Research Confirms Waldorf Educational Methods

(C) Waldorf Education
(C) Waldorf Education

Research Confirms Waldorf Educational Methods

The case for Waldorf Education is clear for anyone familiar with pedagogical and physiological research of the last few decades.  Although Waldorf schools have been working and teaching in much the same manner as the original school established by Rudolf Steiner in Stuttgart, in 1919 (see Stockmeyer and Craddock, 2009), only recently has independent research confirmed the soundness of Steiner’s pedagogy.    Further, international comparisons of test results for high school young people have also produced support for the important Waldorf school program elements.  Although students are usually quite happy attending Waldorf schools, parents often have questions about a school system which is in many ways different than the conventional.  This report seeks to summarize the relevant research results.  In my opinion,  for those aware of the facts, the case is overwhelming (e.g., Richtel, 2011).

Building Brain Cells

As children grow, their brains grow along with the rest of their body.  A larger brain capacity offers larger opportunities for registering and processing information.  Research has shown that there are five ways to increase brain cell numbers  (Begley 1996, Hancock 1996.  See also Chugani 2011). These ways are:  music, art, handwork, movement, and personal connections to adults.  All of these ways are strongly represented in Waldorf Education.


We all know that Einstein played the violin.  Whether this influenced his intelligence is anyone’s guess.  However several research projects have shown the positive influence of musical experience on learning.  Musical training stimulates brain development  (First Evidence, 2006;    Kingsbury, Overy, Woo 2005 ).  And comparison studies in schools have demonstrated that students who had music classes did better on math than those who did not, even if the music classes replaced some of the math classes.  The musical students also scored better in foreign languages and were noticeably more socially conscious (Stokes 2002, Uhlig 1999).
Music plays a significant role in Waldorf schools from grade one through high school.  All students learn to play recorder in first grade and are encouraged to take up an orchestral instrument, especially the violin.  Students in neighboring classes play together in orchestras.  Vocal music is also introduced already in Grade l, with the complexity of choral and solo material increasing by age level.  By high school, students are often presenting musical dramas, from Mozart’s The Magic Flute to modern musicals.  Monthly or bi-monthly assemblies for parents give students opportunities to perform for parents and peers.  There may also be evening recitals.

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Specific pedagogical studies have verified the positive relationship between art and academic achievement (Gardiner et al 1996). 

In Waldorf schools there is a strong presence of the visual arts: painting, drawing, sculpture.  Already in first grade, students are introduced to water colors used in both abstract and representational art.  Crayons and colored pencils are also used by students to construct their own « main lesson books, » in which they depict and describe the main stories or concepts of the content of the main lessons.  An artistic approach to all subjects, including mathematics, helps to connect the more intellectual with       feeling life.  Sculpture is also part of the curriculum, culminating in stone carving in 12th grade.


Fine motor movements are now recognized as contributing to intelligence and school success  (Gardiner et al, 1996; Auer, AWSNA).

In Waldorf schools handwork begins in First Grade and continues through high school, with ever more challenging projects. First graders knit recorder cases for their first musical instruments.  Later they advance to weaving, also learn to make yarn from raw wool and then design and make their own clothing.  There is also handwork in other media, including woodwork and metal work.  As children grow, projects become more complex and demanding.  As eighth graders and then in 12th grade, students carry out independent projects, which could be a piece of electronic equipment, clothing, jewelry, or a musical instrument.  (Students also carry out projects in science, literature, history, etc.)

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(C) freie Waldordshule Bremen Hosterholz
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Head injuries and early dementia are in the news.  Nevertheless, aside from boxing and football, sports generally have a good reputation as far as intelligence goes.  After all, sports require focus and strategic thinking as well as skill.  (Zauer 2010)  Waldorf schools have always included eurythmy and gymnastics.  Sports are played in the upper schools, but generally those with potential head injuries are not encouraged.

Movement is an important part of Waldorf school method and curriculum.  In the early grades students stamp or clap out their times tables as they march around the classroom.  (This is especially important for little boys, who much enjoy making noise and stamping around to please the teacher rather than irritating her/him, which is too often the case in conventional schools.)  Eurythmy, a style of movement in accord with speaking or musical sounds or feelings, is introduced from the first grade, with more complex movements and coordination as the students progress.  Besides introducing the regular sports, gymnastics is also learned to foster a sense for orientation in space.  Dramatic productions and recitation begin already in Grade l and increase in complexity, culminating in the lower school with a Shakespeare production in Grade 8 and a more complex modern drama or musical in 12th grade.

