In our article A Comparison of Waldorf and Public School, we 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. In the following series, we will look at each of these elements in more detail and explore the differences more deeply. We begin the series with a closer look at Early Academics – Part One and Part Two.
Waldorf Education: Child Development & Testing
When Waldorf educators consider their approach to learning in grades K through 3, they take special note of the completed transition children experience by Grade 3 — moving from Piaget’s Preoperational to Concrete Operational cognition. Piaget believed most children made this transition around age seven, whereas Waldorf’s founder, Rudolf Steiner, determined children transitioned closer to age 9.
Although some may transition a bit sooner, by some point in third grade, each child will awake from an egocentric worldview. They will begin to see that they have a place within a greater, expansive world. What this shift in thinking requires, in Waldorf education, is a shift in teaching method and rigor. It is then, and only then, that Waldorf educators think of young students as emerging from “early academics.” For the students who are more academically capable in the early years, the focus is on presentation, taking their time to do their best work, developing social skills, and physical abilities.
Many will say that “the rubber hits the road” as Waldorf students round out their third year of schooling. Homework may begin halfway through this year as children hone their capacity to focus and to take personal responsibility for their actions. While movement still plays a key role, children begin to be able to sit for longer periods and grapple with ever more complex and nuanced topics.
It’s important to note that Waldorf student assessments are not based on testing during early academic learning. Waldorf educators believe a child’s physical, social, and cognitive development at this age is too fluid and varied to be measured by testing early reading and math skills. Waldorf teachers assess the children daily based on participation, lesson work, social interactions, and physical abilities.
By the end of fourth grade, most Waldorf schools will allow students to take a standardized test, such as the IOWA test, although most do not share the scores with students to avoid the children having a specific impression of their strengths and weaknesses and comparing themselves to others in their class.
Public School: Child Development & Testing
While Piaget has been influential in public school curriculum in the past, regard for child development has been sidelined in favor of a more linear approach to learning, where educators and administrators reverse engineer what must be learned by a particular grade and then segment and downshift those lessons back to Kindergarten in order to “fill the pail” by a particular test date.
The Department of Education says it has, “designed [core standards] to ensure students are prepared for today’s entry-level careers, freshman-level college courses, and workforce training programs.” They encourage parents to sort through the facts of Common Core standards vs. the myths. They counter skeptics’ claims, such as those who say that teachers were not consulted on test creation or that tests are not based on relevant international research.
Common Core advocates say, “Standards in ELA/literacy and mathematics provide a staircase to college and career readiness, building on the best of previous state standards and based on the best evidence and research; unlike typical standards prior, these standards help teachers understand exactly what is expected of each of our students at each grade level.”
But concerned skeptics like Dr. Megan Koschnick feel that many of the early childhood Common Core Standards are developmentally inappropriate for young students not yet reaching Piaget’s concrete operational stage. Her peers at the American Principles Project are concerned that no developmental or neuropsychologists were involved in the committees for creating the Common Core. According to Koschnick, there is also little, if any, scientific research supporting the aptitude recommendations at early grade levels.
As Koschnick said in this video, when standards are not developmentally appropriate, “Teachers are going to see typically developing children as delayed, parents may be informed that their children are behind and kids are going to get measured against inappropriate standards and might be held back or tracked into remedial classes that they don’t really need.”
Test vs. Non Test Culture — Who has the “Right” Research?
There is simply no research documenting the benefits of teaching the Common Core. It is too soon to measure the results of all this measurement. Research about testing in America and its result is mostly based on Iowa Testing started in 1935 and The No Child Left Behind Act started in 2002.
However, ten years on, the results of No Child Left Behind have begun to surface. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing claims that “NCLB failed to significantly increase average academic performance and significantly narrow achievement gaps as measured by the National Assessment of Education Progress. NCLB severely damaged educational quality and equity by narrowing the curriculum in many schools and focusing attention on the limited skills standardized tests measure.”
Many skeptics of Common Core, Waldorf educators included, feel it is the testing culture that is causing the problem, not the specifics of any given test. For a comprehensive history and review of varying tests, check out this Frontline article: Testing Our Schools, A Guide for Parents.
