Frequently asked questions


WHAT IS WALDORF EDUCATION?

For the Waldorf student, music, dance, and theatre, writing, literature, legends and myths are not simply subjects to be read about, ingested and tested. They are experienced. Through these experiences, Waldorf students cultivate a lifelong love of learning as well as the intellectual, emotional, physical and spiritual capacities to be individuals certain of their paths and to be of service to the world. Waldorf teachers strive to transform education in to an art that educates the whole child—the heart and the hands, as well as the head. The Waldorf curriculum is broad and comprehensive, structured to respond to the three developmental phases of childhood: from birth to approximately 6 or 7 years, from 7 to 14 years and from 14 to 18 years. Rudolf Steiner stressed to teachers that the best way to provide meaningful support for the child is to comprehend these phases fully and to bring “age appropriate” content to the children that nourishes healthy growth.

HOW DID 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 the children, should take the leading role in the running of the school, with a minimum of interference from governmental or economic concerns.

WHAT IS THE PHILOSOPHY BEHIND WALDORF EDUCATION?

Consistent with his philosophy called anthroposophy, Steiner designed a curriculum responsive to the developmental phases in childhood and nurturing of children’s imaginations. He thought that schools should cater to the needs of children rather than the demands of the government or economic forces, so he developed schools that encourage creativity and free-thinking.
DISCOVERING THE THREEFOLD NATURE OF THE HUMAN BEING.
Rudolf Steiner emphasised the importance of achieving balance in the three different ways in which a person relates to the world – through physical activity, the life of the emotions and the realm of thinking. He also showed how these three spheres stand in relation both to human physiology and to one another. Head, heart and hand are all equally important for the development of the child and are the basis of the Waldorf approach. Everything that is taught in class is done in a willing, feeling and thinking way. In this way it best permeates the child’s being and consciousness.

WHAT ARE THE TEMPERAMENTS AND HOW DO THEY RELATE TO TEACHING?

Every Teacher has four basic types of child in her class: a Fire-Child, an Air-Child, a Water-Child and an Earth-Child – as well as certain mixtures of the four. The ancient Greeks knew them as the four temperaments – they called them the choleric (fire), sanguine (air), phlegmatic (water) and melancholic (earth) temperaments. They believed they were related to the “four humours” in the body: blood, phlegm and two kinds of bile. They thus recognised that a person’s temperament is ingrained into the physical constitution and cannot be changed.
Rudolf Steiner brought a modern understanding of the temperaments which has proved very helpful to teachers, parents and therapists. On one occasion he characterised them somewhat in this way:

The Fire-Child:
Because the choleric Fire-Child has so much energy, initiative and self-confidence, he respects teachers and other adults who have the same qualities. It is necessary, therefore, that the teacher, whatever his own temperament, should win and retain the respect of these energetic children who have so much to give. Get them on your side and your life will be much easier! Be organised and decisive but do not confront these children without good cause. Arguing with a steamed up choleric is like throwing wood onto a fire – the fire does not get smaller. Rather listen patiently, retain your composure and afterwards (perhaps the following day) confront the child with the things he or she did wrong, when the ‘fire’ has died down.
They need to be challenged. Set difficult tasks for them which demand their best work, concentration and initiative. Ask them to be leaders – they are natural leaders.

The Air-Child:
The social scene is often their reason for living. To lose a friend can be a disaster. These sanguine children are not out to change the world like the cholerics. Their nature draws them into a hundred passing interests and one cannot change this. However, if the teacher can help each of these children to find one real and significant area of interest it will stabilise and centre them in themselves. They also need to love and respect a significant person in their lives- which could well be their teacher.

The Water-Child:
It can be very frustrating to teach a very phlegmatic child. They just sit there and appear to do nothing. Little interests them. Sometimes you have to drop a big book nearby and make a bang to wake them up. In fact, one way to wake them up is to appear indifferent, but be inwardly as a teacher very aware of them and interested in them, watching for clues of possible movement. These phlegmatic children take longer than others to get started and to finish their work. They need to be made aware of what the other children are doing so that it can rub off on them.

