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.