Monday, January 12, 2009

Where's Waldorf?

NOLA mom, who's always got a useful question (if this were a paying gig, she'd be hired!), asked what I think of Waldorf. In short, I like it, but not for me. I like it for people who like it. Let me explain.

Waldorf and Montessori meet philosophically at a point on the horizon that I agree is where we all want to go. It is a place where we have happy, well adjusted, engaged, creative independent little kids who love school and life. They differ substantially in how we get from here to there, largely because they don't quite agree about where "here" is. Caveat: I am a Montessori person, not a Waldorf person, so my point of view is skewed. If you are a Waldorf teacher (or Waldorf parent who knows the ins and outs of the method) I invite you to post, just so we can have an accurate picture.

Here's my understanding from touring my local Waldorf, and having a lovely and fascinating dinner with a very enthusiastic Waldorf proponent. Waldorf and Montessori have different takes on following the child, but they both maintain this as a core value. Both are disinclined to try to "teach" preschoolers anything, rather they set them up to "discover" things. Both approaches involve a degree of controlled freedom within the classroom. both involve ample engagement with a prepared immediate environment, and both are partial to simple wooden toys over noisy plastic ones. Both eschew screens (tv or computer) as learning tools, and both are typically taught by peaceable young-to-middling-aged women partial to dansko clogs and organic produce. However, Waldorf teachers seem to do more needle felting than Montessori teachers, and to use more batik and tye-dyed textiles to create a soft, diffuse comfort in their classroom decor. Montessori teachers seem more inclined to watercolors than needlecraft, and prefer sun-drenched rooms with glossy polished shelves and neat and spare interiors.

Rudolph Steiner (the Waldorf guy) created a very open early childhood curriculum based pretty rigorously on age readiness. Reading and math are introduced formally much later in Waldorf classrooms than in Montessori classrooms, with the reason that no lesson should be presented before the child's mind is fully ready to receive it. From this point of view, Montessori is essentially "hiding the vegetables" in math-and-reading driven activities that young children enjoy, even if they cannot yet synthesize them. From a Montessori perspective, the young child absorbs concrete information, to be abstracted and synthesized later. Waldorf argues that this is an unnecessary preparation of an immature brain, and that the child's energy is better spent in imaginative fantasy play and games of his own creation, and in largely unguided exploration, particularly in the very early years. Waldorf develops more structure as the child gets older and, like Montessori, becomes somewhat more teacher-driven as the mind develops readiness for greater abstraction.

The imagery that illustrates my understanding of the differences is this. Waldorf seems to endeavor to encircle and encourage free exploration, gathering the child's consciousness from the edges and spiraling it upward toward abstract thought. It begins with largely unbridled experience, and focuses it through the grades through manipulation at the edges of a mind that is left as free from intrusion as possible. Montessori, on the other hand, feels to me as if it prefers to infiltrate the developing mind, following the child's discovery of the pieces of intellect, and leaving markers in the places where it meets the child's free exploration. The child then draws those markers together through her unique experience and discovers the order inside and outside herself at once.

I think my preference for Montessori has something to do with my education, and a lot to do with how I'm wired. I'm a tinkerer and a dissector of things and ideas by nature. I like that the curriculum anticipates the interest of the child in a variety of directions, and waits to see how the child will discover it, and how she will bring it all together. The Waldorf method feels, to my Montessori sensibility, a little too timid. It feels as if it is always a step behind the child, rather than waiting for the child's arrival. Waldorf feels more like a gentle push, where as Montessori feels like a gentle pull.

Also, while both Montessori and Waldorf are very environment-focused, Waldorf seems to invite a more sweeping sense of wonder, an artists sense. Montessori feels like a more penetrating sort of wonder, a scientist's sense. It invites a more experimental kind of exploration, where Waldorf seems to invite reflection more than experimentation. I think I just have a rather analytical mind, and so the Montessori curriculum speaks to me, and Waldorf feels too passive. Where Montessori steps forward with curiosity, Waldorf steps back in awe.


meg hicks said...

My sentiments exactly. Over the years when people ask me about the difference between Montessori and Waldorf (or Steiner as it is known in Australia), I bumble about trying to put something very intangible into words as eloquent as yours. In future I'll just refer them to your post!

Anonymous said...

thanks. I've been looking for something like this.

NOLA mom said...

What an eloquently written comparison. You've a bit of the artist's sense after all.

