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Waldorf (Steiner) education is a humanistic approach to pedagogy based on the educational philosophy of the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy. The first Waldorf school was founded in 1919 in Stuttgart, Germany. At present there are 1,026 independent Waldorf schools, 2,000 kindergartens and 646 centers for special education, located in 60 countries. There are also Waldorf-based state schools, charter schools and academies, and homeschooling environments.
Waldorf pedagogy distinguishes three broad stages in child development, each lasting approximately seven years. The early years education focuses on providing practical, hands-on activities and environments that encourage creative play. In the elementary school, the emphasis is on developing pupils' artistic expression and social capacities, fostering both creative and analytical modes of understanding. Secondary education focuses on developing critical understanding and fostering idealism. Throughout, the approach stresses the role of the imagination in learning and places a strong value on integrating academic, practical and artistic pursuits.
The educational philosophy's overarching goal is to develop free, morally responsible, and integrated individuals equipped with a high degree of social competence. Teachers generally use formative (qualitative) rather than summative (quantitative) assessment methods, particularly in the pre-adolescent years. The schools have a high degree of autonomy to decide how best to construct their curricula and govern themselves.
Waldorf education is the largest independent alternative education movement in the world. In central Europe, where most of the schools are located, the Waldorf approach has achieved general acceptance as a model of alternative education. Waldorf education has influenced mainstream education in Europe and Waldorf schools and teacher training programs are funded through the state in many European countries. Public funding of Waldorf schools in some English speaking countries has been controversial, with questions being raised about the role of religious and spiritual content in or underlying the curriculum, and whether the science curriculum, which has achieved notable results, also includes pseudoscience and/or promotes homeopathy. The Waldorf movement has said that concerns over its stance on these matters are unfounded.
|Part of a series on|
|Anthroposophy · Rudolf Steiner|
Anthroposophical Society · Goetheanum
|Anthroposophically inspired work|
|Camphill Movement · Eurythmy|
|Philosophy of Freedom · Social threefolding|
Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education,:381 had been a private tutor and a lecturer on history at the Berlin Arbeiterbildungsschule, an educational initiative for working class adults. He began to articulate his ideas on education in public lectures, culminating in a 1907 essay on The Education of the Child which included his first comprehensive description of the three major phases of childhood. His conception of education was deeply influenced by the Herbartian pedagogy prominent in Europe during the late nineteenth century.
The first school based upon Steiner's ideas was opened in 1919 in response to a request by Emil Molt, the owner and managing director of the Waldorf-Astoria Cigarette Company in Stuttgart, Germany, to serve the children of employees of the factory. This is the source of the name Waldorf, which is now trademarked for use in association with the educational method. The Stuttgart school grew rapidly and soon the majority of pupils were from families not connected with the company. The school was the first comprehensive school in Germany, serving children from all social classes, abilities and interests. Because of legal requirements of German schools, Steiner's early German schools had to deviate from his ideal in order to be acceptable; however this achieved one of Steiner's objectives – allowing students to be able to transfer between Waldorf, and conventional state schools.:393 Waldorf schools have been always been co-educational.
Schools began to open in locations including Hamburg, The Hague, Basel, Budapest, Lisbon, Oslo, Vienna, Zurich, and Berlin. Waldorf education became more widely known in Britain in 1922 through lectures Steiner gave on education at a conference at Oxford University. The first school in England, now Michael Hall school, was founded in 1925; the first in the USA, the Rudolf Steiner School in New York City, in 1928. By the late 1930s, numerous schools inspired by the original school or its pedagogical principles had been founded in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Norway, Austria, Hungary, the USA, and the UK. Political interference from the Nazi regime limited and ultimately closed most Waldorf schools in Europe, with the exception of the British and some Dutch schools. The affected schools were reopened after the Second World War. The 1970s and 80s saw a rapid expansion of the schools worldwide; in North America, the count of Waldorf schools went from 9 in 1967 to over 200 independent and charter schools today.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Waldorf schools began to proliferate in Central and Eastern Europe. Most recently, many schools have opened in Asia, especially in China. There are currently over 1,000 independent Waldorf Schools worldwide.
Rudolf Steiner's ideas on education grew out of his simultaneously emerging views on individual development. These are part of his larger spiritual philosophy, Anthroposophy, which regards the human being as composed of body, soul, and spirit.
