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Waldorf Education: Head, Hands, and Heart

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925) was very interested in the spiritual dimension of the education process and developed many ideas for educating children and adults that incorporated it. Emil Molt, director of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany, was interested in Steiner’s ideas and asked him to give a lecture to the workers regarding the education of their children. Molt was so impressed with Steiner’s ideas that he asked him to establish a school for employees’ children. Steiner accepted the offer, and on September 17, 1919, the Free Waldorf School opened its doors and the Waldorf movement began. Today, Waldorf education has developed into an international movement with more than nine hundred independent schools in sixty countries. There are about 134 Waldorf schools in the United States (Association of Waldorf Schools, 2007).

Waldorf schools emphasize the teaching of the whole child—head, hands, and heart. This is the way Steiner envisioned such education when he planned his school:

Insightful people are today calling for some form of education and instruction directed not merely to the cultivation of one-sided knowledge, but also to abilities; education directed not merely to the cultivation of intellectual faculties, but also to the strengthening of the will....but it is impossible to develop the will (and that healthiness of feeling on which it rests) unless one develops the insights that awaken the energetic impulses of will and feeling. A mistake often made...is not that people instill too many concepts into young minds, but that the kind of concepts they cultivate are devoid of all driving life force (Steiner, 2007).

Although Waldorf schools have many distinguishing characteristics, this dedication to teaching the whole child—head, hands, and heart—appeals to many teachers and parents.

Steiner believed that education should be holistic. In shaping the first Waldorf school, he said that from the start there was to be no classification of children into intellectual “streams,” no class lists, no examinations, no holding back in a grade or promoting to a grade, no prizes, no honors boards, no reports, no compulsory homework, and no punishments of additional learning material. It was to be a school where teachers and children meet as human beings to share and experience the knowledge of human evolution and development in the world (Morrison, 1993).

Basic Principles

Waldorf education, like the other programs we have discussed, operates on a number of essential principles

Anthroposophy

Anthroposophy, the name Steiner gave to “the study of the wisdom of man,” is a basic principle of Waldorf education.

Anthroposophy, according to Steiner, is derived from the Greek: anthros “man” and sophia “wisdom.” Anthroposophy, Steiner claimed, offered a step-by-step guide for spiritual research. Anthroposophical thinking, according to Steiner, could permit one to gain a “new” understanding of the human being—body and spirit (Foster, 1981).

Anthroposophy is a personal path of inner spiritual work that is embraced by Waldorf teachers; it is not tied to any particular religious tradition. The teacher, through devotion to truth and knowledge, awakens the student’s reverence for beauty and truth. Steiner believed that each person is capable of tapping the spiritual dimension, which then provides opportunities for higher and more meaningful learning.

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