This has lead me to wonder about Montessorian views of fantasy, wonder and imagination. These seem like staples of childhood, yet modern schools have sort of brushed them aside in favor of "learning things." Waldorf values and encourages fantasy, but I suppose Montessori leaves that up to the child? Do the children in a Montessori environment engage in pretend play and use their imaginations similarly to their non-Montessori peers? What about the occasional child with a poor imagination or who is disinclined to engage in pretend play?

One thing about the Waldorf school that impressed me was the focus on language. The children created their own textbooks. I've never seen a Montessori school that goes beyond kindergarten, so I wonder if there is a similar emphasis on language in the Montessori lower school.

And in my typical late-night stream of consciousness way, I am also wondering about television. Waldorf basically asks parents to keep their children TV-free. I suppose everyone these days thinks it's a bad thing to let kids (especially young ones) watch TV, but do modern day Montessorians take a stance on this (e.g., no TV, limited TV)? What about you? What are your house rules?

Testdriver said...

Oh, this is such a wonderful topic!

You know, I have a great deal of respect for the Waldorf philosophy, and I do love the support of the child's creativity that Waldorf is so famous for. I know that the children write books, and that storytelling and book writing are integral to the Waldorf experience, because through storytelling and writing, the children learn concretely where stories come from, and that they are empowered to create their own stories. In the Steiner method, the stories of children are greeted as literature, which they are.

Montessori does not emphasize this as much as Steiner does, although I have met some Montessori teachers who are great storytellers. As I said before, I am not a Waldorf teacher, so my theories are all leaning Montessori, but I do have some thoughts about this difference.

The Steiner method, as I said before, encourages the child's growth by externally focusing an internal energy that is left largely free in the early years. Writing textbooks is a way in which the Steiner method helps the children learn to codify the creations of their minds--and the primary human code for communicating ideas is language.

I think the fundamental difference here is order of operations. Montessori tends to encourage the child to look outward, exploring the world outside their minds through a carefully prepared environment filled with experiments for the hands, at a period when the hands and body are the primary means by which the child meets the world. Later, when the intellect begins to come together on this foundation (Piaget's age of reason is what, 6? 7?), Montessori begins to invite children to explore and share their interior landscapes, with the idea that they are greatly enriched by having gathered so much data in the "absorbent" period of development.

Steiner's early childhood program is much more internally reflective from the start. The child begins to experience the world from the inside out.

Testdriver said...

Oh, and about TV.

Montessori folks do not really like TV, but they don't typically make you sign contracts about it as the Steiner folks do.

In our house, we have "ambient" TV in the evenings--news and such--but no kids TV. If we hit a lull in the day and it feels like a good time to veg in front of the tube, I just move everything to the playroom, and away from the set.

We do allow limited TV (strictly sesame street and its ilk) when we leave the children with a babysitter in the evenings, and my Mom has Baby Einstein videos in the car, to which I don't object. Also, somehow we got hold of a Shark Tales movie, and Nuvy has watched it more times than I can count. She repeats lines from it in her regular conversation now. I'm actually ok with that, I'm trying to just let her watch it as many times as she wants, and I'm not introducing any more movies, hoping it will work its way out.

I guess my short answer would be that I, myself, don't "do" TV with the children, but I don't really enforce that with others. Everyone's home is different, and I don't want them to judge their friends (or imagine that I am judging their friends) because their households are run differently from ours. If I have decided that I trust someone to host my child, I don't try to impose my rules in their home. As they say, it takes a village.

For babysitters, I do give strict guidelines, but I cut them more slack than I would myself. I think those who are doing it will agree that this kind of parenting is demanding, especially in the evenings, and I would rather have my kids see a little TV now and then and have my babysitters continue to accept my calls. :)

NOLA mom said...

Gosh, at 4:30 or 5 pm, I typically have a very fussy 18 month old trying to climb up my leg while I cook dinner. He's too young to "help out" and I worry about his safety getting under foot in the kitchen. My 4 yr old is pretty self sufficient but getting a bit cranky by then too. This is the witching hour when they either fight over toys or get too rough and tumble, requiring too much supervision for me to do anything else. This is when the dulcet tones of Dora beckon (or Diego, or my personal favorite, the Backyardigans--so catchy!). I have guilt and am wondering if I can find another way.

