The Waldorf curriculum & methodology
This is an overview. For Class-specific curriculum information, please navigate to the relevant section in The School on the menu at the top of this page.
One of the strengths of the Waldorf curriculum is its balance and depth; the emphasis on the arts … the rich use of the spoken word through poetry and storytelling. Above all, the way the lessons integrate traditional subject matter is, to my knowledge, unparalleled. – Ernest Boyer, President, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching
While each Waldorf School is autonomous, all are connected by a consistent child development philosophy that is based on a careful study of how children change and develop. This philosophy underlies the Waldorf curriculum, which addresses the physical, emotional, intellectual, cultural and spiritual needs at each stage of a child’s unfolding development.
The Waldorf curriculum is unusually broad, offering a wide range of subjects – from mythology to botany and everything in between. It is developmentally appropriate, experiential, and yet academically rigorous. In South Africa, Waldorf schools also offer all standard subjects required by the Department of Education.
Curriculum topics are taught during an extended ‘main lesson’ for the first two hours of each morning, for a period of between 3 to 6 weeks – allowing an in-depth exploration of one subject at a time. The main lesson ties one topic to as many disciplines as possible. Each Main Lesson is rhythmically structured so that the children have to listen, work independently, participate and think at different times – involving the child in activities that awaken his or her powers of head (intellect), heart (feeling) and hands (doing). In Primary School, for instance, these activities could include mental maths, hand clapping games and jumping rope, folk dances, poetry recitation, singing, and writing and drawing in their ‘main lesson books’.
Main lesson books are books that each student makes for every topic studied. The book becomes a beautiful record of the child’s experience and understanding of the topic at hand. These are not books of pictures printed from the Internet or cut from publications: they are the children’s own artwork, research, poems and musings. By creating their own lesson books, Waldorf students come to ‘own’ the information and ideas that they study.
The curriculum has been likened to an ascending spiral; subjects are visited several times with each exposure affording greater depth and understanding. The ‘spiral-curriculum’ has been described as follows:
The year progresses with an in-depth study of, say, mathematics, tying it peripherally each day to allied topics – physics, chemistry, home economics and consumerism – each of which is studied separately in shorter classes later in the day. After a few weeks, one of the peripheral topics becomes the main topic … The result is that all subjects are studied in relation to all other subjects. Students learn what historic events were occurring as Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, what music Newton might have listened to as he made his discoveries. – Unger, Harlow G. (2007)
Encyclopedia of American Education: A to E Vol. 1. Infobase Publishing. p. 1197. ISBN 0816043442
The aim of Waldorf education is not to turn any student into a professional mathematician, historian or artist, but to awaken and educate capacities that every human being needs – contributing to the development of a well-balanced individual. As such, all students are taught a full complement of subjects throughout their school years, including art, music, gardening, handwork, woodwork and metalwork – giving them the benefit of a wide, comprehensive education regardless of ability or inclination. Thus, the aspiring scientist learns to appreciate the beauty of artistic endeavor, while the budding artist discovers the inherent satisfaction of logic and reasoning.
The Waldorf School represents a chance for every child to grow and learn according to the most natural rhythms of life. For the early school child, this means a non-competitive, non-combative environment in which the wonders of science and literature fill the day without causing anxiety and confusion. For the older child, it offers a curriculum that addresses the question of why they are learning. – Raymond McDermott, Ph.D., Professor of Education and Anthropology, Stanford University
In the beginning the child just plays, but he plays in earnest. – Rudolf Steiner
Before the age of 7, children learn through imitation and imagining. Their biggest task is to learn how to be in their world. This means mastering their own bodily functions, as well as understanding how things work.
The early childhood programme provides a warm, rhythmic and predictable environment in which young children feel safe. Structured activities occur in an established routine of meaningful ‘doing’: painting a watercolour picture, baking bread, cleaning up, tending the garden and so on. The child’s play often involves imitating adults engaged in these activities.
There is no formal teaching during these early years – although there is a good deal of cultivation of pre-academic skills: gross and fine motor skills, socialisation and concentration on how to ‘do’ things. Learning happens in an unhurried, balanced and rhythmic weaving between active and quiet times. Eurythmy would, for instance, be followed by watercolour painting, followed by outdoor play, followed by a snack, followed by unstructured creative play, followed by a quiet story, etc.