Personal connections to adults

(See Richtel 2011).  This is one area where Waldorf schools stand out dramatically from the trend in public and other private schools, where increasingly teachers and books are being replaced by computers.

In general in the lower school, from 1st through 8th grade, one teacher, the « Class Teacher, » carries a class from first through eighth grade.  Thus the teacher comes to know each child personally, as well as the family, through class meetings, parent conferences and home visits and teachers are expected to keep each child in mind as they prepare lessons.  Teachers can be sensitive to the developmental stage of each individual student, recognizing those who are able to push ahead to advanced work, and giving special attention to those needing more time.  Each student can be recognized for his or her positive contribution to the class.  Through class projects, plays, outings, camping trips, teachers and children get to know each other personally.  Waldorf schools generally do introduce computers and calculators in the upper school, as useful tools.  As with other modern technology, Waldorf schools are more interested in the inner workings of a machine, its historical development, appropriate use, and effect on modern society.


>Anecdote:  Knut Wicksell
A brilliant economist, Knut Wicksell developed Keynsian economics prior to or parallel to John Maynard Keynes, but was given little credit as he published in Swedish.  However Wicksell is recognized as the one who brought Sweden out of the Great Depression long before any other nation.
Wicksell did not wish his sons to be subject to the state state school system, so he sent them to live on a farm in the country until high school.  Nevertheless one became a mathematician and the other a medical doctor.
With a sensitivity to learning readiness, Waldorf schools do not try to push children forward before they have reached the appropriate developmental stage. At this point learning is more efficient and also more fun and rewarding.  Furthermore the top results on the PISA tests come from countries where school begins late, not until age six or seven.  Before that age children are not really ready.  (Crehan 2016)

As in the highest scoring countries,  Waldorf schools also generally do not divide students by ability, although upper level high school math classes are often split between calculus and consumer or business math.  Tracking students condemns the slow starters to perpetual second class status.

While many schools today view handwriting as no longer important in our keyboard world, Waldorf schools teach all children print and cursive writing and all expect written work to be handwritten, at least through 8th Grade, often through 12th as well.  While this may appear old-fashioned, recent research has demonstrated that handwriting activates the brain in ways that typing does not.  Even at the university level, writing notes in class by hand results in better understanding and retention of material than when a laptop is used.  (Klass 2016)

Foreign Languages:  The Early Language Window
Children find it especially easy to assimilate a foreign language during the first seven years of life.  At about that point the language window begins to close, but children are still able to learn fairly easily through the lower school years.  (Hancock 1996, Kluger 2013)   Beyond the obvious advantage of being able to communicate in other languages, people who become fluent in more than one language have been shown to have definite learning advantages over those who are only monolingual.  Bilinguals’ brains are more efficient, apparently because they can automatically switch between languages, known as « task switching, » making this exercise easier in other matters.  Older folks also benefit, as multi-linguals slow down more slowly as they age and have on average about four more years of clarity before age-related brain deterioration sets in. (Kluger 2013)
The language window is recognized and made use of by Waldorf schools, virtually the only ones to teach foreign languages from grade one.  (The Utah public schools have begun to add foreign language study from Grade 1, each year adding several more school districts. [Kluger 2013])
Generally two foreign languages are introduced in Waldorf schools in first grade.  Teaching is at first through simple songs and poems, to develop a feel for the foreign sounds and rhythms.  Later conversation, culture, vocabulary, grammar, literature are introduced as appropriate.  In high school, through the worldwide network of hundreds of Waldorf schools, students may arrange to attend schools in foreign countries or participate in an exchange with a student in a sister school, for example, in Germany, Spain, France, Columbia.  It is not uncommon for students from abroad to appear as regular students in Waldorf schools.  Recent examples from one school found visitors from England, Germany, Afghanistan and China.

