Schooling the Imagination

Waldorf schools, which began in the esoteric mind of the Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner, have forged a unique blend of progressive and traditional teaching methods that seem to achieve impressive results -- intellectual, social, even moral.
David Pohl

DRIVING down out of the foothills of Yuba County, California, at dawn recently, past wide, flat fruit orchards, abandoned stony gold mines, and endless river levees, I asked my escort, Ruth Mikkelsen, the principal of the local school for juvenile offenders, what the area's main industry was. "Methamphetamine," she said with a chuckle. Yuba County lives with some of California's most dismal demographic statistics. Its unemployment rate is 12.8 percent, twice the state average. Teen pregnancy rates and the proportion of children on welfare are among the state's highest. The county sends a larger percentage of its adults to prison than any other county in the state. It also has the highest proportion of children classified as low-income (68 percent), and the state's stingiest dads when it comes to child-support payments.

As we entered Marysville, the county seat, we passed a scattering of burnt-out storefronts bandaged with dry, broken boards -- reminders that until the 1950s this town was locally famous for its rich economy of bars, brothels, opium dens, and gambling houses. Descendants of those days now fill Ruth Mikkelsen's classrooms at Thomas E. Mathews Community School. "If you take all the kids who are being thrown out of school and put them in one room, those are the kids we have," Mikkelsen said. "One of those kids in a normal class will pretty much destroy that class."

It was easy to see what she meant. When we pulled up to the school, a group of boys playing basketball on a crumbling court out front were guarding each other with real hostility. Inside, a dozen boys and girls, dressed in the school's official uniform of blue jeans and white T-shirts, jostled and sassed each other in the tiny common room. One hulking skinhead leaned against the wall, alone, slump-shouldered, quiet, angry.

Underneath this toughness, one could see signs of softness and hope. Before I'd even started exploring, Gary, a skinny fourteen-year-old, spontaneously grabbed me for a quick tour of what I had come to watch: how the Waldorf-school movement, an old, Austria-bred system of private education, is working in a new venue -- a hard-boiled public institution for troublemakers. After introducing me to each of his teachers, Gary walked me past the primary tools of the Waldorf day: the recorders every student learns to play, the numerous paintings and art projects, and a pile of "main lesson books" -- lengthy creative reports by students on their studies in each academic subject, which they must generate every few weeks.

Later, during an English class, I noticed a fifteen-year-old I'll call Robert waving his hand desperately. A small boy with an angelic walnut-brown face, Robert had been expelled from his previous school for smoking marijuana; soon after his arrival at Mathews, he jumped out the probation officer's window and ran away. On the day I visited, Robert sat attentive throughout a two-hour class. When the teacher finally called on him, he flawlessly recited six lines memorized from The Merchant of Venice. In the early days, Evelyn Arcuri, the teacher, said later, when she asked the students to return their materials, "they would just toss stuff at me. Now there's better control. They're more engaged." I noticed something similar. One twelve-year-old boy sat with me after school, regaling me, in enthusiastic detail, with a creative mixture of Greek and Roman history. The boy could barely read, but he'd been inspired by the oral storytelling that Waldorf teachers emphasize. These roughnecks even like Waldorf's focus on art. Thomas, an outgoing and restless seventeen-year-old, had found that when he was forced to draw pictures of stories he had read or heard, "you get more visual ideas of what you're doing." Arcuri believes she can see that the students are learning more from what they draw. "This year kids are saying, 'Can I take this home?' We never had that happen before."

Mikkelsen and her teachers attribute these changes to the battery of skills they learned at Rudolf Steiner College, a small private school near Sacramento that serves as the West Coast teacher-training center for Waldorf schools. Much of what teachers learn there is how to reach children through all their senses. Child-development experts have long advocated a multisensory approach to learning -- as a way both to deeply imprint lessons in a youngster and to accommodate the different learning styles that are bound to exist among diverse students, particularly those with learning difficulties. Yet few education systems in this country have the history with these methods that Waldorf schools do. "I now have a way to give it to them many times, in different ways," Arcuri told me. "We had tried everything with these kids," Mikkelsen recalls. "Nothing worked. You can't lecture to them. Independent study doesn't work. They need constant support and a lot of socializing." During Mikkelsen's discussions with teachers at the Steiner College, "I said to them, 'If this is so good, if Rudolf Steiner is as hot as you say, then this will work for our kids. Otherwise, it's another bunch of elitist B.S.'"

