I love Waldorf-inspired homeschooling. It’s creative and inspiring. It’s holistic and nourishing. I know many mamas feel the same way. They feel the pull! But there is something, and it’s a pretty big something, holding them (you?) back from adopting this style of homeschooling. And I’ll be honest, it held me back for a long time too. What am I talking about?
It’s a hard to say word for a hard to understand philosophy. And it’s the philosophy the underpins the way things are done in Steiner-Waldorf schools. It’s their why for the what, when and how.
But does it have to be yours?
Should it be mine?
Spoiler alert! The answer is no.
You don’t have to be an anthroposophist to be a Waldorf-inspired homeschooler. Nope, not even to be a great Waldorf-inspired homeschooler.
If you want to know how I got to this decision, read on. If you just want to get to the part where I explain how to reconcile Waldorf-inspired education with a dismissal of anthroposophy, feel free to skip ahead 😉
If anthroposophy is your jam, feel free to skip this one and come visit me here another day. Or read on to hear how some of the key ideas in Waldorf appear in other theories as well 🙂
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When my eldest was a toddler we started looking at different schools and their education philosophies. I was deeply drawn to Steiner education. So much so that I contemplated driving three quarters of an hour each way to the nearest Steiner school (at least! Realistically it would have been more than an hour at that time of day). And it was expensive. More than we could comfortably afford. But I was pretty sure it would be worth it…until I started reading more about anthroposophy.
I loved the what and the how of Waldorf schooling, but the why put me off. Big time! So we shelved the idea and enrolled in one of our local public schools instead. And for a time we were happy.
By the middle of first grade we realised public school wasn’t the ideal learning environment for our son. We made plans to pull him out to homeschool. Again I started researching different educational models, this time through the lens of homeschool styles. Again I was drawn to Waldorf. And again I abandoned the idea because of anthroposophy.
We spent our first six months or so playing around with different homeschool styles. A little of this and a little of that, a brief flirtation with unschooling as our path to deschool. You can read more about that here. But always I was being pulled back towards holistic homeschooling, specifically to the beauty of Waldorf-inspired homeschooling.
This time I decided not to be put off by this strange philosophy that I hadn’t managed to reconcile with my beliefs or my science background. I decide to just enjoy the what and the how without reference to the why. And it worked! We found ourselves in a magical world that felt just right to us. It gelled with our lifestyle and our ideas on what education should be.
So I decided to race headfirst into the rabbit hole.
I devoured Steiner’s works. I read and read and read. I love the what and the how of this way of educating so much that I wanted to love the why as well. But I couldn’t. So I tried a different tack. Instead of trying to convince myself of Steiner’s why, I went looking for other explanations for why Waldorf works. Where did Steiner get his ideas from?
This time I was confident with our holistic ideals as our philosophical framework and happy with using Waldorf as inspiration for how to implement that. Now it was curiosity, a research addiction and an innate desire to know that drove me forward.
I want to preface the following discussion by saying that I have a deep respect and admiration for Steiner and his work. The way he took various ideas, put them together in a new and unique way then added to them was, in my opinion, brilliance. Steiner was quite simply a genius. But he was also a product of his time and his beliefs and ideas reflect that.
We homeschool mamas are the product of a completely different time and place. It stands to reason that we will want to keep some ideas and discard others. I want you to feel confident in exercising this prerogative.
I also want to say that if you do subscribe to the anthroposophical point of view, I am not here to belittle your beliefs. Rather, I am wanting to share how Waldorf home education can work for those of us with different religious and philosophical beliefs.
I know you know that Waldorf-inspired homeschooling is a rich and complex way of educating, with many elements working together. Some of these, like the inclusion of art and life skills, are justified in my home primarily through our holistic ideology. Others are more specific. I’m going to tackle three of the big ones today because these three ideas underpin so much of what we do as Waldorf-inspired homeschool mamas.