Click to Continue to Waldorf Compared to Public School — Early Academics Part 2 as we compare the academic philosophies of each education system, beginning with an in-depth discussion of Waldorf early academic pedagogy.
Early Childhood classrooms in Waldorf schools look different. Some parents are initially surprised by the lack of primary colors and maps and charts that normally festoon the walls of “traditional” preschool rooms. Won’t the kids find this … boring?
According to recent research on the topic of classroom design, they won’t consider it at all, which is exactly the point. The teacher and the lessons – or, in Early Childhood, the play and cognitive, creative, and motor development – is what deserves the children’s focus, not the posters, mobiles, or charts.
And it turns out children do give busy decor a fair amount of their focus. This New York Times article, Rethinking the Colorful Kindergarten Classroom, reports on a recent early childhood study which found that “children spent far more time off-task in the decorated classroom than in the plain one,” as measured by time spent gazing at the walls and scores on a picture test about stories the teacher had been telling.
There is also concern that the material on the walls is simply part of a larger commercial agenda to sell teachers and schools pre-made banners, mobiles, and posters, when walls might be better served as display space of student work or functional space for teachers and students.
A comprehensive 2012 research study published in The International Journal of Building Science and its Applications conducted an extensive analysis and assessment of 751 students across 34 classrooms in seven different schools in order to isolate the characteristics of classrooms that “maximize pupils’ achievement.”
According to this study, a well-designed classroom:
- Receives natural light
- Is designed with a quiet visual environment
- Uses warm colors on the walls and floor
- Has a large area of free space for building and diverse learning/play
- Has high-quality and purpose-designed furniture, fixtures and equipment
- Allows ease of movement
- Allows flexibility in learning varied activities
- Contains ergonomic tables and chairs
- Is modular, meaning the teacher can easily change the space configuration
While stepping into a Waldorf Early Childhood classroom evokes feelings of warmth, simplicity and comfort, careful analysis reveals that almost all of the above features have been accomplished in its design. Open areas are filled with natural light and materials that emphasize function over primary-colored form. This helps young children feel comfortable and focus on what matters — their creative play with peers, and time listening to and working with their teacher.
If you Google, “Summer break with children,” you get two types of search results — a variety of activity lists or articles about the evils of summer’s off. Turns out they call it “summer fade,” which is a one month backslide in learning coupled with an increase in Body Mass Index (BMI) for kids.
Many parents counter these issues with a rigorous schedule of summer camps, sport practice and tutoring. While watching television all day with a box of pop tarts is obviously not good, there are some other options beyond a highly structured and scheduled summer.
When planning, or not planning your child’s summer, consider the scientifically proven benefits of boredom, free play and time in nature. These research studies about children and learning support the idea of a summer slowdown.
In a recent BBC news article, Children should be allowed to get bored, Dr Teresa Belton said, “Cultural expectations that children should be constantly active could hamper the development of their imagination.”
Now couple that reality with studies connecting time in nature with increased learning and emotional capabilities. The positive results of being outdoors for children are vast as seen in this PDF of a decade of Scientific Studies on this topic. Some highlights include:
- “When children engage in authentic play in nature-based outdoor spaces, they develop skills in a variety of domains simultaneously.” – Miller, D.L., Tichota, K,.White, J. (2009).
- “Sullivan has revealed that the symptoms of children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) are relieved after contact with nature. The greener the setting, the more the relief.” – Taylor, A., Kuo, F. & Sullivan, W. (2001).
- “Children who regularly have positive personal experiences with the natural world show more advanced motor fitness, including coordination, balance and agility.” – Fjortoft, Ingunn (2001).
In addition to the learning benefits to boredom and time in nature, there is also the issue of free play. This article from Parenting Science explores over a decade of studies about the benefits of unstructured play time. The author is careful to note that free play does not mean physcial education classes or sports. Free play is just that. Unstructured play time, which is proven to help math skills, language development, and creative problem solving.
- “Play and exploration trigger the secretion of BDNF, a substance essential for the growth of brain cells.”
- “Psychologist Edward Fisher analyzed 46 published studies of the cognitive benefits of play (Fisher 1999). He found that “sociodramatic play”—what happens when kids pretend together—’results in improved performances in both cognitive-linguistic and social affective domains.'”
