Thursday, May 9, 2013

Waldorf vs. Montessori Part II

In my last post, I explored some of the ways Waldorf and Montessori differ. Even though it was a somewhat lengthy post, I wasn't able address all my observations. It was also pretty obvious that fans of Montessori were quite put off by my thoughts. I have two things to say:

1. My experience with Montessori is definitely more limited than with Waldorf, so I'm sometimes able to expand upon the why behind Waldorf methodologies where I can't offer the same insight into Montessori. However, you know what they say: Perception is reality. What I mean by this is Maria Montssori's intent isn't always readily apparent. That doesn't make my takeaway completely invalid.

2. I hate to state the obvious, but this is my blog. I say that only to defend my right to express my point of view! If you don't like what I have to say, feel free to comment. Or better yet, write your own blog.

Now that I've gotten that off my chest, here are a few additions that might help further distinguish between these two opposite philosophies.

Ensuring an Authentic Experience
I got a lot of comments to my last piece about this issue. Before I get into more detail, I want to say that it's true that my experience with Montessori is limited to just one Montessori school. However, that school has all fully-trained Montessori teachers and highly prioritizes staying true to Dr. Montessori's philosophy. The space is beautiful, their idea of an "ideal" class size is 40 children, there is a big emphasis on fostering independence. The list goes on, but the bottom line is that from everything I've read about Montessori, it seems that this particular school is a solid example of what you should find when you observe a true Montessori school.

Having said that, I can move on to the fact that there is no single central organization that regulates the use of the term Montessori, so in essence, every school is different. Parents must research carefully to ensure they are getting a true Montessori experience. This excerpt from The Authentic American Montessori School: A Guide to the Self-Study, Evaluation, and Accreditation of American Schools Committed to Montessori Education offers some good guidelines.

Waldorf is a different story. The Association of Waldorf Schools of North America is the holder of trademark rights for the use of the names "Waldorf" and "Steiner." That means that when you enroll your child in a school that uses one of those words in its name or literature, that school is adhering to the tenets of Waldorf Education, guaranteed by a governing body with standards and requirements. That includes not only teaching methodology, but a pedagogy and even a curriculum. AWSNA requires regular mentoring and advisory visits to any accredited school to ensure that it's in good standing.

Academic Readiness
Rudolph Steiner, the man who "invented" Waldorf Education, also created Anthroposophy. Waldorf is based on Anthroposophy. While you won't see much actual religion in the classroom (i.e., there's no "Anthroposophy Class" or praying), there is deep respect for childhood development that is rooted in the teachings of Anthroposophy. That is why both the teachers and the curriculum share an attitude of protecting a child's need to "blossom" at their own pace. When an Early Childhood teacher recommends that a child moves on to First Grade, she looks at much more than his age or whether he knows his alphabet. In fact, there's a whole list of considerations that get at making sure the Whole Child is ready to begin school life.

Steiner segmented child development into seven-year spans. In the first seven years of life, children are still in the fantasy stage. That means that, according to Steiner's teachings, academic readiness doesn't come until the next phase, which begins at the age of seven, or First Grade. That is why Waldorf Schools have a reputation for "delayed academics." In reality there is much work done in the Early Childhood classrooms that get at academic readiness, from stretching the attention span of the young child through lengthy oral storytelling to exercising fine motor skills via sewing and knitting. But actual reading, writing and so on are addressed beginning in First Grade.

Maria Montessori was an exceedingly well educated woman who carefully crafted her curriculum and pedagogy. Studies have shown that her methods give children an academic edge. She divided childhood development into three-year spans and believed that each child is unique and comes into the world with her own personality, temperament, skills and abilities. This gets at the mixed-age Montessori classroom, which gives each child has the opportunity to develop at her own pace in her own way. She also maintained that all children have absorbent minds that are ready to soak up knowledge, and they do it best when in the midst of a "sensitive period," or when a child shows an interest in a particular subject. That is why a Montessori classroom looks the way it does, stocked with a variety activities targeted at the various sensitive periods within the class. Students are given the opportunity to go as far as they want in any given subject.

Here we see how Waldorf and Montessori are polar opposites: In Waldorf, academics are delayed by design until an age of concrete thinking is reached. Montessori introduces academics as early as a child demands - the child is in charge of how far she goes in any given subject.

