Frequently Asked Questions About Madison Waldorf School

Here are some answers to commonly asked questions about Waldorf pedagogy. For more information about Waldorf Education, becoming a Waldorf Teacher, and Rudolf Steiner please go to www.whywaldorfworks.org.


What is the main point of Waldorf Education?

Madison Waldorf School is one of nearly 1,000 Waldorf schools on six continents. When the first Waldorf school was founded in 1919, Steiner viewed it as an antidote to the dry and deadly “head” learning that was then common in schools. A child, he said, must be educated not only through the intellect, but also through feelings, imagination, and the body. Steiner infused his curriculum with artistic work, music, movement, and storytelling. He further insisted that a teacher’s job was not simply to impart information and facts, but to inspire students’ strength and will to pursue their own destinies in life. Waldorf teachers hold the development of a child’s ethical and moral character to be as important as anything else in the curriculum.

The Waldorf curriculum is based on Steiner’s insights into the developmental needs of children at every age, insights that are borne out by educational researchers such as Gesell, Piaget, Gardner, and others. Steiner held that there are three main stages of childhood: 0 – 7 years, during which a person learns primarily through doing; 7 – 14 years, during which a person learns primarily through feeling; and 14 – 21 years, during which a person learns primarily through thinking. He believed that young children learn through play rather than by intellect, while older students (in adolescence) are best met by addressing their capacity for critical thinking, and so on. The goal of Waldorf schooling is to graduate balanced individuals, who are able to think for themselves, and posses both the desire to serve others and the courage to take action for the common good in a divided world.

What is the difference between Waldorf Education and Montessori education?

These two educational philosophies actually started with a similar goal, which is to design a curriculum that was developmentally appropriate to the child and that addressed the child’s need to learn in a tactile as well as an intellectual way. Maria Montessori did her early work with street children in Italy who lived too much in their limbs and not enough in their heads. Rudolf Steiner’s work began with children in Germany who lived too much in their heads and not enough in their limbs.

A fundamental difference between these two forms of schooling has to do with the role of the teacher. Montessori teachers act primarily as facilitators, intervening only when a child requests help with an independent learning activity that has been selected by the student. In a Waldorf classroom, on the other hand, the teacher is an authority who leads the class in a variety of teacher-directed activities.

In the social realm, Montessori students are taught not to interrupt their peers while they are working, but are encouraged to help younger children complete a task with which they are unfamiliar. Waldorf education, on the other hand, puts particular emphasis on the development of the young child within a group. Both Waldorf and Montessori teachers recognize that a child wants rhythm and order in the world. But they interpret this need in quite different ways. Montessori described the classroom as a place where children are free to move about at will and where the day is not divided between work periods and rest or play periods. Protection of the child’s choice is a key element of the Montessori method.

In contrast, Waldorf teachers see the child thriving in a rhythmical atmosphere created by the teacher that includes a balance of activities. Students in a Waldorf classroom know what to count on from day to day and week to week. A regular rhythm of age-appropriate activities is also employed in the elementary school. Each morning lesson has a three-step rhythm that includes recall of previously presented material, presentation of new material, and independent work. Similarly, each day and each week have a rhythm of more intensive and less intensive activities. Eventually these external rhythms are internalized by the child, so that he or she is able to take up and complete the more challenging tasks of later life with purpose and conviction.

Why do Waldorf teachers stay with a class throughout their elementary education?

Rudolf Steiner believed that in order for children to grow into self-confident, authoritative adults, they must be exposed in childhood to the loving guidance of a respected authority, in this case the class teacher. Waldorf first graders typically view their teacher as an all-knowing presence. Sixth graders view that same teacher as a mentor. In all cases, students learn that their class teacher will stick with them through thick and thin. The class teacher greets the students in the morning, teaches the first two-hour lesson block of the day, supervises transitions and lunch, and takes charge of students’ academic, moral, and social development. Waldorf teachers are expected to be authorities on their subject matter, as well as storytellers, musicians, artists, and actors. Most of them take summer courses that prepare them to teach the next grade’s curriculum in September. Having Waldorf teachers stay with a class also eliminates the “ice-breaker” time at the start of each school year, during which students and teachers at other schools spend weeks getting to know each other.

Why do you wait until second grade to begin formal instruction in reading?

The Waldorf approach goes against the current tide of teaching subjects such as reading at increasingly younger ages. In the March/April 2004 issue of Mothering magazine, Rahima Baldwin Dancy wrote: “This trend in public education began in the late 1950s, following the shock of the first Russian spacecraft, and has pushed the first-grade curriculum down into kindergarten and even into preschools. This has not led to improved learning, however; test scores at all levels have been falling ever since. In contrast to early academics, Waldorf preschool and kindergarten teachers recognize that reading must be grounded in a rich field of oral learning and meaning, and thus they carefully lay the foundations for early literacy through storytelling, singing, and movement games.” It is our goal to educate students in a manner that is developmentally appropriate.

Rudolf Steiner believed that before the age of seven years, a child’s time was best spent in developing the physical body in a healthy way. Children who are encouraged to be active, playful, and creative in early childhood usually turn out to be the most enthusiastic learners during the elementary years. Waldorf early childhood teachers concentrate on developing the child’s physical coordination (which affects the development of neural pathways in the brain), listening skills (which later improve their facility with the written word), ability to relate socially in a group (which is critical to success in any endeavor), finger dexterity (which helps the child to think more nimbly), and initiative. Because Waldorf kindergartners create their own games and fantasy play scenarios, they grow accustomed to making things happen rather than waiting for something or somebody else to entertain them.

