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Waldorf Schools – Pro or Con?

By Martina Law
Published 2004

Waldorf Schools are a unique educational institution, founded by Austrian-born Rudolf Steiner in Germany in 1913. Fifteen years later the first American Waldorf School opened its doors in New York. Today there are over 150 Waldorf Schools in the United States and around 900 around the world, and the numbers are growing.

Steiner was said to be a well-educated man who also founded the Anthroposophical Society in 1913. “Anthroposophy is a complex blend of mysticism and esoteric philosophy, often referred to as spiritual science” (John.W.Morehead). Anthroposophists believe that “humanity is created by a host of spiritual beings” (Morehead). Unfortunately for humanity, however, is the “fall,” a loss of understanding about “our true identity and the spiritual world.”(Morehead). Anthroposophical meditation is just one way to connect with the spiritual world and can only be done over a succession of many lifetimes.

Steiner wrote that “the reincarnated spirit inhabiting the body of the child requires unique educational methods to properly prepare for the coming of the astral body through the child’s spiritual evolution.”

Steiner’s Anthroposophical leanings form the basis of Waldorf’s educational methods. The philosophy of Waldorf education is summed up by their motto “Education for the head, hand, and heart”. To get an understanding of the facts behind those words, I visited a Waldorf school in the fall of 2003.

Before I entered the building, I stopped to watch a group of children marching to their teacher’s rhythmic drumbeats. I asked a lady who turned out to be a Waldorf teacher what they were doing. “Oh” she replied, “they are currently studying Roman history. This practice gives them a better understanding of that age and also brings them together as a group.” 

Entering the hallway of the school, I immediately felt at ease. The atmosphere was welcoming, warm and nurturing. I could hear children singing and playing the flute. A table in the entrance hall was decorated with mystical-looking objects. When I asked one administrative person of the Waldorf School, what these decorations symbolized, I was told that the Waldorf residents had recently celebrated Michailmas, an autumn harvest festival, just one of an array of unique festivals that are celebrated at Waldorf Schools each year.

While talking to the Waldorf staff I learned that “there is quite a significant difference between American and European Waldorf schools,” because “Waldorf schools strive to adapt to its place wherever it is.”.

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One of them described Waldorf education as “educat(ing) the whole human being.” A child’s development is divided into 3 main developmental stages: Stage 1 is birth – 7 years in which children mainly learn through imitation, and using their hands in many creative ways. Toys and environment are kept simple to boost imagination, or as I was told, “Imagination is the foundation of thinking.”

Stage 2 is from 7 – 14 years and describes a stage in which growing children “think with their heart.” Last stage is from 14 – 21 years where adolescents finally approach “their intellectual capacity.”

Waldorf teaching methods, however, have been questioned. There are no textbooks used in classes. Instead, children create their own books for each subject. Moreover, there is no grading system. Reading is not taught until much later, and there is a “mystical use of art and dance called “eurhythmy” (Morehead).

The Waldorf staff I talked to claims that despites Waldorf’s opponents allegations there “is no religious teaching in schools.” However, they admit that “Waldorf education has a philosophical underpinning, but we don’t talk to children about that.”

Waldorf’s teaching methods and background have been subjects of a heated discussion ever since a few Waldorf schools turned into publicly funded charter schools. Debra Snell, founder of PLANS – People for Legal and Non-Sectarian Schools –a former Waldorf parent, says that “Waldorf getting public funding has created a crack in the wall of the separation of church and state (in the public school system) because they are religious but they deny it.” PLANS is in the process of suing Waldorf Charter Schools - the trial is currently scheduled for September 12, 2005 at the Federal Court House in Sacramento, CA - because, as Debra puts it “they are not suitable for public funding. They need to be private. We are not trying to close Waldorf Schools.” She says that PLANS has been studying anthroposophy academically for a long period of time and describes the philosophy as a “new age religion” based on occult and a “goulash of Christianity, Hinduism and paganism.” Waldorf doesn’t teach Anthroposophy explicitly but most certainly implicitly, she goes on. Teachers have to be Anthroposophists, a practice they acquire in “teacher training centers.”

Waldorf School supporter respond to such allegations by saying that “it’s important to us that teachers understand what we are doing. But the term Anthroposophist is widely interpreted.”

PLANS concern is that if teachers’ beliefs become hiring qualifications in publicly funded Waldorf schools, constitutional and civil rights issues occur. Snell adds that one of PLANS’ goals is to enlighten parents about Waldorf education practices so that “parents can make an informed decision.” Her personal experience with Waldorf (two of her sons attended Californian Waldorf Schools) was personally disappointing. Her older son didn’t learn how to read until late in fourth grade, and only outside Waldorf school curriculum. She claims that 40 percent of the children in his class faced the same problem. And it was not a single incident; this situation can be found worldwide in all Waldorf Schools. To address this problem, PLANS offers additional tutoring for children dealing with the same dilemma.

Asking Waldorf supporters how Waldorf educated children do once they leave the non-competitive atmosphere of a Waldorf School, they say:” They do very well. They have a strong capacity for critical and creative thinking and are extremely resourceful.” Waldorf opponents have their doubts. 


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