The Earth-Child:
These melancholic children believe they suffer more than others and that life is full of trials for which they are always on the lookout. It usually doesn’t help to try to cheer them up, although a teacher’s gentle humour will sometimes be accepted, but these children’s serious concern for themselves can be directed towards others. Any story which gently touches on suffering undergone by others will evoke their interest, draw them out of themselves and strengthen them.

Stanford Maher, Yvonne Bleach. “Putting the heart back into teaching. 3rd edition. Cape Town: Novalis Press, 1998

DOES WALDORF EDUCATION PREPARE CHILDREN FOR THE ‘REAL’ WORLD?

It is easy to fall into the error of believing that education must make our children fit into society. Although we are certainly influenced by what the world brings us, the fact is that the world is shaped by people, not people by the world. However, that shaping of the world is possible in a healthy way only if the shapers are themselves in possession of their full nature as human beings.

Education in our materialistic, Western society focuses on the intellectual aspect of the human being and has chosen largely to ignore the several other parts that are essential to our well-being. These include our life of feeling (emotions, aesthetics, and social sensitivity), our willpower (the ability to get things done), and our moral nature (being clear about right and wrong). Without having these developed, we are incomplete—a fact that may become obvious in our later years, when a feeling of emptiness begins to set in. That is why in a Waldorf school, the practical and artistic subjects play as important a role as the full spectrum of traditional academic subjects that the school offers. The practical and artistic are essential in achieving a preparation for life in the “real” world.
Waldorf Education recognizes and honors the full range of human potentialities. It addresses the whole child by striving to awaken and ennoble all the latent capacities. The children learn to read, write, and do math; they study history, geography, and the sciences. In addition, all children learn to sing, play a musical instrument, draw, paint, model clay, carve and work with wood, speak clearly and act in a play, think independently, and work harmoniously and respectfully with others. The development of these various capacities is interrelated. For example, both boys and girls learn to knit in grade one. Acquiring this basic and enjoyable human skill helps them develop a manual dexterity, which after puberty will be transformed into an ability to think clearly and to “knit” their thoughts into a coherent whole.
Preparation for life includes the development of the well-rounded person. Waldorf Education has as its ideal a person who is knowledgeable about the world and human history and culture, who has many varied practical and artistic abilities, who feels a deep reverence for and communion with the natural world, and who can act with initiative and in freedom in the face of economic and political pressures.

ARE WALDORF SCHOOLS RELIGIOUS?

Waldorf schools are non-sectarian and non-denominational. They educate all children, regardless of their cultural or religious backgrounds. The pedagogical method is comprehensive, and, as part of its task, seeks to bring about recognition and understanding of all the world cultures and religions. Waldorf schools are not part of any church. The festivals of Christianity, and of other major religions as well, are observed in the class rooms and in school assemblies. Classes in religious doctrine are not part of the Waldorf curriculum, and children of all religious backgrounds attend Waldorf schools. Spiritual guidance is aimed at awakening the child’s natural reverence for the wonder and beauty of life. Waldorf families come from a broad spectrum of religious traditions and interest.

HOW ARE CHILDREN TAUGHT TO READ?

Waldorf education is deeply bound up with the oral tradition, typically beginning with the teacher telling the children fairy tales throughout kindergarten and first grade. The oral approach is used all through Waldorf education: mastery of oral communication is seen as being integral to all learning.

In Kindergarten children are first encouraged to develop their ability to comprehend the spoken word; through stories, songs and rhymes, before learning to read and write.

