From an educational perspective in the western world, children are considered to be “little adults.” They are expected to perform with intellectual prowess at younger and younger ages. Time for creative play, engagement in the arts, and individual discovery is being whittled away with each passing year due to lack of insight into the depths of human nature. Standardized testing plays a major role as well in the shaving away of creative variety in our classrooms.
The result is a pressing need to counter these modern materialistic tendencies that end up molding our thinking into habitual patterns. Today’s steadily increasing interest in Waldorf Education and the proliferation of Waldorf Schools across continents during the last century are affirmation that parents and teachers alike are being called to play a more active role in reforming and refueling the current model of our educational system -- a system that is no longer adequate. A safe haven for children coming from a world that no longer respects the innocence of childhood is readily recognizable in the classrooms of Waldorf schools.
Arising out of the ashes of World War I and responding to the pressing need for soul-spiritual nourishment, the first Waldorf School came into being in Germany in 1919. Rudolf Steiner, the founding father of Waldorf Education, felt that any attempt to reform education would need to spring from fresh insights into the hidden nature of the human being alongside a deeper penetration into life itself. Inherent in the design of the Waldorf curriculum is a path of learning most remarkable for its age-appropriate indications on the practical level, while at the same time astounding us with its ever-present affinity for majestic beauty and scientific exactitude.
Steiner’s indications regarding our capacities for learning reveal a hidden progression of lawfully unfolding forces that run precisely parallel to the milestone markers of a growing child, more specifically the seven year cycles between birth, the change of teeth, and puberty. Waldorf Education acknowledges that these forces in the human inner life require proper Space and Time to develop with rhythmic certitude. A child’s mastery over the functions for sensory input, spatial orientation, motor and nerve impulses, and a basic sense for well-being establishes the necessary foundation upon which the rudiments of academic learning come into play around the age of seven.
Learning happens mostly through imitation in the early years. After the change of teeth, the Self begins to experience itself as separate from the World. At this crucial moment, the power of imagination -- which here means the ability to form, dissolve, and recall mental pictures through narrative descriptions -- surges to the forefront as the most accessible channel for stimulating the creative learning process. It is not until the teen years that these forces change the quality of their character again and re-emerge as the ability to think in abstract concepts.
By the end of thirteen plus years, having been steeped in the study of a broad spectrum of subjects, the Waldorf graduate has blossomed into a self-motivated, creative and curious thinker who can reconfigure seemingly disparate parts into a tantalizing new world of limitless possibilities. Because the students are engaged in such a breadth and depth of sciences, mathematics, history, literature, foreign languages, a wide array of fine arts and performing arts, physical skills and more, their level of self-knowledge and self-confidence leads to a future with few boundaries and well-suited to their personal propensities.
Regarding the legacy that Rudolf Steiner handed down to the teachers in a Waldorf school, perhaps the words of Robert Trostli, a gifted Waldorf teacher, lecturer, and author, describe it most eloquently:
… a picture of the developing human being, a curriculum that addresses the stages of development, and a way of teaching that engages the whole human being. In all of his books, conferences, and conversations concerning the renewal of education, Steiner exhorted teachers to reinvent the art of pedagogy and to make it their own. He challenged them to do their own research and to develop their own approach. He knew that Waldorf education would stagnate unless teachers become artists in education. He knew that teachers would need to continue to grow and change through their pedagogical practice. He knew that Waldorf education would not meet the needs of students unless the teachers are willing to commit themselves to inner development.