Ability to Focus
More than the assimilation of facts or the ability to pass tests, success in life requires focus.  (Tough, 2012)  Waldorf schools instill this ability through the main lesson system and through the de-emphasis of testing and memorizing facts.
Each morning the school day starts with the « Main Lesson. »  This is a double period (or longer) in which one subject is the main focus for three or four weeks, for example, English, mathematics, physics, geography.  The longer time gives the teacher opportunity to develop a topic thoroughly.  Students write reports, often carry out individual or class projects, complete their own « main lesson books, » which generally includes daily essays, drawings or pictures illustrating the material.  There may be a written review (test) at the end of a block of study, but student participation and the written record are at least as important.  In the elementary school, teachers submit written evaluations rather than grades.  In the high school, written personal evaluations of each student in each class continue, together with a letter grade, which generally includes all aspects of the course, not just test results.

Artistic Teaching
Deep learning takes place through emotional or artistic connections, awakening the feelings (Foer, 2011). Certainly we remember best if the material is connected to our feelings. Waldorf teachers design their classrooms and their lessons with this in mind.
The classroom itself is aesthetically pleasing, with walls painted in flowing colors, wooden cabinets, generally few or no right angles in order to encourage « thinking outside the box. »  Human experience, struggles of historical personalities, make history and science come alive. Excitement, wonder, expectations, can awaken connections.    Teachers are encouraged to be creative in their approach, designing their own lesson plans as they envision the children in their own particular class. 

Breaks between Classes
Controlled studies of university students have demonstrated that taking a break after a learning session, prior to going on to new material, significantly improves retention of what was learned  (Richtel, 2010).
In Waldorf schools, following the first (double) period of the day, the « Main Lesson, » there is a long break of generally a half hour.  Then a series of perhaps three lessons follow prior to lunch.  However, although there may be no breaks between these classes, generally one, often the middle one, is non-academic, such as chorus, orchestra, eurythmy or gymnastics.  Thus a good break often occurs between all academic classes.  After the morning classes is lunch, then afternoon classes, often half or all given over to art or handcraft projects.

Private Schools, School Choice
Attempts to make inroads into the public school system in this country have been tried in recent years.   Alternatives include prep schools, Montessori schools, Waldorf schools, free schools, and home schooling.  More recently school vouchers, charter schools, including some Waldorf, and for-profit schools have been tried.  The available studies often show improvements in school achievement among students attending independent schools.. (Free, 2007, Bohlmark and Lindahl 2012)  Further, when school choice was introduced in Sweden, not only did the achievement of students in independent schools improve, but the students remaining in public schools also improved their test scores.  The speculation was that competition had caused the remaining state schools to improve as well.

Art and Academics:  Do Waldorf Students Get Left Behind?
Parents often wonder if students at Waldorf schools are prepared with sufficient academic rigor in mathematics and writing to succeed in other high schools or in college or university.

>Graduates of Waldorf Schools
A detailed survey of Waldorf school graduates was carried out in Germany several years ago.(Barz and Randoll 2007)  The general findings were that graduates at first found it more difficult to orient themselves in the higher academic world.  However once they had made the transition, they were better able than their peers to set a course and pursue goals successfully.  As far as I know the book has not been translated.  With regard to written expression, a key element in any college curriculum or profession,  Waldorf students develop writing skills well above the typical high school graduate, whose ability in this area is often bemoaned by college teachers.  Waldorf students are constantly writing reports and essays, which are corrected and must be revised.  In addition to regular English classes, writing is part of all main lessons, including those in math and the sciences.  Another survey, of North American Waldorf school alumni (available from AWSNA), included some 600 graduates. The results: 94% went to college (most to elite, selective institutions), 88% graduated and over 50% had done or were planning to do graduate work.  As college students, they were often recognized by their college professors as self-directed, eager to learn, and demonstrating problem-solving abilities, communication skills, and social awareness.  (Mitchell and Gerwin, 2008)   As a Waldorf college guidance councilor I personally visited over two dozen colleges and universities in the Northeast.  Most admissions officers recognized the Waldorf name and had a very positive attitude, encouraging our students to apply. Rare is the applicant who comes in with the beautiful portfolios our students put together.  They stand out also in their ability to express themselves verbally.