During the first three classes, great care is taken in laying a thorough foundation for writing and reading. Children learn to write before they read. Letters of the alphabet are learnt in Class One in capitals, as they originated in the evolution of our culture. Man perceived, then pictured, and out of the mental pictures he developed signs and written symbols. The children, with their naturally pictorial thinking, do likewise. In the shapes of natural objects, children re-discover the shapes of the letters: M in a series of mountain peaks, V in the valleys between, S in the sinuous snake. The experience is deepened and widened through speech and movement. This method of approach develops a sense for the qualities of the letters and makes them come alive so that they are remembered. Phonics are introduced and practised thoroughly and the first experiences in reading centre round that which the children know well and have copied from the board. The first printed reader is introduced during the second year.

HOW IS NUMBER WORK INTRODUCED?

It is generally recognised that the first experiences of arithmetic are crucial, and here Steiner made some interesting recommendations. By starting with “two plus two equals four” the child meets:
• A completely abstract proposition,
• A reductionism view of the universe in which wholes are made up of parts, and
• A problem with only one answer.
If he explores instead, how to divide an apple or a cake and share it with their class, the child then experiences that from the whole there are several possible answers to a problem.

Arithmetic is taught to children not as a method for computing, but as a powerful process that is inscribed into the world around them. They can see one in the image of the sun, two in the contrasts of day and night, five in the petals of a flower and six in the legs of insects. Always, there is a sense of the reality underpinning the world.

Numbers are taught through movement and music before anything is committed to paper. They can be modelled in plasticine, clay or beeswax, together with the shapes in which they are found: the square, circle, pentagon and so on. Arithmetic tables are recited with much clapping and stamping, for unless the knowledge sinks deeper than the child’s conscious memory, very little has been achieved. And in so much else, in their early years the children need to learn by heart before they learn by head.

WHY IS ART SO IMPORTANT?

Art is recognised as an important aid to learning. It permeates the curriculum as a medium of expression and enlivens all subjects. By teaching with imagination, movement, sound and much artistic activity, the whole nature of the child is aroused and involved, developing enthusiasm for the learning experience. Learning is transformed into a stimulating process with far-reaching results when enriched with art and movement, enabling the whole being to unfold.

WHAT IS EURYTHMY?

Eurythmy is the art of movement that attempts to make visible the tone and feeling of music and speech. Eurythmy helps to develop concentration, self-discipline, and a sense of beauty. This training of moving artistically with a group stimulates sensitivity to the other as well as individual mastery. Eurythmy lessons follow the themes of the curriculum, exploring rhyme, meter, story, and geometric forms.

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 cultures, 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 WALDORF SCHOOLS RECOMMEND THE LIMITING OF TELEVISION , VIDEOS, COMPUTERS AND VIDEO GAMES FOR YOUNG CHILDREN?

A central aim of Waldorf Education is to stimulate the healthy development of the child’s own imagination. Waldorf teachers are concerned that electronic media hampers the development of the child’s imagination. They are concerned about the physical effects of the medium on the developing child as well as the content of much of the programming.

There is more and more research to substantiate these concerns. See:
• Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don’t Think by Jane Healy
• Failure To Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds For Better and Worse by Jane Healy
• Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander
• The Plug-In Drug by Marie Winn
• Evolution’s End: Claiming The Potential of Our Intelligence by Joseph Chilton Pearce

Waldorf teachers feel the appropriate age for computer use in the classroom and by students is in high school. We feel it is more important for students to have the opportunity to interact with one another and with teachers in exploring the world of ideas, participating in the creative process, and developing their knowledge, skills, abilities, and inner qualities. Waldorf students have a love of learning, an ongoing curiosity, and interest in life. As older students, they quickly master computer technology, and graduates have successful careers in the computer industry.

HOW DOES A WALDORF SCHOOL DEAL WITH CHILDREN WHO ARE BEHIND OR AHEAD ACADEMICALLY?

