Waldorf education, which is synonymous with Steiner education, is based on an anthroposophical view of the human being, that is, a being of body, soul, and spirit. The school system’s founder, Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), a philosopher, literary scholar, architect, and educator, was born in rural Austria, south of Vienna. The first Waldorf School was built twelve years after Steiner published his essay “The Education of the Child in the Light of Anthroposophy” in 1907. “Waldorf” comes from the name of the cigarette factory that hosted the first Steiner school in 1919 in Stuttgart, Germany. This educational movement later took root in America in 1928 when the Rudolf Steiner School was established in New York City.
The central focus for a Waldorf teacher is the development of a person’s essence, independent of external appearance, by instilling in pupils an appreciation of their background and their role as members of humanity and as world citizens. The teacher’s aim is to draw out the students’ inherent capacities by creating a classroom atmosphere that fills them with wonder and enthusiasm. The pedagogy of Waldorf schools derives from a model that recognizes the developmental stages of the child. The Waldorf philosophy views education as an art form, where each subject is presented through direct experience and augmented with visual arts, poetry, music, drama, and movement. The goal of Waldorf education is to enable students to have the freedom and full ability to choose their individual paths through life.
The Waldorf kindergarten cultivates and supports the preschool child’s inborn attitude, a basic reverence for the world as an interesting and good place to live. Early in elementary school, there is more stress on using artistic elements in different forms (rhythm, movement, color, recitation, song, and music) as a way to learn, understand, and relate to the world. Through the use of what is beautiful in the world, the students are believed to build an understanding of different subjects. In high school, students are led to a more conscious cultivation of an observing, reflecting, and experimentally scientific disposition toward the world, focusing on understanding what is true based on personal experience, critical thinking, and judgment.
Reviews of Waldorf’s success are mixed. Many cite the lack of phonics and reading as cause for test scores that lag behind public school students up to sixth grade. However, some reports have cited Waldorf’s use of the arts, block periods of study, crafts, and learning without textbooks as reasons why some students have scored higher on standardized tests, including SAT exams, than traditional students from middle through high school. Many opponents also state that Steiner’s anthroposophy is a form of religion, and therefore, Waldorf schools should not receive federal funding. In 2005, however, the case of PLANS Inc. v. Sacramento City Unified School District, Twin Ridges Elementary School District, which was brought before the federal court in California, failed to provide any evidence that anthroposophy is a religion.
On the Web site for the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America, one finds a listing of at least thirty publicly funded schools in North America using Waldorf methods or Waldorf “inspiration,” serving perhaps 5,000 to 6,000 students.
- Oppenheimer, T. (1999). Schooling the imagination. Atlantic Monthly, 284(3), 71–78.
- Petrash, J. (2002). Understanding Waldorf education: Teaching from the inside out. Beltsville, MD: Gryphon House.
- Steiner, W. (1965). The education of the child in the light of anthroposophy. In The education of the child (English ed., G. S. M. Adams, Trans.). New York: New York Anthroposophic Press.
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