Twelve Common Misunderstandings Concerning Waldorf Education

A Guide for Parents by Colin Price

Note from WaldorfBooks: We are sharing the first chapter of this wonderful little booklet to introduce you to the amazing work that Waldorf teacher Colin Price has done. If you would like to purchase the full booklet it is available in digital format here or as a print book here.

This is a great book to have on hand when people ask you questions about Waldorf education. It also makes a great gift for relatives or friends who want to know more about Waldorf education. We’ve kept the price affordable so you can buy more than one if you need to.

Introduction

This booklet has been published in an attempt to clear up twelve common misunderstandings about Waldorf Education. It is based on the author’s forty years of contact with Rudolf Steiner’s work and his thirty-seven years of practical experience in the classroom.

During the second half of the twentieth century, a steadily growing interest was shown in Waldorf Education in the western world. Now, five years into the new millennium, this interest is growing enormously. Correspondingly, the need for those who are approaching it for the first time to understand an education that is so fundamentally different from public school education (referred to in Europe and elsewhere as state education) has also grown. The fact that Waldorf Education has been for some time now the fastest growing, independent school movement in the world, makes it surprising that so many parents have not heard of it.

However, it must be said that the ideas of education, that most people have come to understand today, are likely to be “stood on their head” when compared to those practiced so effectively in Waldorf schools for the past 80 years or more. To find one’s way therefore, a healthy critical, yet open-minded approach is necessary, when confronted with such “upside-down ideas.” For the fundamental question, and one that lives constantly in the minds of those for whom this education has become their vocation and task in life, is this:

“How is an education to be understood that is not merely so radically different from others, but actually demands no less than a re-thinking of much that one has previously come to accept?”

Important questions are bound to rise up in the minds of parents who find themselves making their first acquaintance with Waldorf education. Misunderstandings are going to occur for sure, and one can only hope that those first questions will be addressed and discussed by informed personnel at the school, because nothing can be better than to converse with someone directly, and to take in not only the content of what they say but the bodily gestures, the glance, the nuances and inflections in the voice, and everything else that would otherwise remain hidden from them if they were merely to read an introductory book.

Failing that possibility, this booklet – which speaks primarily to the new parent – may serve a purpose. Yet the author would like to caution all parents against placing too much emphasis on any one source of information.

The essential point is this: in the end it is not how much information you have gathered about Waldorf Education that is important, but rather whether – in the process of your search – you have grown further as a human being.

Of course, for many people today, such a statement as this is simply nonsense. After all, how can the idea that we should experience some kind of fundamental change in ourselves have any connection whatsoever with the acquisition of knowledge, especially one that is predominantly information -based? To ask a question such as this is itself the consequence of confused thinking, which sees the gaining of knowledge as a process that does not penetrate into the self, and which therefore is quite unrelated to personal development. This only shows how far we have come in our modern-day abstract thinking, for it would seem that we no longer notice the part that we ourselves play in that very learning process.

True learning does not reside in the accumulation of reams of information but in the degree to which our research has deepened our humanity and extended our awareness of our relation to everything around us. True learning makes us different from the person we were before.

Gaining information may equip us to be more efficient, more practical or even more knowledgeable in a limited way, but unless it moves us, unless it touches us, unless we leave something of ourselves behind, and at the same time gain something new in moving forward, we remain essentially the same person that we were before; and of what use is that to the world and to our fellow human beings?

In what the author attempts to do in this little booklet, it must be borne in mind that no answer is satisfactory for everyone. The circumstances of each school, each teacher and each parent are unique, and the answers to given questions must be unique too, since we bear an individual human life and destiny that is like no other. What satisfies one may be unsatisfying to another. Nevertheless, the author still believes it is helpful to try to offer certain guidelines that may assist that first important and possibly highly significant meeting with Waldorf education, when the inevitable and necessary questions begin to appear.

Obviously the fact that we need to be moved, even touched in our hearts, by what we learn, must also serve as a funda- mental key to all education, and in my experience Waldorf Education comes as close as possible to achieving just that kind of change in young people, for Waldorf graduates do have a deepened awareness of their humanity, a love of learning, and an increased sensitivity to the social needs of their time.

If this little booklet therefore can fulfill that need, then its existence will be justified.