Waldorf schools hesitate to categorize children, particularly in terms such as “slow” or “gifted”. A given 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.
A child having difficulty with the material might be given extra help by the teacher or by parents; tutoring might also be arranged. Correspondingly, a child who picked up the material quickly might be given harder problems of the same sort to work on, or might be asked to help a child who was having trouble.

WHY DOES A WALDORF TEACHER STAY WITH A CLASS FOR SEVEN YEARS?

This question often arises because of a parent’s experience of public school education. In most public schools, a teacher works with a class for one, maybe two years. It is difficult for teacher and child to develop the deep human relationship that is the basis for healthy learning if change is frequent.
If a teacher has a class for several years, the teacher and the children come to know and understand each other in a deep way. The children, feeling secure in a long-term relationship, are better able to learn. The interaction of teacher and parents also can become more deep and meaningful over time, and they can cooperate in helping the child.
Problems between teachers and children, and between teachers and parents, can and do arise. When this happens, the college of teachers studies the situation, involves the teacher and parents—and, if appropriate, the child—and tries to resolve the conflict. If the differences are irreconcilable, the parents might be asked to withdraw the child.
In reality, these measures very rarely need to be taken. A Waldorf class is something like a family. If a mother in a family does not get along with her son during a certain time, she does not consider resigning or replacing him with another child. Rather, she looks at the situation and sees what can be done to improve the relationship. In other words, the adult assumes responsibility and tries to change. This same approach is expected of the Waldorf teacher and parents in a difficult situation. In almost every case she must ask herself: “How can I change so that the relationship becomes more positive?” One cannot expect this of the child. With the goodwill and active support of the parents, the teacher concerned can make the necessary changes and restore the relationship to a healthy and productive state.

The class teacher is not the only teacher the children experience. Each day, specialty subject teachers teach the children eurythmy, Afrikaans, isiXhosa, drumming, swimming, poi , and so on.
The class teacher is, however, responsible for the two-hour “main lesson” every morning and usually also for one or two lessons later in the day. In the main lesson, she brings all the main academic subjects to the children, including language arts, the sciences, history, and mathematics, as well as painting, music, clay modeling, and so on. The teacher does in fact deal with a wide range of subjects. A common misconception in our time is that education is merely the transfer of information. From the Waldorf point of view, true education also involves the awakening of capacities—the ability to think clearly and critically, to empathetically experience and understand phenomena in the world, to distinguish what is beautiful, good, and true. The class teacher walks a path of discovery with the children and guides them into an understanding of the world of meaning, rather than the world of cause and effect.
Waldorf class teachers work very hard to master the content of the various subjects that they teach. But the teacher’s ultimate success lies in his ability to work with those inner faculties that are still “in the bud,” so that they can grow, develop, and open up in a beautiful, balanced, and wholesome way. Through this approach to teaching, the children will be truly prepared for the real world. They are provided then with the tools to productively shape that world out of a free human spirit.

While the diversity of the curriculum demands specialist subject teachers, we aim at a balance between these specialists and the class teacher who becomes the pupils’ guide and confidante. The children with their class teacher ideally move through the primary school as a unit. This practice has many social advantages. The class teacher’s connection with the children achieves four valuable educational objectives:

  • The teacher’s continuous and deepening knowledge of the children in their class;
  • An increasing intimate connection between teachers, parents and guardians, fostering greater understanding of the child’s inner needs;
  • The continued development of the teacher
  • An interrelationship between subject matter taught in early and later years, which enriches the curriculum even further.

WHAT IS THE MAIN LESSON?

The Main Lesson system has proved to be one of economy and efficiency. One subject at a time is taught in depth for a period of 3 or 4 weeks in a way suited to the child’s understanding and stage of development. Every morning for the first two hours of the day, the children are at their most receptive and greater concentration can be expected.

This system allows for the integration of a variety of activities and intellectual and creative work based on the topic that is being taught at the time. Language, mathematics, history, geography and the sciences, are taught during these periods and are all presented in a way that stimulates in turn the emotions, the thinking and the physical activity of the child. Thus the pupil experiences a deep involvement resulting in enthusiasm for the work. As he works more intensively, his powers of concentration are strengthened.

