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You seem to have a lot of opinions on Waldorf education. What are your experiences with Waldorf Education?
Over the years I have had many experiences with Waldorf education, from sharing a house with a Waldorf teacher and her 9 year old daughter, to student teaching in a Waldorf school. This is a compilation of my experiences with Waldorf and MY opinions about it.
Over the years I have been drawn to Waldorf Education many times. From the start, like so many people, I was in love with its beautiful classrooms and unique artwork. Even after I had misgivings, I kept on going back to it in hopes that my bad experiences were aberrations. Sadly, this was not the case and I eventually came to accept the fact that I do not believe in Waldorf education as a whole, no matter how much I like individual aspects of it.
To be honest, like so many people, I didn’t go to Waldorf looking for Waldorf education per se, I went to Waldorf because I was looking for something different. I wanted something that honored the child and saw them as more than a test score; something that educated their soul as well as their mind. At the time of my first Waldorf experience I was an elementary education major with a BS in Earth Science, a MS in Environmental Education and a minor in Comparative Religious Philosophy. I found traditional education horribly lacking in science and social studies, not to mention boring in its methods of drill and kill regurgitation. When people told me about a new school that had just opened in my area that taught in innovative ways, used a lot of art and music, and instilled a great reverence for nature. I was very intrigued and excited.
I pushed hard to do my student teaching in the school. This was not an easy feat since both the school and my university didn’t want me to do it, yet I managed to spent 8 weeks as a student teacher at this new school. To be honest, I did see some wonderful things; beautiful classrooms, art work, story time, ...but I had a problem with Waldorf’s way of handling academic subjects. Waldorf educational philosophy states that 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 fantasy, imagination, storytelling, rhyming, and movement games. In elementary school academics are seen as a "necessary evil" and therefore an imaginative approach is encouraged and hard core facts are shied away from. When anything academic is taught, it is sugar coated and washed clear of any analytical thought so as not to force the "little ones" into thinking too hard.
This fear of learning was hard for me. I believed in imparting information, just not the way the traditional education system does it. Instead of simply having children read from a book or worksheet, I wanted to learn exciting and innovative ways of imparting knowledge. I wanted to teach children to learn to think for themselves; to analyze, synthesize, and extrapolated information as opposed to simply regurgitating it the way it is done in more traditional settings. What I soon found out was that children were simply regurgitating in the Waldorf settings also. Only instead of taking a standardized test or filling out a worksheet, in Waldorf it was copying a drawing or memorizing a poem.. Although this was esoterically more pleasing to the casual observer, in essence it was still superficial learning.
When I questioned Waldorf's lack of academics in elementary school, the teachers told me that academic material was introduced through stories and images, and that academic instruction was integrated with the visual and plastic (modeling beeswax, paint...) arts, music and movement. They also said that science, social studies, and history were explored, just not directly taught or emphasized. They felt that there was plenty of time for "that" when the children were older.
To be honest, everything they said, was true; and yet it wasn’t. They did teach concepts in different ways, and science, social studies, and history theoretically were all explored and integrated into the curriculum, but always on a “Waldorf” timeline and scale, and never in-depth. Additionally, the information imparted was often not accurate. For example, the children were taught that there were 4 elements- Earth, wind, fire and air, and that the continents were islands floating on the ocean. As an Earth Science major I was incensed; nothing could be further from the truth. For history, the children were taught "history as a developmental process paralleling children's development, with Western Civilization at the pinnacle",and ancient myths and legends as historical facts. Now there’s nothing wrong with myths and legends in themselves, but they are not historical fact, and “history as a developmental process with European society at the pinnacle”?!? Give me a break! What about the fact that the Arabs developed zero and kept learning alive during the Middle Ages? How about the fact hat the Chinese were scientifically and culturally further advanced than their European counter parts? How about the great civilizations of Mesoamerica? Why was their mathematics, their scientific achievements, their highly intricate societal structures completely ignored?