— Colin Price, Brunswick, Maine, USA, October 2005

  1. The reference throughout this booklet to “Public Schools” should be understood in the North American sense. In Europe and elsewhere, these would be described as “State Schools.”

About the Autho

Colin Price qualified originally as an artist in England in 1962, with a focus on painting. He followed that with a training as a Public School teacher, and subsequently taught in three different Public Schools. Dissatisfied with the lack of real pedagogy and insight into the growing child, he found his way to Emerson College where he took a Waldorf teacher-training under that inspiring individual Francis Edmunds.

Colin has been active ever since, both as a class teacher and a subject teacher. He has taken three whole classes through their eight years of elementary schooling from grade 1 to grade 8, as is the practice in Waldorf Schools, and has picked up two others in their middle school years. In 1980, he emigrated with his wife and children to Canada, and has given talks and workshops in several major cities in North America. He is currently teaching at the Merriconeag Waldorf School in Freeport, Maine, USA.

As parents, Colin and his wife Siegrun have had their two children go right through from Kindergarten to graduation from their twelfth grade classes, and have experienced as many questions along the route as do most parents.

Colin has had three other books published, the Waldorf songbook “Let’s Sing and Celebrate! – Vol.1” the book of Waldorf class plays “Let’s Do a Play! – Vol.1” and the middle school musical “The Duchess’ Bath.” Many of his original songs have now been printed in sheet-music format, and are available to school choirs, parent groups and singing organizations, from Songbird Press.

Contents of the Book

Introduction

About the Author

Chapter One (Scroll Down to Read Chapter One): That Waldorf teachers appeal to the individual child in their teaching

Chapter Two: That Waldorf teachers teach out of their personality

Chapter Three: That the spiritual element in a Waldorf school is sectarian

Chapter Four: That teachers are responsible for helping a child catch up due to absence

Chapter Five: That Waldorf education is permissive and unstructured   

Chapter Six: That Waldorf teachers do not expect a child to read until the third grade class

Chapter Seven: That the imaginative approach to learning is no longer necessary in the older grades

Chapter Eight: That the negative influences of electronic media are merely a Waldorf prejudice

Chapter Nine: That testing, and other evaluative assessments of student learning, is not undertaken

Chapter Ten: That Waldorf education does not adequately prepare students for the real world

Chapter Eleven: That it is a problem for any child who does not get on with the class teacher, since that teacher may well stay for eight years

Chapter Twelve: That children are at a disadvantage if they have to transfer into or out of a Waldorf school, because of the differences in the approach to learning. 

A Final Word to You, the Reader

Appendix: Background Reading Sources

Suppliers of Further Reading Material                                    1.

The First Misunderstanding:That Waldorf teachers appeal to the individual child in their teaching.

One of the long-cherished and most appealing aspects of an independent school education is the belief that a child will receive a lot more personal attention there, and that this is good. Indeed, it is generally considered to be a sign of an enlightened public school if it too can offer this. For us to hear then that this appeal to the individual child may not be in its best interests may at first seem ridiculous. After all, what could be better than to get personal assistance in one’s learning? As the thoughts in this booklet will show, this is but one of many misunderstandings that we can have, when a true comprehension of how children grow and develop, is absent.

Much of education today is based on ideas that are divorced from the real process of child development. Whilst there has certainly been much research into cognitive learning, brain chemistry, intelligence and many other interesting forms of diagnostics, the underlying map of childhood, in which can be recognized the pointers to healthy or unhealthy growth and maturity in children, continues to elude the intellect-bound thinking. The reason for this is easy to explain, but not so easy to understand, because in order to grasp the explanation, we will tend to make use of the very same intellect-bound thinking that can frustrate a grasp of it. What does this mean? In one sense, children can be compared to plants. They pass through fairly well-defined stages of growth and maturity. But these stages can be altered as a result of changes in their surroundings, and this can result in developmental characteristics appearing earlier or later than may be healthy for them. More importantly, the changes are organically derived. The leaf of a plant, for instance, develops a form that not only displays new substance but also retains within it a similarity to the previous one. A marked change in its environment however can bring about a form that bears little resemblance to its predecessor.

