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Sparked Learning by Arthur Owen


Dedications This book is dedicated to my teachers at Freestyle, my family, and my old class at Waldorf, especially Ms. Wong.



Acknowledgements I would like to thank Ms. Parkinson for all of her instruction in the ways of design, Mr. Greco for his part in creating the writing in this book, all those who helped edit the text, my interviewees, Ms. Wong, my mom, and Valentina Cabrera, for letting me interview them, and Ms. Wong, for teaching me for 8 consecutive years (no easy task).

Right: Piano in the 8th grade classroom at the Waldorf School of the Peninsula. 4



Table of Contents Pages 1 2-3 4-5 6-7 8-9 10-12 12-13 14-15 16-17 18-19 20-21 22-23 24-25 26-27 28-29

Front Page Dedications Acknowledgements Table of Contents Foreword Introduction Chapter One: A Different Method Chapter Two: Does It Work? Collection of My Work from Waldorf (continued) Collection of My Work from Waldorf Collection of Photos from My 8th Grade Trip Chapter Three: Understanding Flaws Chapter Four: The Waldorf Backbone Conclusion Bibliography


Foreword When I was choosing a topic for this book, as soon as I thought of writing about Waldorf education it was a “no brainer”. I had numerous connections in Waldorf schools, and more importantly I had my own experience at a Waldorf school. Waldorf has had a huge influence on my life, one that I cannot even comprehend, and I jumped at the chance to examine it as something I had experienced for more than 9 years but had never understood completely. As a result of this book and research my knowledge of Waldorf has increased, but more importantly my very perspective on the subject has been altered and I have discovered a newfound appreciation and thankfulness for my years at Waldorf.

“There is no task of greater importance than to give our children the very best preparation for the demands of an ominous future, a preparation that aims at the methodical cultivation of their spiritual and their moral gifts.” - Bruno Walter, Composer and Conductor


As a disclaimer, this book is not a great place to learn every aspect of Waldorf education, it merely scratches the surface of all the things that make Waldorf unique and effective. However, I do hope that through this text you can catch a glimpse of the brilliance of Waldorf and the respect I hold for it, and perhaps begin to ponder the purpose of education and how it needs to be changed.


Introduction “Out through the front door, run around the back... In through the window and off pops Jack,” I murmur as I sit in my 1st grade handwork class at the Waldorf School of the Peninsula. I’m learning how to knit, and the rhyme is my guide on how to complete a stitch of knitting. I hold the needles awkwardly and my knitting is sloppy and uneven, but by the time I reach 8th grade my hand movements are smooth and my rows and ridges straight and even. But why would Waldorf teach me how to knit? How could it possibly further my education? At the very least more and more people are starting to believe in Waldorf ’s effectiveness. With around 1,000 independent Waldorf schools worldwide in 60 different countries, Waldorf education is the fastest growing independent educational movement in 10

the world (Why Waldorf Works). And this figure doesn’t include the many public charter schools that are adopting methods from the Waldorf philosophy. Why is this rapid change in ideology important? To find out we must look at what everyone who attends Waldorf is deferring from: public education. In the shock and fear following the launch of the first Russian spacecraft, there was a huge increase in funding and focus on education in the United States. Along with this surge in spending began a trend of teaching subjects such as reading and math at earlier and earlier ages, called accelerated learning (“The Wisdom of Waldorf: Education for the Future”). It is now customary to teach reading and arithmetic to 5-year-olds in kindergarten, and scientific studies are starting to show that this may in fact have

a detrimental effect on the mind of a child (Petrash, 37). This trend of accelerated learning, coupled with a dramatic surge in standardized testing, has created a public education system which can hurt a child’s development but not be noticed due to a poor method of assessment in the form of standardized testing. Waldorf schools are different. The Waldorf philosophy is a more effective way of educating a person than the current public system because it specifically targets the ways in which children develop and shapes a much more balanced human being. In general, Waldorf better accomplishes the goal of education. So what does Waldorf do differently? And why? Where did it all begin?

