Frequently asked Questions

This document has been produced by the Waldorf Education mailing list as a brief introduction to the subject of Waldorfschooling.

What is Steiner/Waldorf education?

This education is a unique and distinctive approach to educating children that is practiced in Steiner schools worldwide. Steinerschools collectively form the largest, and quite possibly the fastest growing group of independent private schools in the world. There is no centralized administrative structure governing all Steiner schools. Each is administered independently, but there are established associations, which provide resources, publish materials, sponsor conferences and promote the movement.

What is unique about Steiner/Waldorf education? How is it different from other alternatives (public schooling, Montessori, home-schooling etc)?

The best overall statement on what is unique about Steinereducation is to be found in the stated goals of the schooling: “to produce individuals who are able, in and of themselves, to impart meaning to their lives”.

The aim of Steiner schooling is to educate the whole child, “head, heart and hands”. The curriculum is as broad as time will allow, and balances academic subjects with artistic and practical activities. Steiner teachers are dedicated to creating a genuine love of learning within each child. By freely using arts and activities in the service of teaching academics, an internal motivation to learn is developed in the students, minimising the need for competitive testing and grading.

Some distinctive features of Steiner education include the following:

  •  The curriculum provides a balance between academic, social, imaginative and practical aspects of education.
  • During the primary school years (years 1 – 7) the students have a class teacher who ideally stays with the same class for the entire seven years.
  • Certain activities which are often considered “frills” at mainstream schools are central at Steiner schools: art, music, gardening and foreign languages (sometimes two in primary years) to name a few. In the younger grades, all subjects are introduced through artistic mediums, because the children respond better to this medium. All children learn to play recorder and to knit.
  •  All children have “main lesson books”, which are their own workbooks which they fill in during the course of the year. They essentially produce their own “textbooks” which record their experiences and what they’ve learned. Upper grades may use textbooks to supplement their lesson work.
  • Learning in Steiner schools tends to be a non-competitive activity. Parents are informed of their child’s progress via reports and interviews. The teacher writes a detailed evaluation of the child at the end of each school year.
  • The use of electronic media, particularly television, by young children is strongly discouraged in Steiner schools.

What is the curriculum at a Steiner school like?

The Steiner curriculum is designed to be responsive to the various phases of a child’s development. The relationship between student and teacher is, likewise, recognized to be both crucial and changing throughout the course of childhood and early adolescence.

The main subjects such as history, language, arts, science and mathematics are, as mentioned, taught in main lesson blocks of two to three hours per day, with each block lasting from three to five weeks. The total Steiner curriculum has been likened to an ascending spiral: subjects are revisited several times, but each new exposure affords greater depth and new insights into the subject at hand. A typical Lower School curriculum would look something like the following:

Primary Grades 1-3

  • ·       Pictorial introduction to the alphabet, writing, reading, spelling, poetry and drama.
  • ·       Numeration and mathematical process.
  • ·       Folk and fairy tales, fables, legends, Old Testament stories.
  • ·       Nature stories, house building and gardening.

Middle Grades 4-6

  • ·       Writing, reading, spelling, grammar, poetry and drama.
  • ·       Norse myths, history and stories of ancient civilizations.
  • ·       Review of the four mathematical processes, fractions, percentages and geometry.
  • ·       Local and world geography, comparative zoology, botany and elementary physics.

Upper Grade 7

  • Creative writing, reading, spelling, grammar, poetry and drama.
  • Medieval history, Renaissance, world exploration, Australian history and biography.
  • Geography, physics, basic chemistry, astronomy, geology and physiology.

Special subjects

  • Handwork: knitting, crochet, and sewing, cross-stitch, basic weaving, toy making and woodworking.
  • Music: singing, recorder, string instruments, wind, brass and percussion instruments.
  • Art: wet-on-wet water colour painting, form drawing, beeswax, clay modelling and perspective drawing.
  • Movement: eurythmy, group games.

How did Steiner/Waldorf education get started?

In 1919, Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian philosopher, scientist and artist, was invited to give a series of lectures to the workers of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany. As a result, the factory’s owner, Emil Molt, asked Steiner to establish and lead a school for the children of the factory’s employees. Steiner agreed to do so on four conditions: the school should be open to all children; it should be co-educational; it should be a unified twelve-year school; and that the teachers, those who would be working directly with children, should take the leading role in the running of the school, with minimum of interference from governmental or economic concerns. Molt agreed to the conditions and, after a training period for the prospective teachers, die Freie Waldorfschule (the Free WaldorfSchool) was opened on September 7, 1919.

What is the philosophy behind Steiner/Waldorfeduction?

Consistent with his philosophy called anthroposophy, Steinerdesigned a curriculum responsive to the developmental phases in childhood and nurturing of children’s imagination. He thought that schools should cater to the needs of children rather than thedemands of the government or economic forces, so he developed schools that encourage creativity and freethinking.

Who was Rudolf Steiner?

Dr. Rudolf Steiner was a highly respected and well-published scientific, literary and philosophical scholar who was particularly known for his work on Goethe’s scientific writings. He later came to incorporate his scientific investigations with his interest in spiritual development. He became a forerunner in the field of spiritual-scientific investigation of the modern 20th century individual.

His background in history and civilizations coupled with his observation in life gave the world the gift of Steiner/Waldorfeducation. It is a deeply insightful application of learning based on the Study of Humanity with developing consciousness of self and the surrounding world.

Why is so much emphasis put on festivals and ceremonies?

