What is Waldorf Education? Is it a Good Idea in a Homeschool?
Have you ever thought of setting up a Waldorf homeschool? This type of education has grown significantly in popularity of late. Perhaps this is because it has become more popular among preschools and primary schools in different areas. Hence, more home educators are considering incorporating elements of Steiner education in their homeschools. But, if you have a Christian family, is it a good option for you?
In this article, we’ll be looking at the following topics:
- What a Waldorf Education Looks Like in School?
- Early Childhood Education: What a Waldorf Homeschool might look like in early years
- Elementary Education: What it might look like in elementary years
- Secondary Education: What it might look like in High School Years
- Rudolf Steiner and Christianity
- Is Waldorf homeschooling a good choice for a Christian family?
Let’s get started and dive in!
What a Waldorf Education Looks Like in School?
Back in the early 20th century, Rudolf Steiner founded a pedagogy that was rooted in his spiritual beliefs (anthroposophy) about the world around him. This belief pervades his educational theory and gives it distinction like no other.
Steiner, like Piaget, also divided child development into three stages, lasting around seven years. Each stage employs appropriate learning strategies to suit the child where he or she is at developmentally.
The aim of Waldorf education is to create free, creative, independent, and morally responsible individuals. Steiner wanted a school which acknowledged and encouraged ‘spirituality’ without giving allegiance to any particular religion (except perhaps his brand of what seems like a religion, anthroposophy). This aim is acknowledged by WaldorfHomeschoolers.com in the following statement:
‘Anthroposophy Inspires Waldorf School and Waldorf Homeschool: The inspiration for Waldorf Education arises from a worldview or philosophy called Anthroposophy. This broad body of research, knowledge, and experience holds a spiritual view of human nature and development. It sees the human being as more than a culturally conditioned, genetically determined, biological organism. Instead, Anthroposophy maintains that each individual human being has a spiritual core, or “I,” and that this I is in a continuous process of becoming, of evolving in freedom through spiritual activity toward ever greater self-knowledge. With the gradual awakening of the I, a corresponding awareness of the spiritual wisdom within the created universe arises in the soul.”
Steiner’s unusual philosophy is very different from that adopted by public and Christian schools and has led to a distinctive flavor among its schools which is clearly seen when one adopts the curriculum.
Early Childhood Education: What a Waldorf Homeschool might look like in early years
The purpose of early childhood education in a Steiner school is to instill into children the idea that the world is good. Steiner Education Australia talked about early childhood education saying:
The early childhood years (K- age 7) are characterised by children actively learning through imitation and their own creative experience. The child‘s imagination and sense of wonder is fostered, through stories, songs, creative play, interaction with nature and involvement in everyday human activity. A Steiner early childhood centre is a warm, nurturing environment filled with beautiful, natural play materials and outdoor spaces with animals and gardens to care for. The young child learns through play and structured activities to cook, paint, garden, sew, use tools, share and problem solve.
Early childhood education includes kindergarten to age 6/7. In the early stages the school focuses on:
- Music and singing
- Imaginative play
- Natural materials
- Learning by example
- Artistic work like drawing, painting, and modeling
- Practical tasks like cleaning, cooking, and gardening
Steiner schools discourage screen time on iPads, laptops, phones, etc, believing technology:
- Stifles a child’s ability to learn in their formative years
- Encourages sedentary living and
- Often has content which hampers children’s imagination.
Waldorf educators recognize the detrimental effects of too much screen-time for children; hence, education in a primary Waldorf establishment is refreshingly free of iPads, computers and other screen devices.
Elementary Education: What a Waldorf Homeschool might look like
Elementary education, which begins around the age of seven, focuses on a child’s emotions and imagination. Teachers in this stage try to instill a belief into children that the world is beautiful, without relying on textbooks.
Rudolf Steiner also thought to force children into formal education too early adversely affects their development. Therefore, Waldorf schools like to wait until students are ready to start formal education. Consequently, these educators let the child decide when they should start learning, instead of pushing them before they’re mentally prepared.
