Dispelling 5 Myths in Waldorf Schools

There are more than a thousand Waldorf schools in the world, and 17 of them are spread across South Africa. The schooling system, which has sometimes been considered a little “out there” or controversial, is steadily growing in popularity, but is still subject to some widespread negative misconceptions.

We interviewed Waldorf teachers, students and parents to get to the bottom of some of the more common myths. Anette Bestwick, a teacher at Michael Oak Waldorf in Kenilworth, Cape Town, kindly responded to our questions with some thorough answers.

MYTH 1: Waldorf is sometimes thought of as a school for “hippies” and their kids, far from the mainstream schooling style and sometimes directly at odds with it

Bestwick explains that it’s true that founder Rudolf Steiner was clear that Waldorf education should be independent and inclusive, and uphold the principles of freedom in education while engaging independent administration locally and internationally.

Nevertheless, the establishment of Waldorf Schools is a rigorous process of committing to the principles and directives of the Southern African Federation of Waldorf Schools that not only evaluates the quality of learning and teaching in each school, but also liaises closely with the various bodies regulating education in South Africa.

“While some parents choose Waldorf because they have had bad experiences in the conventional schooling systems, the large majority of our parents have chosen this educational model consciously and as an informed choice,” says Bestwick. “Parents come from all walks of life and the parent body defies clear classification. It is as diverse as any other parent community in a school. We recognise the value of our rich diversity and we nurture it.”

Bestwick explains further that the key to understanding the Waldorf education system is the principle that Waldorf offers a developmentally appropriate, experiential, and academically rigorous approach to education.

“Receive children in reverence, educate them in love and let them go forth in freedom” – Rudolf Steiner (1861 -1925)

MYTH 2: The Waldorf learning programme doesn’t focus on Maths and Science, instead allowing more art and craft 

Martin Wolfaardt, a Raphaeli Waldorf School parent, says he had previously imagined Waldorf to be a “very fuzzy, artsy, science-shy mode of education. Despite having heard about Waldorf education, I was initially sceptical about the methodology,” he shares.

“What I discovered is a way of teaching that acknowledges and respects the whole child that allows development at a pace that maximises depth of knowledge, instils profound self-confidence and nurtures imagination and resourcefulness. These capacities are precisely what experts now acknowledge far outweigh academics as predictors of success in our rapidly-changing world,” Wolfaardt says.

Bestwick explains how the Waldorf School learning plan is carefully designed to facilitate optimal learning unfolding in the different stages of the children’s lives. Maths and Science are given equal weighting in all stages of the Waldorf School.

In the Kindergarten, for example, learning is optimally achieved predominantly through the ‘doing’. The children are given the space to do, to play, to discover and to experience the worlds of numbers and science in this active way. Bestwick shares what a Class 6 child said in a Physics lesson this year: “Mrs B, I love Physics because we get to learn how and why things are as they are, things that we played with since we were really small.”

In fact, Michael Oak Waldorf was just awarded a Certificate of Excellence in Physical Science by the University of Pretoria as one of 30 top achieving schools in the country, including the IEB and NSC schools in the 2016 final matric exam. This means that the school performed in the top 0.5% of all schools nationally (out of more than 6 000 schools) and in the top 3% of independent schools in South Africa.

Art at Waldorf is not narrowly defined as art in terms of painting and drawing, but far more broadly in terms of teaching and learning concepts imaginatively and pictorially and the real value of the teaching rests within the children’s beings, in terms of how they have integrated and learnt the content.

Bestwick elaborates: “Even though, especially in the primary school stream, the Maths and Science books look most different from the mainstream books, and may seem not to be ‘scientific’, it has been consistently seen that the Waldorf method of teaching these subjects has a long-term benefit in terms of developing capacities for Science and Maths but also solid application skills in these areas.”

In the high school, the subjects like Maths and Science continue increasingly to have clearly defined boundaries and are taught by specialists. Here, rigorous thinking, conceptualisation and self-directed work is expected. All learners are expected to fully participate in all Maths and Science main lessons, even if they are not intending to do these subjects for their matriculation certificate.

MYTH 3: Waldorf teaches reading at a very late stage, and children are left behind their peers academically

“At Waldorf the introduction to reading and writing is based on the very solid, tried-and-tested-for-success premise that like all other aspects of the curriculum, the stages of learning follow the evolutionary process of acquiring various skills,” Bestwick explains.

“In the evolution of humanity, spoken language developed first, then came written language, originally through symbols (think of hieroglyphics). Finally, once there was a written language, people learned to read. This is exactly the sequence in which children master language, and so it is the sequence in which reading is taught in Waldorf education.”

From birth to age 7, the focus is on the spoken word. The children hear stories – nursery rhymes, nature stories, folktales and fairy tales. Waldorf teachers are careful to use clear speech and to enunciate well. This will help children later when it comes time to learn to write and spell.

During this time, the children develop impressive verbal and recitation abilities and vocabulary. In addition to the speech work, through activities such drawing, finger knitting and sewing, the children’s fine motor skills are developed to prepare them for the next stage of language development: writing.