Several years later an outside evaluator dropped by the Mathews School. After his visit he told Mikkelsen that the effectiveness of her program for juvenile offenders couldn't be fairly judged, because it was clear that she did not have truly problem kids. "I suddenly realized it was working," Mikkelsen recalls. John Cobb, the local probation manager, has a similar impression. "Kids who can't make it anywhere else can make it here," he told me.

The main lesson books at Mathews and other Waldorf schools illustrate Waldorf's unusual mixture of teaching techniques. The books are filled with students' careful records of field trips and classroom experiments; impressions of the teachers' regular oral presentations; and, in more advanced classes, syntheses of what the students have read in primary sources. (Waldorf teachers avoid textbooks, considering their digested information a poor substitute for original material.) The texts were neatly handwritten, with fountain pens. They were also often accompanied by detailed drawings and poetry, some of which the students had written themselves. Playfulness is encouraged in these books, because Waldorf teachers believe that imaginative wonderings can be just as educational as objective facts and conclusions, if not more so.

This notion, that imagination is the heart of learning, animates the entire arc of Waldorf teaching. When that concept is coupled with the schools' other fundamental goal, to give youngsters a sense of ethics, the result is a pedagogy that stands even further apart from today's system of education, with its growing emphasis on national performance standards in subjects such as mathematics, science, and reading and its increasing rigor in standardized testing -- to say nothing of the campaign to fill classrooms with computers. This is not to suggest that Waldorf schools have a monopoly on contrarian ideas; Quaker and other religious schools teach ethics too. And various alternative private schools have been practicing innovative approaches to learning for years. Obviously, some Waldorf practices will resemble those in many of these schools. But that makes the Waldorf method all the more intriguing, because the daily experiences of one creative education system ought to tell us something about the challenges and possibilities for other schools, both alternative and traditional.

It is odd, actually, that the public knows so little about Waldorf schools, because they've been operating in this country since 1928 and have collected quite a few famous followers (Waldorf parents have included Paul Newman, Joe Namath, John DeLorean, and Mikhail Baryshnikov; graduates include Victor Navasky, the publisher of The Nation, and Ken Chenault, the president of American Express). During the past twenty-five years in particular, Waldorf schools have proliferated vigorously; roughly 130 now operate in the United States, and 700 worldwide. Waldorf schools are quite possibly the world's fastest-growing independent school system; David Alsop, the chairman of the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America, calls them the world's "best-kept education secret."

The secret is getting out. In the past decade a dozen public schools have adopted Waldorf methods, in an effort to enliven classrooms that many educators see as having become sterile job factories. Unfortunately, some of the Waldorf methods have caused trouble of their own, both in public schools and in private Waldorf classrooms. There has been controversy and a lawsuit, stemming largely from the attention that Waldorf teachers pay to an unorthodox form of spirituality. (To some critics, this threatens the prevailing taboo against teaching religion in a public school.) Running through these bumps, however, is a substantial record of achievement -- one that has earned the respect of a number of leading figures, from Howard Gardner, the prominent Harvard professor of education and psychology, to the well-known education reformer Theodore Sizer, to Saul Bellow, whose hero in the novel Humboldt's Gift is fascinated by the philosophy of Waldorf's creator.