Seasonal festivals serve to connect humanity with the rhythms of nature and of the cosmos. The festivals originated in ancient culture, yet have been adapted over time. To join the seasonal moods of the year, in a festive way, benefits the inner life of the soul. Celebrating is an art. There is joy in the anticipation, the preparation, the celebration itself and the memories.

Why do Steiner/Waldorf schools discourage T.V. watching?

The reasons for this have as much to do with the physical effects of the medium on the developing child as with the (to say the least) questionable content of much of the programming. Electronic media are believed by Steiner teachers to seriously hamper the development of the child’s imagination – a faculty that is believed to be central to the healthy development of the individual. Computer use by young children is also discouraged.

Steiner teachers are not, by the way, alone in this belief. Several books have been written in recent years expressing concern with the effect of television on young children. See, for instance, “Endangered Minds” by Jane Healy, “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television” by Jerry Mander, or “The Plug-in Drug” by Marie Winn.

What kind of training do Steiner/Waldorf teachers have?

While requirements within individual schools may vary, as a rule Class Teachers will have both a university degree and teaching certification from a recognized Steiner teacher training college or institute. Some Steiner training programs can also grant BA degrees in conjunction with Steiner teaching certification. Typically, the course of study for teachers is from two to three years and includes practice teaching in a Steiner school under the supervision of experienced Steiner teachers. Teachers must also satisfy whatever state credentialing licensing requirements that apply.

Rudolf Steiner, speaking in Oxford in 1922, defined three golden rules for teachers: “to receive the child in gratitude from the world it comes from; to educate the child with love; and to lead the child into the true freedom which belongs to man.”

Why do Steiner students stay with the same teacher for 7 years?

Between the ages of seven and fourteen, children learn best through acceptance and emulation of authority, just as in the earlier years they learned through imitation. In primary school, particularly in the lower grades, the child is just beginning to expand his or her experience beyond home and family. The class becomes a type of “family” as well, with its own authority figure –the teacher– in a role analogous to parent.

How are personality conflicts between students and teachers handled?

This a very common concern among parents when they first hear about the “Class Teacher” method. However, in practice, the situation seems to arise very rarely, especially so when the teacher has been able to establish a relationship with the class right from the first grade. Given the sort of person, who is motivated to become a Steiner teacher, incompatibility with a child is infrequent. Understanding the child’s needs and temperament is central to the teacher’s role and training. If problems of this sort should occur, the faculty as a whole would work with the teacher and the family to determine and undertake whatever corrective action would be in the best interests of the child and of the class.

Are Steiner/Waldorf schools religious?

In the sense of subscribing to the beliefs of a particular religious denomination or sect, no. Steiner schools, however, tend to be spiritually oriented and are based out of a generally Christian perspective. The historic festivals of Christianity, and of other major religions as well are observed in the classrooms and in school assemblies. Classes in religious doctrine are not part of the Steiner curriculum, and children of all religious backgrounds attend Steiner schools. Spiritual guidance is aimed at awakening the child’s natural reverence for the wonder and beauty of life.

How do Steiner children fare when they transfer to “regular” schools? Is it true that once you start Steiner schooling it is difficult to “make it” in public schools?

Generally, transitions to public schools, when they are anticipated are not problematical. The most common transition is from a seventh grade Steiner school to a more traditional high school, and from all reports, usually takes place without significant difficulties.

Transitions in the lower grades, particularly between the first and fourth grades, can potentially be more of a problem, because of the significant differences in the pacing of the various curriculum’s.

What is Anthroposophy?

The term “anthroposophy” comes from the Greek “anthropos-sophia” or “human wisdom”. Steiner expanded an exacting scientific method by which one could do research for her/himself into the spiritual worlds. The investigation, known also as Spiritual Science, is an obvious complement to the Natural Sciences we have come to accept. Through study and practiced observation, one awakens to his/her own inner nature and the spiritual realities of outer nature and the cosmos. The awareness of those relationships brings a greater reverence for all of life.

Steiner and many individuals since who share his basic view, have applied this knowledge in various practical and cultural ways in communities around the world. Most notably, Steiner schools have made a significant impact on the world. Curative education, for mentally and emotionally handicapped adults and children, has established a deep understanding and work with people who have this difficult destiny. Biodynamic farming and gardening greatly expands the range of techniques available to organic agriculture. Anthroposophical medicine and pharmacy, although less widely known, are subjects of growing interest. It should be stressed that while anthroposophy forms the theoretical basis to the teaching methods used in Steiner schools, it is not taught to the students.

How does Steiner deal with children that don’t get it academically?

Steiner schools hesitate to categorize children particularly in terms such as “slow” or “gifted”. A child’s weaknesses in one area, whether cognitive, emotional or physical, will usually be balanced by strengths in another area. It is the teacher’s job to try to bring the child’s whole being into balance.

What is Eurythmy?

Most simply put, eurythmy is a dance-like art form in which music or speech is expressed in bodily movement: specific movements correspond to particular notes or sounds. It has also been called “visible speech” or “visible song”. Eurythmy is part of the curriculum of all Steiner schools. While it often puzzles parents new to Steiner education, children respond to its simple rhythms and exercises, which helps strengthen and harmonize their body and their life forces. The older students work out elaborate eurythmic representations of poetry, drama and music, thereby gaining a deeper perception of the compositions and writings. Eurythmy enhances coordination and strengthens the ability to listen. When children experience themselves like an orchestra and have to keep a clear relationship in space with each other, a social strengthening also results.

A specialist who has been specifically trained in eurythmy, typically for at least four years usually teaches eurythmy. In addition to pedagogical eurythmy, there are also therapeutic (curative) and performance-oriented forms of the art.