The same can be said of growing human beings, who are even more sensitive. To appreciate the subtle, dynamic, life- changes in the form of the leaf requires not the intellect but the eye of the artist, for only the creative nature of the artist can draw near to the formative secrets of life. Similarly, the changes that take place in a child’s growing up also require the artist’s eye, because the child too is a creative, living form. The intellect can determine everything that can be measured, but our stature as human beings is not limited to measurable things. Our being grows beyond the measurable, and brings about aspects of ourselves that simply cannot be measured, such as our will-power, our intuitive sense for things, the fullness of our love for someone, the degree of commitment we may have towards something, the courage with which we deal with life’s emergencies, or even the hidden potential for change.

If we are to consider the whole child, and wish therefore to include the emotional, moral and spiritual parts rather than the purely measurable ones, we will need to recognize that there is a living, pulsating map of childhood, and that we need to pore over it and recognize its high nodal points and fairly flat stretches. In other words, we must learn to see and understand it with an artistic eye, and take note of those rhythms inherent in it that bring about such important developmental changes.

Out of this picture of the growing child therefore, we can recognize a stage of growth and development lying approximately between the seventh and ninth years of life that reveals certain characteristics. These characteristics are very different from those appearing in the developmental stage that follows it. Children of this age live in a kind of natural kinship with each other and with the natural world. It is a state that can be all too easily shattered by well-meaning adults. The most prevalent way of breaking up the intact world of childhood at this age is to call forth a premature relationship to the world. When we give a child unending choices, for example, as to what to eat, what to wear and what to do, we promote the breaking up of this intact world. It is one of the most pernicious methods, for it serves only to awaken a premature judgment. But another way is when we appeal too early to the child as an individual. Yes, he may look like an individual child, distinct from the other children, but his intact world is an invisible, dynamic one that needs to be left to “hatch out” of its kinship with others, in its own due time.

Today in our fast-paced world, it is extremely difficult, and even awkward, to accept the idea that everything has its right time. Our strong sense of self urges us to move things forward in case we lose out on something. We want to be up front, forging ahead, and how can you do that if you have to wait for “the right time?” This propensity of our society to do things ever earlier leads to the dreadful, albeit un- conscious, acceptance by the child that life is a race, and if you don’t get out there and forge ahead of the others, you will fail, or at best be left behind. Whilst it is true that few of us will admit that we think like this, all too often it is our actions, our feelings and apprehensions, and even our tone of voice that betrays this underlying belief to our children.

In the early classes of a Waldorf school, the teachers are working with an awareness of the need to slow down the pace of life for their children. It is really inimical to the proper development of real capacities, and to the healthy emergence at their right time of later faculties, that a child should be on the go, not only all day but after school as well. The extent to which after-school programs of all kinds are eagerly sought after illustrates this point. More than is generally realized, children of today desperately need a regular time after school when nothing is planned, and when – after perhaps an initial complaint of “I’m bored” – a creative impulse will be observed taking over, leading shortly afterwards to an absorption in some activity or other that can occupy them for quite a long time.

Of course, it goes without saying that that will certainly not happen if children have access to the ubiquitous television, or to the CD player or other available media. In spite of vociferous claims to the contrary, childhood pre-occupation with the media in its various forms is not truly creative, quite the contrary.

The relationship of the teacher to the child is crucial, especially since, in Waldorf School practice, the class teacher may stay with the class for the full eight years of  elementary schooling. It is out of this awareness on the part of the teachers – that there really is a map of childhood, and that between the seventh and ninth years of life, they must strive to maintain the intactness of the child’s world – that they strive so earnestly to avoid appealing to the individual child. Far better is it at this age for the teacher to address the whole class, and to include in what is said to the class that which the individual child needs to hear, than to appeal directly to the individual child, thereby prompting the consequences that have been mentioned.

Of course there are circumstances when this simply cannot be done, but in the normal course of lessons, the work of the teachers with the class as a group will be such that most of the time the individual children will sense which things in the lessons relate personally to them anyway.

A constant call on the individual child is something that can be noticed everywhere today, in the mall, in the home and on the sports field. From one point of view, it is the expression of a society that cannot distinguish between what a child actually needs and what is a rightful expression of adult freedoms. To regard the very strongly felt sense of freedom, that we as adults enjoy today, as something that the child should also be immediately endowed with, via choices, opinions and the like, is a great error to which we are prone. The way children are often called upon to relate to what is going on around them can be likened to the ignorant gardener who pulls up the onions, believing that by doing so he will get them to grow and mature faster and sooner!

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