The key to education is human connection and in Waldorf education this is uniquely fostered by students typically having one main teacher for a portion, or all, of their elementary school years. While this custom seems strange in modern times, it was common in the past within small communities. Waldorf Educators see many benefits to preserving this once traditional model, which lends itself to a deep human connection, more personalized education for students, a cohesive classroom environment and more focused learning overall.
Each student is unique, with their own special gifts, personalities and learning styles. These traits develop, blossom and change over time and it is difficult for a teacher, who only knows a student for 9 months, to truly understand and appreciate their individual needs.
Waldorf Class teachers are given the gift of time to deeply understand each of their students, which allows them to serve as the child’s true learning advocate. The teacher also discusses the gifts and needs of each child with subject teachers (Spanish, handwork, woodworking, gym, music, gardening) and parents, which further helps them develop techniques that suit individual children and work well for the class as a whole.
This collaborative long view, and individualized relationship, deeply benefits the child in a way that no other approach or method could achieve.
When a teacher knows each individual student, it helps the cohesion of the class as a whole. Just as each child has individual learning styles and needs, they also have very specific social and emotional needs.
Waldorf educators do not diminish the importance of social/emotional learning. Sometimes referred to as “Character Education,” these lessons include development of sense of self, perseverance, resilience, collaborative skills and empathy. Teachers in a classroom that keeps the same students, year over year, can nurture and develop a child’s sense of themselves as social beings.
A teacher in this environment can also come to know each child’s individual temperament works within the classroom. Social problems, value differences, varied work styles or pace must be met head on as the whole class collaborates. Difficulties must be resolved. No child is passed over or passed on. Each child is essential in class.
The students also learn about the contributions and needs of one another. Children who learn together for four, six, or eight years also learn to work together just as they will be required to as adults in their families and the workplace. Each child’s unique personality becomes essential and understood for its value within class.
It is true, a child’s peers may recognize when someone is a slower reader, but if that same child is encouraged to help others struggling in math class, then the entire class comes to value each individual’s excellence and uniqueness. In this way, a classroom can come to feel like a family.
Focus on Learning
This individual attention and social cohesion brings the focus back onto learning. The one teacher model sidelines a myriad of common distractions within other classroom models, such as getting to know a new teacher, new students and assimilating to a new (or multiple) classrooms each year.
While these factors might seem trivial, they are very important to students, and Waldorf students don’t experience any of the anxiety brought forth by these constantly changing environments. The biggest change each year for students is the material they learn.
In addition to bringing the focus back on learning, the one teacher approach helps children learn by respecting and modeling a stable authority figure. Keeping the class teacher (by no means the child’s only teacher) as a steady authority in a child’s life is beneficial to social and intellectual learning.
Although it may be surprising, even older children model their behavior to the adults in their lives more so than their peers. A positive relationship with teachers have been proven to boost children’s esteem and learning.
But, What If . . .
My child and the teacher do not get along? While one could see the long term togetherness of varying personalities a potential disadvantage, the Waldorf approach sees it as an advantage. As with family, if a teacher and a child are struggling to work together, the teacher takes on the responsibility of working with the family as a whole to help develop a strong and positive relationship over time.
Waldorf teachers are specifically trained to both work on their own inner selves and learn to balance their relationships with each student. This includes a study of how to work with different personality types and learning styles, home visits to understand the child’s world, and regular parent teacher conferences and class meetings to better understand the child and his or her family. The positive experience a student can have when the teacher, child, and parents are working together over eight years, through difficult times and joyous times, cannot be matched.
While the majority of the assessments at Spring Garden Waldorf school are done through observation and without formal testing, we do administer the IOWA Test of Basic Skills once a year, to 4th through 8th graders, for specific academic feedback.
The unique unfolding of the Waldorf curriculum through the grades creates some discrepancies between the areas being measured on the tests and our learning goals, so we give the students only sections applicable by grade level.
- We do not test children before Grade Four.
- 4th Grade students will take the Language Arts and Mathematics sections of the test. The students in 4th grade are not timed while taking the tests.
- 5th & 6th Grade students will take the Language Arts, and Mathematics sections of the test with timing parameters to increase the validity of the data received as well as to provide the students with exposure to this kind of experience.