“Each letter of the alphabet is introduced as a symbol; representing an element from a story the children are told. In this way, the child develops a living relationship with each letter and the written word. It is not dry and abstract. Writing is taught in a way that engages the child’s imagination,” Bestwick clarifies.

After learning all the letters, the next step is to copy the teacher’s writing. The children will copy a text they know off by heart. The final step is learning to read. Children develop decoding skills at varying ages.

In Waldorf education it is understood that learning to read will unfold naturally in its own time when a child is given the proper support. Just as most children learn to walk without being taught, and just as children miraculously learn to speak their mother tongue by the age of 3 without formal teaching, worksheets or dictionaries, so do children, when given ample opportunities to write and read their own texts, naturally learn to read books.

Waldorf children also write a great deal: they write all their resources, and thus have tremendous exposure to writing, editing and reading their own work.

Past pupil and current Waldorf teacher Tanya Karakashian says that Waldorf fosters reverence for all things and allows each child the possibility to grow according to their own stages of development. These values are “nurtured through the curriculum, rooted in music, history, culture, the arts, poetry, language, numbers, science, movement, craft and enchanting storytelling, and are part and paramount to the Waldorf way.”

MYTH 4: Waldorf Schools don’t use textbooks, and students must create their own workbooks

“Yes, it is true that early readers and textbooks are generally not used in Waldorf education. Instead, the children are fed real literature starting in the earliest years. Once the children are fully reading, they turn to original source texts such as classic literature and biographies, and students will read many great books throughout their grade school years.”

Bestwick clarifies: “Our experience over the years has been and continues to be that the children at our school and other Waldorf schools are avid readers and excellent researchers. Moreover, current educational research continues to prove that early reading acquisition and academic proficiencies are not exclusively connected. What matters is that children continue reading once they have the skill, and we can confidently state that this is the case.”

There are no “textbooks” as such, 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.

MYTH 5: Waldorf schools are more appropriate for slow learners and don’t match up to the standard of mainstream education 

Waldorf schools hesitate to categorise children, particularly in terms such as “slow” or “gifted”. “A given child’s weakness or strength, even giftedness, in one area, whether cognitive, emotional or physical, will usually be balanced by weaknesses or strengths in other areas,” says Bestwick. It is the Waldorf teacher’s job to try to bring the child’s whole being into balance.

The aim of Waldorf schooling is to educate the whole child: “head, heart and hands”. The curriculum is responsive to the developmental phases in childhood and, Bestwick explains, “despite the fact that times have changed, these developmental phases have remained constant, which has meant that although the ‘how’ has changed, the ‘what’ we teach less so.”

“The essential principles of Waldorf education have not only withstood the many educational experiments but have become increasingly recognised and acknowledged by designers of curricula outside the Waldorf movement. We continue to uphold the core principle that schooling should meet the needs of children rather than the demands of the government or economic forces.”

Play, rhythm, movement and body geography exercises play an important role in strengthening skills that are essential for memorising, learning and coping with academic demands. Research has shown, says Bestwick, that there are five ways to increase brain capacity: music, art, handwork, movement and personal connections to adults. All of these ways are strongly represented in Waldorf Education.

“We have found that especially in the kindergarten and lower grades, the children are still growing into their bodies, and this process is not served well with overstimulation of the intellectual forces, at the expense of giving enough time for developing the prerequisite capacities for academic learning.”

The love for learning, confidence in doing and ability for ever-increasing self-directed activity, prepare the child so adequately for high school where rigorous and independent thinking is demanded.

So even though academics are de-emphasised in the early years of schooling, deep learning, and more importantly permanent learning are taking place all the time. “From the outside it may seem that this process is geared to slow learners, but in fact, increasingly our approach it seen as a thorough preparation for rigorous academic capacity as well as being able to meet children with learning differences.”

Slower learners have access to learning support. Correspondingly, quick learners have access to extension work.

So, while some might see the Waldorf School system as being a bit “out there” or “different”, students are in fact well educated and well rounded. The consistently high matriculation results attest to this. Those students who wish to pursue tertiary studies have regularly been seen to have been academically advantaged and consistently gain admission to top universities.

Sasha Broom, a 2016 Michael Oak Matriculant, says that the Waldorf schooling system opened up avenues of exploration and expression that she would not have had the opportunity or courage to explore alone. “Now that I have the support of these experiences, and the memory of the encouragement and love that went into building them, I feel wholly able to make new, exciting and rewarding decisions for myself, and have the confidence to work for that which brings me joy and satisfaction,” she shared.

The progress and performance of learners is assessed in Grades 3, 5 and 7 by The Southern African Federation of Waldorf Schools. These benchmark assessments form an integral part of the Waldorf system to ensure that the academic requirements are met in each and every class.

“I remember hating back-to-school advertising throughout my childhood – who wanted to be reminded of that inevitability? When a new term approaches, my child gets excited about going back to school – despite the joy of holiday freedoms. That says it all!” says Wolfaardt.