Proletarian Beginnings

WALDORF education was born one spring day in 1919, when Rudolf Steiner, a maverick Austrian philosopher and scientist, visited the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany, to give a speech to its workers. The First World War had ended just five months earlier, and Steiner talked about the need for a new social order, a new sense of ethics, and a less damaging way of resolving conflict. After the lecture Emil Molt, the factory owner, asked Steiner if he would consider starting a school for the workers' children. Steiner agreed, insisting on some conditions, including that his school be run by the teachers. (That rule has spawned occasionally chaotic but cooperative styles of Waldorf-school management today. And it prefigured the modern-day theory, popularized by the Yale psychiatrist and school reformer James Comer, that for education to work, teachers and parents must be involved in school decisions.) Steiner also insisted on a highly ambitious curriculum. "The need for imagination, a sense of truth and a feeling of responsibility -- these are the three forces which are the very nerve of education," he once said. Twenty years after the Stuttgart school opened, the Nazis shut it down, along with six other Waldorf schools that had sprung up by then. The reason, according to the state press at the time, was that Germany had no room for two kinds of education -- one that educated citizens for the state and another that taught children to think for themselves.

By then seven other Waldorf schools had been started around the world -- three in Switzerland, and one each in London, Budapest, Oslo, and New York City. (The Waldorf schools in Germany reopened after the Nazi regime collapsed, and the German contingent now numbers approximately 140.) Today, although the schools' Old World academic philosophy runs counter to some academic trends, it may dovetail with others. "All the things you read about public schools," Mikkelsen told me, "that you need to do this, you need to do that -- hell, they've been doing it for eighty years."

Mikkelsen was referring to myriad reforms that policymakers incessantly propose to reverse a range of problems besetting American youngsters: gradually weakening morality and family structure; students' shrinking capacity for creativity and self-discipline, and their increasing turns to violence; diminishing appreciation for the nuances of language in reading, writing, and conversation; and graduates' spotty preparation for the professional world. When pressed on such issues, school administrators often grumble that they're being asked to handle problems better solved outside school -- at home or, later, in the workplace. That may miss the main piece in the education puzzle. Steve Grineski, the interim dean of the College of Education and Human Services at Moorhead State University, in Minnesota, said, speaking before the Littleton, Colorado, horror, "The most serious problem in schools is kids not getting along. The reason people get fired isn't their lack of job skills, it's their lack of social skills." That is precisely why Mikkelsen was attracted to Waldorf. "It's like learning to be a really good parent, plus tapping into every creative thing you ever thought of," she says. Ben Klocek, a high school senior at the Sacramento Waldorf School, whose family has been involved in Waldorf for years, says, "Have you ever heard of that thing about emotional intelligence?" He is referring to Daniel Goleman's provocative book Emotional Intelligence (1995), which suggested that IQ isn't nearly as important as personal traits such as self-awareness, confidence, and flexibility. "Waldorf," Klocek says, "gives you very high emotional intelligence."

Although the Mathews School has embraced Waldorf teaching techniques with enthusiasm, it has chosen to forgo parts of the Waldorf curriculum, which can be too involved for a thinly educated student body that comes and goes as this one does. I was eager, therefore, to visit some of the private Waldorf schools elsewhere in California and on the East Coast, where the full program has been practiced for decades. There, I hoped, I would see how both teachers and students have fared in their attempts to realize Steiner's dreams of enriching people's imaginations and ethical sensibilities, and putting them to work in modern daily life.

WALDORF teachers offer roughly the same subjects other teachers do. Before introducing facts, however, they take a few steps back, and sideways.

Rudolf Steiner believed that people actually have twelve senses -- the accepted five plus thought, language, warmth, balance, movement, life, and the individuality of the other. Vague as some of these additional "senses" sound, most of them have been roughly confirmed by modern research. John Bloom, who was the administrator of the San Francisco Waldorf School at the time of my visit, said, "We try to engage and connect the thinking and feeling realms. When you separate those, therapists get [students] as adult patients." On my visits to Waldorf schools I felt as if I were watching sensory foundations being built in each class, almost in layers.