Something I love about Steiner schools is that they really seek to promote a higher level of interest in Waldorf curriculum material by presenting them in a visually appealing manner.
In the Elementary years, teachers focus on many similar subjects to mainstream schools with a few unusual additions such as:
- Language arts,
- Astronomy and
Schools usually focus on a specific theme for a month, and orient many of their lessons around that in different subject contexts. This theme is called the Main Lesson, which is similar to having a monthly theme:
The Main Lesson is a unique feature of Waldorf education, aimed to deepen, enrich and unify the learning experience. It is a unit of work on a particular theme/subject and is studied each day for 3-4 weeks. Teachers develop a wide range of artistically and academically integrated and related activities around the central theme. Each Main Lesson relates to the students’ stage of development for that year and is linked to other subjects, building upon prior knowledge, experience and skills in creative ways that engage students in their learning. [Steiner Education Australia]
The start of the school day often begins with an inspirational verse written by Rudolf Steiner himself.
Teachers in Steiner schools are expected to be good role models that children will want to follow. In most Steiner schools, a teacher stays with children for six to eight years, so children get to know their teacher and role model intimately. This creates a family feel in classrooms, a little more like the homeschooling feel than most traditional schools.
Something I also like about Waldorf education is its focus on cooperation over competition. Schools take the focus off competition in early grades and, instead, encourage teamwork. Only in later grades is competitive sport introduced.
Steiner thought each student should be taught according to his or her personality (psychophysical type). Consequently, teachers teach to a student’s personality which they believe will fit (and overlap) into four categories:
- Choleric (risk takers)
- Phlegmatic (calm)
- Melancholic (sensitive/introverted)
- Sanguine (take things lightly)
Teachers are also expected to adapt their own personalities for positive benefits in their classrooms.
Secondary Education: What a Waldorf Homeschool might look like in High School Years
Steiner stated that ‘adolescents have the longing to discover that the world is founded on truth’. Adolescence is the period of transition from childhood to adulthood, characterized by rigorous intellectual development. Students are ready to move into the adult domain where their conceptual capacity and ability for objective evaluation and judgment becomes more refined and sophisticated. The secondary school student is able to debate, question, observe, analyse and form conclusions from his/her own experience.
More artistic subjects (such as music, art, and craft) are still heavily encouraged in secondary years. The curriculum aims to foster analytical thinking, judgment, and ethical ideals to develop higher levels of thinking than was the focus in formative years.
Ian Powell, an Upper School Steiner teacher, talked positively about his students, saying, ‘They’re quite capable of leading, they’re quite capable of taking on responsibility and both those things we nurture, because of the practical way we work with the students.’
Stephen Jones, Principal of King Edward VI Community College talked positively about Waldorf graduates he had the pleasure of teaching once they graduated from their Waldorf schools:
What characterizes Steiner students, as opposed to other students, is that they’re articulate, they’re very comfortable with adults, they’re very confident about coming up to me and talking to me about issues…they bring good skills to their work. They’ve been used to independent working, they’ve been used to doing sustained pieces of work, which is quite a contrast to the students who go through the national curriculum where I think there’s a real tendency that they’re spoon fed.
I’ve also heard positive things about Steiner schools and their ability to produce practical students with responsible characters.
Rudolf Steiner and Christianity
Born into a Christian family, Rudolf Steiner walked away from Christian teaching and instead tried to discern the truth for himself. James Hinds talked about Steiner’s thinking, saying:
[Steiner] was a thoroughly modern man. This is made evident by two personal needs which accompanied his life and work as recurring themes. The first was his need for spiritual autonomy, that is, the need to decide for himself about the truth of reality and not be told by any external authority, be it a book, tradition or institution. His writings and lectures were the results of his own direct spiritual investigations and not any eclectic synthesis of wisdom traditions from ancient or modern sources. Secondly, he needed to understand through thinking the things that presented themselves to him in life. As modern human beings we orient ourselves today primarily through our thinking.
In a nutshell, Rudolf Steiner had some strange beliefs which could influence a Waldorf homeschool considerably. Although Steiner said he believed in Jesus’ physical resurrection, his beliefs were far from orthodox. Rudolf Steiner claimed to be ‘spiritual’ and said he had had an experience in which he said he met Jesus Christ.
