Introduction to Waldorf Education

Waldorf Education was founded in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1919 with the establishment of a school for the children of factory workers at the Waldorf Astoria Factory. Not long after the end of World War I, the factory’s owner, Emil Molt, asked Austrian philosopher and scientist   Rudolf Steiner to develop a new form of schooling, one that would help the children grow into adults capable of healing the ravages of the war and contributing to social renewal. In response, Steiner created a curriculum designed to develop the full range of the children’s human capacities – intellectual, physical, emotional, social, aesthetic, moral, and spiritual. Radical for its time, the new school was open to all children, educating girls alongside boys; integrating the arts and practical skills with academic subjects; and employing a curriculum and pedagogy carefully designed to support the full development of the child.

Comprehensive Vision of Human Development

Today, Waldorf Education is a worldwide school movement with more than one thousand schools in over eighty countries. The pedagogy that arose in that first school is founded upon a fully-articulated and detailed vision of human development, one that includes a consideration of a child’s past, present, and future and that encompasses all aspects of her being: body, soul, and spirit. Perhaps more than in any other approach to education, an understanding of the developing child informs all aspects of the Waldorf curriculum and methodology. If we understand this model of human development, depicted as a series of stages, we can build a coherent road map of both the developing human being and the corresponding Waldorf educational system.

Focus on Supporting Student’s Growing Individuality

A developmental approach is not unique to Waldorf Education. Within the last century, Piaget, Montessori, and Gesell are just three of a large body of educators who have acknowledged the importance of human development in education. Waldorf Education is, however, unique in the comprehensive nature of its view: each child is understood as the bearer of an evolving human spirit with its own past, present, and future. More than a product of heredity or environment, an essential core of human individuality is at work, revealing itself in a child’s personality. It is the educator’s responsibility to support this growing individuality, allowing it to develop in such a way that the unique gifts of the child can find optimal expression. This is an extraordinary expansion of the usual definition of “teaching”- made visible and practical through the Waldorf curriculum.

Emphasis on Human Relationships

Human relationships are central to the support of healthy development, and in Waldorf Education attention is given to their fostering and support. Time is allowed both for the gentle unfolding of the development of the child and for the building of relationships between teacher and child, child and child, and parents and teacher. Ideally, the core class teacher in the grades remains with a class for many years, possibly up to eight years, a form of extended looping. The curriculum is organized to reflect the importance of this dimension of time.

Coherence Between Curriculum and Child Development

It is often referred to as a spiral: subjects occur and reoccur as the child matures and his capacities develop. This repetition of subjects, with increasing complexity, allows for continuous review that in turn leads to a strengthening of understanding and independent thinking, a steady acquisition of knowledge, and the formation of living connections between subjects as the child’s capacities develop. “Main Lesson,” an extended period of time devoted to a subject every day over a period of several weeks, makes this spiraling and repetition possible. It eliminates the fragmentation that is common to most school days and allows the child to become fully absorbed in a subject day after day. The main lesson has been a defining characteristic of Waldorf education since its inception. Even in situations of high student transience, coherence between curriculum content and child development fosters a child’s interest, engagement, and learning. With the gift of time, the curriculum becomes a journey of enrichment and growth traveled together by the child and teacher.

Development of Independent, Critical Thinking Skills and Self-Direction

The developmental journey of the individual child is set in a larger context, that of the evolution of consciousness of the human being. Simply put, the individual child’s journey is considered to be a microcosm of the human journey, with emerging capacities and an ever-expanding worldview at each step. The very young child dwells in a dreamy, un-self-conscious state with little awareness of time or place. Throughout the school years, the relationship between self and world changes, and the child’s consciousness moves from that early, dreamy state, through concrete engagement with the physical world; to imaginative, picture-filled thinking; to the independent critical thinking and self-direction of the young adult.

Living Curriculum that Responds to Student’s Individual Needs

If we hold a living picture of the developing child, we are empowered to build an active, responsive understanding of the what, how, and when of teaching. The curriculum is not a fixed or rigid document–or a set of student outcomes progressively laid out on a prescribed timeline– but a living instrument for educators, who become engaged in a thoughtful, creative process, fostering the healthy growth of each of their students. An understanding of child development is therefore a non-negotiable requirement for understanding and implementing this concept of curriculum. The Waldorf curriculum can be viewed as a constant interweaving, a call and response between the developmental stage of the child, course content, and methodology. The teacher is entrusted and empowered with enormous creative freedom and responsibility to take the core principles of Waldorf education and work with them to best meet the needs of his class, a unique group of developing young individuals located in a specific time and place. The result is an education that is never static, that has creative mobility, and that requires the teacher to be active, creative, and artistic. Yet it is rooted in an insightful, coherent framework that provides a consistent foundation for the teacher’s interpretation of the needs of her students. For the teacher, the curriculum comes alive through an understanding of the human development that stands at its core. For the child, there is the experience of being met with material that speaks with immediacy and vitality to his emerging interests and abilities.

This text above is adapted from the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education, with revisions that reflect the MPCS curriculum.