What is Waldorf?

Several people have contacted me recently, in private, expressing their concern that a number of individuals are setting themselves up as “Waldorf consultants” or sellers of Waldorf curriculum and that the relationship of these people to Waldorf is unclear. How to know what Waldorf really is?
This is a tricky question. As I say repeatedly in several of my books, Waldorf education is something which has been developed for a school situation. So as soon as one goes beyond the confines of a school and out into the wonderfully nebulous (and rightly so) world of homeschooling, then it can be very complicated indeed!
Back to the school situation, even there it can be far from clear. A good case in point is the high school where I work part time. It has a definite relationship to Waldorf education – we use a main lesson form, we teach Parzival and other classic Waldorf high school main lessons and there are real efforts to integrate a head, heart and hands approach.
But for me, none of those things in themselves make for a Waldorf school. We could even take the schedule, reading list and whatever else straight from a Waldorf high school like the one in Austin, Texas or Chicago, Illinois and it still wouldn’t – in my book – be a Waldorf school.
For me, what makes a Waldorf school is the living intention of the faculty to work out of anthroposophy and to actively engage with what lies behind the forms, ie, with the pedagogy. Just to lighten that slightly, I should hasten to add that not all of the faculty would need to meet this requirement – but that there would be a College of Teachers who is trusted with the spiritual path of the school itself as an entity and that they work earnestly and deeply with the anthroposophy that informs their pedagogical decisions. Which could even mean that Parzival is not taught, that there are no main lessons – and so on.  It might very well be that the forms a faculty comes up with bear very little relationship to what has been done before. And that’s exciting! (As I sidenote, I should also mention that AWSNA – the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America – has trademarked the title “Waldorf”. Only schools and in-home childcare that have a relationship with them are allowed to use this label. This is because Waldorf is something – it has an identity, an integrity of its own. It is not whatever anyone wants to make of it!)
And how much more important would this spirit of creativity and of truly penetrating a child’s needs be to a homeschooler! Who knows what each of us comes up with – and as homeschoolers we must be free to do whatever we think is best for our family. This of course means that much of what we do will not be at all like what is done in a Waldorf school (see my blog entry But is it Waldorf? ) – and that’s great. And we can call ourselves Waldorf or Sort of Waldorf or Quasi Waldorf or Nothing At All. Whose business is it anyway?!
Certainly not mine! And many things I’ve done and many things I’ve advised people who consult with me and many things I suggest in my books might seem to be very far removed from Waldorf! But what I think I can, in truth, say, is that it arises out of who I am in terms of my life expereice with children and with Waldorf education. And, as part of that, with my studies as an anthroposophist.
To return to people who wish to sell their services labeled Waldorf, I  would need to ask : Why? What makes it Waldorf? And I would need to look carefully for indications that the person’s work arises from an understanding of what lies beneath the curriculum and the particular orientation toward children.   I would also want to know about this person’s experience with children other than her own. Has she led Waldorf toddler groups or taught in a Waldorf classroom? Does she run Waldorf educational programs? How does she know what might be good for a child other than her own? And how is this knowledge based in a Waldorf perspective? What is this person’s life history? What is her relationship to Waldorf education – does it go beyond reading and into practical everyday application, not just in her own home but  in other situations? And has she truly penetrated not just Waldorf, but what underlies it? Thus, I would need to look for a relationship to anthroposophy.
Otherwise we are left with materials that might, for instance,  value unstructured play and no early academics – but that in itself does not mean it would be Waldorf. There are plenty of people from all sorts of educational backgrounds who might advocate many things in common with Waldorf – but that doesn’t make them Waldorf!
And this might be just fine! I certainly have been influenced by some amazing people who have never heard of Waldorf (or think it’s a salad) but who, out of their own integrity and deep experience with children have taught me many profound lessons. Or, on a simpler level, I have certainly happily purchased curriculum materials that were in no way Waldorf – but were inspiring or beautiful or fun or whatever! This is not about purity!
What it is about is clarity. I do not set myself up as a judge of what people do or don’t do in their homeschools. But as a consultant I hear the refrain “I wish I had known before” so many times!  They say this often in regard to materials they have purchased or advice they were given. And so I put this blog entry out not to take a Holier Than Thou perspective but to share my thoughts with people on this subject so that they are better informed. And that is my business.

Posted on August 6, 2006 in Waldorf Curriculum

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