The later morning lessons are devoted to other languages, the practice of skills in mathematics and language, music (each child learns to play the recorder), singing and eurythmy. Handwork, craft lessons, painting, modelling, gymnastics and games are scheduled at the end of the school day. Memories of the involvement and enthusiasm gained during the morning are what should accompany the child into sleep. This is one of the reasons why we do not recommend the viewing of television as it lessens the effectiveness of the classroom experience.

HOW IS DISCIPLINE HANDLED?

In a Waldorf School, the approach to discipline is much more personally based. There are no abstract authorities like the headmaster and prefects, and respect must be won through personal contact. While a freer, more open atmosphere (including no uniforms) is encouraged, Waldorf Schools are in no way neglectful of ‘discipline’. Orderliness is inherent in the classroom and is demanded in behaviour, dress and the presentation of work. These qualities, as part of social development, are not imposed in the form of external coercion, but are developed more as an inward sense of duty. Generally it can be said that, when motivation and interest is high, when personal concern for the pupil is central to the teacher, the whole question of discipline eases. At Gaia the Respectful Conduct Policy has been put in place and is available at the office.

CAN A CHILD ADJUST TO A CHANGE OF SCHOOL?

If a child’s career at school has to be interrupted, we urge parents to avoid making the change until after the first three years, which we consider to be a unit in the educational experience. After that, there should be no problem, and children make such a change with ease.

HOW DO OTHERS SEE WALDORF EDUCATION?

World-renowned conductor Bruno Walter is one of many distinguished people to note the specific contribution of Waldorf Education. “There is no task of greater importance than to give children the very best preparation for the demands of a transforming future. As long as the Waldorf School movement continues to spread its influence, we can all look forward with hope”, he says.

“As a scientist involved in research into the physics of perception, I am impressed with both the content of the Waldorf Curriculum, which includes right hemisphere side learning activities to complement the left hemisphere side; and with the style of the curriculum which promotes direct involvement, creativity, and attention to detail,” says Dr H. Puthoff, researcher at SRI International. “This holistic, well-grounded and in-depth approach is what is required to meet the challenges of a stressful, fast moving technological age, while keeping one’s will and sense of purpose alive and whole.”

To date, the most comprehensive and authoritative research on Waldorf education has been conducted in Germany. Three independent scientists sponsored by the German Government assessed 1460 former Waldorf students and concluded that they had achieved “an educational level well above average”. Impressively, more than 80% of the 1460 former students interviewed had completed a professional training.

WALDORF EDUCATION WORLD-WIDE

With more than 1,000 Waldorf schools in more than 60 countries, over 2,000 Waldorf early childhood programs on five continents, and more than 600 institutions for curative education, Waldorf Education is truly global-not only in its scope, but also in its approach. Wherever it is found, the Waldorf curriculum cultivates within its students a deep appreciation for cultural traditions from around the world while all the while being deeply rooted in its local culture and context.

A feature of Waldorf education is that its curriculum and methodology are accepted across social, cultural, religions, linguistic and geographical boundaries. Waldorf pedagogy is successful in all the continents of the World, with schools found in such diverse communities as Egypt, Israel, Croatia, Japan and Kenya, Brazil, Australasia, USA and Europe. UNESCO’S Commission on Education for the 21st Century noted this cross-cultural acceptance of Waldorf methodology in a 1994 report. The “originality of the Waldorf approach and its long-standing practical application world-wide have recently proved to be particularly fruitful in disadvantaged communities

THE WALDORF CURRICULUM

Waldorf Education approaches all aspects of schooling in a unique and comprehensive way. The curriculum is designed to meet the various stages of child development. Waldorf teachers are dedicated to creating a genuine inner enthusiasm for learning that is essential for educational success.