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
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
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 in the 'Arbeiterbildungsschule', 1901