How They Try to Do It


The Pernicious Role of Imitation

by Grégoire Perra



"[T]each the children respect. The children should not raise their hands so much."

— Rudolf Steiner, 

FACULTY MEETINGS WITH RUDOLF STEINER (Anthroposophic Press, 1998), p. 65.

Might the methods used in Waldorf schools actually work? 

Sure. Possibly. Sometimes.

But any such successes would be largely accidental and would have nothing to do with the occult purposes that Rudolf Steiner pronounced and that his followers pursue.

I’ve had the disconcerting experience of discussing Waldorf education with a few of my old schoolmates who took a very different path in life than I’ve taken: They became Waldorf teachers. Sometimes these friends have insisted to me that Steiner really saw to the core of various educational issues. Sometimes they have told me that when they took Waldorf teacher training, they focused on Steiner’s pearls of wisdom while tuning out all the occult stuff.

The problem I see in these comments is that the occult stuff is the very essence of Steiner’s educational doctrines. Waldorf schools are not really meant to educate children — they have mystical goals, such as nudging the kids toward clairvoyance, helping them to incarnate their invisible bodies, assisting them with their karmas, preparing them for future spiritual evolution, and the like. All Waldorf “educational” methods aim at these goals, which are elements of the schools' overall purpose of spreading Anthroposophy, Steiner’s new-age religion. As for the Three R’s — these are far, far down on the list of Waldorf priorities.


Context for Methods

We should begin by sketching the context of Waldorf teaching, the vision enunciated by the founder of Waldorf education. We will then consider some of the specific approaches Waldorf teachers adopt as they seek to work within this vision. (To go straight to the specific approaches, scroll down to "PARTICULARS", below.)

"We [Waldorf teachers] want to be aware that physical existence is a continuation of the spiritual, and that what we have to do in education is a continuation of what higher beings [the gods] have done without our assistance. Our form of educating can have the correct attitude only when we are aware that our work with young people is a continuation of what higher beings have done before birth." — Rudolf Steiner, THE FOUNDATIONS OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE (Anthroposophic Press, 1996), p. 37.

“From birth to the seventh year it is really only the physical body that parents and educators have to consider. At birth the physical body is released into its environment ... [O]nly then can the child receive impressions from other beings in the physical world. But the child's etheric and astral bodies [invisible spiritual "bodies"] are still not open to the external world; up to the seventh year, indeed, the external world cannot influence them, for they are inwardly absorbed in building up the physical body. At about the seventh year the etheric body begins to be free to receive impressions from outside, and it can then be influenced. But from the seventh to the fourteenth year no attempt should be made to influence the astral body, or its inward activity will be disturbed. During the first seven years it is best to leave the etheric and astral bodies quite unmolested and to rely on everything happening of its own accord.” — Rudolf Steiner, AT THE GATES OF SPIRITUAL SCIENCE (Rudolf Steiner Publishing Co., 1986), lecture 6, GA 95.

“From the seventh to the fourteenth, fifteenth or sixteenth year — that is, until puberty — the etheric body goes through a liberation, just as the physical body is thrown open to its environment at birth. During this period, then, we [parents and educators] must direct our efforts to the etheric body, the vehicle of memory, of lasting habits, of temperament and inclinations and enduring desires. Accordingly, when the etheric body is set free we must take every care to develop these features; we must influence a child's habits, his memory, everything which will give his character a firm foundation.” — Ibid.

“The child's educator should experience within himself what it is to have the whole etheric organism [i.e., the “etheric body”] within the physical. This gives him knowledge of the child. With abstract principles alone one can do nothing. Educational practice requires an anthroposophical art of education to work out in detail how the human being reveals himself as a child.” — Rudolf Steiner, “A Lecture on Pedagogy” (ANTHROPOSOPHICAL QUARTERLY, 1927), GA 36.

“You [teachers] will...proceed to educate him [the student] morally and ethically, doing it as effectively as you can, and with the utmost inner vitality  — never in a dull or heavy manner! Working thus with inner vitality, you will...actually intervene in the child's karma, you will be working right into his karma.” — Rudolf Steiner, CURATIVE EDUCATION (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1972), lecture 3, GA 317.

"In reality, Karma works in such a way that a faint fulfillment of its laws already comes to expression in one and the same incarnation, though the decisive influence upon man's character only appears in the next incarnation. Helplessness and lack of independence will arise in old age, when envy appeared during youth. This is a faint nuance of the influence of Karma; it remains after death, works throughout kamaloka [in effect, purgatory], etc., and it will be contained in the forces which build up the next life." — Rudolf Steiner, "Morality and Karma" (ANTHROPOSOPHIC NEWS SHEET 41/42, 1944), no assigned GA number.

"[W]e [Waldorf teachers] should neglect no single opportunity of quickening the inner life of soul and spirit." — Rudolf Steiner, DEEPER INSIGHTS INTO EDUCATION (Anthroposophic Press, 1983), p. 17. 