And finally, before you schedule a summer of busy stimulation, consider this article and advice from Simplicity Parenting writer Kim John Payne. He says:
“[When Google is hiring they say] ‘we’re less concerned about grades and transcripts and more interested in how you think.'”
If we rewind to a childhood that makes an adult like that, what do we see? Is it racing around from one prep course to another? From soccer to piano to Mandarin? A childhood on the clock and filling up the gaps with zoning on the iPad and obsessing about making more friends on Facebook?
I don’t think so.
When we really look at what happens for a kid when they slow down, tune in to themselves, take space and get busy in serious play, we can see that what they are learning is how to be create a kind of inner structure that will serve them (and us) well in the world ahead. … Play provides a deep and wide-reaching domain for kids to experiment with the real work of the real world.”
What does it mean when we say, in Waldorf, that children learn through their “head, heart and hands?” It references multidisciplinary teaching and the balance built into Waldorf education curriculum. Why do we focus on a balanced education?
Our world thrives on balance — ecosystems, economies, and governments all perform most optimally when things are allowed to ebb and flow yet stay ultimately centered, not through force but through compromise. This balance is key to stable growth and transformation.
Education is transformation of a generation and an individual. The task at hand is to guide young people as they grow and change, so that they may contribute meaningfully to a growing and changing world. This is no small task. When you consider the vital role that education plays within society and within the individual, then you can understand why balance in education is so essential. In order for the world to thrive, it needs to be filled with balanced individuals.
Waldorf education’s founder, Rudolph Steiner, a philosopher in the early 20th century, understood balanced education to mean the integration of the arts across the curriculum, the inclusion of movement and nature in everyday learning, and a focus on more subjects than just “the three Rs.”
Here in the 21st century, the comprehensive approach of Waldorf education has been supported by modern science. One might notice how Waldorf schools focus on fostering each of the multiple intelligences Howard Gardner identifies in his book Frames of Mind. Gardner, a developmental psychologist and professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, addresses the need to teach children thoroughly in each of these intelligences: verbal / linguistic, logical / mathematical, body / kinesthetic, visual / spatial, musical / rhythmic, interpersonal / intrapersonal. and naturalistic.
He, like Ken Robinson in this popular TED talk on education, argues against judging children’s intelligence on only one or two of these areas — a philosophy embodied in this Einstein quote: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Children who enter adulthood understanding their strengths, having been shown them through a balanced education, can contribute to the world in a fulfilling and meaningful way.
How do we realize balance within Waldorf education? Here are some examples:
Verbal / Linguistic – Teachers tell story, myth, and history by reciting poems, singing songs, and playing games. The complex vocabulary and imagery found in these oral activities bring verbal language to life and give depth to a child’s understanding of and desire to engage with written material. Children also make their own textbooks as an alternative to Chalk and talk note taking. And students begin to learn foreign languages beginning in first grade, when their brains are most primed to absorb this information.
Logical / Mathematical – Waldorf students learn math in many ways — intervals through music, geometry and measurement through woodworking and drawing, and math facts through holding and counting items. Logic is ever-present in the immediate apprehension of cause and effect inherent in science, music, and nature.
Body / Kinesthetic – Developing this intelligence goes beyond gym class for Waldorf students, who constantly learn through movement. Examples include time outside for recess, nature walks, gardening, the study of movement in eurhythmy and dance, and in-class movement through acting out stories, tapping sticks to math, or throwing balls while reciting multiplication tables.
Visual / Spatial – Whether it is creating a diorama of an animal, knitting and other handwork, sculpting with beeswax or clay, or taking a year to turn a log into a chair, Waldorf students learn much in the visual and spatial realm in their woodwork, handwork, gardening, and main lesson classrooms.
Musical / Rhythmic – Music is part of each day and each subject in Waldorf school. Song and rhythm are integral parts of the young child’s classroom. Layered onto this ever-present choral influence are musical instruments: flutes and recorders are introduced in younger grades, violins and other strings for students in the middle grades, and finally instruments of a child’s choice in the upper grades.
