Waldorf education, also known as Steiner education, is based on the educational philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy. The first Waldorf school opened in 1919 in Stuttgart, Germany. The first modern preschool education based upon Steiner’s ideas was opened in 1919 in response to a request by Emil Molt, the owner and managing director of the Waldorf-Astoria Cigarette Company in Stuttgart, Germany, to serve the children of employees of the factory.
This is the source of the name Waldorf, which is now trademarked in some countries in association with the method. The Stuttgart school grew rapidly and soon the majority of pupils were from families not connected directly with the company. Waldorf education became more widely known in Britain in 1922 through lectures Steiner gave on education at a conference at Oxford University. Political interference from the Nazi regime limited and ultimately closed most Waldorf schools in Europe, with the exception of the British, Swiss, and some Dutch schools. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Waldorf schools began to proliferate in Central and Eastern Europe.
Most recently, many schools have opened in Asia, especially in China. The structure of Waldorf education follows Steiner’s theory of child development, which divides childhood into three developmental stages and describes learning strategies appropriate to each stage. Steiner’s educational ideas closely follow modern “common sense” educational theory, as this has developed since Comenius and Pestalozzi. The stated purpose of this approach is to awaken the “physical, behavioral, emotional, cognitive, social, and spiritual” aspects of each individual, fostering creative as well as analytic thinking. A 2005 review found that Waldorf schools successfully develop “creative, social and other capabilities important in the holistic growth of the person”.
Where is the book in which the teacher can read about what teaching is? The children themselves are this book. We should not learn to teach out of any book other than the one lying open before us and consisting of the children themselves. Waldorf pedagogical theory considers that during the first years of life children learn best by being immersed in an environment they can learn from through unselfconscious imitation of practical activities. The early childhood curriculum therefore centers on experiential education, allowing children to learn by example, and opportunities for imaginative play.
Periods of outdoor recess are also usually included. The classroom is intended to resemble a home, with tools and toys usually sourced from simple, natural materials that lend themselves to imaginative play. Pre-school and kindergarten programs generally include seasonal festivals drawn from a variety of traditions, with attention placed on the traditions brought forth from the community. Waldorf kindergarten and lower grades generally discourage pupils’ use of electronic media such as television and computers. Waldorf pedagogues consider that readiness for formal learning depends upon increased independence of character, temperament, habits, and memory, one of the markers of which is the loss of the baby teeth. Formal instruction in reading, writing, and other academic disciplines are therefore not introduced until students enter the elementary school, when pupils are around seven years of age.
In order that students can connect more deeply with the subject matter, academic instruction is presented through artistic work that includes story-telling, visual arts, drama, movement, vocal and instrumental music, and crafts. This typically begins with introductory activities that may include singing, instrumental music, and recitations of poetry, generally including a verse written by Steiner for the start of a school day. Elementary school educators’ stated task is to present a role model children will naturally want to follow, gaining authority through fostering rapport and “nurturing curiosity, imagination, and creativity”. The declared goal of this second stage is to “imbue children with a sense that the world is beautiful”. Waldorf elementary education allows for individual variations in the pace of learning, based upon the expectation that a child will grasp a concept or achieve a skill when he or she is ready.
Each class normally remains together as a cohort throughout their years, developing as a quasi-familial social group whose members know each other quite deeply. In the elementary years, a core teacher teaches the primary academic subjects. While class teachers serve a valuable role as personal mentors, establishing “lasting relationships with pupils”, especially in the early years, Ullrich documented problems when the same class teacher continues into the middle school years. Steiner considered children’s cognitive, emotional and behavioral development to be interlinked. When students in a Waldorf school are grouped, it is generally not by a singular focus on their academic abilities.
Today Waldorf teachers may work with the notion of temperaments to differentiate their instruction. In most Waldorf schools, pupils enter secondary education when they are about fourteen years old. Secondary education is provided by specialist teachers for each subject. The education focuses much more strongly on academic subjects, though students normally continue to take courses in art, music, and crafts. Waldorf programs are supposed to learn through their own thinking and judgment. Students are asked to understand abstract material and expected to have sufficient foundation and maturity to form conclusions using their own judgment.
The intention of the third stage is to “imbue children with a sense that the world is true”. The philosophical foundation of the Waldorf approach, anthroposophy, underpins its primary pedagogical goals: to provide an education that enables children to become free human beings, and to help children to incarnate their “unfolding spiritual identity”, carried from the preceding spiritual existence, as beings of body, soul, and spirit in this lifetime. While anthroposophy underpins the curriculum design, pedagogical approach, and organizational structure, it is explicitly not taught within the school curriculum and studies have shown that Waldorf pupils have little awareness of it. Tensions may arise within the Waldorf community between the commitment to Steiner’s original intentions, which has sometimes acted as a valuable anchor against following educational fads, and openness to new directions in education, such as the incorporation of new technologies or modern methods of accountability and assessment. The walls are often painted in subtle colors, often with a lazure technique, and include textured surfaces. The schools primarily assess students through reports on individual academic progress and personal development. The emphasis is on characterization through qualitative description.