International Comparisons:  The Relevance of Finland  (Alvarez 2004, « Charlemagne, » 2006, Finland, 2006, « Overhauling » 2010, Sahlberg, 2010, Wooldridge 2013, Guttenplan 2012, Ripley 2013) For several years international student performance comparisons of 15 year olds have been carried out using standardized tests, the so-called PISA studies.  (PISA is an acronym standing for « Program for International Student Assessment, » not the Italian city.)  The school system which has consistently topped all the others is that of Finland. There has been much speculation as to why this might be, and many researchers have traveled to Finland to try to find out. 

Teacher-run Schools. 
The Finnish school system turns out to have much in common with Waldorf schools.  One thing it obviously does not have in common is independent schools.  In Finland the schools are part of a government system.  However it is a system totally different than in other countries, including this one.  Each school is independent and run by the teachers themselves.  The administration is there to do administration, facility management, etc.  All pedagogical decisions are made by the teachers.  As in other top-performing school systems, teachers receive feedback from peers rather than simply being evaluated by administrators.  (Crehan, 2016)  Generally, the teachers work collegially, planning classes and programs together.  (Guttenplan 2012)  (This is also true in Chinese schools studied, big city schools to be sure.)  There is testing, but tests are designed by the teachers, primarily as diagnostics.  Because the teachers are in a real profession, where they are able to be creative and take initiative, there is a high demand for the available teaching positions.  The profession has the top talent even though it pays comparatively low salaries.  Applications to mandatory teacher training institutes far exceed available places.  Because of their professional status, teachers generally enjoy a high regard in the community.  So the state school system is essentially a system of independent teacher-run schools.
The similarity to Waldorf schools is clear:  Waldorf schools are also independent and teacher-run.All pedagogical decisions are made by the teachers themselves.  Certainly Waldorf teachers are generally trained in the traditions and methodology of Rudolf Steiner and 100 years of Waldorf school experience.   But teachers are free and encouraged to develop new approaches or material appropriate to their students today and in the particular region and culture in which the school is located.

Other similarities between Finland and Waldorf Schools.
Beyond being teacher-run, the schools (and Finland in general) have other features reminding us of Waldorf Schools. 

-Thee is little homework before high school (age 16).  (Hancock, 2011)
-Lower school teachers often continue with a class for five or six years. (Schelbert)
-There are breaks between classes for students to go outside, play music or games, snack or just relax and let the last class sink in.
-The State subsidizes music lessons, so playing music is not just for the upper classes.
-There is a strong handwork and craft tradition in Finland.

The Finnish example demonstrates that the main solutions often offered, namely, more funding and   independent schools, though helpful, are not necessary for a first-rate school system.  On the contrary, independent schools which are teacher-run give the best results, whether in a state system or not.  All of these findings support Waldorf education.

In the results of the 2012 PISA testing (Finn-ished, 2013), Finland fell behind several east Asian systems, particularly in mathematics, but also in reading and science.  The top performer was the Chinese city of Shanghai, though it does seem unfair to compare a city with national scores.  Still these systems display several key elements we have recognized:  teacher training and status and improving the education of all students, including poor and disadvantaged.  The downside of these systems is the extreme academic pressure and the lack of balance, as academic subjects fill the whole day from morning to night, and creativity, a key element in future success, is neglected.  Furthermore in China the poorer children from the countryside are often not admitted to the city school systems, thus giving results an upward bias.

It is worth noting the solution proposed by Finnish educators for addressing lower test scores.  In contrast to the United States’ « Common Core » program with its focus on drill and memorization, Finland is planning to increase music and art and phenomenon-based learning in the schools.  They view the decline in test scores as related to the influx of cell phones, which there, as here, occupy students in free moments, rather than conversation, sports, games, music or reading.

To read the article in french : click here

Research Confirms Waldorf Educational Methods


Robert C Oelhaf,  PhD (economics) taught science, and mathematics in Waldorf high schools for 16 years and was a founding teacher of the Hawthorne Valley Waldorf School.  He has also been an instructor in economics and in business and technical English at the university level.  His four children attended Waldorf schools Grades 1-12.  He is the author of Organic Agriculture:  Economic and Ecological Comparisons with Conventional Methods.

Article rédigé par un collectif de l’école Perceval
Remerciements à l’auteur pour son autorisation de publication

Mis en ligne le 03 Janvier 2017

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