Interpersonal / Intrapersonal – Social skills are not left to chance in Waldorf education. Teachers spend much of their time in the early years helping children develop their interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence. One of the most important contributors to cultivating these two intelligences is the structure of the main lesson classroom, where students remain with the same teacher throughout all eight grades. Learning to work together as a whole is not optional, but essential and teachers focus on developing a harmonious and balanced classroom through providing time and structure for social interactions as well as time for reflection.
Naturalistic – Unlike many of their public school peers, Waldorf students still get recess, so they are out in nature, many times a day and in all seasons. They are also taught many academic lessons outdoors, such as botany and geology through nature walks and gardening. Older children often have main lesson class time outdoors, and gym class is held outside when weather permits.
Though developed by Steiner nearly a century ago, current research demonstrates Waldorf education’s ability to educate children intellectually, creativity and socially, prepares them to make meaningful contributions to our ever-changing world throughout the course of their lives.
Facebook has been abuzz lately with articles about the benefits of musical training on the brains and learning abilities of our children. The influence of music training on learning has long been cultivated in Waldorf Education, where musical instrument training begins in Grade 1 with pentatonic flutes and moves to stringed instruments by Grade 4. Students also receive choral training, study music reading and notation, and learn Solfege.
This latest round of internet excitement comes from a new study released by researchers at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. They found that children between age 6 and 18 had both physiological and behavioral benefits from musical instrument training.
According to this Washington Post article, Music Lessons Spur Emotional and Behavioral Growth in Children, James Hudziak, Director of the Vermont Center for Children, Youth and Families, says, “What we found was the more a child trained on an instrument [the more it] accelerated cortical organization in attention skill, anxiety management and emotional control.” When children played and practiced playing an instrument, it thickened an area of the brain related to “executive functioning, including working memory, attention control, as well as organisation and planning for the future.”
This new study is also layered on top of three additional studies published late in 2013 by The Society for Neuroscience. According to the press release, those finding show that “[l]ong-term high level musical training has a broader impact than previously thought. Researchers found that musicians have an enhanced ability to integrate sensory information from hearing, touch, and sight” (Julie Roy, abstract 550.13).
The age at which musical training begins affects brain anatomy as an adult; beginning training before the age of seven has the greatest impact (Yunxin Wang, abstract 765.07).
Brain circuits involved in musical improvisation are shaped by systematic training, leading to less reliance on working memory and more extensive connectivity within the rain (Ana Pinho, MS, abstract 122.13).
Music Training at SGWS
Here at Spring Garden Waldorf School, 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.
Grades 1 & 2:
In the early years, music is an expression and embodiment of imagination. In Grades One and Two, children learn music from the pentatonic scale both in song and on their flutes or recorders.
In Grade Three, during the nine-year change, children are ready to begin learning the language of music. A diatonic scale is introduced with a new recorder, notes are named by letter, and children learn basic music notation such as the scale and clef. Third graders also begin Solfege – a music education method used to teach pitch and sight singing.
Grade Four brings fraction studies, and fractions bring quarter, eighth, and sixteenth notes, which then leads to teaching rhythms, rounds, and some simple harmony. Now that the language of music has been introduced, children begin to play musical instruments, starting with the violin.
Students in Grade Five are ready for three parts in choral music. Accidentals are also introduced in this grade, and new keys are taught beyond the key of C. Students also continue to master the violin with regular training and performance.
In Grade Six, children can choose to expand their instrumental repertoire by selecting a different stringed instrument to master beyond the violin. They also learn and master written music from the Medieval period, aligning music with the Main Lesson curriculum. Acoustics are also studied this year.
Grade 7 & 8:
Middle School layers skills and practice upon all that has been learned before. Ensemble choirs read music and sing in harmony and rhythm. Sight singing also begins and Solfege study continues, and Orchestra is part of every student’s curriculum. Students can also begin training on woodwind instruments in the upper grades, if they so choose, or they can continue to master their stringed instrument choices.
Waldorf educators teach in a three day rhythm: presenting information or an experience the first day; discussion, review, and recall the second day; and doing something physical with the information the third day, such as expressing the information through writing or art. What is the commonality in this three day approach? The importance of sleep.
