what is waldorf education?
As a developing member of the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America (AWSNA) we will borrow some of their wise words to describe what this education is:
Waldorf education is independent and inclusive. It upholds the principles of freedom in education and engages independent administration locally, continentally and internationally. It is regionally appropriate education with hundreds of schools worldwide today. Waldorf education is truly Inspired Learning.
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Overview of Education
The Waldorf approach to education has three important features:
- Waldorf education is based on a developmental approach that addresses the changing needs of the growing child and maturing adolescent.
- Waldorf teachers strive to transform education into an art that educates the whole child – the heart and the hands as well as the head.
- Waldorf schools are committed to developing capacities as well as skills so that their students will become self-aware, compassionate individuals with a sense of responsibility for the Earth.
(From Rhythms of Learning: Selected Lectures by Rudolf Steiner by Robert Tostoli)
What makes Waldorf education unique is how and when subjects are taught. First comes the experience of the subject, and from this experience comes the understanding of the concept. This genuine learning process, from perception to feeling to idea, is the basis for later abstract and intellectual learning.
Waldorf education strives to educate the full range of human potential within children. In a Waldorf school the practical and artistic subjects are equally as important as the full range of traditional subjects. All students learn two foreign languages (Spanish and Mandarin Chinese) beginning in 1st grade, and beginning in 3rd grade, they play a string instrument (violin, viola, or cello). All students are taught singing, drawing, painting, woodworking, and hand crafts. Children garden and have outdoor time as well as sports and movement classes. When homework is assigned-after grade 2-it is meaningful, constructive, age-appropriate work that is thoughtfully chosen by the teacher.
Waldorf education understands, celebrates, and supports the very important role of the teacher in a student’s life. Ideally a teacher stays with his or her class from grade 1 through grade 8 providing extraordinary continuity in curriculum. Remaining with the same class for many years allows the teacher time to gain valuable insight into each child within the larger group, to fully understand and appreciate the gifts and challenges each child brings to the classroom.
Another hallmark of Waldorf education is the morning lesson, a two hour period in which core academic subjects are taught in three to four week blocks: language arts, history, math or science. The intention of the morning lesson is to fully focus on one theme for an extended period of time and for the children to engage with that subject in a variety of ways. This allows for all children to learn deeply as all learning modalities will be engaged by the multidisciplinary presentation. Students write and illustrate their own lesson books, and these become their personal written record of their education.
Special Subject Lessons
The morning lesson is followed by 45 minute subject periods. These periods include chorus, orchestra (grade 3 – 8), handwork, Spanish, woodwork (upper grades), Mandarin Chinese, eurythmy, movement and sports, painting, and core skills review. These classes are taught by specialized teachers. The periods of study are balanced by snack, lunch and outdoor playtime. The day has a rhythmic quality which helps the children learn their lessons and grow as healthy individuals.
Students learn Spanish and Mandarin Chinese beginning in 1st grade and continuing through 8th grade. They are taught by a native speaker who brings not only a native accent to the children but also a full, rich picture of the history and culture of his or her country of origin. In 1st and 2nd grades, the students have two classes of each language every week. In grades 3 – 8, each language is studied twice a week.
First grade children share a great desire to learn. Memory, imagination, and enjoyment of rhythmical repetition are common to this stage of development. First graders remain very connected to adults, often forming strong attachments to role models. The child is still somewhat “dreamy” and is more able to bring broad awareness than focused attention to the classroom. Urban Prairie’s “moveable classroom” features benches and buckwheat pillows that can be rearranged and stacked to create a dynamic learning environment.
The first grader makes a great transition from the Early Childhood program to a more formal learning environment in grade school. Much learning takes place through activity and imitation. The first grader learns addition, subtraction, division, and multiplication, up to the 7s times tables. Math is often taught through rhythmic repetition and movement, including jumping rope. In language arts, the children study fairy tales and nature stories and learn letter forms, sounds, blends, and word families, as well as writing and reading their own simple sentences. Mandarin and Spanish classes begin with numbers, animals, foods, seasons, and colors. The first grader learns to knit and felt, plays pentatonic flute, models with beeswax, and begins color study through wet-on-wet watercolor. Recess is twice daily, allowing ample time for the “work of play” and providing essential downtime for the brain to digest what’s encountered in the classroom.
During this year, students will acquire the good habits of classroom life that will carry them through their eight years at UPWS. Cultivating reverence for nature, class social cohesiveness, care for the environment, respect for others, interest in the world and a feeling of confidence in their teachers are all goals for the first grade class.
Much of who the child is in first grade continues on in second grade, but now with more form and ability. The events and experiences of the outside world are filtered through the child’s imagination and rearranged in accordance with the child’s perception of the world. The second grader is still connected with the world as a whole and sees themself as part of their community. As the year progresses, however, this wholeness gives way to a growing polarity. The child begins to vacillate between being saintly and naughty or courageous and whiny. The second grader explores their own inner life and how it relates to the greater world around them.
