When parents first come to a Waldorf school from a public school environment, they will notice many differences. These often make broad brush stroke impressions such as: “this school seems art centric, it values nature, limits technology and the children are allowed to play and move a lot.”
Processing the depth of difference in pedagogy can be a little more challenging, so we have written several articles to help further define the differences between mainstream public education and Waldorf education.
We began with our article A Comparison of Waldorf and Public School, where we visually broke down key elements that differentiate the two pedagogies by looking at the way each approaches early academics, curriculum, classroom environment, teaching methods, social learning, individuality, and relation to society as a whole.
From there, we took a close look at child development, testing, and appropriate curriculum for younger students as we delved in depth into a comparison of Waldorf vs. Mainstream Early Academics — A Two Part Series.
Now we look into the differences in philosophy and curriculum in later grades classrooms, Grades 5-12, and isolate some of the more subtle differences in approach. By the time a public school student reaches fifth grade, some of the early testing rigors have subsided. The push to be sure students can read and also achieve the basic math standards is now over. At this point, the children have been measured against initial standards and categorized according to their needs.
This can be great news for many students, as their days now incorporate many different subjects. While the younger grades focused on the three Rs, the upper grades now layer in more subjects — social studies, literature, science, art and music (in districts where funding is available), and many electives. In fact, in some more progressive public schools, the differences between Waldorf and public education can seem to shrink somewhat, but the differences do persist.
What are these differences exactly? We have highlighted, in a quick-reference format, the divergence in curriculum and philosophy below:
Public School: Standardization is key. The children must learn things in the same way to achieve consistent, equal, and uniform knowledge. Why? Because both personal and national success means ensuring “our future college and workforce bound” adults have a “common” and “comprehensive” knowledge base.
Waldorf School: Variation is key. The children must learn things in different ways, so that their unique talents and interests can be inspired and developed. Why? Because learning to learn and loving to learn is what ensures success in life. Helping children find that love of learning means they can excel at anything they choose to do.
Public School: The U.S. Department of Education, when it conducts research, defines success in this way: “Graduating with a desired degree is unquestionably an appropriate indicator of a student’s success.” The Common Core Standards Initiative defines it this way: “that all students have the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life upon graduation from high school [with skills] aligned to the expectations of colleges, workforce training programs, and employers… to compete with their peers in the United States and abroad.”
Waldorf School: According to The Association of Waldorf Schools of North America, AWSNA, success is: “The development of the well-rounded person. Waldorf Education has as its ideal a person who is knowledgeable about the world and human history and culture, who has many varied practical and artistic abilities, who feels a deep reverence for and communion with the natural world, and who can act with initiative and in freedom in the face of economic and political pressures.” Here at Spring Garden, we strive to “yield graduates with remarkable critical thinking skills, so that they can adapt to a wide variety of situations and contribute to the world in a meaningful way.”
Public School: The U.S. Department of Education advocates technology use in the classroom in order to “support thinking, stimulate
motivation, promote equity and prepare students for the future.” However, scientific studies have not supported these teacher and administrator beliefs. While initial results were hopeful, full implementation and scientific study of these efforts have not shown measurable positive results.
Waldorf School: While some believe Waldorf schools are anti-technology, that is actually not the case. We simply believe technology can wait until high school, at which point it can be used as a tool, because research does not agree with the idea that technology is the best way to “support thinking.” Movement, art, music, and note taking by hand, however, are all scientifically proven to better support brain development.
Public School: If one Googles “science in public school,” the topic at hand is not their approach to curriculum in terms of methodology, but instead their approach in terms of subject matter or a materials approach. Scientific subject matter can be steeped in controversy — a mix of political and religious noise in regards to biology (evolution), earth science (climate change), anatomy, and public health instruction — often influenced by local opinion. The scientific community has concerns about public school science curriculum and instruction. Regardless of controversy, the overall methodology in teaching is based in memorization of formulas and rules and then sometimes seeing those bear out in experimentation. In this way, whole to parts instruction tends to be the norm, which takes much of the natural inquiry and deductive reasoning away from students themselves as they simply learn the reasoning of others.
Waldorf School: The methodology for science instruction in Waldorf Education is based on observation and Socratic Inquiry. We teach students astronomy, anatomy, physiology, health science, inorganic and organic chemistry, physics, environmentalism, and climate. Waldorf teachers begin not by lecturing on rules and formulas, but by showing those rules in action in experiments or the natural world. They then guide students to use Socratic inquiry and observation to help them deeply understand the science within our world. These real world examples and applications are used to then guide students to connect logical parts to the whole, which helps them deeply understand the science within our world.