And you, with no contraptions (exersaucer, etc) and no TV manage just fine. Let me guess, your little ones are neatly putting their simple wooden toys back on a shelf while mine raise hell and beg for Noggin? Gee, what am I doing wrong?? Oh boy, I'm about to ask for a schedule to crib. How about a typical day-in-the-life type post?

Testdriver said...

Ok, NOLA mom. I am laughing out loud now! Make no mistake, there is no dinner cooking going on at my house at 4:30 or 5:00, unless I have either sent Nuvy over to the next-door neighbors' house (probably to watch the Backyardigans--I can't watch them. They give me earworms, and my intracranial kids music playlist is already annoying enough!), to play outside with the neighbor kids (whom she is terrorizing by now), or unless they are all over at my house making mincemeat of the carefully organized simple wooden toys (or just playing with the blinky-blinky things they have brought over with them).

If I haven't conned some neighbor kid into carrying Van around, I have to strap him to my back to get any cooking (or cleaning) done. In essence, I am the human jumpy chair.

If I do manage to keep it all together in the "arsenic hour", my husband will come home to the lunch dishes still stuck to the table with spilled milk, everything Van has eaten for the day still on the floor around his weaning table, and all of us upstairs in the playroom eating wooden food off a tiny ceramic tea set or some other picturesque thing. He will then change out of his work clothes and go into the kitchen to make some variation on spaghetti for dinner. This happens probably four days a week. He does not sweep up whatever Van ate from the floor. If i don't get to it, it will be there for me at midnight, when I will avoid it by blogging or engaging in some other screen-enabled escapism.

If there is someone out there who is doing no TV, no bars or jumpy chairs, has a one-year-old and a three-year-old, no household help, and no neighborhood 9-16 year old set to voluntarily entertain the babies after school, and is running a clean house and getting a hot meal on the table by 6pm every night, I want some of whatever she is having!

But oh, yes. Something has to give. In my case, it's housework. I manage to keep the playroom neat most of the time, and am batting about .450 in the kitchen for clearing dishes and wiping up spills. I rarely run the vacuum cleaner or scrub the bathtub, and if it's a weekday and I'm cooking, I never start until Kent gets home at 6:00, at which time he manages the kids in some other part of the house while I cook. Usually, he would prefer to just cook himself, which happens a lot.

Of course, there's always Shark Tale!

NOLA mom said...

Well shoot, I have the slacker housekeeping, cobbled together dinners AND TV! On the other hand, I don't have the neighborly or neighborhood distractions and only have husband help (for the dinner part) on weekends, so there!

With what do you strap Van to your back? This could be the answer! I could papoose my little monkey!!

Testdriver said...

For me, the papoose is the answer!I use a mei-tai carrier, but there are a wide variety of backpack-type things you can carry them in. I highly recommend it.

The Magda Gerber people oppose it as a contraption but I prefer to give it a pass as an "assistant to carrying."

You want to be careful about it though, as it is regarded by almost everyone as unsafe around hot stoves and such. Van does do pretty well in it. I can get about half an hour before he wants to be put down. Nuvy would ride in it for hours, leaving me virtually unencumbered!

Jody said...

Oh, this is so eloquent! I just happened to stumble upon your blog and this is what I have been looking for. So many people try to explain the differences between Waldorf and Montessori but their biases show through. Your explanation show an appreciation for both methods while gently describing their differences. Thank you for this post. It was very helpful!

Gypsy said...

I have just found your blog and am loving it! I am more on the Steiner side, but have a lot of Montessori tendencies as well. I think your summary is really good.

What I would add is that the Waldorf/Steiner approach is based on seeing the child as a spiritual being, and that early academic activity, even if child initiated, is potentially damaging to the child's spiritual and physical development. Conversely, fantasy and imaginative play is seen as greatly benefiting this development. I personally think that following the child is a really appopriate way to go, but I just thought I would put my two cents in!

Also, I am in the process of blogging about the differences between Steiner, Playcentre(which is a New Zealand parent run thing - a bit like your co-op but there are 100s of them across NZ) and Montessori ... if you are interested

Charissa said...

I love this post Test Driver. Your writing is, is, is great. Mine, not so much :). I'm loving your blog & so thankful that you share your experience & expertise with Montessori-influenced parenting of infants. I'm a certified M. Directress of early childhood education ages (3-6) & a new mother of my 11 month daughter. I read & reread Montessori from the Start but was left wanting much more clarity on months 9-12. Your blog is my holy grail. Thank you!