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Academics

Disclaimer

Before mentioning some of the differences between Waldorf and public school education it's important to consider this point: it's because of differences that one would want to send their child to Waldorf school. Waldorf prides itself on being different, and is unabashedly "a choice." If Waldorf wasn't different, you might as well leave you kid at Public School #3,284 down the street for free!

Keep in mind, this is a relatively UNINFORMED view on Waldorf academics, sometimes from questionable sources. This article contains several links to other web pages about Waldorf education. Remember: don't believe anything you read on the Internet, including at OpenWaldorf.com!

The best way to understand Waldorf academics is to read Steiner's own words for yourself in the Reading Room, the Steiner says page, and the pre-made Google searches that search the web. After you are more familiar with Waldorf academics, and have formed your own opinion, your school can answer any questions you have about academics.

(An means teachers read this in Waldorf Teacher Training.)

"Child Development" at Waldorf

The task of education conceived in the spiritual sense is to bring the Soul-Spirit into harmony with the Life-Body.

Steiner, Rudolf. The Study of Man, Lecture 1

Waldorf Education holds a unique theory of "child development." Waldorf's theory of child development is seen through the lens of anthroposophy, and it forms the educational basis for Waldorf curriculum. You can't begin to understand Waldorf Education until you understand Waldorf's underlying theory of child development.

Waldorf's theory of child development is based on Anthroposophy's view of the spiritual development of the whole human being, as it travels through the journey of reincarnation.


"The curriculum of the Waldorf School aids the process of the child's development from the aspect of reincarnation."

McAllen, Audrey. Sleep

So keep in mind, when you hear Waldorf teachers talk about "child development," they could mean something different than you might think. Fortunately, Steiner says a lot about this alternative theory of child development, and much of what Steiner says is freely available online. (Links below)

Talk about it! "Waldorf curriculum and reincarnation"

Mainstream Child Development Theory

Before you dig in to Waldorf's theory of child development, you may find it useful to become more familiar with a more "mainstream" view of child development. You can read up on Child Development Basics at The Child Development Institute. Then, when you read what Steiner says about Anthroposophical child development theory, many aspects of Waldorf will make more sense to you.

Rudolf Steiner's Child Development Theory

Steiner says that human beings have more than one body:


Read
Online!

If we are speaking of his body, we speak, as you know, of the sentient body (which is the finest of all and is also called the astral body), the etheric body and the grosser physical body, which we see with our eye and which external science analyses. With these we have the whole man before us.

Rudolf Steiner. The Study of Man, Lecture IV

Phases of Child Development, according to Waldorf founder Rudolf Steiner
Physical Body
Birth to 7 years
"Etheric" Body
Ages 7-14
"Astral" body
Ages 14-21
"the period of childhood lasting till the cutting of the permanent teeth" Read the full context "the period between second dentition and puberty" Read the full context "the period from puberty to the beginning of the twenties." Read the full context
"This physical body of man, in its form a product of the ego organization, is the bearer of inorganically active forces" Read the full context "The ether body is an organism that preserves the physical body from dissolution every moment during life. In order to see this body, to perceive it in another being, the awakened spiritual eye is required. Without this ability its existence as a fact can still be accepted on logical grounds, but it can be seen with the spiritual eye just as color can be seen with the physical eye." Read in full context

"the etheric body is more or less luminous and fluidic. Instead of organs there are currents of diverse colours, the heart being a veritable vortex of forces and streaming currents. The etheric body is the ‘etheric double’ of the material body." Read the full context

"the bearer of instincts, drives, passions, desires, and of the ever-changing content of sensation and thought." Read the full context

"the astral body is the intermediary between the activity of the ego-organization and the etheric and physical bodies." Read the full context

"the astral body [is] the bearer of joy and sorrow, of desire and passion." Read the full context

"the astral body can take on all the colours of the rainbow, according to the passion by which it is animated. Each passion has its astral colour." Read the full context

