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What is the difference between Waldorf and Montessori Education?
Montessori and Waldorf education both started around the turn of the last century. Montessori education was started by Maria Montessori the first female doctor in Italy, while Waldorf education was started by Rudolf Steiner a German philosopher.
People often mistake the two for each other. This is because they are both alternative forms of education and therefore appear "different" to the casual observer. People often lump "different" things together without looking at the details.
Additionally, there are many similarities. Both forms of education believe in educating the "whole" child, meaning their spirit as well as their intellect. They each believe in teaching educational concepts in a wide variety of ways, and both have strong attachments to nature. Additionally, both philosophies have strong beliefs towards children having respect, knowledge and understanding, not just the 3 R's, but of the whole world around them including science, social studies, geography, art, music, and dance.
Yet the way that each philosophy brings their vision to reality is what sets them apart. Montessori education believes that each child has an intrinsic desire to learn and therefore classrooms filled with materials to be touched, compared, ordered and so on. Each educational concept has many different materials that explain or derive the concept so that a child can use the material that works best for their leaning style. Children work "at their own pace", which means each child uses the materials for as long as they need to. This allows children who learn concepts quickly to advance their education accordingly, and children who have gaps in their knowledge, or who are having a hard time learning, to really come to understand a concept before moving on to the next.
Keeping this in mind the Montessori classroom has a large portion of the day (usually around 3 hours) that is geared towards children "working" on learning concepts. Although not a free for all by any means, children during this time are not taught as a group and choose, within boundaries, their educational activities. In a Montessori classroom the teacher is a facilitator; a companion in each child's own learning process who quietly observes her students, watching them learn. When individual children are ready she brings them together to work on the precise concept that those children are ready for. Children who not ready for the concept, or are beyond it, continue working on the concepts that they need to work on.
In Waldorf there is a rhythm to the school day just as there is a rhythm to everything in the world around us, including our daily breath. Each day starts with a one-and-a-half to two hour lesson that focuses on a single academic subject over the course of about a month's time. New material is introduced through stories and images, and academic instruction is integrated with art, music and movement. Recitations of poetry, including a verse written by Steiner for the start of a school day are included. In a Waldorf classroom the work is split into times of activity and time of focus. The children are taught as a group and the teacher is seen as the authority, teaching each activity directly and moving the children through the ebb and flow of each day's cycle.
In both philosophies there is little reliance on standardized textbooks. In Montessori children learn initially through materials and once they can read, through their own research. Utilizing encyclopedias, the internet and nonfiction books Montessori children are taught to take responsibility for their education. They learn to answer their own questions. In Waldorf education the elementary curriculum follows what Steiner deemed developmentally appropriate for each grade. Children create their own illustrated summaries of their coursework in book by carefully copying and recording information given to them throughout their lessons.
Both philosophies believe in the continuity of the classroom. They feel that it is important for the teacher to understand each child's individual personality, strengths and needs. Therefore Montessorians have multi-age classrooms usually grouping children in 3 year spans. This way each year only about a third of the children in the classroom are new. The new children are usually the youngest and easily learn the new materials, behaviors, and concepts since the older ones act as models. Montessorians believe that this modeling helps to ingrain the academic concepts into the older children's minds. Additionally, this multi-age grouping is partially what allows the children to work at their individual level since each classroom is prepared to meet the needs of all the children in their age span.
In Waldorf elementary classrooms, the teacher stays with their class ideally for the full eight years before high school. This system allows the teacher to grow along with the students and facilitates a strong bond of trust between students, parents and teacher. The teacher gets to know each child personally and takes a great deal of responsibility for their individual growth. Since the teacher will be teaching the child the next year great care is given not only to the concepts at hand, but to how the concepts will relate to future education. You will not see a Waldorf teacher, (or a Montessori teacher for that fact), blinding teaching a child a concept so they can reproduce it on a test. In both philosophies education is seen as building a foundation for later years. In Waldorf since the teacher will be teaching those later years they want to make sure that the foundation is strongly built.
This foundation though is another place where Montessori and Waldorf often seem diametrically opposed. Montessori education believes that young children are full of questions about the world around them and so the classroom is prepared to answer these questions. There is no teacher directed fantasy play incorporated into the Montessori classrooms, not because Montessorians believe it is bad or wrong as some people mis-believe, but because it is believed that young children are trying to understand the physical world around them and teachers teaching about fairies and gnomes will confuse them Montessorians also believe that the world is such and exciting and amazing place that knowledge fosters its own exciting imagination, wonder, and creativity. This is why all academic subjects are taught and integrated throughout the curriculum.
Waldorf schools on the other hand, believe that focusing children's learning on intellectual endeavors too soon distracts from their physical, spiritual and emotional development, so reading, writing, and math are not taught at all during preschool. Instead, emphasis is placed on fantasy, imagination, storytelling, rhyming, and movement games. Waldorf schools ask that children not be exposed to media influences such as television and recorded music, as they believe these to be harmful in their more formative years. An imaginative approach is encouraged throughout the elementary years; with new material being introduced through stories and images, and academic instruction is integrated with the visual and plastic arts (modeling beeswax, paint...), music and movement. Science, social studies, and history are explored, though they are not taught with actual facts and information, as this is seen as too rigid and confining. Instead skills of observation, emotive expression, and judgment are honed by activities designed to make full use of each child's emotional sensitivity. Educational tasks are geared toward their "feeling intelligence" and fulfillment of their needs for a sense of accomplishment and positive self-esteem.
The polarity of these two philosophies continues into adolescence. Montessorians believe that older children, although displaying greater abstract abilities, are now entering a stage in development where they no longer are trying to understand the world around them, but are trying to understand their place in the world. Montessorians believe that since the child had an extremely strong foundation in all academic areas in the lower grades, it is now time for them to use this knowledge to better understand themselves and what they want for their future. Montessori high schools spend a lot of time on practical applications of knowledge (running a business, doing internships and work study programs). In Waldorf education it is just the opposite. In high school Waldorf students begin a guided but independent search for truth in themselves and the world around them. Concepts and knowledge that they have acquired sensorially during their early years through exploration is now solidified with facts and figures and abstract concepts are introduced. While the elementary education focused on the child's experience with the teacher as the authority, pupils are now encouraged to begin a more independent development of "vital and creative" thinking while studying more abstract concepts in organized classes.
Other links on Montessori and Waldorf
MONTESSORI and WALDORF SCHOOLS by Susan Mayclin Stephenson
Montessori and Steiner: A Pattern of Reverse Symmetries by Dee Joy Coulter