Waldorf preschools and Kindergartens are known and loved for their wholesome approach to early childhood education, but how is the Waldorf approach beneficial in the upper grades?
As parents, we know that older children need rich intellectual challenges, the ability to solve problems creatively, and strong social skills. Do they learn these at Waldorf schools? If so, how?
We spoke with Lisa Hitch, an award-winning Sunrise Waldorf School (SWS) teacher, to help us define how Waldorf education at SWS supports students in Classes 4-8 and beyond. We discussed six key benefits.
1. Deep Understanding of Subject Matter
“So many subjects that we learn about in the upper years reflect on concepts learned in previous grades, like layers of an onion. I think this is quite different from public school,” said Ms. Hitch. This layering helps students gain an in-depth awareness of the subjects, concepts, and skills they study.
For example, in Waldorf schools, students typically learn ancient history in Class 5, beginning with ancient India and Persia, then on to ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. To many parents, this may seem odd or old-fashioned. Why are we teaching our modern children about ancient Rome?
However, the foundation that is built in Class 5 supports a rich understanding of modern history when, in Class 8, students study the biographies of modern change-makers and can begin to get a glimpse of the universal struggles existing in humanity. Ms. Hitch explained that the layered curriculum helps students reflect while tackling conversations about discrimination, racism, privilege, and biases.
2. Ability to Apply Knowledge Across Disciplines
In Waldorf schools, students explore subjects in a variety of disciplines, giving them the ability to use knowledge they have gained in new contexts.
Ms. Hitch explained, for example, how students learn about geometry in a math lesson, then use a compass to make designs with precise circles in art class. As a result, students learn to apply knowledge in various settings.
A wonderful example of this is an anecdote Ms. Hitch shared from a field trip she took with Jasmine Rose Oberste (who is leading some exciting gardening projects at SWS), and the current 7th and 8th classes.
She said, “Jasmine overheard a student – they were marking the edges of a new garden, and they said, ‘Oh, you know, we’ll just do the 3, 4, 5 measurement.’” Jasmine hadn’t heard of this principle, and asked the students to explain. (The 3, 4, 5 triangle is a quick and accurate way to make a 90-degree angle, and is often taught in Class Five Geometry/History).
According to Ms. Hitch, Jasmine was impressed by the students’ casual use of this mathematical principle in their gardening work. For the students, however, using math while gardening was part of a normal school day.
3. Problem-Solving Abilities
Experiential learning engages students, and actively encourages problem-solving.
“I would say there’s such an effort in Waldorf education to really enliven all topics. They have to be relevant to the students, they have to make sense to them, and so that weaves into the methodology we use, which is really experiential,” said Ms. Hitch.
One example is the Waldorf approach to science, called the Phenomenological Approach. According to an article called “What is Phenomenology?” by Michael D’Aleo, “In a phenomenological approach, one strives to give the students an experience of the phenomena and then have them wrestle with finding relationships or order.”
Ms. Hitch explained that students will first conduct an experiment, and then review it the next day to mull over the processes at play. She said, “Everybody is able to take part in it, to value curiosity, or wonder, or just the amazingness of the world.”
Michael D’Aleo also points out that when using the phenomenological approach, “thinking becomes an activity, a verb, something that is dynamic and living.” This hones a student’s ability to grapple with problems, and actively work to find solutions.
4. Social Skills
Ms. Hitch also pointed out that the long-term relationships built in Waldorf schools provide rich opportunities for learning the skills necessary to maintain relationships over time.
She said, “It’s so important that there is a good sense of safety at school.” When students feel safe, they can take emotional risks with one another, and with some coaching, work out problems when they arise. “By Grade Eight, many students have been together for years, and in their maturing, they become very capable in their social skills and problem solving,” she explained.
Social skills, including empathy, are taught at SWS through practices like Council.
5. Diverse Skill-Sets
In Waldorf schools, children are exposed to a number of specialty subjects, including gardening, woodworking, handwork, music, art, and drama.
Ms. Hitch explained how learning through the arts provides the students with valuable skills. She noted, for example, that SWS graduates are often very skilled at public speaking. Many classes perform a play every year. As a result, when they present their Class 8 projects, they do so with confidence and poise.
In the book Waldorf Education, A Family Guide,1 James Shipman, a high school principal, noted how well-rounded the Waldorf students coming into his high school were. He said, “Waldorf students are not simply bookworms, however. In fact one could find Waldorf kids completely involved in the theater, the arts, music and sports… What I see here is an integration of the faculties – mental, emotional, physical and spiritual.”
6. Digital Literacy
At SWS, Classes 6-8 are actively taught about social media and the digital world in a class called Cyber Civics. Ms. Hitch was instrumental in bringing this program to the school.
Cyber Civics helps students branch out into the world of computers and social media consciously. It teaches them about the pitfalls, gives them the ability to reflect on how the digital world influences them, and helps them make good choices online.
Ms. Hitch pointed out, “The digital age is here with us, [students] really need guidance, and they really appreciate it.”
While the benefits of Waldorf education in the upper grades can be more difficult to define, there is no doubt they are significant. As James Shipman wrote,1
“Waldorf students to me are interesting people. They can converse intelligently on almost any issue, because they have been taught to examine. They can be enormously sympathetic to almost anyone’s plight because they have been taught to tolerate. They can gracefully dance or score a goal because they have been taught to move. They can circulate among the various groups on campus and engage in a variety of activities because they have been taught to harmonize. We use the word ‘holistic’ or ‘whole person’ to describe the kind of person I have outlined above.”
1. Johnson Fenner P, Rivers KL eds. Waldorf Education: A Family Guide. Amesbury, MA: Michaelmas Press; 1995.