Fantasy vs. Creativity
A Waldorf classroom offers fantasy in a variety of ways. The toys are distinct. They are made of natural materials: silk, cotton, wood. Dolls have just a hint of facial features so as not to interfere with a child's imagination. River stones can become eggs in a kitchen or money for a shopping spree. Drama is also a big part of life in a Waldorf school. The goal is to give children a way to understand and immerse themselves in a variety of feelings in a safe way, by assuming a different persona.

Some say that Montessori offers fantasy. I suppose that depends on your definition. While it certainly addresses creativity through art, drama and music, it there is little in the way of ethereal fantasy. In fact, Maria Montessori herself felt it our duty as adults and teachers to help children distinguish between fantasy and reality. Her classroom and curriculum are designed to that end.

If there's one thing you might have heard about Waldorf it's probably the rigid stance on media. Waldorf schools discourage television entirely. In addition media characters are not welcome in any way, not on a t-shirt, not on a lunchbox. That means no Elmo, no Batman, no Dora the Explorer. The reasoning is that media imagery is so powerful that it infiltrates the imagination and impedes it, taking on a primary role during play. If you've ever watched a child play who has just watched Sesame Street, for example, it quickly becomes clear why Waldorf holds this value. Children often parrot catch phrases from their favorite TV shows or pretend to be a favorite character.

Computers use is discouraged at the younger ages in Waldorf, but in high school it is addressed as a tool to be used respectfully and carefully. The first thing Waldorf high school students do is to disassemble a computer and put it back together to that they know exactly how it works before they begin to learn how to use it.

Montessori is more flexible here. Although media is supposed to be discouraged, many schools do not adhere to this tenet. It's my theory that this variation in policy is due to the lack of centralized monitoring and quality control in the Montessori world. However, it's unclear to me exactly what "no media" means in Montessori Education. Is it just a referral to television? Are media characters allowed? It's difficult to find a definitive answer. The one thing that seems clear is that computers are used in some settings as a learning tool in Practical Life.

 How are Waldorf and Montessori Similar?
 I thought this would be a nice way to close to help Waldorf and Montessori advocates to come together. After all, we are all bucking the system by choosing something off the beaten path. So more power to us all!
  • Waldorf and Montessori are both "alternative" forms of education.
  • Both stress the importance of the natural environment, keeping in touch with nature and natural materials.
  • Both hold great respect for the child as an individual and a creative being. 

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Waldorf vs. Montessori

I'm not a teacher. I don't have a degree in education. So what makes me qualified to compare Waldorf and Montessori? I have two children: One is in a Waldorf school, the other is in Montessori. My Waldorf child is in 4th Grade - we've been a part of the school since she was 3 years old. I've seen my share of Waldorf philosophy in that time. My Montessori child is just about to turn 4. He only just started school 8 months ago. Because he wouldn't separate from me, I went to school with him every day, all day, for the first month of school. As you can imagine, I saw quite a bit of Montessori in action. While I'm not a so-called expert, I've seen enough to form an educated opinion on what works for my children.

Opposite Philosophies

Making vegetable soup on
Soup Day in a Waldorf Kindergarten.
My first (and arguably most important) observation is that, contrary to what most people think, Waldorf and Montessori are philosophical opposites. Rudolph Steiner, the Father of Waldorf Education, believed that children are rooted in fantasy and that it's our job as adults and teachers to protect and honor that phase until they are ready to emerge from it in their own time. Maria Montessori also believed that children are rooted in fantasy, but that is where the common ground ends. She saw it as a teacher's job to help a child learn to distinguish fantasy from reality through specific instruction and reality-based activities, thereby ushering students into the "real world" step by step.

What does that translate to in the classroom? Let's start with a Waldorf painting lesson. On a given day, the children might have two primary colors to work with, let's say red and blue. The consistency of the paint is watery for good reason (which will become obvious in a moment). The children are given wet watercolor paper and are invited to "experience" the colors, how they come alive, wicking along the paper, slowly blending together to create a new color. The teacher never points out that red and blue make purple. The children are left to discover that for themselves.

