ReadingWhy do Waldorf schools teach reading when they do?

There is evidence that normal, healthy children who learn to read relatively late are not disadvantaged by this, but rather are able quickly to catch up with, and may overtake, children who have learned to read early. Additionally, they are much less likely to develop the "tiredness toward reading" that many children taught to read at a very early age experience later on. Instead there is lively interest in reading and learning that continues into adulthood. Some children will, out of themselves, want to learn to read at an early age. This interest can and should be met, as long as it comes in fact from the child. Early imposed formal instruction in reading can be a handicap in later years, when enthusiasm toward reading and learning may begin to falter.

If reading is not pushed, a healthy child will pick it up quite quickly and easily. Some Waldorf parents become anxious if their child is slow to learn to read. Eventually these same parents are overjoyed at seeing their child pick up a book and not put it down and become from that moment a voracious reader. Each child has his or her own optimal time for "taking off." Feelings of anxiety and inferiority may develop in a child who is not reading as well as her peers. Often this anxiety is picked up from parents concerned about the child's progress. It is important that parents should deal with their own and their child's apprehensions.

—From "Five Frequently Asked Questions" by Colin Price; originally printed in Renewal Magazine, Spring/Summer 2003


We are teaching reading from nursery school onwards, with sequencing, sensory integration, eye-hand coordination, large and small motor coordination, tactile discrimination, visual and audial discrimination, both horizontal and vertical mid-line crossing, symbol recognition, counting skills, and confidence in physical skills in general, all of which are the substance for remedial work for 9, 10, 11, and 12 year olds in mainstream schools.  So, we are teaching reading from the entry into any Waldorf school.  We also recognize that a lifelong love of reading is not fostered by pushing but by encouraging.  Robert Frost, former poet laureate of the U.S., did not read until he was 15 years old.  Sylvia Ashton Warner, one of the premier educational leaders of the mid-twentieth century, did not read until the age of 12.  We might say that this delay in reading migh have encouraged genius in the inner ponderings of these giants in literature and educational skill when they were young and not pushed to perform in reading.

---Patrice Maynard, Leader, Outreach and Development for the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America AWSNA

How We Teach Science

What is science?  Consider, for a moment, the science of anatomy. In the second century AD, the Greek physician Galen wrote numerous detailed tracts on the organs of the body. Because dissection of human corpses was forbidden, Galen’s writings were based on observations of apes, goats and pigs, and contained many errors regarding human anatomy.

Nevertheless, for more than a thousand years, Galen was the unquestioned authority on human anatomy. Anatomical demonstrations for medical students were highly ritualized events: A professor would read from a Galenic text, a surgeon would dissect a cadaver, and a demonstrator would point to the organ under discussion. Any discrepancies were attributed to changes in the human body since ancient times. It was not until 1540 that a young Belgian physician named Vesalius, dissatisfied with this approach, made his own observations and proved many of Galen’s claims to be in error, thereby ushering in a new era of anatomy.

As modern people, we might find the educational methods of the medieval doctors amusing, or even unthinkable. But consider your own science education. How often were you first given a pre-formed concept, hypothesis, or model—an “answer”—and then asked to find it or prove it? Or were you encouraged to use the scientific method—that is, to observe the phenomena, develop questions, and then form hypotheses and concepts to be tested?

Waldorf science education is based on experiencing and observing phenomena. Children are natural scientists—they are constantly exploring, observing, asking questions, and experimenting to understand the world around them. Young children in a Waldorf school acquire the basis for later scientific thinking through rich sensory experiences, a variety of physical activities, opportunities to observe and explore the natural world. Teachers bring stories—fairy tales, animal fables, nature stories—that help develop children’s imaginative relationship to the kingdoms of nature.

As they reach the older grades, children are beginning to develop a more objective relationship to the natural world. Students in main lesson blocks such as botany, chemistry, and physics learn to carefully observe phenomena, and then engage in active thinking to discover order, patterns, and relationships; draw comparisons; refine observations; and experiment. Throughout the elementary years, Waldorf teachers avoid giving students abstract, lifeless concepts and definitions, but strive to help students develop concepts that can grow and change. This “phenomenological” approach to science not only develops rigorous thinking, but also helps preserve the sense of wonder and reverence for the natural world that will serve the child for a lifetime.

For more information about the phenomenological approach to science in Waldorf schools, see The Teaching of Science by David Mitchell and Learning to See Life: The Goethean Approach to Science by Craig Holdrege.


Mathematics at CAWS

Why do we learn math? So we can manage financial matters? Get a good job? Understand statistics in the newspaper? Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, urged teachers to connect all their teaching to practical life, and surely would favor these uses of mathematics. But he had something more in mind as well, saying in 1921:

“In the process of mathematical thinking, one is assured of continually following everything one does with full, clear consciousness…We have ourselves in complete control, so to speak, when we think mathematically. And, dear friends, the condition of consciousness present in mathematical thinking is in fact what a person strives for who strives for what I call imaginative knowledge.”

How does a Waldorf school not only prepare students to use mathematics in life, but also develop the kind of mathematical thinking that Steiner describes? Like all the subjects in a Waldorf school, math is introduced artistically and in a developmentally appropriate way. In the earliest years, teachers work with the mathematical knowledge that is alive in the physical body and movement of the young child through rhythmic clapping, games, and other activities. In the early childhood classrooms, children view geometric patterns in natural objects, to be encountered again in the study of geometry in the older grades. As arithmetic is introduced, children experience qualities of numbers that relate to human experience (one person, two hands, four limbs, five fingers…). Operations are often taught through imaginative pictures and stories. Thus, mathematics is taught by engaging both the will and the feeling life of the young child.

As the capacity for conceptual thinking and analysis unfolds in the upper grades, the students are ready for the more abstract work involved in mathematical rules, formulas, and algebra. Still, Waldorf schools emphasize geometry in these grades more than do many other schools; Steiner urged that teachers, wherever possible, “have students picture geometric forms in movement”—thereby helping develop the clear, exact imaginative thinking that is the hallmark of Waldorf students. Teachers aim to ensure a solid foundation in math facts and skills, as well as foster the sense of wonder, beauty, and joy in discovery that every math student deserves. Cape Ann Waldorf School graduates are well prepared to enter high school math courses, in Algebra I, Geometry, or Algebra II, often at the honors level.