To do this, Waldorf teachers need to develop "the Waldorf teacher’s consciousness," which is "hardly present anywhere else in the world." — Ibid., p. 21. This unique consciousness will restore "what humanity has lost in the last three or four centuries." — Ibid., p. 21. What has been lost? As Steiner often explained, modern humankind has lost the old, intuitive clairvoyance.

"The goal of all our educational thinking must be to transform thinking so as to rise fruitfully from the level of physical thinking to spiritual thinking." — Rudolf Steiner, DEEPER INSIGHTS INTO EDUCATION, p. 29. "Spiritual thinking" is clairvoyance.

"Only those who have developed spiritual faculties in a fairly high degree can themselves discover a spiritual truth in the higher worlds. Clairvoyance is the necessary pre-requisite for the discovery of a spiritual truth...." — Rudolf Steiner, THEOSOPHY OF THE ROSICRUCIAN (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1966), lecture 1, GA 99.

"As teachers in the Waldorf School, you will need to find your way more deeply into the insight of the spirit and to find a way of putting all compromises aside ... As Waldorf teachers, we must be true anthroposophists in the deepest sense of the word in our innermost feeling." — Rudolf Steiner, FACULTY MEETINGS WITH RUDOLF STEINER (Anthroposophic Press, 1998), p. 118.

"When we teach, in a certain sense we take up again the activities we experienced before birth. We must see that thinking is a pictorial activity which is based on the activities we experienced before birth." — Rudolf Steiner, THE FOUNDATIONS OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE, p. 62. The “pictures” are formed through imagination, intuition, inspiration: clairvoyance.

"Although it is necessary, especially today, for people to be completely awake later in life, it is equally necessary to let children live in their gentle dreamy experiences as long as possible, so that they move slowly into life. They need to remain as long as possible in their imaginations and pictorial capacities without intellectuality." — Rudolf Steiner, A MODERN ART OF EDUCATION (Anthroposophic Press, 2004), pp. 103-104.

"The Waldorf school must succeed; much depends on its success. Its success will bring a kind of proof of many things in the spiritual evolution of humankind that we must represent.

“...Let us especially keep before us the thought, which will truly fill our hearts and minds, that connected with the present-day spiritual movement are also the spiritual powers that guide the cosmos. When we believe in these good spiritual powers they will inspire our lives and we will truly be able to teach." — Rudolf Steiner, PRACTICAL ADVICE TO TEACHERS, Foundations of Waldorf Education (Anthroposophic Press, 2000) p. 189.

“Among the faculty, we must certainly carry within us the knowledge that we are not here for our own sakes, but to carry out the divine cosmic plan. We should always remember that when we do something, we are actually carrying out the intentions of the gods, that we are, in a certain sense, the means by which that streaming down from above will go out into the world.” — Rudolf Steiner, FACULTY MEETINGS WITH RUDOLF STEINER (Anthroposophic Press, 1998), p. 55.








A large German Waldorf school, 

built in a typical Anthroposophical style.

[See Chrisopher Clouder and Martyn Rawson,

WALDORF EDUCATION - Rudolf Steiner's Ideas in Practice

(Floris Books, 1998), p. 126.]








The Methods

Individual Waldorf teachers are usually given great latitude in deciding how to operate in the classroom. Their training often focuses more on spiritual doctrines than on nuts-and-bolts classroom skills. Still, we can sketch an overall description that should hold true in most schools within the Waldorf universe, bearing in mind the variations among Waldorf schools we have discussed previously. [1]

To generalize: Waldorf schools keep academic pressures low. Trying not to push kids too hard, they leave plenty of time for play and creativity, imagination and whimsy. Art and beauty are stressed. [2] Indeed, Waldorf teachers are generally expected to present every subject in an artistic manner. All of this is quite nice, if less than overwhelmingly original. Few educators, after all, think that kids should be pushed to the breaking point, or that schools should be unpleasant and ugly. But the real question about Waldorf methods is whether they work — that is, whether the kids receive a good education.

The demands placed on Waldorf teachers are often great. The teachers are commonly expected to create attractive drawings and designs on the class chalkboard, sometimes creating a new, original piece of art every few days. Likewise, Waldorf teachers are almost always expected to deliver from memory virtually all of the material presented to the students. With few exceptions, the teachers are not to read from texts. Instead, they should deliver oral reports to the children, keeping everything as lively and apparently spontaneous as possible. Even if the material consists of fairy tales or myths that may be long and involved, the teachers tell  these stories rather than reading them. 

Especially when addressing students in the early grades, Waldorf teachers are generally expected to employ a sweetly rhythmic, declamatory tone of voice that can have an hypnotic or inspiring effect on the kids, depending on a teacher's talents and the dispositions of the students. [3] Rudolf Steiner stressed the importance of declamation or what he called "the art of speech," saying that we and the gods create realities through our intentional utterances. Waldorf teachers in higher grades may use a steady, controlled style of declamatory, rhymic speech that emphasizes clarity rather than simple sweetness. Overall, the tone of teachers' delivery in Waldorf classrooms may seem oratorical or (in the manner of classical theater) dramatic.