Worse in my eyes than not teaching accurate facts in the classroom was the reality that children who had interests in things that were not part of the Waldorf curriculum for their age were not only not allowed to learn about those interests at school, but their parents were encouraged, (dare I say “pressured”) to not allow them to pursue their interests at home either. Their parents were told that exposure to anything non-Waldorf would hurt their development. So no matter how interested, a child could not, even on his own time, read (below 3rd grade), look at a book that they personally did not make (below 6th grade), look at maps, draw lines and geometric shapes... .
The whole thing frustrated me. If a child had a question that required deeper study, such as, “Greek myths are really cool. Where did the Greek people live?” or “Are there still Greek people today and do they believe these myths?” They weren’t given a straight answer. They weren’t shown a map of Ancient Greece, or photos of its ruins, or of it today. It didn’t make sense to me. I saw these questions as a great opportunity for a child to look at books, pictures, drawings, maps...., but instead I was told that such information was too overwhelming for them, and that giving them the answers to their questions or teaching them the skills they needed to answer their questions on their own, would be forcing too much on them, hardening their brain and heart, and destroying their love of learning.
The longer I spent at the school, the more I saw what I considered an attack on the intellect and personal needs and interest of a child.
Here are some examples that were burned into my memory forever. A first grade boy, loved numbers. He had a firm grasp of numbers already and wanted to "put them into other numbers (divide)". Yet he was forced to sit and draw numbers and then animals to go with those numbers (one dog, two cats...) during math time. I had nothing against this activity in general, some of the other children really liked it and a few really needed it, they were learning disabled and it might have been one of the few ways they could have truly learned the concept. But this one child, (and in all honesty some of his peers), was far beyond it and was bored.
When I mentioned this I was told that it was OK for him to be bored, that it would “build character”.
I was one berated for over an hour because a preschooler drew a happy face. They were sure that I had drawn the circle with two dots and a curved line because they believed that no child would come up with "such a thing" on their own. Twenty years later I still remember the teacher screaming at me, "I can not believe an educator like you would allow such a thing, You know how detrimental it is for a child to be exposed to this! What in your right mind would make you think that such a thing would be allowed?!?!?"
Later, the same child was "caught" drawing a heart. This time, they asked her where she learned such a thing. It turns out that her parents had taken her to a fair and she was intrigued with the face painting that had been there. The school's way of handling this was to ask the parents not to bring the child to non-Waldorf activities until she was older.
Another time a sixth grader asked me how the copy machine in the office worked. Before I could even open my mouth, a teacher ran over to the child, and told him that there was a gnome asleep in the box and that when you pushed the button, a light went on, woke him up, and then he quickly copied the paper placed in front of him and pushed the copy out of the little hole. After the child left, I was told that we couldn’t “poison” the child’s mind with “stone cold facts”.
I must state, that I felt then and still do, that by boring these children, and/or not honoring their personal interests, questions, and abilities, we were stunting their emotional and academic growth even more. Then as now, I wonder how the children could feel validated and respected by being told that they couldn't explore their personal interests, even on their own time.
What I saw as a lack of honoring of personal interests inhabited everything. Only certain colors were used at certain ages, only certain materials for certain groups. No black, no lines, no exceptions. I hated seeing the joy in a child’s face fade when I had to say, "You need to be *** to use that color paint. " None of these rules made sense to me. Yet when I asked why they were there, the only response I received was that there was a higher meaning to everything and I was not “enlightened” enough to understand.
Another thing the bothered me deeply was the fact that although the teachers believed that everything from the color crayon a child used at a certain age, to the knowledge that they were exposed to, had to be completely controlled, they could be left utterly alone on the playground. It was explained to me that this was because “The angels watched over and protected them” while they were playing. This dichotomy bothered me. I couldn’t fathom why it was so incredibly important to make sure a child was painting with a certain color at a certain time, but could be left completely unsupervised on the playground. Once, when a child was in tears because the other children kept on pushing her off of a stump they were playing on, I tried to teach conflict resolution skills to the group and was, once again, admonished by the staff. I was told that all of the children were “working through” things and needed to be left alone. Eventually the bullying got so bad that it permeated every part of the child’s school day. Yet still the teachers would not intervene. The child became sullen and withdrawn, stopped working, stopped playing, stopped talking,…. The parents tried to speak with the teachers about the situation, but were treated worse than I was. Eventually she was removed from the school and the bullies found another victim to torture without any adult intervention.