Left: Paintbrushes in the 8th grade classroom at the Waldorf School of the Peninsula


A Different Method The foundation of Waldorf is rooted in Germany. Following World War I, Germany faced political, social, and economic devastation. Meanwhile, Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher, was lecturing at different factories on his ideas for social transformation. One such factory was the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany, which Steiner visited in April of 1919; in his lecture here he mentioned the necessity for a novel kind of comprehensive school, very different from the norm at the time in Germany, with the goal of educating the whole child. As a result, Emil Molt, the owner of the factory, announced that a school like the one that Steiner described would be opened to the children of the factory workers, with Steiner as a pedagogical consultant. This new type of school quickly spread around Western Europe, and the name from the original Stuttgart factory, Waldorf, stuck (Hemleben). 12

Rudolf Steiner believed that the purpose of education was not solely to instill knowledge into its recipients; instead, his teaching philosophy aimed to “educate the whole human being so that thinking, feeling, and doing were integrated and capable of functioning in a healthy way” (Why Waldorf Works). Rather than attempt to create a functioning member of society, he proposed that education be a platform on which the whole child could develop. Rudolf Steiner’s theory for education reflected how he saw children develop. He believed that children go through 3 stages of 7-year periods, and that for a school to teach a child in the most effective way possible it must address how children learn differently in these time frames. According to Steiner, from birth to age 7 children learn primarily through imitation. In a Waldorf preschool and kindergarten the teacher’s responsibility is to provide

meaningful actions to be imitated, rather than to drill principles into the children. From ages 7 to 14 (1st8th grade), the curriculum becomes more structured, with an emphasis on multi-sensory and integrated learning. In the Waldorf high school classes become more academic, with teachers specializing in specific subjects. Although this theory was originally based simply on observation, it has now been concluded by some neuroscientists that the progression of Waldorf matches the development of the brain (Petrash 35). Throughout Waldorf schooling there is an emphasis on art and music. This is not, as in most schools, where a child will sit through a 50-minute science class and then a 50 minute drawing class; instead, in a science class a Waldorf student will observe an experiment, draw and write their observations, and then be taught the science of the experiment - all in the same 2-hour pe-

riod. This promotes a more handson approach to learning, where the child’s thinking capacities are further challenged and developed.

Left: Painting by an 8th grade student at the Waldorf School of the Peninsula. 13

Left: 8th grade work by Valentina Cabrera, a junior at the Waldorf School of the Peninsula High School 14

Does It Work?

member it, I would like to compare what I’ve learned at Waldorf with what I’ve learned at public school. Coming out of Waldorf, here is what I would have considered myself skilled at doing: drawing, painting, reading, writing, sewing, Of course, when evaluating the ef- woodworking, knitting, crochetfectiveness of a school, one must ing, gardening, athletics, music face the question: What should ed- (soprano and tenor recorder, violin, ucation do? To say that “it should “Education should be helping the educate” is the easy way out, but this students find out what they’re careally leaves you no further than you pable of and what they’re not. You were before. While I’m not sure I can want to make them as fully active verbalize an answer to this question as possible as a human being.” myself, I hope I can at least approach -Ms. Wong it with the following comparison. First let me explain my educational background. From preschool guitar, bass guitar, piano, African to half of kindergarten, I went to a drums), and photography. FurMontessori school, another alterna- thermore, almost all of these can tive education philosophy like Wal- be divided into subcategories: dorf. I don’t remember much of this. for example, veil painting vs. oil Then from the other half of kinder- painting vs. watercolor painting. garten through 8th grade, I went to Three quarters of the way the Waldorf School of the Peninsu- through my third year of public high la. From the first year of high school school, these are the areas in which until now, my junior year, I’ve gone I would say I have significantly imto a public high school. Throw- proved through my schooling: test ing out Montessori as I barely re- taking, writing, and fact-retention.

In my opinion the first list shows a person who is much more “educated”. I think it’s sad that the second list shows someone who is considered much more prepared for college. Whenever I hear my old classmates who now attend Waldorf high schools talk about how they’re learning book-binding, or are studying Dante, or are being taught Music History, I always feel shortchanged. When I asked my teacher of eight years at the Waldorf School, Ms. Wong, she said that “education should be helping the students find out what they’re capable of and what they’re not, and then help them develop skills they need for life. You want to make them as fully active as possible as a human being, and that’s what education should be” (Wong).



Both pages: collection of work I made during my years at Waldorf. 17


Both pages: collection of my work from Waldorf (continued).


Both Pages: Photos from my 8th grade trip to Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado. 20


Understanding Flaws Despite all its attributes, Waldorf is by no means perfect. However, it’s important to distinguish between flaws that are inherent in Waldorf theory, flaws in individual schools, and flaws that may be from the outside world. For better or for worse, all Waldorf schools are independently run, organized and funded. For this reason, I’m going to focus on problems within the Waldorf school I attended, the Waldorf School of the Peninsula. Probably the largest issue in my eyes was the lack of athletics programs. The only sports team my school fielded was a basketball team that started while I was in 6th grade. That was it. In addition, the team lacked participation (in part due to the limited number of students enrolled in the school) and facilities: our practice court was a blacktop with portable hoops, rather than a gym. This problem extended to extracurriculars in 22