Why poor sleep leads to poor academic performance
We all know sleep is important, especially for our children’s emotional well-being, but what about their academic well-being? Research shows that good sleep is essential to learning, especially influencing specific types of memory, high level cognitive functioning, and achievement motivation.
Children need, according to SleepFoundation.org:
- 12-14 hours for children between 1 and 3.
- 11-13 hours for children between 3 and 5.
- 10-11 hours for children between 5 and 12.
- 8.5 -10 hours for teens.
Numerous studies on sleep and academics have found that sleep deprivation and low sleep quality leads to lagging achievement. Two such studies were summarized in this SleepFoundation.org news article, Improve Your Child’s School Performance with a Good Night’s Sleep. In one quoted study, researchers found that children who had difficulty falling asleep and woke up at least once a night were significantly more likely to have school achievement difficulties. A different study of high school students noted that those with higher grades slept around 30 minutes longer per night, went to bed earlier, and had less variation in their weekend schedules.
In a study of Dutch school children between the ages of nine and fourteen, Time in bed, quality of sleep and school functioning of children (Journal of Sleep Research 9:I2, p145), researchers found that children with better sleep quality (those who felt rested and had regular bedtimes) performed better in school, and perhaps most interestingly, were more open to the teacher’s influence and more motivated to do well.
This University of Pittsburgh study, The impact of inadequate sleep on children’s daytime cognitive function, published in Seminar of Pediatric Neurology (March 1996, Volume 1, p.44) found that inadequate sleep in school children resulted in difficulty focusing, irritability, emotional instability, and a lower threshold for frustration.
Two Harvard Education articles review Harvard research to best answer the question, “Why does sleep affect learning?” They each point to the affect poor sleep has on both memory and higher level cognitive functioning.
In this article, Sleep, Learning and Memory, from the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, researchers declare that, “the general consensus is that consolidated sleep throughout a whole night is optimal for learning and memory.” More specifically, they look at a function called memory consolidation, which takes place during sleep, which seems to help students to process what they learned the previous day. The current hypothesis is “that slow-wave sleep (SWS), which is deep, restorative sleep, also plays a significant role in declarative memory by processing and consolidating newly acquired information.”
This is particularly interesting to Waldorf Educators, who adhere to a main lesson block learning style that taps into a rhythm of learning a topic, stepping away from it, and returning to it a day later – a concept Rudolph Steiner believed allowed children to absorb and process the information more thoroughly.
Good sleep is essential not only for memory but also for higher cognition. In this article from the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard, Sleep, Performance, and Public Safety, researchers also found that sleep deprivation led to a decline in the subjects’ ability to access higher-level cognitive functions. “After a period of sleep deprivation, there are noticeable changes in brain activity, as measured by an electroencephalogram (EEG).”
Researchers found, in particular, that the prefrontal cortex, responsible for many higher-level thinking was particularly vulnerable to a lack of sleep. “As a result, people who are sleep deprived will begin to show deficits in many tasks that require logical reasoning or complex thought. … In addition to the feeling of sleepiness and changes in brain activity that accompany a night without sleep, other measures of performance are noticeably altered. Concentration, working memory, mathematical capacity, and logical reasoning are all aspects of cognitive function compromised by sleep deprivation.”
What to do?
First and foremost, consider eliminating screen time before bed. Waldorf parents limit screen time more so than most, but it is important to remember that screen time around bedtime is potentially the most detrimental.
As recently reported on in Businessweek’s article, Kids Who Sleep Near Their Smartphones Get Less Shuteye, a study published in Journal of Pediatrics, joins many others in reporting that televisions, phones and tablets in children’s rooms and beds negatively impact sleep.
Next to consider is consistent bedtimes. Organizations like the SleepFoundation.org are going so far as to label it “Sleep Hygiene,” recognizing that the habituation of a sleep routine is as important in maintaining children’s physical health as bathing or brushing their teeth. As the studies above have noted, children who go to bed at an earlier time and consistently (weekdays and weekends), get more sleep, wake feeling rested and do better in school.
And finally, consider educating older children about the importance of sleep. With third party evidence and scientific research supporting your family’s bedtime “hygiene,” a teenager may be more willing to comply and adopt healthy sleep habits once outside the home.
Get a good night’s rest for better learning tomorrow!