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(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to parts one and three.)

The Primacy of Imagination

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."

Continued...

The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to parts one and three.


Todd Oppenheimer lives in San Francisco. He is the author of "The Computer Delusion," The Atlantic's cover article for July, 1997, which won a National Magazine Award for public-interest reporting. Oppenheimer is at work on a book about education and technology.

Illustration by David Pohl.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; September 1999; Schooling the Imagination - 99.09 (Part Two); Volume 284, No. 3; page 71-83.