The musical/spiritual concept of rhythm is important in Waldorf schooling, especially in the lower grades. Because, according to Waldorf belief, all things are deemed to be alive at some level, infused with living spirit, all things are deemed to function rhythmically, as in the beating of the heart or the intake and release of breath. Individual classes are meant to be rhythmical (so that, for instance, solemn moments alternate with lighter moments, in a fixed pattern). Likewise, the school day as a whole is usually meant to have a rhythmic form, as are the week as a whole, the semester as a whole, and the year as a whole. In practice, this becomes largely theoretical (children may not register rhythms that take weeks or months to play out), but nonetheless the teachers aim for this pattern. Thus, the school year is punctuated by seasonal festivals meant to replicate the pattern of the annual, subastral cycle. [4] 

Textbooks are rarely used. The teachers typically write on the chalkboard or simply dictate to the students, who transcribe the teachers' remarks in the "lesson books" (also called "class books") that the students create. In effect, the lesson books become substitutes for textbooks. These albums record the material propounded by the teachers, with perhaps some additional material unearthed by the students. (Whether the students actually learn this material is a different question — Waldorf schools generally deprecate memorization by students.) The illustrations in the books are often the students' copies of illustrations created by the teachers, although again some additional content (original drawings and paintings) may be produced by the students. [5]

The authority of Waldorf teachers is great. [6] Outside authorities and sources are rarely used; almost everything the children are exposed to comes from their teachers, all of whom — in schools that are faithful to Steiner — usually represent a single point of view, the Anthroposophical point of view. The most influential teacher for any group of students is the "class teacher." Ideally, a Waldorf class — that is, a group of children of approximately the same age — forms in kindergarten and then proceeds as a unified group from grade level to grade level, all the way through high school. One teacher, the "class teacher," guides the students for most if not all of this journey. The class teacher delivers all of the most important lessons for the class, in almost all subjects, year after year. In many respects, this teacher rather than the student is the central figure in Waldorf education. ("Subject teachers," who specialize in particular parts of the curriculum, supplement the work of the class teachers. Subject teachers rarely appear before the youngest students, but they assume greater importance in the higher grades.) A class teacher may stay with a class all the way from the beginning to the end of their Waldorf education. But this is rare. More frequently, a class teacher stays with a class to the end of fifth or eighth grade, after which s/he steps aside so a new class teacher can shepherd the students to the end of high school. In any case, the first class teacher, who molds the children during their most impressionable years, typically leaves a permanent imprint on the students.

Waldorf classrooms are often arranged in a standard, old-fashioned manner. There is a chalkboard on the front wall, with the teacher's desk — and perhaps a podium of some kind — positioned nearby. The desk and podium face out into the room, so the teacher and students face each other. Students sit at small desks facing the chalkboard and the teacher. The desks are usually arranged in straight rows and columns. The teacher stands or, sometimes, sits at the front of the room addressing the students; the students sit quietly at their desks, listening. Then, occasionally, the teacher will give the students work to do (making a drawing, say, or copying text from the chalkboard); the teacher may then sit quietly while the students get busy at their desks. Then again, the teacher may have the students stand at their desks to sing a song or recite a poem, usually in unison with the teacher. Only rarely are students given permission to move to other parts of the room to undertake some activity (working at a nature table, for instance).

The Waldorf school day usually begins with a "main lesson" — the longest and most important lesson of the day. [7] The class teacher delivers this lesson, in whatever subject has been selected for a particular portion of the year. Thus, the same teacher may teach the kids math, history, geography, English — any and all subjects, in rotation. The main lesson may last as long as two hours. Other, shorter lessons later in the day are often coordinated with the main lesson. These shorter lessons are taught by the class teacher or, especially in higher grades, by subject teachers. 

A class teacher may get to know the students in his/her class quite well (within the terms of understanding set out by Anthroposophy), and obviously that teacher may exert great influence over the children. This may or may not be good. The Waldorf system ensures that many subjects will be taught by unqualified instructors, since no class teacher can truly master all subjects at all grade levels. [8] The quality of the knowledge Waldorf teachers acquire about their students may also be questionable, especially when the teachers subscribe to occult Anthroposophical beliefs about etheric and astral bodies, karma, and so forth. Such beliefs can lead Waldorf teachers to employ methods of extremely doubtful value, such as seating students according to their classical "temperaments" (all sanguine students in one part of the room, all melancholics in another, with cholerics in a third area and phlegmatics in a fourth).

Main lessons usually stick with one subject only for a few weeks — three weeks is typical. Thus, for three weeks the students will study history, then for three weeks another subject such as geography, and then for three weeks yet another subject such as literature. This is part of the rhythmic structure of Waldorf schooling. The students may not return to any given subject for many weeks or months. The effect can be that no subject is studied in depth, and much will be forgotten by the time any subject rolls around again. 

