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 coeducational.
- It should be a unified twelve-year school.
- 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.
Molt agreed to the conditions and, after a training period for the prospective teachers, die Freie Waldorfschule (the Free Waldorf School) was opened September 7, 1919.
Waldorf education is a unique and distinctive approach to educating children that is practiced in Waldorf schools worldwide. Waldorf schools 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 Waldorf schools; each is administratively independent, but there are established associations which provide resources, publish materials, sponsor conferences, and promote the movement. AWSNA (Association of Waldorf Schools of North America) is the organization which fulfills this function in the United States.
The best overall statement on what is unique about Waldorf education 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 Waldorf schooling is to educate the whole child, “head, heart and hands”. The curriculum is as broad as time will allow, and balances academics subjects with artistic and practical activities.
Waldorf 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; they learn through their thinking, feeling and willing. Most Waldorf schools only introduce testing and grading in the upper grades when students are preparing to move on into a more traditional classroom.
Some distinctive features of Waldorf education include the following:
- Academics are de-emphasized in the early years of schooling. There is no academic content in the Waldorf kindergarten experience (although there is a good deal of cultivation of pre-academic skills). The letters are introduced artistically in first grade. The children learning to read from their own writing in grades 2 or 3.
- During the primary school years (grades 1-8) the students have a class (or “morning lesson”) teacher who stays with the same class for (ideally) the first eight years of their schooling.
- Certain activities, which are often considered “frills” in traditional schools, are central in Waldorf schools: art, movement, handwork, music, cooking, gardening, and foreign languages (usually two in primary grades), to name a few. All children learn to play recorder and to knit. There are no “textbooks” as such in the first through fifth grades. All children have “main lesson books”, which are workbooks (journals) which they create, with the teacher’s guidance, for each lesson block. They essentially produce their own “textbooks” which record their experiences and provide a record of what they’ve learned. Upper grades use textbooks (usually only in math) to supplement their main lesson work. Upper grades also write research papers, finding their own source materials.
- Learning in a Waldorf school is a non-competitive activity. There are no grades given at the primary level; 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 Waldorf schools. Social interaction and discovery through play (imaginative exploration) are strongly encouraged.