[My] experience culminated in my standing in the spiritual presence of the Mystery of Golgotha in a most profound and solemn festival of knowledge. (Rudolf Steiner, Chapters in the Course of my Life, 2006)
Many Christians and secular educators might well feel alarmed at learning about the mind behind this educational theory. These unorthodox views about Christianity (which peeps through in Waldorf education), are elaborated on below:
- Christ unites and inspires all religions. In other religions, Christ isn’t necessarily called Christ, but he’s the same person. This contradicts the biblical understanding of Christ. Luke 12:51 says, ‘Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.’
- To Steiner, Christianity means ‘a search for balance between polarizing extremes and the ability to manifest love in freedom. To Christians, Christianity is about Jesus and God’s saving work through the gospel. To be a Christian is to be a ‘little Christ’(Greek) or ‘follower of Christ’.
- Every religion is valid and true. This contradicts the Bible’s teaching which says people think they’re worshipping God in other religions but they’re really worshipping demons [often in the form of idols] (1 Cor 10:19-20, Deut 32:16-17).
- We need to change outdated Christian practices so they are relevant to our current lifestyles.
- Reincarnation of the soul, after returning to the spiritual world. This is contrary to what Jesus taught, namely that unrepentant sinners go to hell after they die unless they repent and have faith in Christ (this is the good news of the gospel).
- Christ’s second reappearance will not be physical, but only perceivable to spiritual beings in the ‘etheric realm’.
- Ecumenical tendencies. Steiner started a denomination on the request of a pastor called Friedrich Rittelmeyer:
In the 1920s, Steiner was approached by Friedrich Rittelmeyer, a Lutheran pastor with a congregation in Berlin, who asked if it was possible to create a more modern form of Christianity. Soon others joined Rittelmeyer – mostly Protestant pastors and theology students, but including several Roman Catholic priests. Steiner offered counsel on renewing the spiritual potency of the sacraments while emphasizing freedom of thought and a personal relationship to religious life. He envisioned a new synthesis of Catholic and Protestant approaches to religious life, terming this “modern, Johannine Christianity”.
The resulting movement for religious renewal became known as “The Christian Community”. Its work is based on a free relationship to the Christ, without dogma or policies. Its priesthood, which is open to both men and women, is free to preach out of their own spiritual insights and creativity.
Steiner emphasized that the resulting movement for the renewal of Christianity was a personal gesture of help to a movement founded by Rittelmeyer and others independently of his anthroposophical work. The distinction was important to Steiner because he sought with Anthroposophy to create a scientific, not faith-based, spirituality. He recognized that for those who wished to find more traditional forms, however, a renewal of the traditional religions was also a vital need of the times. [Source]
- All people have had clairvoyant tendencies, some of which we have grown out of.
The latter point is interesting in that Steiner seemed to wander into occult pathways to the point where he wrote a book called An Outline of Occult Science. The Bible tells Christians to avoid anything to do with the occult world (Deut 18:9–12)
Is a Waldorf homeschool a good choice for a Christian family?
Rudolf’s education theory has some great elements in it, such as its advocacy for hands-on, creative play. Furthermore, it seems Steiner students are well-behaved and in-touch with the world.
However, Waldorf education is rooted in some unusual ideas, many of which stem from anthroposophy, a strange religious philosophy advocated by Steiner. This can, in part, be seen in the purpose of a Waldorf education:
- In early childhood years is to teach children the world is good.
- In elementary years is to teach children the world is beautiful.
- In secondary years is to teach children the world is true.
As such, it’s clear Christians should avoid adopting the religious philosophy of this education. However, the methods are fascinating and deserve to be looked at more closely by aspiring home educators.
Waldorf education has many things to recommend it from its focus on interest-based-learning to its desire to wait for children to tell educators when they’re ready for formal education. Some religious elements behind the theory are alarming from a secular and Christian perspective, but it seems we can effectively take the good parts of this educational theory and leave the rest alone.