Students may be tested from time to time, and grades may be given — but tests and grades are usually minimized as much as possible. Many Waldorf schools do not issue report cards. The premise is that most of what happens in school, the interactions between students and teachers, cannot be reduced to simple alphanumeric grades. When report cards are issued, nonacademic factors may be emphasized (how well students are incarnating, how well they are developing imaginative powers, etc.), which may or may not be made clear to parents. (A student may get high grades because s/he seems to have admirable spiritual qualities, but the teachers may keep this reasoning to themselves.) One result is that parents may have difficulty assessing the academic progress of their children (high grades may not reflect real academic achievement, and low grades may not reflect real academic deficiencies).

Broadly speaking, little emphasis is placed on conveying facts or information to the students, especially in the lower grades. True-believing Waldorf schools tend to discount knowledge of the ordinary world, because Anthroposophists largely reject modern science and scholarship. Young children are thought to have memories of the spirit realm where they existed before Earthly life, so efforts are made to leave the children alone, allowing them to retain their sacred memories. Kids are given lots of free time, with little or no exposure to the 3R's (reading, writing, and 'rithmetic) until at least age seven or eight. Intellect especially is downplayed, since children are thought to be unable to formulate rational concepts until high school at the arliest. Thus, Waldorf students often lag behind students at other schools until well into their high school years. But an effort is then made to bring the students up to speed. [9] Whether these efforts succeed is a point of contention, and undoubtedly the results vary from child to child.

Creativity and imagination are emphasized but also directed and channeled by the teachers. The thinking behind Waldorf schools hinges on belief in clairvoyance. True-believing Waldorf teachers often think they are clairvoyant; among devout Waldorf faculties, clairvoyance is considered the true form of cognition. According to Anthroposophical doctrine, imagination, inspiration, and intuition are considered stages of clairvoyance, so development of these "faculties" is thought to represent progress toward true intelligence. But because ultimate truths are thought to be found in Rudolf Steiner's teachings, imaginative creations that veer from Anthroposophical doctrines are typically discouraged. [10]

As I mentioned earlier, art and beauty are given great importance. Waldorf teachers attempt to present all subjects beautifully, in part because Anthroposophists believe spiritual beings (gods) enter Earthly life through beauty (music, colors...), and art is thought to transport humans into the spirit realm. Waldorf schools are often quite lovely, with many attractive drawings, paintings, sculptures, and other arts/crafts works — created by teachers and by students — on display. As a result, Wadorf education can seem to be "arts-centered," but the reason for all the art is often more theological than aesthetic. [11]

The Waldorf approach can be characterized as slow learning. High-pressure, fast methods are abjured. Teachers rarely present much information in any one lesson, and demands on the students' mental capacities are generally kept low. Teachers lecture, but in an informal manner. Students may take notes, but sometimes they are told to lower their heads onto their desks and just listen. If memorization by students is discouraged, so is brainwork in other, wider senses — especially use of the intellect. Knowledge is thought to be received from the gods on high, generally through quiet, artistic activity or even through passivity. [12]

At true-believing Waldorf schools, students are expected to accept what the teachers say with little or no argument. Questions from the students are usually not welcomed, and they may be answered not with statements of fact but with leading questions — often leading to a mystical interpretation of reality. Discussions are not encouraged, at least until late in high school, and even then teachers may dominate any open forums. Questions, when permitted, should be kept brief, and they should be disposed of quickly. As Steiner said, 

"[W]e need to create a mood, namely, that the teacher has something to say that the children should neither judge nor discuss. That is necessary, otherwise it will become trivial. An actual discussion lowers the content. Things should remain with simply asking questions. The children even in the tenth and eleventh grades should know that they can ask everything and receive an answer. For questions of religion and worldview, we need to maintain that longer. The religion teacher needs to retain a position of authority even after puberty.” [13]

Religious and/or spiritual meaning is implied in all lessons, if only subtly. As Steiner said, 

"It is possible to introduce a religious element into every subject, even into math lessons. Anyone who has some knowledge of Waldorf teaching will know that this statement is true." [14]

Patterns found in mathematics, for instance, may be seen as reflections of divinity. Similarly, the order and structure of nature (but not the chaos ofnatural systems) may be seen as the handiwork of the gods. (Waldorf classrooms often have "nature tables" where natural objects such a pine cones and colorful leaves are displayed. The tables often resemble altars.)

Computers and other technological devices are largely shunned. Anthroposophists believe modern technology exists under the sway of the terrible demon Ahriman. [15] Even television viewing is discouraged as a result. Waldorf teachers will rarely if ever show a TV program or a film in class. Certainly, at genuine Waldorf schools there is little instruction in computer technology, and computer-aided instruction is mainly ruled out. This begins to change somewhat toward the end of high school (indeed, the entire curriculum becomes a bit more conventional at that stage), but the underlying distaste for modern technology remains dominant.

The individuality of the students is, in theory, respected. An effort is made to tailor instruction to each student's capacities and personality. However, as we have seen, this often means categorizing students by "temperament," which undercuts the effort. [16] Because children of one temperament (e.g., all children who are deemed to be phlegmatic) are thought to be significantly different from children who fall into other categories (all children who are deemed to be sanguine, melancholic, or choleric), teachers will — within the limits of their time and capacities — use differing approaches for the different groups. A phlegmatic child may be given certain sorts of math problems, or s/he may be assigned to play certain musical instruments, and so forth, while other children are given different work. Rather than being treated as unique individuals, in other words, the students are seen a members of four distinct subgroups.