Steiner's educational ideas closely follow modern "common sense" educational theory since Comenius and Pestalozzi. While anthroposophy underpins Waldorf schools' organisation, curriculum design and pedagogical approach (and frequently, the design of the buildings, as well as pupil and teacher health and diet), it is explicitly not taught within the school curriculum.:6
The curriculum of Waldorf teacher education programs includes both pedagogical texts and other anthroposophical works by Steiner. As in a Waldorf school, teacher training colleges and institutes attempt to develop the academic, practical and artistic capacities of their students. For example, art, music, poetry, and handwork are integrated into the adult educational curriculum and students are expected to produce not only essays, workbooks and lesson plans but drawings, paintings, theatrical performances and other output that demonstrates their ability to work across all areas of the curriculum.
The structure of the education follows Steiner's theories of child development, which divides childhood into three developmental stages, each with its own learning requirements. These stages, each of which lasts approximately seven years, are broadly similar to those described by Piaget.:402 Waldorf pedagogical theory describes these stages as follows:
During the first developmental stage (under 7 years old), children primarily learn through empathy, imitating their environment, and Waldorf pre-schools and kindergartens therefore stimulate pupils' desire to engage with the world by offering a range of practical activities. The educator's task is to present worthwhile models of action.:389 Children are also given daily opportunities for creative, imaginative play. The early years education seeks to imbue the child with a sense that the world is good.
In the second stage, between ages 7–14, children primarily learn through presentations and activities appealing to their feelings and imagination. Story-telling and artistic work are used to convey and depict academic content so students can connect more deeply with the subject matter. The educator's task is to present a role model children will naturally want to follow, gaining authority through fostering rapport. The elementary years education seeks to imbue children with a sense that the world is beautiful.
In the third developmental stage (14 and up), children primarily learn through their own thinking and judgment. They are asked to understand abstract material and are expected to have sufficient foundation and maturity to form conclusions using their own judgment.:391 The secondary years education seeks to imbue children with a sense that the world is true.
Steiner also described sub-stages of these larger developmental steps.
The developmental approach used in the Waldorf schools is designed to awaken – and ideally balance – the "physical, behavioral, emotional, cognitive, social, and spiritual" aspects of the developing person, developing thinking that includes a creative as well as an analytic component.:28 A 2005 overview of research studies suggested that Waldorf schools successfully develop "creative, social and other capabilities important in the holistic growth of the person," but that more research is needed to confirm the generally small-scale studies conducted to date.:39
Steiner considered children's cognitive, emotional and behavioral development to be interlinked. When students in a Waldorf school are grouped, it is generally not by a singular focus on their academic abilities.:89 Instead Steiner adapted the idea of the classic four temperaments – melancholic, sanguine, phlegmatic and choleric – for pedagogical use in the elementary years. Steiner indicated that teaching should be differentiated to accommodate the different needs that these psychophysical types represent. For example, "cholerics are risk takers, phlegmatics take things calmly, melancholics are sensitive or introverted, and sanguines take things lightly or flippantly.":18 Today Waldorf teachers may work with the notion of temperaments to differentiate their instruction. Seating arrangements and class activities may be planned taking into account the temperaments of the students but this is often not readily apparent to observers. Steiner also believed that teachers must consider their own temperament and be prepared to work with it positively in the classroom, that temperament is emergent in children, and that most people will reveal a combination of temperaments rather than a pure single type.
The schools primarily assess students through reports on individual academic progress and personal development. The emphasis is on characterization through qualitative description. Pupils' progress is primarily evaluated through portfolio work in academic blocks and discussion of pupils in teacher conferences. Standardized tests are rare, with the exception of examinations necessary for college entry taken during the secondary school years.:150,186 Letter grades are generally not given until students enter high school at 14–15 years. as the educational emphasis is on children's holistic development, not solely their academic progress. Pupils are not normally asked to repeat years of elementary or secondary education.
The Waldorf approach to early childhood education is largely experiential and sensory-based. The emphasis is on providing worthwhile practical activities for children to imitate, allowing them to learn through example. The schedule is oriented around a well-ordered and harmonious daily routine that emphasizes rhythmic experience of the day, week, month, and seasons. Extensive time is given for guided free play in a classroom environment that is homelike, includes natural materials, and provides examples of productive work in which children can take part. Outdoor play periods are also generally included in the school day, providing children with experiences of nature, weather and the seasons of the year.
