Waldorf Lexington: A beautifully calibrated curriculum, pedagogy and learning environment

Kicking off my tour of schools focusing on ‘whole child’ education, I visited the Open House at the Waldorf School in Lexington this past week. I was familiar with the basic tenets of Waldorf education and had read some background on the model, but this was my first experience of seeing the work first hand.  I was eager to learn more about Rudolf Steiner’s developmentally based pedagogical model.

For context purposes, here are a few quick facts about the school:

  • Located in Lexington, Massachusetts and established in 1971
  • Over 250 students, boys and girls from Pre-K through Grade 8, over 26 nationalities or languages spoken by students and their families
  • Over 50 faculty and staff, 9 nationalities or languages spoken by teachers
  • Mission: “Our mission is to provide children in pre-school through eighth grade with an education that supports physical, emotional, social, and intellectual growth and development. Our work is based on the educational work of Rudolph Steiner and his insights into human development and social forms. Our goal is to awaken and foster in our students: A sense of wonder; creative and inquiring minds; a well-founded belief in their capacities; strength of character, will and intellect; and compassion for and interest in all life.”

Using curriculum, pedagogy and space as a lens for observation, here are the elements of the Waldorf model which really resonated with me:

Driving onto the school grounds, I was struck by the green space and natural environment in which the school resides.  The School abuts Arlington’s Great Meadows preserve and I could feel myself relax after a long commute as I pulled into the parking lot and see the vast expanse of green parkland and the first signs of Spring (it has been a long Massachusetts winter!).  As i entered the building, I could see that natural materials abounded in the classrooms (wooden tables and chairs, plants in every room, natural fabrics, etc.) and the walls painted in varying shades of warm pastels cast a lovely shade of light.  It felt homely, comfortable, welcoming, not institutional.

I visited a kindergarten class, 4th grade and 8th grade.  My biggest takeaway was the interdisciplinary design of the curriculum, the developmentally aligned pedagogy and the role of the Arts as a throughline and building block for learning.  Click on the image below to see an  ‘at a glance’ snapshot of the curriculum:

The Arts and Crafts teacher helped me understand the curricular decisions at each developmental stage, for example, when students learn to knit in 1st grade, they are honing fine motor skills and visual acuity.  Every concept in every grade is aided and supported by handwork, e.g. making dolls and learning proportion, chiseling a perfect egg from a block of wood and learning hand eye coordination and persistence, quilting and learning to build community as well as discover the biography of great quilters.

I had heard that some Waldorf schools do not embrace technology - it was instructive to learn how this Waldorf school weaves technology into the curriculum in a way that honors the pedagogical model of curiosity and deep learning - for example, during one of the two hour blocks, the topic is computers - here students learn the history of the computer, what the internet is, how to take a computer apart.  They are part of the research and inquiry - not just passively pressing a button.

At the heart of the Waldorf model is the ‘Main Lesson’ taught be the ‘Class Teacher’ - a two hour block at the beginning of the day of concentrated inquiry on one of four central subjects (language arts, history, mathematics and science) for a block of 3 to 4 weeks.  Waldorf students have the same teacher (the ‘Class Teacher’) for their ‘Main Lesson’ for eight years, with additional subject-specific teachers.  The Waldorf pedagogical model is based on the developmental arc of the child and adolescent.  Robert Schiappacasse, School Director, gave an informative snapshot of the provenance of the model; I paraphrase his comments below:

“Waldorf is a global education movement developed by Rudolf Steiner in Germany as a school for factory worker children - a social education. He believed that in order to live together, we need to understand each other - we need to be creative; human beings are more than just their heads.  Children need to go through developmental stages - and honor the head, hands and heart throughout.  We need a balanced human being for a balance society. In 1950 there were 50 Waldorf schools globally, now there are over 1000 Waldorf schools on six continents.  All schools are independently started by teachers and parents and there are Waldorf teaching centers globally.  The developmental phases are physiologically, neurally, and sensorially based and we focus on where the child is.  What does the child need to be doing and a what stage do they need to be doing it? No pushing academic content when the child is still “building their house”. A more participative as opposed to passive approach to education - and to life. The Arts are integrated throughout. Students need creative ways to express themselves - there are no electives, children do everything.  The creative side is often absent in education, not so at Waldorf."

When asked about assessment, Robert replied that Waldorf students do not participate in standardized testing. Teachers write narrative reports and there are two parent teacher conferences per year.  Opportunities for parents to participate in the school abound. Students participate in evaluations and quizzes throughout the year.  8th grade independent papers can be on any topic of the student’s choosing - while visiting an 8th grade classroom, I saw reports ranging from ‘Elements of Photo Shop’ to ‘Trebuchet’.  Here is a wonderful snapshot of a ‘Main Lesson Book’ .

My biggest takeaway from this visit was the careful calibration of every decision at the school being focused on the overall development of the child - socially, emotionally, physically, as well as academically.  The entire learning environment, including space, is the result of the meticulous honing of an educational model centered on the ‘whole child’. In three short hours I experienced just a snapshot of its depth.  Next up on my tour, I would like to visit a Waldorf High School to learn more about how the developmental arc is sustained and further supported through adolescence. In the meantime, I will re-read Jack Petrash's 'Understanding Waldorf Education: Teaching from the Inside Out' to further ground myself in the model.

Thank you to Tiuja Voutilainen and Jeanette Voss who led the tour and to Robert for his inspiring remarks and for spending time with me at the end of the tour to share resources and reactions to the IFL learning lab.  During this conversation, Robert shared some interesting data on the Torrance Test - the topic of a future blog posting.

This week, I am in California visiting CART and the New Tech mothership in Napa.  Zach Eikenberry is the organizer and leader of the trip in preparation for the launch of Next High School in Greenville, SC - will report back next week :)