My experience at that Waldorf School lasted only 8 weeks, but still 23 years later, I remember it like it was yesterday. I left my student teaching position there confused and angry. How could anything so beautiful to look at, be so deceiving? I hated Waldorf and my stomach turned whenever it was mentioned even casually at a party. When people spoke of how kind, how multi-modality, how integrated, how beautiful, …. My blood pressure rose. At first I tried to explain what I knew to be the truth, but no one would listen.
As time went on though, I started to wonder if what I had experienced was truly Waldorf; "Maybe it was some strange misinterpretation of it. Maybe...", I wondered, "I just ran across a weird group of people who just didn’t really understand Waldorf philosophy and perpetuated their own misinterpretations and misinformation." At that point in my life, I was living 2000 miles from the school I had student taught in. Not being certified yet to work in the public schools in my new state of residence, I applied to work as an aide in a Waldorf School. Yet what I experienced at this new school was exactly the same as what I experienced in the school I student taught at. Beautiful surroundings, yet crazy academics, non-honoring of the child’s individual needs and interests, letting children bully each other…I left within a few months.
A few years later I moved again, this time to the opposite coast than the one that I had grown up living on. Once again, not being able to work in the public system in my new state until my credential was transferred over, I went looking for a job in the private sector, but I had learned my lesson and stayed far away from applying to any Waldorf Schools. But as luck would have it, I ended up sharing a house with a Waldorf teacher and her 9 year old daughter. I didn’t want to. The second I walked into the kitchen and saw beeswax crayons and wet on wet paintings I wanted to run away screaming, but this room was the only one I could afford. I had been looking for weeks and knew that I had no other option. So I plopped down my deposit, signed the agreement, and tried to look at the good side. At the time I was working on a MA in Comparative Educational Philosophy. This experience would allow me to really learn and understand Waldorf Education. I would be able to learn about it in-depth and separate what I was still hoping were the crazy misinterpretations from the true teachings.
I should have known better. As I was walking in with my first box of things my new housemate confronted me about my belongs. She was upset that I had so many books and made it clear that I had to keep them locked away in my bedroom! After that first encounter everything I did seemed to be horrible in her eyes. She didn’t like the medicine I took; it was made in a lab. I needed to go to anthroposophical doctor and use only natural medicines. She didn’t like the clothes that I wore; they weren’t all cotton and dyed with natural dyes. She didn’t like me talking on the phone even though it was in the kitchen and belonged to the house; the phone was a tool of Ahriman and should only be used for “very necessary” purposes. When my mom came in for my knee surgery and bought a TV, I was afraid the poor woman was going to have a heart attack.
Without an option on where to live, I stayed and tried to learn about all that I could. That was easy, there were teacher gatherings and study groups at our house often To be honest, all the teachers were passionate and really believed in what they were doing. It soon became obvious to me that no matter how much I wanted to believe that what I had hoped was a misinterpretation of Steiner’s philosophy was in actuality the perfect implementation of it. As far as the outright distortion scientific or historical facts in the Waldorf curriculum, I was asked, “Whose facts are they? How sure are you that yours are true?” This statement opened up conversation on teacher training. It soon became apparent to me that although a college degree was considered helpful in attaining a Waldorf teaching credential, it wasn't mandatory. For many of the teachers, the only science or history they knew were what they learned in their Waldorf teacher training courses.Then came the statement that clarified all their misinformation for me. I was told, “Steiner had exceptional powers, he saw the future, he knew the truth. If you truly need to learn, you need to study and follow Steiner. Steiner is all anyone ever needs to know.”
This brings me to another problem I have with Waldorf Education. It is religious in nature. Not that being religious in nature is wrong, but I think parents need to be aware of the fact that Waldorf Schools ARE teaching religion. Yes, I know they will tell you that they are non-sectarian, and that Anthroposophy, the spiritual philosophy based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner the founder of Waldorf schools, has nothing to do with their educational beliefs, but nothing could be further from the fact. When pressed they will tell you that Waldorf education is not based on Anthroposophy, but it is used as a guide. This is more accurate, but it still not the whole truth for everything in Waldorf has a higher Anthroposophical meaning.
