Waldorf Education Brings Out the Best in Children
By Cynthia Logan
We all know there is a crisis in the American public school system. While most of us struggle with a system created during the industrial revolution, thousands of proactive families have chosen an alternative known as "Waldorf" education. Founded in 1919 by Rudolf Steiner, an esoteric Austrian philosopher, the method is based on the premise that children are born with inherent gifts, talents and abilities which form a unique contribution to the world community. As the Latin root word "educere" (to draw out) indicates, true education "draws out" those inherent gifts. Rather than filling a student with facts, figures and test-taking strategies, the Waldorf approach encourages imagination, independent thinking and individuality, fostering a lifelong love of learning that fuels a desire to contribute rather than to compete.
Now the fastest growing nonsectarian educational movement in the world, Waldorf has long been popular in Europe, and has existed in the United States since 1928. Currently, there are over 150 Waldorf schools in America, four of which are located in the greater Seattle area. Though the general public is unfamiliar with Waldorf schools, graduates such as Paul Newman, Joe Namath and Mikhail Baryshnikov are household names.
The "Waldorf" name came from a speech Steiner gave to Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory employees shortly after WWI; inspired by Steiner's ideas about social ethics and conflict resolution, the factory owner asked him to start a school for workers' children: thus, the Waldorf concept of education was created. The movement's mission has been to promote the peaceful evolution of humankind by leading children away from narrow interests and toward a broad worldview.
In addition to focusing on imagination, teaching methods center around a sense of truth and a feeling of responsibility. Education is directed not only to the physical being, but also to the emotional, artistic and intellectual aspects of the soul. Students are personally greeted each morning with a smile, direct eye-to-eye contact and a handshake. Early school years focus on fairy tales, myths and legends, music, art, physics demonstrations, class plays, seasonal festivals and workbooks written and illustrated by the children themselves. It is, according to Ronald Kotzsch, Ph.D. (author of Waldorf Education: Schooling the Head, Hands and Heart) "a world without exams, grades, computers or televisions." Indeed, the materials found in a Waldorf classroom seem simple and reflect a bygone era. Kindergartens typically have simple wooden toys and plain dolls. "The only thing an intelligent child can do with a complete toy," says one teacher, "is take it apart; an incomplete toy lets the child develop his imagination."
Steiner believed in educating the senses, and recognized the sensitivity of the hands and fingertips. Studies show that "finger sense" develops overall brain capacity, which is one reason children are taught to play recorders, stored in cases they have knit themselves. Working with the hands continues throughout the higher grades, sometimes at the "expense" of computer skills. But, as Peter Nitze, global operations director of a high-tech company and a graduate of Waldorf, Stanford and Harvard says, "If you've had the experience of binding a book, knitting a sock, playing a recorder-then you feel that you can build a rocket ship or learn a software program you've never touched. There's nothing you can't do. Why couldn't you? Why couldn't anyone?" This is the spirit that Steiner hoped his schools would support.
Not everyone shares that spirit. Criticisms of the Waldorf method have centered around the fact that early reading is not encouraged (proficiency is not expected until third grade) and that students are not geared towards SAT and other standardized tests. Yet, when compared to public middle school peers, Waldorf students soar, reading with a passion that stays with them for life. A recent study was conducted by three independent scientists, paid by the Bonn Department of Education. They interviewed 1,460 former Waldorf students and found "an educational plateau well above average." Students also consistently perform extremely well on SAT's, and many enter prestigious universities. And Waldorf, according to senior Ben Kloeck, "gives you very high emotional intelligence."
Though some have expressed concern about an underlying "spiritual" basis to Waldorf education, (teachers study Steiner's "anthroposophy," the name he gave to his theories about the evolution of human consciousness, drawn from anthropology, philosophy, psychology, science and a number of religions), a number of his beliefs are now accepted-for example, the idea that all fields of study share a foundation of explanation. And in the past decade, a dozen public schools have adopted Waldorf methods in an effort to enliven classrooms that many educators see as having become sterile job factories.1 In one particularly interesting experiment in Yuba County, California, the local school for juvenile offenders switched entirely to the Waldorf approach. Results have been so successful that Principal Ruth Mikkelsen laughs when she recalls an outside evaluator's visit; "I was told that my school program couldn't be fairly judged since it was clear that I didn't have truly problem kids!"
It's these kinds of successes that are sparking the interest of parents and educators everywhere, as they consider Steiner's succinct advice, "Accept children with reverence; educate them with love, and send them forth in freedom."
1. From Atlantic Monthly magazine's reprint "Schooling the Imagination," by Todd Oppenheimer.
Readers who would like to know more about Waldorf schools may contact the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America at 916.961.0927, or on the web at www.awsna.org; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Schools in the Seattle/Eastside area include:
Three Cedars School in Bellevue
Seattle Waldorf School
Whidbey Island Waldorf School
Brightwater School in Seattle