The individuality of students is further undervalued by the Waldorf belief that all children of a given age are fundamentally alike. The Waldorf curriculum is keyed to the notion that children evolve through the same stages humanity as a whole has undergone, and thus all children of a particular age stand at a particular level of spiritual/emotional/mental development. Therefore, Waldorf schools typically operate on the premise that there is one and only one right time to present certain materials to the students: All 7-year-old kids should be taught certain materials, all 8-year-olds should be taught different age-appropriate materials, etc. Within this framework, the individual interests of individual children may be largely disregarded.

This brings us back to a major issue. Children's thoughts, like their interests, are often given short shrift. The development of the kids' thinking instruments — their brains — is downplayed or approached only tangentially. Overall, the Waldorf approach is anti-intellectual. Indeed, aknost any rigorous use of the brain, such as abstract cogitation or critical analysis, is considered potentially wayward and wrong (a remarkable premise for any educational system). Steiner taught that the brain is not involved in real thinking or knowledge acquisition.  

“[T]he brain and nerve system have nothing at all to do with actual cognition.... ” [17] 

Therefore, much class time is given over to activities that stimulate the brain only slightly and only from a glancing angle. In the lower grades, children do a lot of handcrafts such as knitting and crochet. Later, math classes in middle and even upper school may entail drawing and coloring elaborate geometric designs, while science classes may be given over to hands-on projects of dubious value, such as piecing together an antique dynamo. Students may learn little or no actual math or science from such activities. Contemporary science is especially downplayed. [18]

These are perhaps the key Waldorf methods; they are used in almost all genuine Waldorf schools. The value of such methods is questionable. There is considerable evidence that Waldorf students learn less than kids in other types of schools, and Waldorf students often emerge unprepared for life outside the Waldorf community. [19]

Bear in mind that the Waldorf approach often breaks down. Only rarely will a class form in kindergarten and then remain together for the next fourteen years with absolutely no students leaving or other students entering. Indeed, this may never have happened. Frequently, as in most other types of schools, students drop out (or are expelled) and new students join the group. Consequently, Steiner's grand design for leading children systematically along an extensive sequence of developmental stages — during which they receive a wide and deep exposure of Anthroposophical preferences, attitudes, and beliefs — often goes unfulfilled. Depending on your point of view, this failure may be desirable. The potentially damaging effects of Waldorf schooling can be greatly decreased when students do not receive the full Waldorf treatment.


Here are some pointers on Waldorf methods as related by Richard Blunt in his book WALDORF EDUCATION - Theory and Practice (Novalis Press, 1995). Note that Blunt, while extremely sympathetic to Waldorf schooling, is not formally associated with Waldorf education or Anthroposophy.

"The teacher's work has to do with the four members of the child's being, the physical body, the Soul Bodies [i.e., the etheric and astral bodies] and the Ego." [p. 109] 

For information about "the Souls Bodies and the Ego", see, e.g., "Incarnation".

"The teacher should shape all his teaching from what he 'reads' in the child's whole being." [p. 109] 

The "reading" often relies on clairvoyance — see "The Waldorf Teacher's Consciousness." Waldorf teachers use their "psychic powers," dreams, and even horoscopes to get to "know" their students. As for a child's "whole being", see "Holistic Education".

"In kindergarten...the teacher must prepare his whole being to be worthy of imitation." [p. 123] 

Waldorf teachers assume that young children want to imitate; the teachers try to be worthy (morally, spiritually, in all ways) of imitation. They hold themselves out as ideal models for the children to follow. (Arguably, the expectations Waldorf teachers create for themselves are as extreme — and perhaps unrealistic — as those they create for their students.)

"Writing should first be introduced through art, which involves the whole being of the child pictorially and through his feeling." [p. 124] 

Waldorf schools usually postpone reading and writing until the students are at least seven years old — by which time the etheric body is thought to have incarnated. Like most other subjects, writing should begin artistically, and pictorial thinking (i.e., imagination) and emotion are given priority over whatever capabilities the children may have for rational thought. Steiner taught that truth comes through imagination and emotion, not use of the brain.

"In the child's first year of school, simple gymnastics should lead over into Eurythmy which, together with singing, playing musical instruments, painting and drawing, promotes the development of the Will...." [p. 130] 

Eurythmy is a spiritual form of dance invented by Rudolf Steiner. [See "Magical Arts" and "Eurythmy".] It is a required activity at most Waldorf schools. Like other arts, it is thought to have spiritual effects, but perhaps to an even greater degree than any other art. As Steiner said, "In having people do eurythmy, we link them directly to the supersensible [i.e., spiritual] world.” [20] This is the objective behind all of the attractive art in Waldorf schools: to draw children into contact with the spirit realm. As for "the will" — this is deemed a capability that must be developed, and young children are thought to live primarily through the will. [See "Will".]