Oral language is developed with songs, poems, movement games and daily stories – typically a fairytale is recited by the teacher, often by heart. Aids to development via play generally consist of simple materials drawn from natural sources that can be transformed imaginatively to fit a wide variety of purposes. For example, Waldorf dolls are intentionally made simple in order to allow playing children to employ and strengthen their imagination and creativity. Steiner believed that engaging young children in abstract, intellectual activity too early would adversely affect their growth and development, which would also manifest itself later in life in the form of disease.:389
Pre-school and kindergarten programs generally include seasonal festivals drawn from a variety of traditions, with attention placed on the traditions brought forth from the community. Waldorf schools in the Western Hemisphere have traditionally celebrated Christian festivals.
Waldorf kindergarten and lower grades generally discourage pupils' use of electronic media such as television and computers. Educational scholars Philip and Glenys Woods say this is done "not from an anti-technology bias but because its use at a younger age is understood to be out of harmony with children's developmental needs."
Waldorf pedagogical theory considers that during the first seven years of life, children learn best by being immersed in an environment they can learn from through unselfconscious imitation. In the second-seven-year period, the child is ready for formal learning. The transition has a number of markers, one of which is the loss of the baby teeth, which Steiner believed came about concurrently with a growing independence of character, temperament, habits, and memory.:389 Formal instruction in reading, writing, and numeracy are thus not introduced until students enter the elementary school, when pupils are around seven years of age.
In preliteracy research, the topic of best teaching practice is controversial. Some scholars favor a developmental approach in which formal instruction on reading begins around the age of 6 or 7 and others who argue for literacy instruction to occur in pre-school and kindergarten classrooms, assuming that other activities are taking place as well.
In a discussion on academic kindergartens, professor of child development David Elkind has argued that since "there is no solid research demonstrating that early academic training is superior to (or worse than) the more traditional, hands-on model of early education" educators should defer to developmental approaches that provide young children with ample time and opportunity to explore the natural world on their own terms. Elkind names Rudolf Steiner as one of the "giants of early-childhood development" and describes activities for young children in a Waldorf school as "social," "holistic," and "collaborative," as well as reflecting the principle that "early education must start with the child, not with the subject matter to be taught." In response Grover Whitehurst, educational policy chair at the Brookings Institution, argues the opposite. In his view, the lack of solid research demonstrating the benefits of early academics merely reveals the urgent need for an evidence-based "science of early education." He laments that early education scholarship is "mired in philosophy, in broad theories of the nature of child development, and in practices that spring from appeals to authority," such as Elkind's praise for those "giants of early-childhood development" whose work reflects Jean Piaget’s insights.
Sebastian Suggate has performed analysis of the PISA 2007 OECD data from 54 countries and found "no association between school entry age ... and reading achievement at age 15". He also cites a German study of 50 kindergartens that compared children who, at age 5, had spent a year either "academically focused", or "play-arts focused" — in time the two groups became inseparable in reading skill. Suggate concludes that the effects of early reading are like "watering a garden before a rainstorm; the earlier watering is rendered undetectable by the rainstorm, the watering wastes precious water, and the watering detracts the gardener from other important preparatory groundwork."
In 2013, Waldorf kindergartens in the United Kingdom were granted an exemption from and modifications of a number of the government's Early Learning Goals, including the requirement that early childhood programs include a reading and writing curriculum. The exemption was granted on the basis that certain of these goals run counter to Waldorf early childhood education's established principles.
During the elementary school years (age 7–14), the approach emphasizes cultivating children's emotional life and imagination. The core curriculum, which includes language arts, history, mythology, general knowledge, geography, geology, algebra, geometry, mineralogy, biology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and nutrition, "among others" is introduced imaginatively through stories and creative presentations. Academic instruction is integrated with a multi-disciplinary artistic curriculum that includes visual arts, drama, artistic movement (eurythmy), vocal and instrumental music, and crafts.
There is little reliance on standardized textbooks. The school day generally starts with a one-and-a-half to two-hour, cognitively oriented academic lesson that focuses on a single theme over the course of about a month's time.:145 This typically begins with an introduction that may include singing, instrumental music, and recitations of poetry, generally including a verse written by Steiner for the start of a school day.
Waldorf elementary education allows for individual variations in the pace of learning, based upon the expectation that a child will grasp a concept or achieve a skill when he or she is ready. Cooperation takes priority over competition. This approach also extends to physical education; competitive team sports are introduced in upper grades.