Here are some of the more common Waldorf techniques and their Anthroposophical roots:
The beautiful colors and techniques that they use to paint the walls of each classroom as well as which colors children are allowed to wear or use in their work, while visually appealing to the person on the street is actually “soul work” for the Waldorf educator. Those specific colors, at those specific ages are believed to incarnate the soul to the next level of development
The almost outright ban of media in any form for preschool and elementary children, especially TV and computers, can sound wonderful to the average parent, most of whom are all too aware of the problems that too much exposure to the mass media will bring, but for the Waldorf educator it has a much deeper and important meaning. They believe that Steiner stated that such things embody a materialistic spirit named Ahriman who alienates the human being from his spiritual roots.
Although primarily seen as a negative figure in Anthroposophy, Anthroposophists do believe that Ahriman does have positive contributions. One of which is to bring about intellectual development This is why, Waldorf schools shy away from early intellectual endeavors. They believe that when a child’s intellect develops too quickly their soul is hardened by Ahriman.
The gnomes that permeate Waldorf schools, craft fairs and publications are not just a return to a fanciful lost world of childhood, they are beings that are truly believed in and are used in a variety of ways. They can displace teachers and students emotions and reactions, they can evade children's questions about the world and how it works, they mystify children asking questions about things like topics sex, violence, illness or death. They can even be threatening and confusing since children who don't see gnomes often feel like there is something wrong with them.(There are webpages on this, but I just finished reading a book called “Teaching Mathematics in Rudolf Steiner Schools- by Ron Jarman-"... on page 16 (among others) he talks about gnomes and says, “...it is actually in the nature of a gnome to know things immediately. He doesn't have to think about a problem like us poor human beings. Perceiving and thinking are not separate activities for him. The gnome is awake in at-one-ness.
I left that house almost a year later when I received my MA and had a steady job. As with my time working in Waldorf schools, I do not have any fond memories, but I know now that I can truly say without a doubt that I do not believe in Waldorf Education. I know now that what they present to the world is a beautiful façade that is covering their new age beliefs, only one of which is a fear of the intellect. For a parent who believes in Anthroposophy a Waldorf school will be a heaven-sent. For parents, who are willing to overlook the religious concepts and themes for the beautiful setting and art based curriculum, a Waldorf school might be fine also. But parents should be told that their children will be taught religious beliefs while they are in a Waldorf school. They need to know what these religious beliefs are, and they need to know that they will take precedence over their child’s individual needs and interests. Parents also need to know that their children will not be academically on par with many of their peers unless they take to breaking with Waldorf guidelines and teach them academics at home.
To be honest, I am now able to see the good things that attract most people to Waldorf in the first place without my stomach churning. I agree that the classroom and the school should be ascetically pleasing. I believe in integrating science, social studies, history and geography into the core curriculum and that those concepts should be taught in multiple modalities with art and music woven throughout. I believe that, when possible, the things in the natural environment and the world around us can help guide the curriculum. (I shutter when I read the state adopted scripted language arts text and children are to read passages in the fall that talk about Jewish people celebrating Passover, or passages in the spring that talk about "leaves changing color" ) And I know for a fact that fun stories about things that children need to learn can help get a concept across and enables a child to remember it. Today, I know that these things do not have to be exclusively Waldorf. I use all of these techniques and many others in my public school classroom.
I can also fully state that the Waldorf view the child as a little waif, only interested in fantasy play and pretending, that needs to be sheltered from the cruel hard world until the very last moment, is the polar opposite of mine. I see the child as a budding person, interested in all that is around them, with their own individual interests, strengths, learning styles and needs. I believe in working with the whole child not just their artistic, verbal and kinesthetic modalities. I believe in following a child’s natural interest in the world around them and helping them learn to use their strengths and interests to their highest potential.
For more info in Waldorf Education here are a few sites. They run the gambit of being very pro to very con.
Why Waldorf Works - pro-Waldorf
Waldorf Answers -pro Waldorf
Open Waldorf - middle of the road, sort of leaning pro
Waldorf Problems - anti-Waldorf
Waldorf Critics - the mother of all anti-Waldorf sites