Long before Steiner, a Swiss philosopher named Johann Pestalozzi was talking about teaching to the head, heart and hands (and yes, that is an Italian name for a German-speaking Swiss man). He was of the opinion that teaching this way would help students to develop an understanding of right and wrong and to act accordingly. His goal was to bring about a just and peaceful society by educating people to become better humans. He had a lot of really wonderful ideas about education, many you would be familiar with. If you want to know more about him and his work, I recommend this article.
For me, teaching with the head, heart and hands in mind fits with our holistic ideas and goals on more than one level. Like Pestalozzi, I want to raise my children to be well-rounded people. I want them to be thoughtful, kind and creative. I also want them to have a balance of practical and academic skills as well as a strong emotional intelligence. Teaching to the head, heart and hands helps us towards this aim.
From 0-7 a child learns through imitation. From 7-14 is a time for learning from authority, for developing the memory and learning through experience. From 14 onwards this learning becomes more self-disciplined and moves towards a striving for truth. This is a basic overview of the Waldorf understanding of learning at different life stages. Steiner links this to his esoteric ideas of body, soul and spirit development.
A very similar idea, minus the anthroposopical theory, crops up in the work of a much-respected biologist and psychologist, Jean Piaget, but with a few differences. Piaget’s work was based upon clinical observation and while his theories are not without critics, his ideas have been used as the basis for further research and understanding into child development and learning. You can read a brief overview of the stages as conceived by Piaget here.
For me, this is simply a confirmation of what I know from my own experience of children, and a reminder to be mindful of interacting in a way that matches a child’s development stage. It’s a why for teaching through imitation before the grades, and from authority with a lot of hands-on in the primary years.
This is the big one for me. Depending on who you talk to, Waldorf is Waldorf because certain stories are brought to the child at a certain age. It’s a masterful way to engage children but why should we take this approach if we don’t believe the stories are tied to soul development? Well the idea was actually an old one that had been floating around for long time before Steiner put his own spin on it.
One iteration of the idea gained popularity in the century before the first Waldorf school, with a group of educators known as the Herbartians. They took the ideas of a German educator, Johann Herbart, and created various instructions for teaching. The most famous of these educators were Ziller and Rein in Germany, De Garmo and the two McMurry’s in the United States. For the Aussies reading, the theory was also popular here and at one stage the leaders of both the Sydney and Melbourne teaching schools were both Herbatian educationists. Their names escape me at the moment, sorry.
Their how wasn’t the same as in a Waldorf school, although they too were fans of thematic teaching, however their what was strikingly similar. The theory was that the best way to engage a learner was to work with what they considered the nature of the child. Learning should move from simple to complex, from the beginnings of culture to the now. And so they began first grade with fairy tales and moved forward from there in a similar vein to the way it is done in Waldorf schools, however the progression was meant to differ slightly depending on the national culture the children were living and learning within. Steiner even referred to Ziller in at least one lecture (and I apologise for not being able to remember which one). I recommend reading Herbart and the Herbartians for more info on this particular approach. The recommendations on what to teach each year from McMurry will be of particular interest.
The Herbartian understanding and way of teaching really resonated with me and I’m on the hunt for more works in English! This is my why for teaching certain stories in each grade.
Researching and understanding the various ideas on child development and educational theory has helped me develop a rationale for why that I am comfortable with and that helps inform my decision making when I come across a Waldorf way of doing things that doesn’t sit right with me. Do I think this is a necessary justification for adopting Waldorf in your home without needing to accept anthroposophy? Absolutely not.
This is your homeschool and you should feel free to pick and choose what you want without having to conform to anyone else’s ideas. I have shared this today simply to help you find that confidence if you needed it. Waldorf-inspired homeschooling and anthroposophy don’t have to go together, you can have one without the other. For me, it makes the most sense to take my how and what primarily from Waldorf practices, and my why from elsewhere.
You can take elements that you like and work them into your existing framework. You can adopt Waldorf homeschooling as is without Steiner’s why. Should this still be called Waldorf-inspired homeschooling? Maybe, maybe not.
But that’s a discussion for another day 😉