Public School: The approach to math is much like the approach to science, except without the controversy on subject matter. Math is taught through memorization of formulas and processes, then practiced via worksheets and classroom repetition until students pass tests of the skills and the next skill set can be layered.
Waldorf School: Math is taught in a multidisciplinary manner. While younger students are introduced to math concepts through stories, students also experience story problems and practical application in mathematics including cooking, music, geometric drawing, algebra, and mathematics in art.
Public School: Art instruction was standardized in 1994. The Department of Education says, “Knowing and practicing the arts disciplines are fundamental to the healthy development of children’s minds and spirits. That is why, in any civilization — ours included — the arts are inseparable from the very meaning of the term ‘education.’” Unfortunately, a 21st-century shift in priorities to test scores and standards has sidelined the arts curriculum in many schools to make more time for testable subjects. Also, arts curriculum (class time, teachers, supplies and facilities) often falls victim to budget cuts.
Waldorf School: While Waldorf schools are not “art schools” by definition, our curriculum is fundamentally artistic. Waldorf students do not have an art class. They have art in every class! The best example of this is the textbook creation done by Waldorf Students. Using what they learn in lecture about literature, history, social studies, science, and math, students create books that incorporate their learnings with their own illustrations. This is in addition to classes in handwork, woodwork, instrumental and choral music, painting, eurythmy, sculpture, and drawing.
Public School: Music is part of the arts, as defined above by public education standards. In most schools, where funding is sufficient, music is an orchestra, band, or choir elective. Students are offered one, or sometimes two, of these electives if they are interested. Music is typically not a requirement for middle and high school students.
Waldorf School: Music, like art, is part of every day and many classes at Waldorf School. Students learn vocal and instrumental songs (via flute and recorder) during Main Lesson time. Choral music is taught throughout school as required. Also required is instruction in stringed instruments starting in fourth grade. By the time students reach high school, they can choose to diversify into playing brass, woodwinds, and percussion, along with their choral instruction.
Literature & Language Arts:
Public School: According to the Department of Education, language arts “is presented as a personal and practical means of communication, and writing skills …including guiding the child to an understanding of the form of good writing and familiarizing him with proofreading procedures.” Literature instruction is also defined in measurable terms in order to teach “careful use of language, including features such as creative metaphors, well-turned phrases, elegant syntax, rhyme, alliteration, and meter; literary genre (poetry, prose, fiction, or drama); aesthetical reading; and weak implicatures somewhat open in interpretation.”
Waldorf School: Waldorf education takes a much less formulaic approach to the study of language arts, instead approaching and teaching topics in historically rich, art-filled blocks, by grade, in chronological order though history. Grammar lessons become more in-depth in grades 5-8. Our fifth graders study the history, lifestyles, and religions of ancient Indian, Persian and Egyptian cultures. Sixth graders move on to study Roman history and the Medieval time period. Next comes the Reformation and Renaissance for seventh graders and so forth. All of this reading, writing, and teaching is done actively alongside the art, music, and theater of the time to bring depth and life to these great moments in history and literature.
Public School: Physical education is a required class in all years of public schooling. Oftentimes a more general phys ed class may be replaced by participating in a sport or other physically challenging elective, but all students are required to have an active class of some kind each year. The U.S. Department of Education has a well-funded grant program to help schools develop innovative curriculum that “promotes a healthy, active lifestyle.”
Waldorf School: Physical education, eurythmy, recess, and extra lesson movement classes are a mainstay of Waldorf education. We refer to all these subjects under the heading of “movement” instead of, say, “gym class” because the healthy and active lifestyles of our students extends well beyond a set classroom time. While public school fully supports sports and phys ed curriculum, they have not extended the active values to recess, which is essential part of movement curriculum and better academics. In addition to phys ed class, Waldorf students go outside several times a day for unstructured play, learn eurythmy (a type of movement integrated with language arts), and have large motor skill classes to promote sensory movement dominance and midline development.
Public School: Behavior and social skills are a consideration for public education, but no formal curriculum recommendations are made at this time for teachers. However, courses and guidelines are offered and special education teachers are well versed in behavioral issues of students. Bullying, however, has been a high priority since the turn of the century, and an active and preemptive approach to bullying education has reduced its prevalence in the last 10 years.
Waldorf School: Instead of targeting social skills or behaviors, Waldorf educators strive for a more holistic social cohesion between classmates, the Main Lesson teacher, and subject teachers. Developing social cohesion is a priority in Waldorf early academics. This can be done, in part because of Waldorf’s one teacher approach to grades K-8, allowing a class to move forward together with the same teacher and classmates year after year. As AWSNA says, this allows “a child to develop the deep human relationship that is the basis for healthy learning.” It also allows the children to bond as a class and learn to appreciate and understand one another on a deeper level, which is integral in learning social skills and learning to work with people long term.