general; the only extracurriculars offered at my school that I can remember were the aforementioned basketball team and a chess club. Another significant flaw is in the Waldorf high school. When I asked Valentina Cabrera, a current Waldorf high school student, what drawbacks she saw in her school, she mentioned résumé preparedness. At her school, there is no such thing as an honors or AP class. There is little emphasis on grades - the preferred form of assessment is a rubric or written evaluation (Cabrera), but in modern American society you need a GPA. This makes it difficult for students at the Waldorf high school to show outstanding achievement. These flaws must be seen in context, however: they are the problems of a young school. Take for example the Sacramento Waldorf School, which was founded in 1959 (whereas my school was founded in 1984). It has one of

the most beautiful campuses I have ever seen - large, with plenty of trees, beautiful buildings, a garden, even a biodynamic farm. It has great sports teams and facilities as well, with a baseball field, track, soccer pitch and basketball gym. Furthermore, many of its classes have been recognized as corresponding with an AP course, meaning an extra point on students’ GPA’s. It’s also significant that none of these issues are actually a part of Waldorf as an education system, either being just the growing pains of a young school or even, in the case of Waldorf graduates being unprepared, perhaps within our society. Why should a student be more highly regarded if he or she is an effective test taker? What is public education even doing?

Row of cubbies in the 8th grade classrroom at the Waldorf School of the Peninsula. 23

Above: A veil painting I made in 8th grade. Veil painting uses many layers of highly diluted paints to create a feeling of depth. 24

The Waldorf Backbone When I focused my attention on the public school system of modern America for this paper, there seemed something wrong with it, beyond its lack of the development of the entire student and its ineffective use of tests for evaluation. There seemed to be something inherently at odds with the idea of learning, something that I couldn’t put my finger on. In his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig examines the art of repairing and keeping a motorcycle functional. He states that the key to successfully navigating all the difficulties of being your own mechanic, rather than having the most expensive tools or most extensive external knowledge, is peace of mind, or attitude: “Peace of mind produces right values, right values produce right thoughts. Right thoughts produce right actions and right actions produce work which will be a material reflection for others to see of the serenity at the center of it all” (Pirsig). This may

seem like a strange thing to apply to school, but I think it may be the key to education as well, and where so many public schools go wrong. It is more important to shape a student’s attitude than to shape his knowledge. When a student has a passion to learn, all work will be created with depth and meaning, and the academics will become something more than just school. The inherent flaw in the public school philosophy is the idea that education should solely add to a student’s skill set. The public school strategy is to inundate pupils’ minds with knowledge, to assign homework or a test, and expect the student to acquire and retain the required knowledge and further advance their “ability”. What the Waldorf system does so well is to shape how a person approaches learning, to focus on the development of the attitude or analogous “peace of mind”, and trust that the ability will follow. A Waldorf student cares

about their learning and sees it as the collective body of everything they are taught; the public school student sees learning as the next completed assignment. “The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself ” (Pirsig). Waldorf understands this idea, applied to education, in the fullest.


Conclusion As a schooling philosophy, Waldorf continues to catch on and spread. As I have looked back on my education for this research, it has become more and more clear to me that Waldorf has taught me more than public school has. However, it is important to understand that Waldorf is not the only way to create a happy, fully educated, functioning member of society. The ways in which this goal can be achieved are too huge, complicated, and subtle to comprehend. Many incredible people come out of public schools, and not everyone who comes out of Waldorf is amazing. Far from it. The Waldorf system may not even be a good match for a student who has attended and become accustomed to another school. This in no way diminishes Waldorf ’s importance. In my eyes, and in my experience, Waldorf is a genius form of education and has without a doubt created the person I am today.


Above: Photo of my class on our 8th grade trip.



Bibliography Cabrera, Valentina. Personal interview. 19 Feb. 2012. Hemleben, Johannes. Rudolf Steiner: A Documentary Biography. East Grinstead: Henry Goulden, 1975. Print. Petrash, Jack. Understanding Waldorf Education: Teaching from the inside out. Beltsville, MD: Gryphon House, 2002. Print. “The wisdom of Waldorf: education for the future.” Contemporary Women’s Issues Database. 01 Mar. 2004: 62. eLibrary. Web. 27 Mar. 2012. Why Waldorf Works. “Waldorf Education.” AWSNA. Web. 20 Mar. 2012. <http://>. Wong, Amie. Personal interview. 13 March 2012.

Left: Tepee my class erected on our 8th grade trip in New Mexico 29



by Arthur Owen 1 This book is dedicated to my teachers at Freestyle, my family, and my old class at Waldorf, especially Ms. Wong. 2 3