjoyable human skill helps them develop a manual dexterity, which after puberty will be transformed into an ability to think clearly and to “knit” their thoughts into a coherent whole.

Preparation for life includes the development of the well-rounded person. Waldorf Education has as its ideal a person who is knowledgeable about the world and human history and culture, who has many varied practical and artistic abilities, who feels a deep reverence for and communion with the natural world, and who can act with initiative and in freedom in the face of economic and political pressures.

There are many Waldorf graduates of all ages who embody this ideal and who are perhaps the best proof of the efficacy of the education.

—From “Five Frequently Asked Questions” by Colin Price; originally printed in Renewal Magazine, Spring/Summer 2003

What if my child does not get along with their teacher?

This question often arises because of a parent’s experience of public school education. In most public schools, a teacher works with a class for one, maybe two years. It is difficult for teacher and child to develop the deep human relationship that is the basis for healthy learning if change is frequent.

If a teacher has a class for several years, as happens in Waldorf Education, the teacher and the children come to know and understand each other in a deep way. The children, feeling secure in a long-term relationship, are better able to learn. The interaction of teacher and parents also can become more deep and meaningful over time, and they can cooperate in helping the child.

Problems between teachers and children, and between teachers and parents, can and do arise. When this happens, the faculty studies the situation, involves the teacher and parents—and, if appropriate, the child—and tries to resolve the conflict. 

A Waldorf class is something like a family. If a mother in a family does not get along with her son during a certain time, she does not consider resigning or replacing him with another child. Rather, she looks at the situation and sees what can be done to improve the relationship. In other words, the adult assumes responsibility and tries to change the dynamic. This same approach is expected of the Waldorf teacher. The adults involved will work together to support the student-teacher relationship.

—From “Five Frequently Asked Questions” by Colin Price; originally printed in Renewal Magazine, Spring/Summer 2003

How can a Waldorf class teacher teach all the subjects through the eight years of elementary schooling?

The class teacher is not the only teacher the children experience. Each day, specialty subject teachers teach the children eurythmy, handcrafts, a foreign language, instrumental music, and so on.

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. The teacher does in fact deal with a wide range of subjects, and thus the question is a valid one.

A common misconception in our time is that education is merely the transfer of information. From the Waldorf point of view, true education also involves the awakening of capacities—the ability to think clearly and critically, to empathetically experience and understand phenomena in the world, to distinguish what is beautiful, good, and true. The class teacher walks a path of discovery with the children and guides them into an understanding of the world of meaning, rather than the world of cause and effect.

Waldorf class teachers work very hard to master the content of the various subjects that they teach. But the teacher’s ultimate success lies in his ability to work with those inner faculties that are still “in the bud,” so that they can grow, develop, and open up in a beautiful, balanced, and wholesome way. Through this approach to teaching, the children will be truly prepared for the real world. They are provided then with the tools to productively shape that world out of a free human spirit.

—From “Five Frequently Asked Questions” by Colin Price; originally printed in Renewal Magazine, Spring/Summer 2003

Would a child be at a disadvantage if they transferred from a public school into a Waldorf school, or vice versa?

Children who transfer to a Waldorf school in the first four grades usually are up to grade in reading, math, and basic academic skills. However, they usually have much to learn in bodily coordination skills, posture, artistic and social activities, cursive handwriting, and listening skills. Listening well is particularly important since the teacher presents most of the curricular content orally in the classroom. The human relationship between the child and the teacher is the basis for healthy learning, for the acquiring of understanding and knowledge rather than just information. Children who are used to learning from computers and other electronic media will have to adjust.

Those children who enter a Waldorf school in the middle grades often bring much information about the world. This contribution should be recognized and received with interest by the class. However, these children often have to unlearn some social habits, such as the tendency to experience learning as a competitive activity. They have to learn to approach the arts in a more objective way, not simply as a means for personal expression. In contrast, in their study of nature, history, and the world, they need to relate what they learn to their own life and being. The popular ideal of “objectivity” in learning is misguided when applied to elementary school children. At their stage of development, the subjective element is essential for healthy learning. Involvement in what is learned about the world makes the world truly meaningful to them.

Children who transfer out of a Waldorf school into a public school during the earlier grades probably have to upgrade their reading ability and to approach the science lessons differently. Science in a Waldorf school emphasizes the observation of natural phenomena rather than the formulation of abstract concepts and laws. On the other hand, the Waldorf transferees are usually well prepared for social studies, practical and artistic activities, and mathematics. Children moving during the middle grades should experience no problems. In fact, in most cases, transferring students of this age group find themselves ahead of their classmates. The departing Waldorf student is likely to take along into the new school a distinguishing individual strength, personal confidence, and love of learning.

—From “Five Frequently Asked Questions” by Colin Price; originally printed in Renewal Magazine, Spring/Summer 2003