Waldorf early childhood programmes strive to nourish and protect the wonder of childhood. It does this through beautiful, safe, calm, predictable environments, examples worthy of imitation set by peaceful adults, activities that help the child develop essential skills, toys that leave a lot to the imagination, and ample time for unstructured, imaginative play.
Read about The Waldorf philosophy of Early Childhood Development in action.
Also take a look at Nursery School activities and ‘subjects’.
Primary school – Classes 1 to 4
At this age the earlier stage of imitation expands into a need for applied learning and a guiding authority. The child enters into Class 1 with a class teacher who will, ideally, remain with them until Class 8. Subjects are introduced in an artistic, imaginative approach that stirs the child’s feelings.
In Class 1, numbers are introduced in story form as realities that have particular qualities associated with realities in the physical world. For example, two is the duality inherent in day/ night; four is the structure for seasons; six forms the walls of a bee’s home.
Class 1 children explore letters through images that represent the sound of the letter. The children, for instance, draw a king to represent the letter ‘K’, a snake to represent ‘S’, and so on. Writing thus evolves out of the children’s art, allowing them to gradually become very familiar with the abstract letter forms.
Waldorf education is tied to an oral tradition. Children in Primary School are exposed to the fairy tales, fables and stories of the world. They hear about the saints from the Hebrew Testament and from Norse mythology. By the time they actually start reading, these children have an exceptionally good grasp of grammar and a vocabulary beyond their years.
Formal instruction in numeracy begins at age 6/7 with the four primary operations of arithmetic. Fractions are introduced at age 9/10, decimal numbers and proportions at age 10/11, percentages and rates of interest at age 11/12.
Life sciences are introduced in Primary School first through stories of the natural world and then through actual observation and description of the living world. The curriculum includes main lessons on farming (age 9 or 10), animals (age 10 or 11), plants (age 11 or 12), as well as geology, human, biology and astronomy (age 12 or 13).
Here’s an example of how the curriculum mirrors the child’s development: At around 9 years of age (Class 4), children generally start becoming aware of themselves as separate from their parents. The Waldorf curriculum for this age presents building and farming – topics that, on a subconscious level, makes the children aware of their ability to ‘create’ themselves and their world. It addresses issues of authority, safety and of selfhood that all surface at this age.
All children are expected to learn a second language to give them an understanding of other cultures and a sense of belonging to a world that is much bigger than what they know. Instruction during the first two years is purely oral. Reading and writing of the second language is introduced towards the end of Class 3. The second language is studied throughout the child’s school career.
Art instruction is an integral part of the Waldorf curriculum from early childhood to matric. In Primary School the children draw, paint and are taught modelling and sculpture with beeswax or clay. Handwork includes knitting, crochet, sewing and cross stitch.
General music lessons are introduced in Class 1 and continue through Class 8. Primary school children learn to play the recorder and they sing with their teacher every day.
Eurythmy – a movement art developed by Steiner – is a required subject in all years at Waldorf schools. In addition, sport is introduced in the early classes – first as rhythmical activities and games. Competitive and team sports are introduced in Middle School.
Take a look at the subjects studied in Class 1 to Class 4.
Middle school – Classes 5 to 8
Textbooks are introduced in the middle school years, though students continue to make their own main lesson books – recording their experience of what they learn during main lesson. The books contain descriptive writing, poetry and illustrations of the subjects studied.
Literary themes are drawn from history. Class 5 includes a survey of Classical Hindu, Persian, Egyptian and Greek mythology, as well as the beginnings of Greek history. In Class 7, students study Medieval, Renaissance and Reformation history and they learn about the voyages of world discovery. In Class 8, the focus in on the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, including the major revolutionary movements.
Mathematics in the Middle School includes algebra, geometry and platonic solids.
Life sciences study the historical origins, cultural background, and philosophical roots and consequences of scientific discoveries. The Waldorf approach to science education has been described as follows:
Teaching about any natural phenomenon [begins] with pure observations, for instance of an experiment such as the refraction of light in passing a prism, consciously holding back any theorizing about it. This is followed by as careful as possible reconstructing or recollecting the observed phenomena without them being physically present, followed by – on the following day – the conceptualization of that which was observed. Attentive dwelling on the observations of the senses enhances the potential of immediate experience to break through the armour of preformed conceptions or ready-made thoughts. The recollection of the observations made earlier stimulates penetration of what was experienced by active thinking. — Dahlin, “On the Path Towards Thinking: Learning from Martin Heidegger and Rudolf Steiner”
History is introduced as a formal subject at age 11, and is primarily taught through biographies to provide a human context for historical events.