"Arithmetic should be taught in accordance with the inner nature of the child himself." [Blunt, p. 132] 

Waldorf teachers subscribe to an outmoded, false view of temperament: children are either choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic, or melancholic. [See "Temperaments".] Having determined the temperaments of all the children in the class (probably by using "clairvoyance"), a Waldorf teacher may make special assignments for the children in each group. According to Waldorf belief, cholerics have a special affinity for division, sanguines for multiplication, phlegmatics for addition, and melancholics for subtraction.

"Steiner took great pains to make teachers aware that modern abstraction is a powerful and dangerous influence in education so that they would realize the importance of adopting his method of transforming scientific concepts into an imaginative form that children can relate to." [p. 136] 

Science instruction is often weak at Waldorf schools because Waldorf teachers believe that rational, scientific thinking is "dangerous." The Waldorf approach involves using imagination to modify scientific observation — in effect, you project your preferred subjective "reality" onto the phenomena you observe. This is what is often called "Goethean science," and it has little true scientific value. But it is what Waldorf schools promote. [See "Science" and "Goethe".]

"Art must begin from the child's first entry into school, and should include drawing, painting, sculpture, singing and using a musical instrument. The child should develop an artistic sense that enters into everything he does." [p. 145] 

This is surely the most attractive component of the Waldorf approach. Waldorf schools are full of art, and all children are encouraged (indeed, required) to participate in virtually all forms of art. This is arguably commendable. Bear in mind, however, that at Waldorf schools the arts are believed to be spiritual; studying various kinds of art means being led into many forms of contact with the gods and other invisible beings that, according to Waldorf belief, hover around us at all times. As Steiner said, “This is what gives art its essential lustre: it transplants us here and now into the spiritual world.” [21] Bear in mind that Steiner did not say such things metaphorically — he meant them literally. He taught that the gods come down to us through colors and musical notes, for instance. At Waldorf schools, the arts are part of the subjective, imaginative, clairvoyant mindset that alienates students from the real world and the rational use of the brain. [See "Magical Arts" and "Steiner's Specific".] 

Think long and hard before subjecting a child to the Waldorf treatment.












Waldorf student painting, courtesy of

People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools.












Waldorf teachers usually operate independently. Each teacher is expected to find the best ways to reach the students in a particular class. Thus, a teacher may use different methods with different groups, and colleagues may offer little guidance. Indeed, Waldorf teacher training often dwells more on what to believe (Steiner's doctrines) than on how to function in the classroom. In this sense, we might say that there are no Waldorf teaching methods, as such. Rather, there is a Waldorf vision of humanity, and Waldorf education grows from it. The chief unifying principle is that all children are thought to develop according to a basic pattern (there are three seven-year-long periods of development), so teaching must reflect and reinforce this pattern.

Here is how Waldorf teacher Roy Wilkinson puts things in his book COMMON SENSE SCHOOLING (Henry Goulding, 1975):

"[T]here are various ways of teaching. But there is basically only one way of educating, and this lies in a sympathetic understanding of the child." [p. 67]

"Much in the general sense of the 'how' in teaching is self-evident. There is the basic human relationship. The child must feel welcome, cared for and valued." [p. 68]

"A good teacher will know how to shape his lesson to appeal to all elements in his class." [p. 68]

"There can be no set rules in education. It arises out of the living interplay between teacher and taught." [p. 69]

"There is, of course, no one way, but thousands. The inventive teacher will always find a new one." [p. 69]

"The young child is imitative, and this suggests the obvious way to teach him ... [T]he path lies through example. Up to the age of six there can be little or no question of formal teaching." [p. 70]

"[F]rom the age of seven to fourteen the child experiences the world through his sympathies and antipathies and makes pictures in the mind ... Appeal, therefore, must be made during this period to the imagination and the feeling life ... This calls for a basically artistic approach to all subjects and the teacher himself must become an artist." [p. 71]

"This type of teaching presupposes that the teacher is able to cultivate an imaginative faculty within himself." [p. 71]

"The artist-teacher must also have the faculty of transforming his material into stories which he can present with the necessary drama or otherwise." [p. 72]

"When children have crossed the Rubicon of the fourteenth year, the teacher can appeal to their reasoning and understanding faculty." [p. 73]  [22]



Each Waldorf teacher operates more or less alone, conducting classes as s/he sees fit. On the other hand, there are numerous Waldorf teachers' guides (pamplets and books offering gudiance for Waldorf teachers), and many Waldorf teachers rely on these heavily. This is almost inevitable, since the Waldorf system requires class teachers to present a wide array of subjects at different class levels. No teacher is truly qualified to do this, so most teachers look around for help. Teachers' guides often serve to fill this need. Unfortunately, this can drain much of the spontaneity and originality from Waldorf classes.

Here are some pertinent comments by Keith Francis in his book THE EDUCATION OF A WALDORF TEACHER (iUniverse, 2004). Francis served on several Waldorf faculties, and he was Faculty Chair at the Rudolf Steiner School in New York City.