"Where the physical body predominates, we have to deal with a melancholic temperament." Read the full context "Where the etheric or life-body predominates, we speak of a phlegmatic temperament." Read the full context "Where the astral body predominates, we find a sanguine temperament." Read the full context
"The physical body as such expresses itself only in itself" Read the full context "The etheric body expresses itself in the glandular system" Read the full context "The astral body expresses itself physically in the nervous system" Read the full context
"The forces which place the etheric body in the world come from the Cosmos around the Earth" Read the full context "[The forces] for the physical body radiate from the centre of the Earth." Read the full context

"activity of cosmic Beings, who, in their combined working, shape the etheric body of man" Read the full context

"World-impulses... work in the astral body of man." Read the full context
"What happens occultly, when a person sleeps? ...The physical and etheric bodies remain in bed." Read the full context "What happens occultly, when a person sleeps? ...The physical and etheric bodies remain in bed." Read the full context "The astral body, together with the ego, rises out and floats over them in the form of a ring,"

"When the person is awake, the astral body penetrates and interweaves the physical body." Read the full context

"After death the physical body dissolves into the mineral world..." Read in full context "After death ...the ether body [dissolves] into the life-world." Read in full context

The goal of Waldorf education is to insure that these three bodies, the physical, etheric and astral bodies, successfully develop in your child. Steiner says:


Read
Online!
What do we commonly find advocated? That children should have the same sort of relationship with each other as is usual among adults. But this is the most spurious thing that can be done in education. People must realise that a child has to develop quite different powers of soul and of body than those which adults use in their intercourse with each other. Thus education must be able to reach the depths of the soul; otherwise no progress will be made.

Rudolf Steiner. The Study of Man, Lecture IV

Hence although from his birth onwards we may only look upon the child with physical eyes, we will all the time be conscious of the fact — “this too is a continuation.” And we will not only look to what human existence experiences after death, i.e. to the spiritual continuation of the physical; but we will be conscious that physical existence here is a continuation of the spiritual, and that we, through education, have to carry on what has hitherto been done by higher beings without our participation.

Rudolf Steiner, The Study of Man, Lecture 1

This perspective may seem unusual to you, but don't be alarmed. Steiner himself acknowledges that his child development theory is often treated with critical skepticism by mainstream scholars outside the Anthropsophical community. Steiner says:


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Online!
Anthroposophists often hear objections to spiritual science from outsiders. Scholars and laymen alike criticize the division of man into the four members of physical body,etheric body, astral body and ego. These skeptics often say that perhaps one who has developed hidden soul forces may be able to see these things but there is no reason why one who has not should concern himself with such ideas. It should be emphasized, however, that life itself, if one is attentive to it, confirms what spiritual science has to say. Furthermore, the things anthroposophy has to teach can be extremely useful in everyday life. This usefulness, which is not meant to be taken pragmatically, gradually comes to carry conviction even for those who are not particularly inclined to concern themselves with clairvoyant perception.

Rudolf Steiner, Overcoming Nervousness

A Waldorf teacher's job is to shepherd your child through this journey of reincarnation:

"[Waldorf teachers] are being paid to think and to live an esoteric life. When you look at the children you teach, you are supposed to think about their subtle bodies, their past lives, your karmic relationship to this child, your karmic relationship to your colleagues at the children’s parents. You get paid to do this.... "

Arthur Zojanc, Waldorf Spokesperson and
General Secretary of the Anthroposophical Society in America
In an interview with William Irwin Thompson

You can read more of what Steiner says about the physical, etheric, and astral bodies by searching the Rudolf Steiner Archives with Google: "astral body" "etheric body" child site:elib.com

You can learn more about Waldorf's alternative child development theory at Google: "child development" "etheric body" Waldorf

You can also find a good discussion of Waldorf's child development theory in an article called "ADHD, A Challenge of Our Time" by Eugene Schwartz, a leading Waldorf educator. Email: eschwartz@millennialchild.com.

For an understanding of how your local Waldorf teacher might apply this philosophy in their teaching, you should read "Karma and Reincarnation for Teachers" from Taruna College.

