Teaching Methods: Rudolf Steiner and the Waldorf Method

Unlike the well-known Montessori method, less is known about the Waldorf method. Be that as it may, the Waldorf method usually stands beside the Montessori method when the world’s best methods of education are organised or compared. This statement is made because in a lot of countries, like South Africa, for example, there are a lot more Montessori environments than there are Waldorf. In light of this, this piece aims to explore the Waldorf method. The piece opens with a discussion about the founding of the Waldorf method and the establishment of the first Waldorf School in Germany. The piece also looks at the different stages of development that the method is built upon together with what the method entails in practice. Even though the Waldorf method is applied in a lot of school and home environments, like the Montessori method, in the present-day, however, a lot of these environments modify the method to some extent, from time to time even mixing aspects of both methods together. Thus, to avoid misperception, this piece focuses on what the Waldorf method was originally intended to be and do as a method of education.

Rudolph Steiner.
Image Credit: http://www.en.wikipedia.org

Rudolf Steiner

The First World War created great social, political, and economic troubles for many European countries during the earliest years of the 20th century. After studying this moment in time, Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher and social reformer, recognised that this was a moment that called for new ways of organising European society. Significantly, he believed that a lot of social structures had to be reordered and that the education system was among those structures that had to be reorganised within European society. Owing to his work and ideas, in April 1919, while visiting Waldorf Astoria, a cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany, the owner of the factory asked him if he could be a leading light and help him to establish a school for the children whose parents worked at the factory. Steiner agreed to help and within a few months, the first Steiner school, Die Freie Waldorfschule, was opened.

Steiner created a method of education that conflicted with the traditional method of education in meaningful ways. His method of education was founded on the ideas of anthroposophy. The Waldorf School was open to all children regardless of their family’s child’s socio-economic background and all of these children received the same education. He developed his method of education from the idea that since human beings were made up of a mind, body, and soul then, the process of education had to be aimed at the inward and outward development of children and adolescents. He believed in giving attention to 3 developmental stages that is to say; early childhood, middle childhood, and adolescence. He focused on these developmental stages because these were the stages that led to adulthood. For Steiner, the aim of education had to be to equip children and adolescents to develop into responsible and independent adults by supporting every area of human development.

Stages of Development

The Waldorf method of education held that children developed in 7-year cycles. In each of these 7-year cycles, certain qualities had to be recognised and respected. The first stage of development was early childhood. Early childhood stretched from birth until the age of 7. The Waldorf method regarded physical development as the most central point in early childhood. Considering the idea that children’s actions were motivated by their wills, to meet children’s needs at this stage, the curriculum was created to support children’s physical development while also strengthening their wills. Furthermore, the Waldorf method held that during the first stage of development, children learned through imitation and artistic play. Due to that as well as the need to support children’s physical development, programmes included a lot of physical movement through creative play and meaningful imitation.

In Waldorf schools, children painted, sang, built toys, role played, recited poems, baked, and even made soup. Children also engaged in routine work like organising their classroom regularly. Children engaged in these kind of activities not only to teach them about discipline and the importance of having a routine but too, to prepare them to be independent and responsible adults when they were older. The second stage of development was middle childhood which stretched out from 7 to the age of 14. The central point during this stage of development was the imagination. The Waldorf method placed great weight on the importance of developing children’s emotional lives ahead of the development of their intellectual lives. Steiner held that to raise an independent and responsible adult, it’s important to build a healthy body first, and then a healthy soul, and after that, a healthy mind. Thus, the development of the imagination was placed as the central point during this stage of development.

As a result of the emphasis on imagination, in Waldorf schools, subjects were introduced through pictures and stories. Given that textbooks weren’t used, children were encouraged to learn by listening to stories and creating imageries from these stories. After teachers had taught through storytelling, children would typically paint, draw, play with clay, and so on. Engaging in these activities helped children learn and remember what they had been taught. The third stage of development was adolescence which extended from 14 until the age of 21. Since the first stage of development focused on the development of the physical body and the second stage focused on the development of the imagination, the third stage focused on the development of the rational mind. During this stage, the method gave complete attention to the person that would arise from the foundation that had been built over the years.

Waldorf Method

Similar to the Montessori Method, the Waldorf method was built upon several principles. First, as mentioned earlier, Steiner recognised and respected the fact that human beings were made up of more than just a rational mind. He believed in the importance of educating the mind, body, and soul of each child and held that since each property had a unique way of learning, the process of education had to reflect this. It was important to create a method that avoided producing one-sided students. Second, the curriculum was designed in such a way that it honoured each stage of development. Children weren’t introduced to issues before they were ready to deal with them. Third, the curriculum was developmental, stretching over 12 years. Within a Waldorf school, male and female students, regardless of their talents, we’re encouraged to work and learn outside of their areas of interest. For example, all students had to learn 2 foreign languages, art, dance, music, mathematics, science, literature, practical work, and so on. The reason for this was, once more, to avoid producing one-sided students.

Fourth, the teaching method was unique. All subjects were handled as projects. As opposed to cyclic schedules, for about 6 weeks, the first 2 hours would be set aside for dealing with a specific subject. Once those 6 weeks had ended, a new subject would be introduced. Not like traditional schools, Waldorf schools had longer days, very little homework, and tests and grades were only presented to students as they reached higher grades. The most important thing that was assessed was children’s relationships with themselves and with others. Yet again a reminder of Steiner’s emphasis on the importance of emotional development ahead of intellectual development. Fifth, there was freedom in teaching. Teachers typically remained with the same students’ right into primary school. Even though there were teachers who taught certain subjects, students generally remained with the same teacher. What that did was that it allowed teachers to build strong relationships with parents and students. This alone had a positive impact on how much children enjoyed school as well as how well they performed. As children entered high school, however, this changed as specialist teachers were introduced. Even so, the constant presence of the same teacher during a child’s most important years of their learning was incredibly important as it played an important role in building a solid foundation in every child’s education.


References and Further Readings

Barnes, H. (1997). A Life for the Spirit: Rudolf Steiner in the Crosscurrents of Our Time. SteinerBooks

de Souza, D. L. (2012). Leaning and Development in Waldorf Pedagogy and Curriculum. Universidade Federal do Parana. [Online]. Available: http://www.researchgate.net

City of Lakes Waldorf. (2017). Waldorf Education: The 7 Core Principles. [Online]. Available: https://youtu.be/pZc1YNCCnG8

Fenner, P. J. (1995). Waldorf Education: A Family Guide. Michaelmas Press

Petrash, J. (2002). Understanding Waldorf Education: Teaching from the Inside Out. Gryphon House, Inc

Sprouts. (2016). Waldorf School Education. [Online]. Available: https://youtu.be/BkrgksInD9g

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