Waldorf schools follow a cohort instructional model. In the elementary years, each group of students has a core teacher for academic subjects who is meant to guide and stimulate pupils by exercising creative, loving authority, providing consistently supportive models of personal development both through personal example and through stories of "spiritual 'role models' from culture and history which may have an effect on the children's fantasy and imaginations through their symbolism and allegory."
|Introduction of the alphabet in first grade|
The class teacher is normally expected to teach this group of children for several years – a practice known as "looping". Although the practice of "looping" has increased in both public and private schools, it is still considered an innovative approach to instructional design. Looping has both advantages in the long-term relationships thus established and disadvantages in the challenge to teachers, who face a new curriculum each year. Beginning from first grade, additional teachers teach subjects such as music, crafts, movement, and two foreign languages from complementary language families (in English-speaking countries often German and either Spanish or French), all of which are central to the curriculum throughout the elementary school years.
While emphasizing the value of the class teacher as a personal mentor for students, especially in the early years, Ullrich documented problems with the continuation of the class teacher role into the middle school years (grades 7 and 8, ages 12–14). Noting that there is a danger of any authority figure limiting students enthusiasm for inquiry and assertion of autonomy, he emphasized the need for teachers to encourage independent thought and explanatory discussion in these years, and cited approvingly a number of schools where the class teacher accompanies the class for six years, after which specialist teachers play a significantly greater role.:222
In most Waldorf schools, pupils enter secondary education when they are about fourteen years old. Secondary education is provided by specialist teachers for each subject. The education focuses much more strongly on academic subjects, though students normally continue to take courses in art, music, and crafts. The curriculum is structured to foster pupils' intellectual understanding, independent judgment, and ethical ideals such as social responsibility, aiming to meet the developing capacity for abstract thought and conceptual judgment.
|Student work from a projective geometry block in a Waldorf high school|
The overarching goals are to provide young people the basis on which to develop into free, morally responsible and integrated individuals, with the aim of helping young people "go out into the world as free, independent and creative beings".
Though most Waldorf schools are autonomous institutions not required to follow a prescribed curriculum, there are widely agreed upon guidelines for the Waldorf curriculum, supported by the schools' common principles.
The main academic subjects are introduced through up to two-hour morning lesson blocks that last for several weeks.:18 These lesson blocks are horizontally integrated at each grade level in that the topic of the block will be infused into many of the activities of the classroom and vertically integrated in that each subject will be revisited over the course of the education with increasing complexity as students develop their skills, reasoning capacities and individual sense of self. This has been described as a spiral curriculum.
Over the twelve-year curriculum, students learn a variety of fine and practical arts. Elementary students paint, draw, sculpt, knit, weave, and crochet. Older students build on these experiences and learn new skills such as pattern-making and sewing, wood and stone carving, metal work, book-binding, and doll or puppet making. Fine art instruction includes form drawing, sketching, sculpting, perspective drawing and other techniques. Younger students begin their instrumental music instruction with pentatonic flutes, lyres and diatonic recorders and advance to string instruments. An additional instrument (such as woodwind, brass or percussion) may be added in the adolescent years. Vocal music instruction begins with poetry and simple songs taught by the classroom teacher, advancing to formal choral music instruction as the student grows older.
There are a few subjects largely unique to the Waldorf schools. Foremost among these is eurythmy, a movement art usually accompanying spoken texts or music which includes elements of role play and dance and is designed to provide individuals and classes with a "sense of integration and harmony". Although found in other educational contexts, cooking, farming, and environmental and outdoor education have long been incorporated into the Waldorf curriculum. Other differences include: non-competitive games and free play in the younger years as opposed to athletics instruction; instruction in two foreign languages beginning after kindergarten; and a phenomenological approach to science whereby students observe and depict scientific concepts in their own words and drawings rather than encountering the ideas first through a textbook.
For Steiner, education was an activity which fosters the human being's connection to the divine and is thus inherently religious.:1422,1430 However, as professor of educational philosophy Thomas Nielsen explains, "one of Steiner's primary aims with his new school at Stuttgart was to have a non-sectarian setting for children from all religious backgrounds.":79 Steiner emphasized, for example, the value of literary and historical role models drawn from all traditions in developing children's fantasy and moral imaginations rather than sectarian religious instruction on ethical questions. Ullrich describes Steiner's view as follows: "The strongest impulses can come from religious tales because these may be envisioned through man's position within the world as a whole.":78
According to McDermott et al, Waldorf education is "infused with spirituality" throughout the curriculum, and can include a wide range of religious traditions without favoring any single tradition. Waldorf theories and practices are modified from their European and Christian roots to meet the historical and cultural traditions of the local community. Examples of such adaptation include the Waldorf schools in Israel and Japan, which celebrate festivals of their particular spiritual heritage, and classes in the Milwaukee Urban Waldorf school, which have adopted traditions with African American and Native American heritages. Such festivals, as well as assemblies generally, play an important role in Waldorf schools and are generally celebrated by showing students' work.