Finally, you might want to buy Steiner's The Kingdom of Childhood , or at the very least, read this review.

Questions for Parent's Night or School Tour

Waldorf's Child Development Theory

  1. What is Waldorf's theory of "child development?" What are the most important aspects of child development a parent should be aware of?
  2. How does Waldorf's theory of child development differ from mainstream child development theory? What are the most striking differences? Which other child development theories most closely match Steiner's?
  3. Did Steiner say that children are incarnating spiritual members, including an "etheric body," an "astral body," and an "ego?" Is this an important aspect of child development? How is this different than mainstream child development theory?
  4. Do teachers study this in Waldorf Teacher Training? Why would a teacher need to know this? How is this knowledge applied?
  5. What happens if these phases of development are ignored?
  6. When do you talk to parents about this? Where is this discussed in school literature?
  7. Is it OK if I don't believe these different bodies are developing in my child?

You can print out the Master Checklist for parents, and bring it with you to school.

Curriculum

To see an application of Steiner's theory of child development, read "Education in Tune with our Time" by Chrostof Weichert, Director of the Educational Section of the Goetheanum School of Spiritual Science. Weichert says:

Early on, Rudolf Steiner showed that there are two kinds of teaching material. There is material that is necessary for the child's development. An example is arithmetic. Arithmetic helps the child spiritualize the world in thought. Drawing is also necessary. Through drawing the young person learns to deal with forms. Drawing strengthens the constitutional tendency of the etheric body that, if solely conditioned by external habits and intellectual demands, would become stiff. Singing is necessary because it makes the soul body (astral body) supple. Reading and writing, foreign languages and the facts of history are not necessary for the child's development. These subjects are determined by culture.

Weichert, Christof. Education in Tune with our Time
Director of the Educational Section
Goetheanum School of Spiritual Science
Email: christof.wiechert @goetheanum.ch
Google: "Christof Weichert"

Waldorf Curriculum According to Christof Weichert

So, according to Weichert, Steiner considers subjects with an to be necessary for child development.
Subjects with an are not considered necessary for child development.

Mathematics
Art
Eurythmy
Science
(not addressed in this essay)
Reading
Writing
Foreign Language
History (factual)

You can learn more about Waldorf curriculum at Google: "Waldorf School" curriculum

Waldorf Curriculums Online

Marin Waldorf School

Samford Valley Steiner School's Curriculum

Many articles on Waldorf Curriculum at the online Waldorf library.

Another great resource for understanding Waldorf are the Goetheanum's articles on education.

The Importance of Birth History

The details of your child's birth history may be of great interest to your Waldorf School. Some Waldorf schools require parents to complete surveys that request detailed personal medical information regarding your child's delivery and natal health. You can find an example of types of information requested in these surveys, as well as how this information might be applied, in "A Survey of Birth," (PDF version) by Rena Osmer, one of the leading Waldorf early childhood educators in the United States. While some of this medical information may seem quite personal, you can get a sense for one way it might be used to gain deep insight into your child's development, based on Steiner's child development theory.

The essay also recommends two books:

Questions for Parent's Night or School Tour

Questions on Birth History Survey

  1. How do you get to know the new students at Waldorf? Do parents complete some sort of profile or survey?
  2. What are the most important topics covered in the survey?
  3. Do you ask much about birth history? Is this one of the most important topics?
  4. How is this information used?
  5. Can birth history tell you anything about my child's past life or reincarnation? Does Waldorf use birth history in this way?

You can print out the Master Checklist for parents, and bring it with you to school.

Reading and Writing at Waldorf

Most educators encourage early reading in children. There are literally hundreds of reports by educators touting the benefits of early reading. You can learn more about what educators have to say about early reading at Google: "early reading"

A Spiritual Basis for Discouraging Early Reading

In contrast, Waldorf schools discourage children from reading before the age of 7. In fact, some experts in the Waldorf community consider this type of early development "a tragedy" Why is the Waldorf point of view so different than the bulk of academic research on this subject?