- 7th & 8th Grade students will take all sections of the test and follow the required time limits.
We do not use the testing scores for evaluations of teachers or students, but do use them to compare individual and class progress from year to year as we move through our Waldorf curriculum. We also have, in years past, used IOWA test scores for our own research and study purposes.
Last year we completed an independent five-year study of SGWS students’ IOWA test scores. The analysis, conducted by the University of Akron Business Analytics department, found that test scores at Spring Garden rose as students rose in grade level, and that student’s national percentile ranks also increased as they moved through the grades.
Impressively, by Grade Eight, SGWS students well outperformed their same-age and same-grade peers nationally who took the IOWA tests.
- 50% of SGWS Grade Eight students tested at a 13th grade equivalency, the grade level at which the IOWA test is capped.
- 75% of SGWS Grade Eight students performed significantly above 10th grade equivalency.
- Also notable… there were no significant differences in the performance of male vs. female students at Spring Garden Waldorf School.
This year, students will be given the IOWA test during between February 29th and March 4th. Parents are encouraged to let their children know that this is just another experience for them and that they need not be concerned about outcome.
“We can’t blame children for occupying themselves with Facebook rather than playing in the mud. Our society doesn’t put a priority on connecting with nature. In fact, too often we tell them it’s dirty and dangerous.” – David Suzuki
The National Wildlife Federation has essentially created a whitepaper on dirt to explain and encourage mud play among children. There’s an International Mud Day in June. And Immunologist, Mary Ruebush, has written a whole book about it: Why Dirt Is Good: 5 Ways to Make Germs Your Friends.
We know playing outdoors, in general, has a myriad of proven health and learning benefits. And sensory play is also essential for developing skills, especially in younger children.
But why is mud, specifically, so good for children?
First, there is the issue of children’s immune systems. As Ruebush says, “Let your child be a child. Dirt is good. If your child isn’t coming in dirty every day, they’re not doing their job. They’re not building their immunological army. So it’s terribly important.”
In fact, there are many ways in which dirt’s microscopic bacteria benefit children’s bodies and minds. One in particular, Mycobacterium vaccae, had been found to increase the levels of serotonin in our brains, which boosts mood and relieves anxiety.
Researchers at The Sage Colleges in Troy, New York also wondered whether, in addition to its antidepressant effect, M. vaccae may also have an effect on schoolwork.
“Since serotonin plays a role in learning, we wondered if live M. vaccae could improve learning in mice,” says Dr. Dorothy Matthews, who co-authored the study. “We found that mice that were fed live M. vaccae navigated the maze twice as fast and with less demonstrated anxiety behaviors as control mice.”
Turns out there are great body benefits, too. In addition to being good for the immune system, experts at the University of California at San Diego have found that mud play combats inflammation while improving wound healing. The researchers studied both mice and human cells in their lab and found that common bacteria, called staphylococci, can reduce inflammation after injury when they are present on the skin’s surface.
But most importantly, the kids love it because it’s fun to get dirty, fun to play outside, and fun to be with friends and have unrestricted playtime in nature. So let the kids be kids.
As American botanist Luther Burbank once said, “Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water bugs, tadpoles, frogs, mud turtles, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb. Brooks to wade…bees, butterflies, various animals to pet, hayfields, pine-cones, rocks to roll, sand, snakes and hornets; any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of…education.”
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.
“Can we see the inner radiance, the light that shines within each human being, despite all the shadows dancing around the edges?” – Dr. Torin Finser
The beginning of last week at Spring Garden saw our first set of parent teacher conferences for the school year. The relationships between our teachers and our parents represent the health and warmth of our school community. And, like all relationships, consideration, respect, and commitment to enhance the connection is essential in growing the wellbeing of the personal kinship within the community, the success of our children, and the health of our school.
We recently participated in the Parent Enrichment Series webinar on “The Human Encounter: Parent-Teacher Relationships in a Waldorf School Community: A Conversation with Torin M. Finser” presented by AWSNA and the Anthrposophical Society in America. Finser is General Secretary of the Anthroposophical Society and Chair of the Education Department at Antioch University New England. His discussion focused on school community relationships and specifically parent and teacher relations, using architectural images to represent the social architecture of communities and how they operate.
