Behind the Waldorf school gate

Education in the 21st century

The topic of learning and education in the 21st century has been attracting interest for multiple reasons. Economic wealth and survival are contingent on increasing well-educated human resources, while individual, collective and cultural well-being rests on holistically well-rounded and capable humanity aware of their social and environmental responsibilities. 

On one hand, the value and recognition of learning in an informal setting such as a home, playground or forest are gaining a strong voice. On the other hand, structured institutional learning continues to dominate the education sector and labour market in the Western world through qualifications. In addition, non-formal learning environments such as after-school care, group music lessons, or marae gatherings also significantly contribute to the acquisition of wisdom, experiences, competencies, cultural values, and beliefs. 

There are multiple questions that can arise. Is one setting more valuable than the other? Who makes the decision? What are the unique differences and similarities in various learning environments? What is learning and is there one that dominates the other in terms of benefits: life fulfilment and contribution to the economy? Can we achieve both? Do Western and Indigenous perspectives on learning differ and are they served equitably in current education settings?

Image by Jana To

Image by Jana To

Waldorf schools and their theoretical background

Waldorf schools, whether they are state-independent or integrated environments, share some similarities and disparities with the alternative schooling options that can provide advantages but also disadvantages for some students. Waldorf formal education, created by Rudolf Steiner in Germany 1919, stands on a spiritual curriculum that aims to educate the whole child – their thinking, feeling and willing capacities. It shares similarities with constructivist learning theories where certain capacities need to be mastered in each stage to ensure synchronistic and healthy threefold development in seven-year rhythms until the age of twenty-one. The age at which the child enters a formal school setting has consequences for the rest of their life. Significant attention is placed on the physical and 'soul readiness' of each child. 

Waldorf curriculum is embedded in anthroposophy and it's purpose is to educate free and morally responsible people who are creative, collaborative, and critical thinkers. It is to enable learners to become their true selves, free in their choices, while positively contributing to society. Anthroposophy is not taught to the students, but Waldorf teachers study anthroposophy to gain deeper knowledge and understanding of child development from Rudolf Steiner's perspective and apply it in the classroom. 

Pedagogical underpinning

Waldorf teachers must have a general understanding of learning as a set of heuristic tools to understand the peculiarities of their learners and themselves. The careful observation and study of each individual and the entire classroom informs their choice of curriculum design and planning. It requires reflecting on their work, sharpening their ‘intuitive knowing in practice’ and the ability to draw on tacit working knowledge while preparing for practice.

Another essential pedagogical tool is the teacher and the cohort of students staying together as a class for up to seven years when possible. This enables such practices to evolve and extend the accuracy of teaching and assessments. Although the term 'assessment' was introduced into the Waldorf schools recently, teachers utilise a set of formative, summative, and ipsative assessment methods through formal, and informal one-on-one conversations.

A significant emphasis is on teachers’ artistic ability and freedom to create lessons and engage their learners in the content presented without digital technology. Storytelling is an essential tool for learning and aligns with rich teaching and learning through oral pūrakau, a pedagogical tool. Children listen to stories such as "fairy and folk tales, legends, fables, parables, mythology, history, biography, literature and in a variety of forms, such as prose, poetry, song and drama". In addition, storytelling is also used to guide children who are experiencing challenges and life difficulties.

Stepping into a Waldorf school can strike visitors with its beauty, harmony, and simplicity. Children singing, drawing, knitting, gardening, working with clay, participating in eurythmy, preferably wearing clothes from natural materials, playing non-competitive games, and artistically creating their own textbooks without time pressure, will draw attention. It can be argued that this perfectionist expectation can be problematic with an increased diversity of learners and furthermore puts pressure on the individual teacher who is already overextended.

Parent, child and school triangle

Parents are encouraged to provide a home life that reflects the Waldorf school values and resembles the kindergarten or school's learning environment to ensure consistency, and therefore the best outcomes for the child’s well-being. To ensure that such partnerships and relationships are a good fit, a thorough biography interview precedes each enrolment. This functions as an opportunity to start forming relationships and ensuring that Waldorf Education is in tune with the family's life and values and that commitment to learning and understanding the holistic nature of such a formal environment is agreed upon.

To strengthen the partnership between school and home further, parents are encouraged to actively seek and show interest in the understanding of Steiner Waldorf Education. For example, many opportunities are provided for parents to be engaged in crafts, arts and workshops that ensure such consistency. Parents and children are responsible for regular fundraising initiatives and parent-teacher evenings to discuss the best outcomes for the classroom of learners in line with Waldorf's school special character.  


In recent years, Rudolf Steiner’s work has been attracting controversy regarding the subject of racism, religion and anthroposophy. With the in-depth and ahead-of-his-time volume of work he has produced about human development, it could be easy to become a ‘victim of selective outrage’ for those who have a limited understanding of this theoretical and pedagogical approach embedded in anthroposophy. However, it could be argued that this is a crucial time for those deeply immersed in Steiner’s teachings to articulate anthroposophy and publicly acknowledge its values but also shortcomings. Only with a balanced perspective and understanding of its richness can shine even further. It is sensible to argue that Waldorf schools are not universal, and their richness varies from school to school as it heavily relies on the people in the specific context.

Those interested in the differences between progressive education based on John Dewey’s theories and Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophy may find this creative conversation informative to see some salient differences and make a conclusion for themselves. 

Concluding thoughts

The key principles of progressive formal education are child-led where experiential learning is embedded in an emergent curriculum with a holistic pedagogy that recognises and builds on unique knowledge systems and competencies of each child and their family. This has the potential for inclusivity of all.