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What is a Waldorf Education? by Vicki Larson

With more than 900 independent Waldorf schools in 83 countries, Waldorf Education is the fastest-growing independent educational movement in the world. In North America, Waldorf education has been available since 1928, and there are now over 250 schools and 14 teacher-training centers in some level of development. Waldorf Education is gaining attention in popular media, as evidenced by a 2011 article in The New York Times about a Waldorf School in California. But what is Waldorf Education and how is it similar to, or different from, other independent schools?

Some of what used to be unique to Waldorf schools is now cutting-edge pedagogy in public and independent schools: block-style learning, teacher looping, multi-disciplinary instruction (and its impact on neurological development), character education, a recognition of the importance of play and movement throughout the day (and throughout life) and teaching that engages different learning styles.

The essence of Waldorf education is this—it is founded on the understanding that every child goes through three distinct phases of development. The first phase is infancy and early childhood (ages 0-7) where teachers facilitate self-initiated exploration and learning through play. The second phase is middle childhood (ages 7-14) where the vivid imaginative nature of the child is engaged. The third phase is adolescence (ages 14-21) where students delve into a curriculum that answers a different life question each year. Each of these stages requires a different approach and Waldorf schools strive to meet our students deeply, where they are in their development.

Another unique feature of the Waldorf School is the media policy. While imagined and implemented along a continuum in different parts of the world, all Waldorf schools recognize the importance of introducing electronic and other media in a developmentally appropriate way. As with all subjects, the goal is to ground students in physical reality and enable them to understand phenomena (systems organization) before learning about specific technology (hardware and software).

“Head, heart, and hands” has been a common motto among Waldorf schools, because we seek to educate not just the intellect but also the feelings and the will of our students, in order to develop human beings who are well-rounded, critical thinkers who can impart purpose and direction to their lives. “Education Toward Freedom” is another common Waldorf motto. Part of what we mean by freedom is that our goal is to graduate students who have all the skills they need to choose any career or life path that calls to them. They are not bound by limitations, but rather can be open to the possibility of serving the world in any capacity they choose.

Over 94% of Waldorf graduates nationwide attend college, with 88% completing their degree. Waldorf graduates are three times as likely to study social and behavioral sciences, and twice as likely to study science and math as the general US population. Waldorf graduates go on to careers in such varied fields as business, education, information technology, law, medicine, politics, science, social services and the arts. Well-known graduates of Waldorf schools include Jennifer Aniston (actor), Matthaus Atkinson (project engineer, NASA), Kenneth Chenault (CEO and Chairman of American Express), Julianna Margulies (actor), Ferdinand Alexander Porsche (automotive engineer and designer for Porsche), Charles Rose (award-winning architect), Aram Roston (CNN correspondent), and Jens Stoltenberg (Prime Minister of Norway).

Vicki Larson is a Waldorf parent and works as Director of Communications and Marketing at Green Meadow Waldorf School in Chestnut Ridge. She attended an independent school near New Haven, CT from Kindergarten through 8th grade. She can be reached at 356-2514 x 311 or vlarson@gmws.org.

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