The Waldorf View on Teaching

(this is a response I gave to a question on my yahoo group Waldorf_At_Home)
I think a question could be asked "how does the child know to ask what she wants? How does she know what she wants?" This is subtle at times – other times it is obvious.
A key core of Waldorf – of anthroposophy – is the idea of development – on all levels, spiritual, physical, emotional, intellectual. If one is developing and changing, how can one know at the beginning what one needs to know? Children are not, in my opinion, like Athena, fully formed, springing  from their father’s heads, goddesses of wisdom, knowing all there is to know. They are new here and their job is to learn. And our job, as parents and educators, is to teach, guide, suggest, show, withhold, create, inspire, lead and hold back – as appropriate.
"As appropriate" – that’s the trick. How to read the child so one can interpret what is going on, can meet the needs that are being displayed – or not. Or are behind what a child might be articulating.
I am reminded of the story of Parzival, the mediaeval grail hero. This story is taught to 11th graders in Waldorf schools. The central dilemma of Parzival is that he does not know what question to ask – and he bumbles about making a mess of things until he figures out how to delve inside and know what to ask – not, mind you, what he needs to KNOW – but what he needs to ASK. Part of growing up, part of what one needs as one moves toward adulthood is the ability to start to know what one needs to know. The next long part of the journey is finding that knowledge.
John Dewey and John Holt and Waldorf do not fit together (or Montessori, either). This does not, of course, mean that one can’t learn an enormous amount from these educators. But at essence, they come from very different views on what a child is and how she or he learns. I don’t have much time for either Dewey or Montessori myself – but I do love  John Holt’s work – I find much of what he says very inspiring – I also find much of it exasperating!
One key difference here is that though all these other educators of course also recognize distinct stages of child development, for them what this means is very different than what it means to a Waldorf person.  One could (somewhat crudely) summarize Dewey, Holt and Montessori as saying
they have an "apprentice" view of childhood. Children are younger, less experienced – but in essence not much different than adults. Therefore, it is simply a question of creating the optimal environment, opportunities for learning. Children should be allowed to lead in their educations as, through the act of learning, they will learn what they need to know.
Quite different from this is  an anthroposophical or Waldorf  point of view, the key element being that little children have a totally different consciousness than adults – even than older children. It is not simply a matter of being less experienced. It is about the little child having a totally different perception of life – and in part, this has to do with the strong spiritual connection little children have – their sense of oneness – the natural religious state of the little child that Steiner refers to. So for a Waldorf person, it is not just that children have less experience – it is that their experience of life is different from an adult’s – and part of an adult’s job is to guide them toward their next stage of life, as their development naturally unfolds. And some of that guidance definitely involves teaching.
And last, I should just say that no Waldorf person worth his salt – and certainly not Steiner – ever tried to say "what is right for every child". However,  Waldorf education is not just about acquiring skills, such as reading – it is about the growth and development of all parts of the child, of the human being. And – from an anthroposophical point of view – all human beings carry within themselves a discernible pattern of growth – and it is to this the education speaks. You might be interested in my "Waldorf Curriculum Overview for Homeschoolers" – in it I give an in-depth picture of the curriculum, from 1st through 8th grades and WHY things are taught in the way they are taught and when. Then I give lots of ideas on how homeschoolers might work with that at home – and part of that definitely includes the recognition that skills (like math) are acquired at widely differing ages, as you have experienced in your family.

Posted on January 14, 2006 in General Homeschooling, Waldorf Curriculum

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