Art, craft and handwork instruction sees the introduction of woodwork and machine sewing from Class 5 onwards.
While music is integrated into the teaching of academic subjects such as arithmetic, geography, history and science, Middle School students are encouraged to learn to play a musical instrument other than the recorder, which they’ve been playing since Class 1. Students are encouraged to participate in the School orchestra and choir, as an extra-curricular activity.
Eurythmy continues through all Classes. Sports in Middle School includes the Greek Games, as well as competitive athletics and team sports.
IT and computer literacy are introduced in Class 7. Students have access to the Internet in the library (for research only), and can opt to take Information Technology (IT) and CAT as academic subjects in High School.
Take a look at the subjects studied in Class 5 to Class 8.
High school – Classes 9 to 12 (Matric)
Our highest endeavour must be to develop free human beings who can, of themselves, impart purpose and direction to their lives. – Rudolf Steiner
While the curriculum continues to meet young students in a developmentally appropriate manner, teaching now turns to the development of critical thinking, objectivity and self-discipline, through exploration, discussion and individual research. Main lessons continue in the high school, but are taken up by the specialist subject teachers. The class teacher is replaced by a class guardian who provides academic, social and personal support throughout the high school years. Weekly meetings are held between the Class and their guardian to plan activities, discuss issues and monitor progress.
Main lessons include English, Mathematics, Science, History, Geography, Biology, Fine Arts, and Drama. Artistic activities include drama, music, painting, sculpture, Eurythmy, bookbinding, metal work, weaving, and woodwork. In addition to sports as a subject during school hours, High School students are encouraged to participate in team sports as an extra-curricular activity. All Waldorf students take all subjects up until Class 11, at which point they make their subject choices for matric.
Take a look at the subjects studied in the High School.
The high school curriculum is highlighted by three important projects, as well as a fully-fledged theatrical production in Class 11. In Class 9 the students participate in an industrial project. They visit a farm together as a group, where they work in the various sections of a farming and production particular to the farm for one whole week. On their return they are asked to give a speech to their peers and parents regarding their experience. This provides valuable work experience and helps orientate the student to the outside world.
In Class 10 the students complete a community project, spending a week together in a community that is less fortunate than their own community. They are expected to leave the place in a better state than it was before their arrival. Again, students are expected to present their experiences in the form of a speech and presentation. This project orientates the student to those who are less fortunate than themselves, promoting empathy and growth.
Class 11 is a very important ‘project’ year. In addition to doing their normal academic work, each student must choose a particular topic that interests them deeply. They must research the subject thoroughly and organise whatever training course or work experience may be necessary to create a project. Then they must write a mini-thesis about the thing that they researched. The research part of the work is often as long as 10 to 15 thousand words and the standard expected is at university level. It is a year of intensive, serious, independent work under the guidance of an individually appointed guardian, culminating in a public presentation of each project. The work includes the creation of a hand-made, leather-bound book in which the student records their research and methodology, and recounts their experiences, challenges and successes.
All matriculants must study and pass English, Afrikaans or Isizulu, Life Orientation (Career and Personal Guidance, Physical Education) and Mathematics or Mathematical Literacy. In addition, they choose 3 ‘electives’ from the following subjects: Physical Science, History, Life Sciences, Geography, Information Technology, Computer Applications Technology, Dramatic Arts and Visual Arts.
Michael Mount students write the internationally recognised Independent Examinations Board (IEB) exams in Matric. Waldorf subjects such as handwork, woodwork and eurythmy are discontinued at this point. Matric students pursue art and music if those are subjects that the student has chosen to write in their final exams.
Michael Mount has maintained a 100% Matric pass rate since the first Class 12 completed Matric in 1987.
From time to time a unique stabilizing influence would appear in my classes: a Waldorf graduate. They were different from the others. Without exception they were, at the same time, caring people, creative students, individuals with indefinable values, and students who, when they spoke, made a difference. – Dr. Warren B. Eickelberg, Professor of Biology and Director of Premedical Curriculum, Adelphi University, New York