The initial experiences of the 1st grade are deepened and enhanced in the 2nd grade. This time is used primarily for practicing and developing all the new skills from the previous year. To assist the children with their growing polarity, the second graders explore the landscape of personality traits through fables and stories of noble historic figures: the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly.
Second grade is a time when a child’s sensory-motor system, a foundation for all higher learning, culminates in its most intense growth period. As such, students receive an assessment toward near the end of the year to provide a better understanding of each child’s strengths and weaknesses in the areas of fine and gross motor development, balance, bilateral integration, early movement patterns (reflexes), body geography, spatial orientation, dominance, and visual and auditory processing. By observing these, we are better able to assess a child’s readiness to take on more complex and challenging academic work and further support them in the classroom and at home.
In Waldorf education, we recognize the third grade as a significant year of developmental change and self-discovery for students. A third grader leaves the world of imitation behind and transitions into a consciousness of greater individuality. The nine year old becomes more self-aware. They begin to see the world with new and different eyes.
The individuality of the child begins to come to expression, as the child acquires a dawning awareness of themself as an individual and comes to realize their separateness from the surrounding world. This awakening in consciousness enables another capacity—to gradually be able to become more objective in relationship to themselves and the surrounding world. As a consequence, they also become less naïve and less open. They are no longer content to be a part of life without doubts or questions. They may become more critical and may also feel lonely in this new awareness.
The Waldorf third grade curriculum marks the change to a more individualized presence in the children, as well as a new readiness for academics and a corresponding need to experience the work of the real world in a practical and meaningful way. Third graders are ripe for practical experience. This need is met in the curriculum through the study of farming, gardening, food preparation, house building, and clothing.
The primary lesson material features stories of people crossing the rubicon and starting life anew. This serves as an appropriate metaphor for the child’s inner experience. The child understands on some level what it is to leave paradise, step into the real world, and begin to stand on their own. Throughout the curriculum, teachers provide students with strong role models who show courage and determination.
Fourth graders become more self-confident as their perceptions of the world sharpen. They possess greater social and academic skills that allow them to become more independent. These developmental steps broaden the child’s perspective and open a world of endless, exciting possibilities. The fourth grader has an adventurous spirit, is full of curiosity, and is eager to explore new capacities for learning and creativity.
While the third grade curriculum helped the child to reconnect to the world around them through practical studies and activities, the fourth grade curriculum helps the child orient themselves in space and time through a study of local geography. Fourth grade students possess the solid academic skills needed to participate in more independent projects. The teacher directs their curiosity about the world toward nature and animals.
Fifth graders are confident, enthusiastic and capable to doing increasingly challenging academic and artistic work. This is frequently considered a “golden year” in which children exhibit a definite harmonious quality before becoming saddled with the challenges of adolescence. They also have an increasing understanding of personal responsibility and a growing awakening to the larger idea of ethics
Fifth grade marks a pivotal point in the curriculum. While the students begin the year with studies of the mythologies of several ancient cultures, they transition away from mythology into history with the biography of Alexander the Great. They will wrestle with the ethical question of their “Great”-ness. They also continue to hone their research and presentation skills with an independent project. Botany and Geometry present students the opportunity to explore the wonder and beauty of the world around us through mathematical and scientific lenses.
Sixth graders are on the cusp of adolescence, and as such, they bring the increased capacity for critical thinking into the classroom. These students experience rapid physical growth and psychological change and often seek rules and causality to bring order to their new experience of the world. The student has increased interest in social relationships. Once the sixth grader becomes more comfortable with these new developments, he is ready to look out into the world to discern his place, responsibilities, and opportunities.
The sixth grade history curriculum meets the students’ increased interest in causality and desire for equality with the Roman system of order and justice. The students are also formally introduced to the study of astronomy, physics, and geology. They continue to explore the wonder and beauty of the world through botany and geometry. The teacher provides the students with new perspectives, particularly directing their attention out into the world.
In many ways, 7th grade can be characterized as the year of looking ahead. Finally able to call themselves teens, these students are chomping at the bit, ready to join the world. Their horizons are expanding, and every day can be full of wonders. As the seventh grader moves into a new phase of growth, adolescence, they bring the new capacity for critical thinking to the subject matter at hand. These students are charged with emotional vitality and question everything around them. They seek to learn the boundaries of authority and the laws of science. The social experience of the class is also very important for the seventh grader.
The 7th graders enjoy an intensive study of the Renaissance, which brings all previous cultural achievements to a glorious flowering and ushers in a new age of wide scientific inquiry and exploration. The students enthusiastically dive into this exploration and take this energy into their own studies of Africa, South America, and Asia. They are also met with new opportunities to explore the world around them through chemistry, physiology, astronomy, and physics.