The answer can be found in Waldorf's alternative theory of child development, which is based on Rudolf Steiner's claivoyant insight on the human being. The timing of this proscription against reading corresponds with the "cutting of the teeth," which Steiner indicated as a developmental milestone, with the incarnation of the etheric body in children. Steiner says early reading will hinder the later spiritual development of children. Steiner says:


People will object that the children then learn to read and write too late. That is said only because it is not known today how harmful it is when the children learn to read and write too soon. It is a very bad thing to be able to write early. Reading and writing as we have them today are really not suite to the human being till a later age - the eleventh or twelfth year - and the more a child is blessed with not being able to read and write well before this age, the better it is for the later years of life. A child who cannot write properly at thirteen or fourteen (I can speak out of my own experience because I could not do it at that age) is not so hindered for later spiritual development as one who early, at seven or eight years can already read and write perfectly.

Rudolf Steiner, The Kingdom of Childhood
(Review)

Steiner's concern for pre-awakening intellectual development in children is still a critical concern for Waldorf educators today. In fact, in the article "Why Should Children Learn How to Read at Approximately Age 7?" Valdemar and Sonia Setzer explain that you can't really understand why Waldorf discourages early reading without applying Rudolf Steiner's spiritual science to educational theory:

The theme [of discouraging reading before age 7] is difficult because to really understand the problem one would have to go deep into Steiner's so-called "Knowledge of Man" ("Allgemeine Menschenkunde"), involving his soul and spiritual model of each human being.

"Why Should Children Learn How to Read at Approximately Age 7?"
Valdemar and Sonia Setzer
Email: vwsetzer@ime.usp.br

When Should My Child Learn to Read?

If you are concerned about the development of the etheric body in your child, you should seriously consider discouraging early reading. The anthroposophical educator and physician cited above could not be more graphic about the dangers of early intellectual development in your child:

One of the negative developments is precisely the early development of intellectual abilities. This is what attracts some parents to early reading. For us, this is a tragedy.

"Why Should Children Learn How to Read at Approximately Age 7?"

However, some Waldorf parents and educators take a more relaxed approach towards early reading. Instead of discouraging reading until the etheric body is born at age 7, or the "cutting of the teeth," they allow for children to learn to read on their own time table. So if your child expresses an interest and aptitude before age 7, you might consider honoring their interest and ability. However, keep in mind that if your child learns to read early, this may have a ripple effect of causing problems in the classroom as your child shares his/her reading ability with other children who are being discouraged from reading. You would not want to bring the "tragedy" of early reading upon another child unintentionally.

Questions for Parent's Night or School Tour

Discouraging Early Reading

  1. Why does Waldorf delay teaching kids how to read?
  2. Can early reading have a negative impact on growth and adulthood? Can you provide parents with mainstream studies about the dangers of early reading?
  3. Did any of the teachers at the school learn to read early as children?
  4. There are hundreds of studies that tout the benefits of early reading. Does Waldorf have any special knowledge that informs their position?
  5. What should I do if my child expresses an early interest in, and aptitude for reading? Should I encourage them to read?
  6. Is it easier to understand why Waldorf disourages early reading if you know more about anthroposophy? Can early reading damage the etheric body? Is this special knowledge mainstream researchers don't have?
  7. When do you talk to parents about this?
  8. Is it OK if I teach my child to read on my own timetable?

You can print out the Master Checklist for parents, and bring it with you to school.

Delayed Academics

The desire to curtail the intellectualization of children before the astral body begins to form at age 14 can be observed in the essay Children's Questions(PDF), by A. Cecil Harwood, a former faculty chair from Michael Hall Waldorf School in Sussex:

But a certain reticence in answering children's questions is of great help in keeping the questioning faculty alive. For it is a sad fact that the power of asking questions only too often fades away as children grow older. It is perhaps a test of whether children's questions have been answered rightly in their younger years to see how profound are the questions they ask when they are older, and if they are readily satisfied with the answers. For by the time they reach a more intellectual understanding towards the age of fourteen they should have a strong desire to probe every question in life to the bottom, and not be lightly satisfied by theory without knowledge.