“I have attended countless [Waldorf] open houses ... I have seen scores of [student] notebooks, copied and illustrated with enormous care and devotion and riddled with all kinds of errors, placed where parents and visitors are most likely to see them. I can assure you that I am not exaggerating.” [p. 131]

Why does this happen? Waldorf teachers are expected to teach too many subjects with too little preparation. The best they can do, often, is to quickly memorize some material, write it on the board, attach an illustration, and then have the students make copies. If the teachers have limited knowledge of their subjects, these limitations are passed along to the kids in the form of unrecognized errors. This arrangement ensures that children will be misinformed by faculty who are unqualified in many of the subjects they teach. 

“Class teachers have to cover an immense range of topics. A seventh grade teacher, for example, has to teach courses in mathematics, physics, chemistry, physiology, English language and literature, geography and history. Since most people have specialized knowledge of at most one or two of these subjects this means...the teacher is at the mercy of his or her sources ... [I]f you have only a few weeks in which to prepare to teach a block in physiology or medieval history you may well find yourself simply copying what someone has told you or what you read in a few — maybe a very few — books. Very often the time available is considerably less than a few weeks. Having completed sixth grade you are in a state of exhaustion [as you try to get ready for teaching seventh grade] ... That means about one week of preparation for each main lesson block, provided you do not take a vacation.” [pp. 131-132] 

In general, Waldorf teachers rely on teachers' guides written by fellow Waldorf teachers. They copy from other Waldorf teachers and then ask their students to copy from them. In this sense, copying becomes a serious Waldorf problem.

“Copying is the curse of the Waldorf Schools. There is altogether too much of it, and it is not confined to the elementary school. In high school, where there is much less excuse for it, it still goes on. The way in which many [Waldorf] teachers organize their work implies that they consider that the whole object of the course is the creation of a gorgeous notebook. And the way in which some teachers judge the work of other teachers implies the same thing.” [p. 132]  

Francis comments that one problem with this approach is that it gives little indication of whether a student has actually mastered a subject. An industrious, dutiful child can create a lovely (copied) notebook, but s/he may have learned very little, and neither the child’s teacher nor her parents may recognize this. Look! A beautiful notebook! My, isn’t little Sally doing well in school? Teachers, parents, and students may be misled into thinking that children have learned far more than they really have. [23]




Footnotes for the foregoing sections.

(Scroll down for a link to additional sections.)

[1] In creating this description, I will rely partly on my own memories of Waldorf schooling, the accounts given me by friends who became Waldorf teachers, published accounts by others, Anthroposophical texts, and materials posted by Waldorf teacher training institutions. Because I am generalizing, and because individual Waldorf teachers are given so much leeway to create their own methods, I will not footnote every statement. You can glean indications on these matters, however, by going to such pages as "Teacher Training", "Advice for Teachers", "Faculty Meetings", "Foundations", etc. Relevant publications include THE NEW ART OF EDUCATION, by Rudolf Steiner (Philosophical-Anthroposophical Publishing Co., 1928), PRACTICAL ADVICE TO TEACHERS, by Rudolf Steiner (Anthroposophic Press, 2000) and the other volumes in the Foundations of Waldorf Education series, THE EDUCATIONAL TASKS AND CONTENTS OF THE STEINER WALDORF CURRICULUM, by Martyn Rawson and Tobias Richter (Steiner Schools Fellowship, 2000), A HANDBOOK FOR WALDORF CLASS TEACHERS, by Kevin Avison (Steiner Schools Fellowship, 2004), WALDORF EDUCATION, by Richard Blunt (Novalis Press, 1995), and the teachers' guides prepared by Roy Wilkinson and, separately, by Charles Kovacs. 

Concerning variations among Waldorf schools, see, e.g., "Non-Waldorf Waldorfs".

[2] The arts, and all expressions of beauty, are thought to have spiritual powers. [See, e.g., "Magical Arts".]

[3] Some of these matters are touched on in "Faculty Meetings". For accounts by teachers who have worked in Waldorf schools, see "My Life Among the Anthroposophists" and the pages that follow it.

Emphasis on rhythm shows up in small ways, as well. Waldorf teachers often lead their students in rhythmic chants or call-and-response exchanges that are meant to facilitate memorization of certain material, such as multiplication tables. In general, Waldorf schools downplay memorization, considering it harmful. Converting a set of information into a chant, poem, or song can help kids internalize that material, and it may seem to do this viscerally rather than intellectually (the material presumably enters the guts or bones, not the brain). All of this accords with the basic Waldorf approach. Whether it actually works well may be another matter. (A Waldorf student attempting to do math may wind up chanting silently, and then finding the results of the chant difficult to conceptualize and employ.)

[4] For more on festivals, see "Magical Arts". 

[5] See, e.g., "Lesson Books".

[6] For indications about teachers' authority, see, e.g., "Spirit". 

