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You may have heard of the Waldorf educational approach, but do you know what makes it unique? This lesson provides you with details about this whole-child approach to education, giving you a peek into a typical Waldorf classroom.

Waldorf Approach

What we now think of as standard ideas in education have not always been so. In fact, ideas such as educating the whole child, integrating the arts into core subjects, or using hands-on methodology were once considered, well, kooky.

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One approach that uses these guiding principles is called the Waldorf educational approach. This model is based on several key components, including:

  • Teachers assess and determine curricula goals, objectives, and methods based on the needs of their students.
  • The model focuses on developing children into responsible, socially conscious members of society.
  • Qualitative assessments, or measuring the quality of student work, are used daily to determine student growth, while quantitative assessments, such as standardized testing, are used rarely.

Since it’s introduction in 1919, the Waldorf education model focuses on three overarching stages, each with specific constructs. Early childhood education provides experiences that allow children to interact with their world in hands-on, creative ways in order to construct knowledge. Elementary education utilizes social models and artistic ideas as a means of instruction. Secondary education encourages students to think critically and apply learning to real-life situations.

Waldorf schools recognize the importance of developing imagination and inspiration in students of all ages. According to the Association of Waldorf Schools, there are just over 900 independent Waldorf schools world-wide operating today, with about 134 in the United States. So, how did the Waldorf model begin? Let’s take a look.

Rudolf Steiner

You may think that the Waldorf educational approach started with a guy named Waldorf, but it actually began with a man named Rudolf Steiner, who was born in 1861 and died in 1925. Steiner was an Austrian philosopher who wrote, lectured, and taught about what he termed anthroposophy, a philosophical system that focuses on the health of the whole person or spiritual health.

How did he come to establish an educational theory and curriculum? It’s actually a great story.Just after WWI, Steiner visited the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany, to share his ideas about social renewal with the workers. Emil Molt, the factory owner, heard Steiner speak and asked him to head up a school for the children of employees. Steiner agreed on the condition that the school:

  1. Serve all children
  2. Include female students
  3. Be a unified, 12-year program
  4. Allow teachers autonomy and control of practices

Do you see elements of these constructs in the current Waldorf model? Again, these ideas, though widely accepted today, were pretty radical at the time. But Molt agreed, and the rest, as they say, is history. Die Freie Waldorfschule, the Independent Waldorf School, the first Waldorf model, opened on September 7, 1919.

Whole Child

Sometimes, we use terms so loosely and broadly that we may forget what they actually mean. When we talk about teaching the whole child in relation to the the Waldorf approach, we’re looking at using educational practices that touch on the child’s physical, emotional, cognitive, social, and spiritual aspects, or in other words, a child’s head, hands, and heart. What does this mean?Rudolf Steiner believed that traditional education focused too much on the intellectual realm. Think about your own experiences with school. How much time was spent on learning information or reviewing knowledge? Steiner believed that education should also cultivate aspects of the heart, such as a child’s will or fears, as well as tapping into their physical being.

Waldorf Curriculum

When Steiner established that first Waldorf school in 1919, he wanted to make sure it emphasized a holistic approach right from the start. To foster a place where adults and children share knowledge and experiences, he eliminated a lot of commonly used practices, like grade retention, extrinsic awards, and report cards.

So, what was left? A Waldorf model starts off by teaching students according to their developmental stage, then teaching skills within these stages. The system of eurythmy, or the practice of using music and rhythm as a teaching method, is also central. Waldorf schools are art-focused, allowing students to express themselves, their world, and emerging knowledge through different mediums. Let’s take a look at how this looks on a day-to-day basis.

Waldorf School Day

In a Waldorf school, teachers begin the day by greeting the students at the door, and greeting each child by name. Next, the class focuses on a content area for two hours in the main lesson, but don’t think students are passive learners during this time. Waldorf classrooms promote active learning through movement and experiential learning.

Teachers create language-rich classrooms and weave reading and writing into real-life areas, allowing students to connect to learning. They combine math instruction with music and movement to connect to students’ personal experiences and help them form a concrete foundation.In order to develop a rich, deep understanding of subjects and topics, the Waldorf curricula is taught in main-lesson blocks which last three or four weeks on average. Within these blocks, students record their learning in mini-books. Remember, the key construct for Waldorf models is one of experience. Therefore, students in a Waldorf classroom aren’t just reading about topics and focusing only on their heads; instead, hearts and hands are used as students dance, write about their feelings, discuss ideas, listen to music, and so on.

In this way, Waldorf students are fully immersed in their curriculum.

Lesson Summary

Rudolf Steiner established the first Waldorf school in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1919, based on his ideas about anthroposophy, a philosophical system that focuses on the health of the whole person. His non-traditional school provided all children (including females) with an education and gave curricular control to teachers throughout a unified, 12-year system.The Waldorf educational approach is a holistic one, based on the head, hands, and heart of the whole child. Students in a Waldorf school experience their education through three to four week main lesson blocks that include art, discussions, eurythmy, and writing, while growing into responsible, socially-conscious members of society.

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