Ultimately, both systems of education seek to serve the children in their care and society as a whole. Choosing which type of education is best for your family will ultimately depend on your values and the values you hope to instill in your children.
by Emily Rode
Here at Spring Garden Waldorf School, orchestral musical training is seen as a layering of abilities. What is taught in the early grades is built upon each year, as more and more is expected musically from the students. Children are given regular opportunities to perform their music, at monthly Assemblies and also at Concerts and Festivals.
Grade 3: In Grade 3, we are just beginning our violin adventure. The students will have an instrument to use during our weekly meeting. It will be a few weeks after the school year begins before they actually begin to work with one, but they are always so excited and enthusiastic to begin!
Grade 4: Grade Four brings fraction studies, and fractions bring quarter, eighth, and sixteenth notes. Student’s are measured and assigned a violin to use at school. Students work with a combination of imitation exercises to learn notes and rhythm, worksheets, and short pieces. They also work within The Etling String Method Book. Having their own instrument is not required at this time, but if they do, they can practice at home to reinforce the skills learned in class. If students have an instrument at home or want to acquire one, I can help with sizing or questions about supplies, care, and maintenance.
Grade 5: Grade 5 meets on Tuesday and Friday. Students are ready for short homework assignments, which are given on Tuesday and checked the next Tuesday. They should be practicing at home at least 4 of the 7 days for 10-15 minutes each practice. Those comfortable with the lesson measures or scales assigned, can review past assignments or long bows on open strings to produce a clear tone and be comfortable with the bow.
Grade 6: In Grade Six, children can choose to expand their instrumental repertoire by selecting a different stringed instrument to master beyond the violin. Grade 6 meets on Monday and Tuesday and their practice assignments will be given Monday and checked the following Monday. At this age, five additional minutes should be added to the student’s practicing, which should take place at least 4 of the 7 days each week.
Grades 7 and 8: Our Middle School students are now immersed in the language of music as skills are layered upon all that has been learned before. Students can now begin training on woodwind instruments in the upper grades, if they so choose, or they can continue to master their stringed instrument choices. Orchestra class meets on Monday, Tuesday and Friday. Assignments are given each Monday and checked the next Monday. Students should now be practicing 20-30 minutes 4 to 5 days each week.
The benefits of music training, and string instrument training in particular, are vast. Even if student’s choose not to pursue music long term, we know they will experience the proven neurological benefits, such as accelerated brain cell growth in areas related to executive functioning, including working memory, attention control and organisation.
by Caty Petersilge
Consistently creating useful, beautiful objects with one’s own hands is a tangible and powerful life lesson — teaching students that they are capable of great things with time, patience and practice leading to accumulated success. If handwork has one ultimate purpose, it is to build students up until they no longer second-guess their ability to create what they imagine.
Here is a summary of the handwork projects at Spring Garden Waldorf School, by grade:
Grade One is spending their first few weeks of school making two very important implements for handwork: a finger-knitted drawstring (for their handwork bag) and a pair of knitting needles. The needles are made from wooden dowels which are sanded, waxed, and buffed by the children until they are smooth enough for yarn to glide over easily. Each child will then use two colors of sculpey clay to make a pair of “bobbles” (the little knobs that go on the ends of the needles to prevent the yarn from sliding off).
All of this is done in preparation for two days at the end of September: on a very special Monday and Tuesday, Grade Eight will come down to join us for handwork class and teach their first grade buddies how to knit! This is a wonderfully efficient and magical means of passing on such a nimble handicraft, and both classes always take great joy in the occasion. The first graders’ first knitted project will be a butterfly (a knitted square of white yarn which we will dye with plants found on the school grounds, then sew up the middle to create wings).
Grade Two, having honed their knitting skills last year, have now begun their largest handwork project to date: the knitted flute case! This will be the home for their flute in Grade Two, and eventually their recorder in Grades Three through Eight, so great care is taken to make sure the stitches are neat and consistent and the colors are beautiful. The flute case is 25 stitches wide and 13” long, so students in Grade Two have a good long first project ahead of them!
In Grade Three we are getting familiar with a new tool: the crochet hook. The students are learning the single crochet stitch and making a small bookmark to practice these new movements. Once this is completed, they will use the same stitch to make their pencil case – which will be 21 stitches wide by 18” long. Later in the year, when the weather is colder, they will learn to crochet in the round and the students will make a pattern to grow a hat for themselves or a loved one.