Walking into the kindergarten class at the San Francisco Waldorf School one morning, I felt my stomach relax. The lights were dim, the colors soft pastel. Intriguing materials for play were everywhere. The children had organized them into a half dozen distinctly different fantasy worlds -- there was a make-believe woodshop in one corner; in another, reminiscent of a farmhouse bedroom, two girls were putting a curiously bland doll to bed in a cradle. This doll, I learned, is standard issue in Waldorf kindergartens. It's the old-fashioned sort, simple stuffed cotton, with almost no facial features. "The only thing an intelligent child can do with a complete toy is take it apart," a kindergarten teacher told me. "An incomplete toy lets children use their imaginations." There were also wild hats and capes, pinecones and driftwood, bowls of nuts and other items from the natural world. John Bloom explained that the raw materials are meant not to celebrate nature but to challenge children's spatial creativity.

Most adults think it's cute when children imitate whatever they see. Waldorf teachers take it seriously. Susan Kotansky, a kindergarten teacher at the recently closed Westside Community School, in Manhattan, which used the Waldorf methods for several years, said that at first her students imitated superheroes they'd seen on television. In time, after they had cooked with their teachers, worked with them on other projects, and listened to fables and fairy tales with their moral lessons (a staple in Waldorf primary grades), "their play changed and got more purposeful." Learning through practical experience is a concept long advocated by progressive education leaders, particularly the turn-of-the-century reformer John Dewey. In recent years the idea has been gaining popularity, though it is still rarely put into practice.

To my surprise, young Waldorf children seemed to understand the principles embedded in their exercises -- so well, in fact, that they could comfortably explain Steiner's methodology themselves. At the original U.S. Waldorf school, the Rudolf Steiner School, housed in two limestone townhouses on Manhattan's Upper East Side, I fell into a provocative discussion one morning with a dozen fourth-graders. The class was finishing a year-long project: making mallets for wood carving out of stubborn pieces of hardwood, which they were patiently filing and sanding by hand. One boy, who had finished his mallet, was making a knife out of teak, and regularly paused to feel its smoothness on his cheek. Waldorf students work on some kind of art project virtually every day. Recalling her early years, Eliana Raviv, a ten-year-old, told me, "We never had green or purple. We make it out of vermilion, red, yellow, and blue, two kinds of blue. It's important to get forms out of your own painting. That way you learn how to develop forms." Waldorf students aren't graded on their work until around the seventh grade; Eliana's classmate, Maisie Weir, told me about a friend in a traditional public school in Atlanta. "All they think about is tests," she said. "They don't even have recess anymore." In the early grades students also do quite a bit of drawing with crayons -- not the standard paraffin Crayolas but thick chunks of beeswax imported from Germany. Beeswax that can be molded after warming in the hand is also used to teach sculpting. There is an almost bland conformity to most student artwork in the early grades -- an oddity that repels more than a few parents. But the purpose is to build a foundation of technique. Sure enough, in the work of older students one sees plenty of refinement and individuality.

But why learn an archaic art like wood carving moments before we enter the twenty-first century? "You almost need it as a balance for the high-tech world," Tove Elfstrom, the woodshop teacher at the Washington Waldorf School, in Bethesda, Maryland, explained to me during my visit. "So they can make something. To give them an innate sense of material." Various studies have found that engagement with physical tasks -- those requiring great dexterity but also surprisingly simple activities -- helps to build other skills, both intellectual and psychological. Or, as Elfstrom put it, "Your finger sense develops your overall brain capacity." Waldorf teachers believe that one of their primary jobs is to help youngsters develop a strong will. To do that, they argue, students must learn that the rewards they reap from an experience require a commensurate amount of effort -- mental, physical, even emotional. Many Waldorf loyalists lay the blame for some of the troubles of today's youth on cultural forces that tilt the balance -- technology being chief among them. As Douglas Gerwin, a Waldorf high school teacher, puts it, technology "promises an experience by which we don't have to do anything to make it happen." This is why teachers discourage younger students from watching television and don't generally expose them to computers until the eighth grade or later. The delay doesn't seem to do much harm. Peter Nitze, who graduated from the Rudolf Steiner School, Harvard, and Stanford, is now a global-operations director at AlliedSignal, which manufactures aerospace and automotive products. At a recent open house at the Steiner School, Nitze told the audience, "If you've had the experience of binding a book, knitting a sock, playing a recorder, then you feel that you can build a rocket ship -- or learn a software program you've never touched. It's not a bravado, just a quiet confidence. There is nothing you can't do. Why couldn't you? Why couldn't anybody?"

