About Waldorf Education

It all began in the spring of 1919 in Stuttgart, Germany, after the ravages of World War I.

Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy, had lectured to the workers of various factories in Stuttgart, including those of the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory. The workers were so impressed with the wisdom and warmth of the man that they asked him to set up a school for their children based on these ideas. With the support of Emil Molt, the managing director, the first Waldorf School was set up in the autumn of that year. Since then, Waldorf Schools (they are called Rudolf Steiner Schools in some countries) have spread around the world, totalling about 770 in 1999. Excluding the denominational schools, the Waldorf Schools make up the largest and fastest growing independent school movement in the world. Their greatest concentration occurs in Europe, with 574 schools, the schools in the Netherlands and Germany making up slightly more than half of the European schools. Schools are traditionally self-governed by the teachers and lay stress on an intensive dialogue between parents and teachers.

In the classroom, the aim is to imbue the intellect of the child with its own will-power, which also strengthens the commitment of the child to his work. Instead of confronting the pupil with largely finished forms in which blanks are left to insert the right answers, the method is to distil intellectual skills out of an artistic process, allowing the pupil to actively engage the imagination. The introduction of the letter "W" might, for example, occur by way of a fluid drawing movement of a wave, from which the letter is then extracted as an abstraction. Unfolding the curriculum out of an artistic whole is, according to Steiner, the basis for the teacher's natural authority. - The word "authority" has been a source for considerable misunderstanding for those not familiar with Waldorf Education, because it is easily but falsely associated with the "authoritarian" education of the past. Steiner's concept of "authority" presupposes a warm classroom atmosphere of loving trust and understanding between teachers and pupils where every pupil feels cared for individually by the teacher. In the first years of school, school children have a natural yearning for an authority who is chosen by them. The teacher, according to Steiner, must make him- or herself worthy of the choice.

Waldorf Education sets itself very high ideals. This increases the likelihood that these ideals aren't met. Coping with this discrepancy is on the agenda of all Waldorf Schools. But lowering the ideals would not help to increase the quality of the education. Those Waldorf teachers who strive after the highest ideals but openly admit where they do not achieve them generally fare best.

Learning through doing is a further tenet of Waldorf Education. Thus learning to write precedes learning to read. Another principle is to pay attention to the individual speeds of learning. Steiner warns the teachers not to classify the pupils into "gifted" and "less-gifted" too one-sidedly. For the so-called "less-gifted pupils" often simply take longer to comprehend, digesting the material whilst they understand, whereas the so-called "gifted" comprehend first and digest later. Lecturing to the teachers of the first Waldorf School about the methods of Waldorf Education, he goes on to suggest a certain ideal permeability between the classes to reflect this differentiation amongst the school children. He then describes the compromises that had to be made with the curriculum of the state of Württemberg of those days. Since then, the ideal of "a certain permeability between classes" has been almost completely forgotten. Many of the compromises of 1919 are today subsumed under the heading "Waldorf curriculum". Waldorf education has, however, evolved and been adapted to the different cultures into which it has proliferated, although sometimes in a haphazard way.

Each Waldorf School is an autonomous entity and is neither administered nor controlled by any centralized authority. The schools can thus develop their individual profile and can vary in what and how they teach. The Waldorf Schools generally network themselves in different kinds of national and international Waldorf School Associations. One of the biggest problems facing many Waldorf Schools is finding enough dedicated Waldorf teachers. To be able to exist in spite of the shortage of Waldorf teachers, many schools are forced to resort to hiring teachers who have little or no background in Waldorf Education, hoping that they will develop a fruitful relationship to it in time.

Insofar as it goes back to its roots, Waldorf Education applies the insights of anthroposophy to education. Anthroposophy is a close-to-life approach to the human being and is based on inner development. Just as inner mathematical insights are amazingly applicable to the outer world which physics investigates, so the insights obtained through the inner schooling of anthroposophy turn out to be eminently practical, enabling Waldorf Education to take place and to continually renew itself.


There is a vast literature on Waldorf Education, particularly in German. Below are three references. In the first two, Steiner's statements cited in the above text can be found.

1. Rudolf Steiner: The renewal of education through the science of the spirit
(lectures held in Basel in 1920), in particular the first lecture.
2. Rudolf Steiner: Practical Advice to Teachers
(lectures to the teachers just before the opening of the first Waldorf school in Stuttgart in 1919), in particular the tenth lecture.
3. Richard Blunt: Waldorf Education. Theory and Practice,
Novalis Press, Cape Town 1995

About R. Steiner and the anthroposophical movement

Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) was a man far ahead of his time. He predicted mad cow disease in the early twenties, saying that if one fed meat to cows, they would tend to go mad. In a lecture to scientists and the teachers of the first Waldorf School in 1920, he wrote down a differential equation for the understanding of light which is equivalent to Schrödinger's equation, which became a basic building block of quantum mechanics and was discovered by Schrödinger only a few years later in 1924. Ridiculed by some and revered by others, he was often misunderstood. His legacy, recorded in over thirty written works and over three hundred volumes of lectures, is only now beginning to show his uncanny sense for future developments in science, the arts and the search for a new religious immediacy. He has deeply influenced a wide spectrum of people, ranging from Saul Bellow to Joseph Beuys. His ideas and practical indications have inspired or simply been followed up by doctors (there are several hospitals and clinics around the world based on anthroposophical medicine), farmers (bio-dynamic farming is based on Steiner's indications), artists (for example eurythmists, who express speech and music through movement), priests (who founded the "Christian Community" based on advice from Steiner), bankers (who run banks with the ideal of transparency) and, of course, teachers and therapists (in the Waldorf Schools as well as the many special schools and communities for the mentally handicapped as exemplified by the Camphill movement). Although anthroposophy leads to an understanding of the human being that reaches far beyond the usual barriers that psychology sets itself, Steiner carefully went about worrying about the philosophical and scientific basis of such an approach in the 20th century. He was extremely well versed in the literary, philosophical, political and scientific culture of his time, with many contacts to their proponents, something his followers often found difficult to follow.

Rudolf Steiner
Rudolf Steiner in the 'Arbeiterbildungsschule', 1901

Back ......