[7] From the founder:

"The arrangement in the Waldorf School is that the main lesson shall take place in the morning. The main lesson begins in winter at 8 or 8:15, in summer a little earlier. The special characteristic of this main lesson is that it does away with the ordinary kind of timetable. We have no timetable in the ordinary sense of the word, but one subject is taken throughout this first two hour period in the morning — with a break in it for younger children — and this subject is carried on for a space of four or six weeks and brought to a certain stage. After that, another subject is taken. For children of higher classes, children of 11, 12, or 13 years old, what it comes to is that instead of having: 8 – 9 Religion, 9 – 10 Natural History, from 10 – 11 Arithmetic — that is, instead of being thrown from one thing to another — they have for example, in October four weeks of Arithmetic, then three weeks of Natural History, etc." — Rudolf Steiner, THE SPIRITUAL GROUND OF EDUCATION (Anthroposophical Publishing Co., 1947), chapter 7, GA 305. 

The schedule Steiner outlines here is not always followed precisely. The main lessons at some Waldorf schools last 90 minutes without a break, and each main lesson subject is "carried on" (i.e., dealt with) for three or four weeks before being dropped for another subject. Each subject is later renewed at a somewhat higher level, after a break that may be as long as an entire year. Overall, the sequence of main lessons is meant to follow a spiral pattern, emulating and perhaps enacting the upward movement — described by Steiner — of the soul climbing toward enlightenment.

[8] Waldorf teachers usually undertake continuing professional development. However, most of this — like the teachers' initial training — usually occurs in special Waldorf/Anthroposophical training facilities where the primary focus is on Rudolf Steiner's occult doctrines. Waldorf teachers may know little about their subjects beyond what they have been told by more senior Anthroposophists.

[9] See "Thinking Cap" and "Steiner's Specific".

[10] See "The Waldorf Teacher's Consciousness".

[11] See "Magical Arts", "Lesson Books", and "His Education".

[12] Re memory: "Too often a zealous attempt to impart information is substituted for the development of human faculties in modern education. This can lead to overexertion of memory and inner exhaustion of the student...." — Note by the editors of Rudolf Steiner's SOUL ECONOMY AND WALDORF EDUCATION (Anthroposophic Press, 1986), rear cover.

Re the brain in general: "[T]he brain acts as a mirroring ground upon which [the gods'] thinking can manifest ... [I]t mediates between the spiritual and physical world just as a radio mediates between the broadcaster and the listener ... The brain does not produce thoughts." — Waldorf teacher Henk van Oort, ANTHROPOSOPHY A-Z (Sophia Books, Rudolf Steiner Press, 2011), p. 16.

Re the intellect: “The intellect is the faculty of soul, in the exercise of which our inner being participates least. We speak with some justification of the coldness of intellect ... The intellect destroys or hinders.”  — Rudolf Steiner, WALDORF EDUCATION AND ANTHROPOSOPHY, Vol. 1 (Anthroposophic Press, 1996), p. 233. 

[13] Rudolf Steiner, FACULTY MEETINGS WITH RUDOLF STEINER (Anthroposophic Press, 1998), p. 494.

[14] Rudolf Steiner, THE CHILD's CHANGING CONSCIOUSNESS AS THE BASIS OF PEDAGOGICAL PRACTICE (Anthroposophic Press, 1996), p. 94.

Also see "Mystic Math" and "Sneaking It In".

[15] See "Ahriman" and "Spiders, Dragons and Foxes".

[16]  See "Humouresque", "Temperaments", and "Races".

[17] Rudolf Steiner, THE FOUNDATIONS OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE (Anthroposophic Press, 1996), p. 60.

[18] See, e.g., "Science".

The Waldorf belief system includes many occult notions that are played out in class. There is this, for instance: 

“Go into our needlework classes and handicraft classes at the Waldorf School, and you will find the boys knit and crochet as well as the girls ... This is not the result of any fad or whim ... [T]o drive the soul into the fingers means to promote all the forces that go to build up sound teeth.” — Rudolf Steiner, SPIRITUAL SCIENCE AND MEDICINE (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1948), lecture 17, GA 312.

Concerning use of the hands, Steiner taught that we actually think more with our bones than with our brains. 

“As soon as we begin to think with our fingers — and one can think with one's fingers and toes much more brightly, once one makes the effort, than with the nerves of the head — as soon as we begin to think with that part of us which has not entirely become matter, when we think with the lower part of our being, then our thoughts are the thoughts of our karma." — Rudolf Steiner, BLACKBOARD DRAWINGS 1919-1924 (Rudolf Steiner Press, 2003), p. 126.

[19] See, e.g., "Academic Standards at Waldorf" and "Our Experience".  

For a look at particular parts of the Waldorf educational approach, see "Curriculum", "Mystic Math", "Oh My Word", "Magical Arts", and related pages here at Waldorf Watch. 

[20] Rudolf Steiner, ART AS SPIRITUAL ACTIVITY (Anthroposophic Press, 1998), p. 247.

[21] THE GOETHEANUM: School of Spiritual Science (Philosophical-Anthroposophical Press, 1961), p. 25.

[22] For more on these matters, see "Most Significant", "Waldorf Curriculum", "Common Sense", and "Basement".

[23] For more on Waldorf class books — also called lesson books — see "Lesson Books".










Use this link to go to

the second part of "Methods".











[A stab at Waldorfian art, by R.R.]