Finser used the first image of the Hammershus Castle as a representation of traditional “in vs. out” social architecture. Finser noted that we are often “haunted” by old ways of working and must be ever mindful of who, in a given social interaction, might be (or feel) they are “out” vs. “in.” While this does not directly represent the ideal social architecture of a modern Waldorf school, it can apply to relations beyond the teacher and parent and include board and council members, administration, and even cliques of parents.
The second image Finser presented was the first Goetheanum, built 1913-15 by Steiner and others. The wooden structure represents both a newer architectural form and a newer way of understanding social architecture within a community. The building is constructed with two intersecting circles, a smaller inner and larger outer circle that come together to make a third space. The value of the architecture lies within this third intersecting space where those presenting a unique expertise, and those receiving it, come together in a spirit of openness. As an example, Finser discussed a talented musician giving a performance. The musician brings his talents into this third space to have an experience with the audience, and the audience also enters this third space to experience the musician’s expertise. But what matters is that both are sharing a unique moment of openness and engagement. This third space represents a healthy metaphor for parent and teacher communication.
Finser also explored another important aspect of the teacher and parent relationship. Just as the structure and social architecture of a school must be considered, so must the inner dynamics of each person be considered in social interactions. Finser discussed personal gestures, or styles, that influence our communication and asked us to contemplate our own gestures, which are all different and yet all essential. Some of us approach life with a heart gesture, focusing on connection, warmth, and enthusiasm, while others approach life from a kidney gesture, focusing on filtering, organizing, and differentiating the useful. We communicate best when we understand what gesture we bring to relationships and how those around us work as individuals.
At the end of the webinar, Finser took questions from parents, which included:
How does the biography of a school affect the parent teacher relationship?
He answered: “Just as we know, in child development, how remarkable a 3, 7, 9 or 12 year old is … so also it matters, ever so much, at what stage a school finds itself.
In the early or pioneering stage [of a school], the boundary lines are very indistinct and there are few separations between people. Multiple roles are characteristic of early schools. The parent-teacher relationship in these schools can be amorphous. And one is perhaps mostly a friend with others and that can be warm and lively.
Jumping forward as a school grows, more people are involved and there are procedures and processes. How do we navigate that necessary form and evolution? Even in a mature stage, the parent-teacher relationship can still exude the warmth and joy because you can share attention in smaller cultural events and opportunities to rekindle a pioneering spirit.”
How can parents get the answers they need from those responsible for the school?
“That’s an important question as parents can feel confused or express frustration about not getting answers right away. Schools must attend to orientation. There must be a real opportunity to outline how a school functions. And there must be questions answered at the beginning. We must also identify clear pathways for concerns and questions.
On a more subtle level, one of the reasons questions are not answered can be due to the way questions are asked. We can all remember examples where an emotional or value assumption is posed as a question. “Why did you not…” questions.
It would be helpful if our schools attended more to inquiry and advocacy in asking questions and listening to what is at the root of a question…. Very often the person answering has a frame of reference that is different from the questioner. We must learn to discern what’s at the core of the question.”
This insightful webinar was a call for us all to consider inner work and insight as we approach one another in communication and relationships. Parents often seek renewal and strength from their association with a Waldorf school, and all the adults in the school must model the social future that we want for our children.
As Finser said, “We must discover each other with a beginner’s mind, a new openness at our parent teacher conference.” And he encouraged us to remember that the relationship between teachers and parents is “not a matter of technique. It’s a matter of learning to work together in the human encounter.”
Foundation Studies in Anthroposophy and the Arts: Year I & II – 2016-2017
A new two-year, part-time program of Foundation Studies in Anthroposophy and the Arts will take place January 2016 – April 2017. Register at www.centerforanthroposophy.org.
This program of studies is an invitation to learn more about Waldorf education and participate in research in all fields of human knowledge – please join us for this special course which is offered as a starting point for future work as parents, Waldorf teachers, alumni and others.
The course sessions will offer an opportunity to study, discuss, and participate together in transformative artistic activities. It will also focus on Anthroposophy — the philosophy out of which cultural activities such as Waldorf education arose — which links the spiritual in every human being with the spiritual in the universe.
The full Certificate Program consists of 128 hours. The faculty will be a mixture of experienced anthroposophists and artists from our local area and from the wider Waldorf community.