These two educational philosophies 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.