Religion classes are universally absent from American Waldorf schools. They are a mandatory offering in some German federal states, whereby in Waldorf schools each religious denomination provides its own teachers for the classes, and a non-denominational religion class is also offered. In the United Kingdom, public Waldorf schools are not categorized as "Faith schools".
Tom Stehlik places Waldorf education in a humanistic tradition, and contrasts it to "value-neutral" secular state schooling systems that he describes as lacking a philosophical basis. Iddo Oberski considers that, though first established within a Western, Christian society, Waldorf education is essentially non-denominational in character. In Freda Easton's view, Waldorf schools are "Christian based and theistically oriented", but "are opening in different cultural settings and can adapt to 'a truly pluralistic spirituality'".:146
Waldorf schools view computer technology as being first useful to children in the early teen years, after they have mastered "fundamental, time-honoured ways of discovering information and learning, such as practical experiments and books". A number of prominent figures from the technology sector have chosen Waldorf education for their children for this reason, citing approvingly the increased engagement that arises through human contact with teachers and peers, while Ann Flynn, director of education technology for the National School Boards Association, questioned whether the schools are missing other opportunities to engage students through technology use.
In the United Kingdom, Waldorf schools are granted an exemption by the Department for Education (DfE) from the requirement to teach ICT as part of Foundation Stage education (ages 3–5). Education researchers John Siraj-Blatchford and David Whitebread wrote that "there is much to admire in Steiner education and, on balance, our view would be that it is to the credit of the [DfE] that Steiner schools have been recently exempted from the requirement to teach ICT..." In particular, they note that "what is hugely valuable in the Steiner position, of course, is the emphasis on the simplicity of resources and on encouraging children's use of their imagination." Less valuable is what they view as an ideological preference on the part of Waldorf educators for "natural, non-manufactured materials," a preference they find to be "a reaction against the dehumanizing aspects of nineteenth-century industrialization" rather than a "reasoned assessment of twenty-first century children's needs." Siraj-Blatchford and Whitebread's overall perspective emphasizes how the educational value of any new technology must be considered in terms of the opportunities and experiences afforded to children. For this reason, they argue that Waldorf educators' emphasis on simple resources and childrens' own imaginations is actually "not incompatible with the use of ICT [Information and Communication Technology]." At the same time, they stress that what an educational technology is made out of ought to be irrelevant for evaluating its worth.
Waldorf schools seek to cultivate pupils' sense of social responsibility. and studies suggest that this is successful.:190:4 A comparison of Waldorf and state schools in Australia found that Waldorf pupils "more frequently expressed interest and engagement in social and moral questions and showed more positive attitudes." A study by Jennifer Gidley of pupils drawn from the Waldorf schools of three Australian cities found that "students demonstrated a strong sense of activism and self-confidence and felt empowered to create their own preferred futures". Reports from small-scale studies suggest that there are lower levels of harassment and bullying in Waldorf schools.:29
Waldorf schools build close learning communities, founded on the shared values of its members,:17 in ways that can lead to transformative learning experiences that allow all participants, including parents, to become more aware of their own individual path,:5,17,32,40:238 but which at times also risk becoming exclusive.:167, 207
Betty Reardon, a professor and peace researcher, suggests that Waldorf schools provide an example of schools that follow a philosophy based on peace and tolerance.
Waldorf schools have linked polarized communities in a variety of settings.
Waldorf education also has links with UNESCO. The Friends of Waldorf Education is an affiliated organization, the main purpose of which is to support, develop infrastructure, finance and provide advice to the Waldorf movement world-wide. In 2008, 24 Waldorf schools in 15 countries were members of the UNESCO Associated Schools Project Network.