In the elementary grades, children are taught to write before they learn to read. This instruction actually begins in the early childhood classrooms, where children learn the proper way to hold a paintbrush. This is the same way they will later learn to hold a crayon, a pencil, and a fountain pen. The letters of the alphabet are introduced in First Grade, initially in picture form. In conjunction with a story told by the teacher (“The Fisherman’s Wife,” for instance) the children may draw or sculpt a fish that later becomes the letter F. Or a snake that becomes the letter S. Or a king that becomes the letter K. This, of course, is the way written letters evolved in ancient times. Later, the children begin to write down the stories told by their teacher (by copying the words from a chalkboard), and subsequently are amazed to discover that they can read what they have written.

Of course, there are some children who seem to pick up reading skills before the age of six or seven, with no apparent help from anyone. We don’t discourage this, but we try always to be sure that a child is growing in a balanced way in all areas–physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially–and not becoming a specialist in any one area too soon.


How large are your classes?

Class size differs within our programs. Our Early Childhood classes enroll 12  – 20 children,while our elementary classes may be as large as 24 or as small as 13. Early childhood classes have one head teacher and one assistant in each room.

Are you a religious school?

Madison Waldorf, like all Waldorf schools, is non-sectarian and not affiliated with any particular religion. Waldorf schools are non-sectarian and non-denominational. They educate all children, regardless of their cultural or religious backgrounds. The pedagogical method is comprehensive, and, as part of its task, seeks to bring about recognition and understanding of all the world cultures and religions. Waldorf schools are not part of any church. They espouse no particular religious doctrine but are based on a belief that there is a spiritual dimension to the human being and to all of life. Waldorf families come from a broad spectrum of religious traditions and interest.

How diverse is your student population?

As the state capital, the home of the University of Wisconsin, many international corporations and research centers, Madison is diverse community, and our student body reflects this. A number of students (as well as some teachers) speak English as a second language. We strive to attract students who reflect the socio-economic and ethnic diversity of the greater Madison vicinity.

How are Madison Waldorf students assessed?

We do not derive progress through standardized testing as at Madison Waldorf. Rather, our teachers employ in-depth qualitative methods to assess each child individually. Teacher carry an inner picture of their class and each individual child. Using observation of the child’s physical progress, memory, emotional expression, thinking, and academic progress to build a holistic understanding of each child, as well as each class as a whole.  Our teachers communicate these assessments to parents via annual parent/teacher conferences, as well as additional conversations throughout the year. Families also receive a written assessment of their child’s progress in every subject area between one and three times per year.

All elementary students keep a main lesson book of writings and drawings, and teachers review this self-created record as one aspect of student assessment. These main lesson books can be reviewed by parents at regular parent evenings or during parent/teacher conferences. The books are sent home in June, as a permanent record of what the child has studied during the school year.

What is your policy on media?

The teachers and staff at Madison Waldorf know that children are exposed to some level of media or electronic experiences. The benefits of a Waldorf education are undermined by electronic exposure, as it affects their behavior in play, social situations, and in the classroom learning environment. We strongly recommend that families restrict television, radio, magazines and computer exposure, especially on school nights.

A central aim of Madison Waldorf School is to stimulate the healthy development of the child’s own imagination. We recommend restricting media exposure because we are concerned that electronic media hampers the development of the child’s imagination. We see first hand the physical effects of the medium on the developing child in their classroom behavior, as well as the effects the media programming content has on play, respect, and values. We have found that mass media works against the healthy development of sound thinking and seriously weakens a child’s ability to deal with reality. Students accustomed to passively receiving impressions have difficulty making the inner effort necessary to sustain an imaginative train of thought or to follow a complicated mathematical process. Even so-called educational television programs have an intellectual bias that can permanently color a child’s reaction to a subject.

Media exposure is particularly detrimental in a Waldorf school because it prevents the student from fully developing the creative thinking capacities that are central to our educational goals. We would like our students to view the world through their own eyes, rather than through the lens of someone else’s camera. By delaying a child’s exposure to mass electronic media until the student’s will and feeling life have reached a certain level of maturity, we hope to encourage an enlightened, inquiry-based relationship to technology.

Our media policy is detailed at greater length in our school handbook.

Below is some research that substantiates these concerns about media use:

  • Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don’t Think by Jane Healy
  • Failure To Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds For Better and Worse by Jane Healy
  • Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander
  • The Plug-In Drug by Marie Winn
  • Evolution’s End: Claiming The Potential of Our Intelligence by Joseph Chilton Pearce

What is your music curriculum like?

Music is the thread that weaves the academic day together at Madison Waldorf. Kindergarten children sing with their teachers at circle time and during most transition periods. Nearly all teachers play musical instruments of one kind or another. In first through sixth grades, children receive instruction on the recorder, and in fourth grade they also learn to play a band instrument.

What is your athletic program like?

Here at Madison Waldorf, we believe that a child’s mental and social development are dependent on healthy physical activity. Our early childhood classes spend a significant amount of time outdoors–in all kinds of weather–gardening, sledding, digging, climbing on rocks, and walking in the woods. Elementary students have two recess periods per day in addition to Games class, which includes a variety of group games.

Information above taken primarily from the Madison Waldorf School Handbook, as well as  AWSNA, the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America.


Discover the Difference of MWS

Call us today and schedule a tour: 608-270-9005