Emphasis on the creative also guides the aspect of a Waldorf education that probably frightens parents more than any other: the relaxed way that children learn to read. Whereas students at more-competitive schools are mastering texts in first grade, sometimes even in kindergarten, most Waldorf students aren't reading fully until the third grade. And if they're still struggling at that point, many Waldorf teachers don't worry. In combination with another Waldorf oddity -- sending children to first grade a year later than usual -- this means that students may not be reading until age nine or ten, several years after many of their peers. In earlier times the idea that children might come to reading later, at their own pace, was considered appropriate. David Elkind, a noted child psychologist at Tufts University, cites prodigious evidence, particularly from other countries, that late readers ultimately fare better at reading and other subjects than early readers. A number of prominent figures, including Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein, were very late readers. But in today's competitive frenzy the drive in this country is to get children to learn as much as they can, about reading or anything else, as early as possible.

It's no surprise, then, that Waldorf parents occasionally panic. Others may distrust Waldorf education because they have heard tales of parents who pulled their children out of a Waldorf school in the third grade when the kids still couldn't read. "That's like a standing joke," Toba Winer, the mother of two graduates of the Rudolf Steiner School, told me. "People say, 'Oh, can your kids read?' There was no concerted effort to drum certain words into the kids. And that was the point." Before teaching sound and word recognition, Waldorf teachers concentrate on exercises to build up a child's love of language. The technique seems to work, even in public schools. Barbara Warren, a teacher at John Morse, a public school near Sacramento, says that two years after Waldorf methods were introduced in her fourth-grade class of mostly minority children, the number of students who read at grade level doubled, rising from 45 to 85 percent. "I didn't start by making them read more," Warren says. "I started telling stories, and getting them to recite poetry that they learned by listening, not by reading. They became incredible listeners." Many Waldorf parents recall that their children were behind their friends in non-Waldorf schools but somehow caught up in the third or fourth grade, and then suddenly read with unusual fervor.

Still, the system isn't fail-safe. Although Waldorf teachers learn techniques, phonic and otherwise, that can pinpoint reading troubles, some have such faith in the Waldorf way that they overlook children with real disabilities -- a problem that school leaders consider the teacher's failing, not the system's. Nonetheless, I spoke to several disgruntled parents whose children were later found through outside testing to have dyslexia or other reading difficulties. Such accounts obviously inflame the worries of some reading experts; others are less concerned. Lucy Calkins, a well-known reading specialist at the Teachers College of Columbia University, says that in most public schools children who start reading later tend to do worse, and Waldorf students might benefit slightly from starting earlier. But, she says, "I would not necessarily be worried in a Waldorf school. The foundation of literacy is talk and play."

Music's Power

MUSIC is as central as art in the Waldorf curriculum. Practice begins in first grade, with recorders that are stored in cases the students knit themselves; in fourth grade they each choose an orchestral instrument. A typical Waldorf school offers several different music classes -- at least one choir, an orchestra, and a jazz ensemble in which students learn to improvise and sometimes make their instruments.

In the past decade a half dozen scientific studies have supported the notion that the study of music enriches a youngster's thinking capacities. Some of those studies are tentative, but a few suggest powerful associations. In one study, for example, Swiss and Austrian researchers increased students' music lessons from one or two to five a week while cutting back on math and language studies. After three years the students were as good at math as students who had stuck with the standard curriculum, and even better at languages. Researchers found the music students to be more cooperative with one another as well.

What's going on here? The answer may lie in a German study, by Gottfried Schlaug, now at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in Boston. Schlaug determined through MRI scans that intense exposure to music actually expands brain mass. Musicians he studied who had perfect pitch also had an unusually large planum temporale in the left hemisphere of the brain. When comparing nonmusicians with those who had started playing music as young children, Schlaug found that the musicians also had a larger mass of nerve fibers connecting the brain's two hemispheres. The implications of this last finding are significant. A person's creativity and analytical skills depend greatly on the ability to think with both hemispheres of the brain; yet many of us lack this agility.