Education professor Heiner Ullrich, who has written about Waldorf schools extensively since 1991, argues that the schools successfully foster dedication, openness, and a love for other human beings, for nature, and for the inanimate world.:179 Although studies about Waldorf education tend to be small-scale and vary in national context, a recent comprehensive review of the literature concluded there is evidence that Waldorf education encourages academic achievement as well as "creative, social and other capabilities important to the holistic growth of a person".:39 For example, the 2009 PISA study found that, compared to state school students, European Waldorf students are significantly more capable in the sciences. A smaller 2003 study of science education in American Waldorf schools found the scientific reasoning of Waldorf school pupils to be superior to that of non-Waldorf students, with the greatest gains in the later years of schooling.:29
Studies have also found differences in student engagement, creativity and general well-being. In comparison to state school pupils, European Waldorf students were shown to be significantly more enthusiastic about learning, to report having more fun and being less bored in school, to view their school environment as pleasant and supportive, as well as a place where they are able to discover their personal academic strengths. The study also showed that more than twice as many Waldorf students report having good relationships with teachers and that they report significantly fewer physical ailments such as headaches, stomach aches, and disrupted sleep. In 1996, a study of British and German third- through sixth-grade children found that Waldorf students averaged higher scores on the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking Ability than state-school students A study of artistic ability in British private and state schools found that Waldorf students achieved more accurate, detailed, and imaginative drawings than the comparison group. A study by Jennifer Gidley found that Waldorf students were able to develop richer and more detailed images, and that they had more positive views of the future.
A 2007 German study found that an above-average number of Waldorf students become teachers, doctors, engineers, scholars of the humanities, and scientists.
One of Waldorf education's central premises is that all educational and cultural institutions should be self-governing and should grant teachers a high degree of creative autonomy within the school;:143 this is based upon the conviction that a holistic approach to education aiming at the development of free individuals can only be successful when based on a school form that expresses these same principles. Most Waldorf schools are not directed by a principal or head teacher, but rather by a number of groups, including:
Reviewing Joseph Kahne's book, Reframing Educational Policy: Democracy, Community and the Individual, Holmes (2000) contrasts the communities formed by supporters of Waldorf education with those formed in mainstream education, which Kahne sees merely as "residential areas partitioned by bureaucratic authorities for educational purposes" – in contrast, supporters of Steiner's Waldorf ideas are listed as a "genuine community" alongside fundamentalist Christians and Orthodox Jews.
There are coordinating bodies for Waldorf education at both the national (e.g. the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America and the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship in the UK and Ireland) and international level (e.g. International Association for Waldorf Education and The European Council for Steiner Waldorf Education (ECSWE)). These organizations certify the use of the registered names "Waldorf" and "Steiner school" and offer accreditations, often in conjunction with regional independent school associations.
Opening in 1994, the Yuba River Charter School in California is the oldest existing Waldorf-inspired public school in the United States. By 2010, there were twelve Waldorf-inspired schools in the United States and about thirty more planning to open by 2012. Most Waldorf-inspired schools in the United States are elementary schools. The first Waldorf-inspired high school was launched in 2008 with assistance from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The first state supported school in the United Kingdom, The Steiner Academy Hereford, opened in 2008. Other Steiner-Waldorf schools opened in Frome, Exeter and Bristol in subsequent years as part of the government-funded free schools program.
Canada has both independent Waldorf schools and publicly funded Waldorf schools.
In Australia, independent Steiner-Waldorf schools receive partial government funding. Australia also has so-called “Steiner streams” incorporated into existing state schools.
The majority of Steiner-Waldorf schools in New Zealand receive public funding.
Most Waldorf-inspired schools in the United States are opened as either magnet or charter schools. While these schools follow a similar developmental approach as the independent schools, Waldorf-inspired schools must demonstrate achievement on standardized tests in order to continue receiving public funding. Studies of standardized test scores suggest that students at Waldorf-inspired schools tend to score below their peers in the earliest grades and catch-up or surpass their peers by middle school. One study found that students at Waldorf-inspired schools watch less television and spend more time engaging in creative activities or spending time with friends.
Discussing the achievement gap for disadvantaged students, education professor Robert Pianta has said that “it is potentially the case that immersing kids in a very intensive and developmentally focused experience may help them build a lot of capacities that will help them in the long term – but we don’t know that.” He cautions that more research needs to be done on the effectiveness of a Waldorf-inspired curriculum for disadvantaged elementary students.
The need to demonstrate achievement through standardized test scores has encouraged the implementation of some practices that are not often observed in independent Waldorf schools. Some of these practices include: increased use of textbooks, expanded instructional time for academic subjects, and making an effort to use vocabulary that will be on the test.
In 1999, The Chicago Tribune reported that the 7th grade class of the first Waldorf-inspired school in California achieved the state’s top test scores in reading, language arts and mathematics but that there was a federal lawsuit underway that could close it. The paper reported that the school faced allegations from People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools (PLANS) and the executive director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) that it was violating the establishment clause of the US Constitution and that it was also teaching pseudoscience. Eugenie Scott, executive director of the NCSE, told the Chicago Tribune that “Waldorf science relies upon a religious—certainly a cultish—philosophy" and described Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the first Waldorf school, as a "nut case from the 19th Century". This view was disputed by Arthur Zajonc, a physics professor at Amherst College, who had previously co-founded an independent Waldorf high school. He said that Waldorf schools teach “sound science” but do not "teach that a particular viewpoint by a particular scientist is 'the truth'. We present it as a hypothesis that they should be critical of." Zajonc added that many Waldorf graduates "have gone on to major in science at Harvard, MIT and other prestigious universities".
