The Waldorf pedagogy is based on the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner.
Steiner was born in February 1861 in what is modern day Croatia, though his nationality was Austrian (and why wouldn’t it be with a name like that). Though we now remember him mainly for his educational legacy this was only an offshoot of his main philosophical work. The Waldorf education is an attempt to bring his ideas of the self, spirituality, art, and science into the teaching of children.
Like many intellectuals and philosophers at the turn of the 19th century Steiner was driven by the idea of a holistic approach to our well being, particularly in merging the new scientific approaches with older spirituality. His philosophy was very much aimed at exploring and finding an ethical inner self, and believed that there was no limit to what the human mind was capable of. This culminated in the founding of the Anthroposophical Society.
Education was only one of many areas that the society applied its philosophy to (agriculture seemed to be a major target, including other social activities), though it is perhaps the most enduring.
The first school was opened by Steiner following a lecture he gave to workers at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany, 1919. The school was opened to serve the children of the workers at the factory,. However, it soon grew in popularity and size, until soon the majority of children were not associated with the factory. Unusual for the time the school was a co-ed, and was credited as being the first comprehensive school in Germany (in that it served all social classes, abilities, and interests).
The Waldorf approach to education is split into 3 developmental stages of roughly 7 years each, with an over riding goal of creating free thinking individuals who are well rounded creatively, spiritually, physically, academically, socially, and mentally. It is a holistic approach to education designed to allow each child to reach their own individual potential.
Pre-school and Kindergarten (up to age 6/7)
Children are encouraged to explore the world around them through play and experiment, ultimately giving the child the mind set that the world is a good place to be. They are discouraged from using electronic media (TV, computers etc) as this is seen to reduce physical activity and hamper creativity.
The schools work on a daily routine of free play, artistic work, ‘circle time’ (story time, singing, group games), outdoor play, and practical tasks (cooking, gardening, etc). Classrooms are set up to mimic home environments in order to put children at ease and lower the differential between school and home life. Toys are intended to encourage creative play.
Elementary Education (6/7 to 14 years of age)
Under the Waldorf system children are not deemed ready for formal learning (reading, writing, and arithmetic) until they have sufficiently developed independence, temperament, and memory. This stage in development is not reached until the elementary phase, and therefore letters and numbers do not feature strongly in the pre-school level. Steiner believed that to start these abstract concepts too early would stunt the child’s development in the long term. In other educational systems (such as mainstream schools) children are already learning letters and numbers by this age. However, the Waldorf approach is built on the premise that if the initial building blocks are in place the child will learn at a faster rate later on.
In the elementary period the emphasis is on furthering emotional life and imagination. Academic subjects begin to be taught but more using artistic methods.
Study of subjects is done in depth and over a period of time, the focus is on understanding rather than simple rote learning. And always the emphasis on creativity. One of Steiner’s core educational beliefs was the no teacher should use a text book to teach children. He believed that the children themselves were the text book, showing the educator the best way to teach a subject. You are therefore unlikely to see text books in a Waldorf classroom.
In order for children to get a deep understanding for each other, a class will tend to stay together as a group throughout their education. Initially the same was supposed to happen with the educator, however, it is seen as more practical these days to rotate educators depending on their skills and expertise, though a sense of continuity is the aim.
What you need to realize about this phase of learning in a Waldorf school is that the academic work is secondary to the development of the child as an individual, and helping them find their place in society. Formal testing of children is only done where absolutely necessary, continuous assessment is the favoured method of evaluation.
Secondary Education (14 and up)
This is where outside influences start to muscle in on the Waldorf philosophy, and explains why there are many pre-schools, less elementary schools, but very few secondary education facilities that follow Steiner’s pedagogy (this holds for Montessori schools as well).
The aim is to develop children into young adults and prepare them for the adulthood, and although abstract concepts are more prevalent (such as writing and mathematics) the emphasis is still on creativity and imagination, with as little formal testing through examinations as possible. Unfortunately for this system the mainstream of secondary education is wholly geared towards students passing their matric exams, and indeed, if they wish to progress to further and higher education they will need to excel in these examinations.