"Handwork"

While most children in grades 1-3 learn to read and write, Waldorf students spend quite a bit of time learning to knit and crochet. Waldorf children spend many hours on their handwork each week at Waldorf school; Waldorf takes handwork very seriously. While at first this may seem frivolous, Rudolf Steiner says that such handwork contributes to soul development, and counteracts dental decay. Steiner says:

Read
Online!
This is not the result of any fad or whim, but happens deliberately in order to make the fingers skillful and supple, in order to permeate the fingers with the soul. And to drive the soul into the fingers means to promote all the forces that go to build up sound teeth. It is no matter of indifference whether we let an indolent child sit about all day long, or make it move and run about; or whether we let a child be awkward and helpless with its hands, or train it to manual skill. Sins of omission in these matters bear fruit later in the early destruction of the teeth; of course sometimes in more pronounced forms, and sometimes in less, for there is great individual diversity, but they are bound to manifest themselves. In fact, the earlier we begin to train and discipline the child, on the lines indicated, the more we shall tend to slowdown and counteract the process of dental decay.

Steiner, Rudolf. Spiritual Science and Medicine, Lecture XVII

In addition to promoting healthy teeth, Steiner also tells us that handwork makes a great difference in mental development and elasticity of thinking. Steiner says:


Read
Online!
You would see the boys as well as the girls industriously absorbed in knitting or crochet . These things are the outcome of the whole spirit of the Waldorf School, for it is not a question of writing sundry abstract programmes, but of taking in earnest that for the whole training of human knowledge, one should as a teacher know the great difference it makes to the thinking whether I understand how to move my fingers dexterously, whether I am able in ordinary circumstances to cross the middle finger over the first, like a caduceus, or not. The movements of our fingers are to a great extent the teachers of the elasticity of our thinking. These things must be followed with understanding and discernment.

Steiner, Rudolf. Man: Hieroglyph of the Universe, Lecture 9

For an excellent modern interpretation of Steiner's theory about handwork and elasticity of thinking, read "Handwork and Intellectual Development," by Eugene Schwartz.

Rumors of Academic Differences

There are rumors of academic differences between Waldorf and "mainstream" education. This is not uncommon for private schools, especially ones with a different approach to education. For example, many private Christian schools teach creation-science. And keep in mind, public school textbooks are notorious for their inaccuracies, bias, and being out-of-date. It is an unfortunate certainty of life that your children will be taught things that wrong, or things that you disagree with, at any school they attend.

You can read about some of these rumors and "Myth: 'Science Teaching in Waldorf is Not Scientific'" at Waldorf Answers, including the belief about the heart which argues against the concept that "the heart is primarily a pump," and it instead is more aptly described "as a regulator and rhythmical and rhythmizising stabilizer of [the movement of blood] than as a 'pump'."

Contrast this teaching with mainstream science which states "The heart's primary function is to pump blood to all parts of the body" (Nova) and "your heart's primary purpose is to pump" (Yale)

Is Waldorf education superior?

The short answer is no one knows for sure.

The long answer is, you will have to decide that for yourself. There are TONS of positive testimonies about Waldorf. There are many wonderful parents who would never consider anything less than Waldorf for their child. Clearly many people believe Waldorf provides a superior education to their children. You may have the same experience with your family at Waldorf.

Also, keep in mind that rather than look at Waldorf as objectively better or worse than any other educational approach, the real question is whether or not Waldorf is a good fit for your child and your family. OpenWaldorf's "Master Checklist" should help you in evaluating that fit.

General Waldorf Curriculum

Samford Valley Steiner School's Curriculum has details on the curriculum for each grade.

Science at Waldorf

Rudolf Steiner Science Biography

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Academic Accountability at Waldorf

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History at Waldorf

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