A few years after this news report, another Waldorf-inspired charter school commissioned a study on grade school science education. The study compared a group of American Waldorf school students to American public school students on three different test variables. Two tests measured verbal and non-verbal logical reasoning and the third was an international TIMMS test. The TIMMS test covered scientific understanding of magnetism. The researchers found that Waldorf school students scored higher than both the public school students (and the national average) on the TIMMS test while scoring the same as the public school students on the logical reasoning tests. However when the logical reasoning tests measured students' understanding of part-to-whole relations, the Waldorf students also outperformed the public school students. Although the study noted the Waldorf students' enthusiasm for science, the science curriculum itself was viewed as “somewhat old-fashioned and out of date, as well as including some doubtful scientific material.” Educational researchers Phillip and Glenys Woods, who also reviewed this study, criticize this view of the science curriculum because it means the study’s authors have posed an “unresolved conflict” whereby it is possible for inaccurate science to lead to better scientific understanding.
The legal challenge brought by PLANS lasted between 1998 and 2012. The lawsuit, PLANS Inc. v. Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD) and Twin Ridges Elementary School District, alleged that the districts' Waldorf methods schools violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution and Article IX of the California Constitution. The court dismissed the case on its merits in 2005 and again after appeal in 2007. The judge's 2010 decision found that the plaintiffs had failed to prove anthroposophy is a religion. In 2012, a higher court affirmed the lower court's 2010 decision for the public schools and the case was dismissed on its merits. The judgement stated that the plaintiff had failed to meet its burden of proof that anthroposophy was a religion, but also that the court was expressing no view as to whether anthroposophy could be considered a religion on the basis of a fuller or more complete record.
A spokeswoman for the Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD) said "the district certainly doesn't feel that there is any kind of religious instruction going on”. The California school district currently includes three Waldorf-inspired schools.
PLANS maintains that Waldorf methods cannot be separated from anthroposophy, which they consider a religion.
The Alliance for Public Waldorf Education, the organization representing publicly funded Waldorf-inspired schools in the United States, has not issued a statement concerning religion.
Between 2008 and 2013, four Steiner Academies have been accepted into the government’s free schools initiative and additional projects are being planned.
There have been criticisms of the science education in the Steiner Academies. In September 2012, an editorial in the Times Educational Supplement reported that the British Humanist Association had issued a press release raising concerns about a curriculum reference book being used for state-funded Steiner schools. The editorial reported that the curriculum book “says the model of the heart as a pump is unable to explain 'the sensitivity of the heart to emotions' and promotes homeopathy". The book was also quoted as saying "Darwinism is 'rooted in reductionist thinking and Victorian ethics'". Richy Thompson, education officer of the British Humanist Association stated, "how can pupils receive a vigorous science education under these circumstances? It is gravely concerning that these schools provide alternative medicines such as homeopathy, thus legitimising belief in cures which do not work." Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor of complementary medicine, was quoted as saying that Waldorf schools "seem to have an anti-science agenda which is detrimental to progress... the [UK] government makes a grave mistake allowing pseudoscience and anti-science in our education." A United Kingdom Department for Education spokeswoman responded by saying "no state school is allowed to teach homeopathy as scientific fact. We have rigorous criteria for approving free schools. Applicants must demonstrate that they will provide a broad and balanced curriculum."
In November 2012, BBC News broadcast an item about accusations that the establishment of a state-funded Waldorf School in Frome was a misguided use of public money. The broadcast reported that concerns were being raised about Rudolf Steiner's beliefs, stating he "believed in reincarnation and said it was related to race, with black (schwarz) people being the least spiritually developed, and white (weiß) people the most."
In 2007, the European Council for Steiner Waldorf Education (ECSWE) issued a statement, Waldorf schools against discrimination, which said in part, "Waldorf schools do not select, stratify or discriminate amongst their pupils, but consider all human beings to be free and equal in dignity and rights, independent of ethnicity, national or social origin, gender, language, religion, and political or other convictions. Anthroposophy, upon which Waldorf education is founded, stands firmly against all forms of racism and nationalism."