Grade Four, in preparation for their studies of Norse mythology later this year, have begun doing some Norse knotwork – creating bookmarks or bracelets from wool yarn. Our next project will introduce embroidery; they will learn the four basic stitches required to make a needle case, and they will each create a personal design. The needle cases will serve as a home for their pins and needles as they work on their elephants in Grade Six.
Grade Five will be knitting toe-up socks in the round this year! Toe-up socks are certainly the most complex and difficult handwork the children have yet encountered, and every one of them are eager and undaunted. When the children finish their first pair of socks, they can choose to make a second pair or to create a pair of mittens which, conveniently, are just toe-up socks with a thumb instead of a heel.
The Grade Six handwork curriculum calls for the sewing of a toy that will be given as a gift to a younger friend (a sibling, a fellow student) so special attention to detail is necessary where seams and stitches are concerned. Toys are meant to be loved and played with, after all, so we must remind ourselves to make them durable.
Grade Seven will be plunging into feltmaking. Our first project will be wet felting (scrubbing at sheep fleece with hot water and soap to shrink it into felt) and we will be setting up tables every Thursday morning to work outdoors most of this season. Feltmaking comes at the perfect time for students in Grade Seven, whose last few years of handwork have featured steadily smaller work and more fine motor skills – then, feltmaking comes in as a breath of fresh air and gross motor skills, with hard work in the arms and shoulders forming a strong, grainless fabric. The appeal of this change is clear in the students’ enthusiasm for the work!
Grade Eight’s great work this year is to create a pair of flannel pajama pants using sewing machines (they are studying the industrial revolution, so they are in a unique position to appreciate the difference these machines made in lives of people back then). Before we approach the pants, however, we begin the year with a very familiar verse – in fact, the same verse many of them began with in Grade One! “Under the fence Catch the sheep Pull him through And off we leap!” Our first few classes are spent learning how to teach others to knit.
Their special task will be to pass on this skill to their first grade buddies in the final week of September, so we practice in pairs saying the verse and guiding each others’ hands until everybody feels comfortable.
by Jennell Woodard
Waldorf Education is about the whole child – mind, body, and soul. The body and movement are intimately interconnected and interdependent in learning from this whole child perspective.
The goal in Waldorf Education is to support development in which education is more than gaining knowledge. Learning is not all in our heads. Waldorf Education recognizes that there are multiple ways of knowing, which take into account sensory experiences, temperament, emotion, how the child is “hard-wired,” and where neural networks are malleable to change.
We have more than just the five senses – Waldorf Education recognizes as many as 12 sensory systems – and learning comes also through these other senses like the kinesthetic, vestibular, and proprioceptive systems. Extra Lesson at Spring Garden Waldorf School incorporates movement, drawing, and painting exercises that help students with difficulties in writing, reading, and math, as well as behavior.
The premise is that the challenges a student experiences may be a result of inadequate spatial orientation and poor body geography, and research supports this link between learning difficulties and early child development.
Extra Lesson is an assessment and intervention program based on Rudolf Steiner’s holistic developmental perspective and the Waldorf philosophy of education.
- Improving mobility, motor skills, and flexibility
- Building and strengthening neurological networks
- Providing change without labels
- Providing opportunities to re-navigate possibly missed developmental stages that contribute to underlying problems emerging now
- Helping sensory input connections in the brain
- Building patterns for cross-referencing experiences
- Connecting movement with sensory input, gravity, spatial awareness, tactile sense, proprioceptive senses, and sensory integration issues
Here are some of the learning difficulties Extra Lesson is designed to address:
- Low frustration tolerance
- Avoiding certain learning tasks
- Difficulty following directions
- Low academic performance
- Balance, coordination, and organizing
- Confusion with numbers, letters, and math signs
Extra Lesson at Spring Garden is taught by Jennell Woodard. She has been with SGWS for over 30 years and says, “My interest in “how we learn” began when I was a class teacher and looking for new avenues to unlock this mystery in some of my dear students. Then I discovered the work of Audrey McAllen, who worked diligently with the Foundation of Waldorf Principles designed by Rudolf Steiner.”
Ms. Woodard pursued a course of study with Extra Lesson from the Association for a Healing Education and currently works weekly with students in Kindergarten, Grade One, and Grade Two. She also works with individuals and small groups referred by class teachers.
In the meantime, enjoy this Coffee and Conversation presentation, also by Michael Gannon, about the whys behind Waldorf’s approach to at-home and in-school media use in elementary students.