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.