Waldorf educational principles are also practiced in homeschooling environments. Education Professor Mitchell Stevens suggests that the practice of homeschooling began to accelerate in the early 1980s as a result of two influences. The first influence was growing public interest in pedagogies like Waldorf education that seek to nurture “the individual self”. He says that while these approaches were gaining a higher public profile, parenting styles also shifted to become “increasingly concerned with attending to children’s needs and capacities.” Stevens suggests that these two influences encouraged parents to take up the practice of homeschooling their children. Educationalist Sandra Chistolini says that parents offer their children Waldorf-inspired homeschooling because “the frustration and boredom some children feel in school are eliminated and replaced with constant attention to the needs of childhood [and] connections between content and the real world.”
Waldorf-inspired home schools typically obtain their program information online, through informal parent groups, or by purchasing a Waldorf-inspired homeschool curriculum. Waldorf homeschooling groups are not affiliated with the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America (AWSNA), which represents independent schools. It is unknown how many home schools use a Waldorf-inspired curriculum.
In 2000, educational scholar Heiner Ullrich wrote that intensive study of Steiner's pedagogy had been in progress in educational circles in Germany since about 1990 and that that positions were "highly controversial: they range from enthusiastic support to destructive criticism." In 2008, the same scholar wrote that Waldorf schools have "not stirred comparable discussion or controversy....those interested in the Waldorf School today...generally tend to view this school form first and foremost as a representative of internationally recognized models of applied classic reform pedagogy":140–141 and that critics tend to focus on what they see as Steiner's "occult neo-mythology of education" and to fear the risks of indoctrination in a worldview school, but lose an "unprejudiced view of the varied practice of the Steiner schools."
Professor of Education Bruce Uhrmacher considers Steiner's view on education worthy of investigation for those seeking to improve public schooling, saying the approach serves as a reminder that "holistic education is rooted in a cosmology that posits a fundamental unity to the universe and as such ought to take into account interconnections among the purpose of schooling, the nature of the growing child, and the relationships between the human being and the universe at large", and that a curriculum need not be technocratic, but may equally well be arts-based.:382, 401
Thomas Nielsen, an assistant professor at the University of Canberra's Education Department, considers the imaginative teaching approaches used in Waldorf education (drama, exploration, storytelling, routine, arts, discussion and empathy) to be effective stimulators of spiritual-aesthetic, intellectual and physical development and recommends these to mainstream educators. Andreas Schleicher, international coordinator of the PISA studies, commented on the "high degree of congruence between what the world demands of people, and what Waldorf schools develop in their pupils", placing a high value on creatively and productively applying knowledge to new realms. This enables "deep learning" that goes beyond studying for the next test. Deborah Meier, principal of Mission Hill School and MacArthur grant recipient, whilst having some "quibbles" about the Waldorf schools, stated: "The adults I know who have come out of Waldorf schools are extraordinary people. That education leaves a strong mark of thoroughness, carefulness, and thoughtfulness."
Robert Peterkin, Director of the Urban Superintendents Program at Harvard's Graduate School of Education and former Superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools during a period when Milwaukee funded a public Waldorf school, considers Waldorf education a "healing education" whose underlying principles are appropriate for educating all children.
A number of national, international and topic-based studies have been made of Waldorf education and its relationship with mainstream education. A UK Department for Education and Skills (DfES) report suggested that each type of school could learn from the other type's strengths: in particular, that state schools could benefit from Waldorf education's early introduction and approach to modern foreign languages; combination of block (class) and subject teaching for younger children; development of speaking and listening through an emphasis on oral work; good pacing of lessons through an emphasis on rhythm; emphasis on child development guiding the curriculum and examinations; approach to art and creativity; attention given to teachers’ reflective activity and heightened awareness (in collective child study for example); and collegial structure of leadership and management, including collegial study. Aspects of mainstream practice which could inform good practice in Waldorf schools included: management skills and ways of improving organizational and administrative efficiency; classroom management; work with secondary-school age children; and assessment and record keeping.
Professor of Education Elliot Eisner sees Waldorf education exemplifying embodied learning and fostering a more balanced educational approach than American public schools achieve. Ernest Boyer, former president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has noted how the arts generally play a significant role throughout Waldorf education, and commended this as a model for other schools to follow.
In 2000 American state and private schools were described as drawing on Waldorf education – "less in whole than in part" – in expanding numbers. Many elements of Waldorf pedagogy have been used in all Finnish schools for many years.
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The Waldorf Promise (2005) directed by Eric Stacey