Ambitious as these assertions seem, I sometimes felt as if I were experiencing their genesis myself in Waldorf's musical exercises. On one occasion, when I joined a Waldorf teacher-training class, I started the day by learning a complex singing round. As I struggled to keep up, I could feel my thinking being pushed. The process exhausted and stretched me in unfamiliar ways, and made me envious of Waldorf students. My envy peaked one evening in New York City, at a parents' night for the Steiner School. As part of a fundraiser, several faculty members had arranged to sing cabaret songs; when they finished, some of the eighth-graders, who were helping to serve food, decided that they would sing something too. Moments later the adults sat transfixed as half a dozen teenagers performed James Taylor's "That Lonesome Road" a cappella, in slow, layered parts, with the polished harmony of a professional chorus. "All I could think," Chris Huson, a banker and the parent of a Waldorf second-grader told me later, "is that when my kids grow up, I want them to be just like those guys."

This Is Math?

A central objective of Waldorf teaching is to create a sense of wonder about each subject, even math. Sixth-graders study geometric progression by doing graphic-art projects. In San Francisco, I observed second-graders studying arithmetic by creating concentric circles of times tables and musing about their similarity to planetary patterns; later they sang out complex multiplication drills while clapping and hopping across an exercise room in syncopated rhythm -- a display of mental and physical dexterity that would be beyond most adults. "Their numbers are in their bodies," John Bloom, the school administrator, explained.

A standard exercise in Waldorf classes is a riveting game called "mental math." One day at the Mathews School, when students were particularly disruptive, Evelyn Arcuri, the teacher, clapped her hands and said, "Okay, I'm thinking of a number." The students quickly turned quiet. "If you add twelve," she said, "subtract twenty, multiply by nine, and subtract six, the answer is thirty. What's the number?" Within moments -- before I could recall the arithmetic steps of the exercise or even the numbers -- several students were pumping their hands in the air, promising answers, often the correct one. (The answer, by the way, is twelve.) As students get older, the formulas get more complex and are recited more quickly.

Beau Leonhart, who has taught math for twenty-two years at the Marin Academy, a non-Waldorf high school in California, and her husband, James Shipman, also a long-time teacher at Marin, have found that Waldorf graduates tend to exhibit unusually long attention spans. Shipman says, "Waldorf kids aren't the ones out the door when the bell rings. They're the ones who tend to linger, who want to carry on a conversation. If anything, they're a little slower, because they're thinking about it." Leonhart adds, "If they can't do it one way, they'll go at it from another angle." Shipman, who teaches aikido, among other subjects, told me, "In thirteen years I've had two black belts, both Waldorf kids. They know the meaning of focus and discipline. They have a depth, there's no way around it. They're very present." It may be no coincidence that Waldorf schools concentrate on building athletic foundations in children's early years -- balance, coordination, agility -- before introducing competitive sports in the upper grades. It seems to pay off. School news clips are full of accounts of victories over teams from schools two or three times their size.

Waldorf students' capacity for concentration may be stimulated by an old-fashioned but increasingly rare practice: allowing time for reflection. Science classes are an example. In the average school, teachers introduce a concept first and then do a demonstration or an experiment to illustrate it. "It takes the kid out of it," Mikko Bojarsky, the science teacher at the Sacramento Waldorf School, told me. Waldorf teachers turn this process around, doing an experiment before giving the concept much discussion. "Then you let it go to bed for the night," Bojarsky said. "They literally sleep on it. A lot happens in their sleep life." The next day, he said, students generally come in with many more questions than they had the day of the experiment, often including some the teacher never considered. "Nowadays we always push people to think so fast, instead of letting them reflect," Bojarsky continued. The process institutionalizes an important principle that evades many a teacher -- to let students struggle toward their answers and individual understanding. "One of the things I had to learn," Bojarsky said, "was to not answer their questions, especially in the twelfth grade. If you give them answers, they'll just shut down. It's amazing what they'll come up with if you wait long enough."

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