In a Montessori classroom the scene is different. Each educational exercise has a purpose. Each teaches a specific lesson or skill. You won't find dolls or other make believe toys, but you will see blocks for measuring and counting or bells meant to teach a child how to match different pitches. Before a child is allowed to try new "work," the teacher models exactly how to do it. Let's say the "work" is learning how to transfer popcorn kernels from one bowl to another using a small spoon. The class gathers to observe the teacher while she methodically completes the task from start to finish, carefully scooping each spoonful from the first bowl and slowly, without spilling, depositing it into the second.

Winner: Waldorf. Personally, I learn better through experience. While Montessori does offer learning by doing, there is much direction and explanation that goes along with that. In a Waldorf classroom, the child is allowed to draw her own conclusions about the best processes as well as the outcome.

Social Dynamics
Another way in which Waldorf and Montessori differ is in socializing. Anyone with young children will agree that they all need practice here. In Waldorf those opportunities are delivered through a group dynamic. That's not to say that children never pair off - they are allowed to play in whatever format they naturally gravitate toward during free play periods. However, there is plenty of work done with cooperative games and class puppet shows to help children learn how to work together.

Bell work at a Montessori school
In a Montessori classroom, young children work alone or in pairs. There are some group activities, for example, Story Time, Sharing Time, or Circle Time. But when students are at "work," the magic number is two. They graduate to working in larger groups later on, but to start, things are kept intimate with just two children collaborating on any given "work." This allows them to begin to get a feel for cooperation and also gives them the opportunity to learn from each other.

Winner: Waldorf. Children need help learning to work together no matter the size of the group, so both philosophies offer good practice here. What I like about Waldorf is that it does not limit the children to working in pairs. They have the freedom and flexibility to choose for themselves.

Experience vs. Instruction
What about how children learn in a given environment? Rudolph Steiner saw it as imperative that students experience learning though as many different channels as possible. In a Waldorf classroom, although plenty of time is spent at the black board working on fractions, you will also find that lesson being driven home through a measuring ingredients in a baking lesson. While students might spend some time learning behind their desks, it's just as common to see them moving around, marching in a circle, rhythmically chanting their times tables, for example.

A Montesori classroom is more free-flowing. Because each student is in charge of pursuing any given "work," there is a lot of movement and action going on. Students are constantly changing their focus, moving from station to station. Again, the senses are engaged, but here that is accomplished through the purpose and design of each activity. The school day does have structure. There is Circle Time, Indoor Play, and Outdoor Play. But exactly which activities each child chooses within those periods is up to the individual.

Winner: Both. Personality is the determining factor in my mind. Some parents worry that in a Montessori environment their children might shy away from any subjects which they might not enjoy, thereby creating a "gap" in their education. But if you have a self-motivated learner, it might work very well and be empowering. What's nice about Waldorf is that all the subjects are guaranteed to get covered, all in a fun and engaging way.

Teacher Led vs. Child Led
Perhaps the most well known component of Montessori is its child-led methodology. A Montessori classroom has many offerings for its students. In an early childhood setting you would find four stations: Practical Life, Sensorial, Language, and Math. Language and Math are self explanatory. Practical Life refers to skills such as zippering, buttoning, pouring, slicing food, using a spoon, or carrying a tray while Sensorial refines the senses to enable children to better absorb information from the world around them. To most parents, the most interesting thing about all these components is that the time frame and order in which they are explored by the student is determined by the student. This gives children the freedom to develop according to their own unique timetable and, as a result, they are able to reach each developmental milestone when they are ready.

In a Waldorf environment, the teacher is the classroom leader. She is the one who determines the rhythm of the day. She directs the curriculum. She communicates the material. There is plenty of interaction and many modes of learning that are employed. All the senses are awakened. In other words, the curriculum is as engaging and meaningful as possible, and the teacher directs it all.

Winner: Both. Again, finding the right model for your child depends on her personality. Does she need direction? Or is she self-motivated and naturally curious?

The Bottom Line
There so much more to each Waldorf and Montessori than I've touched upon here, but Waldorf wins out for me. Montessori is certainly interesting, but some of its developmental philosophies feel out of sync to me. The stringent adherence to working in pairs, the tedious instruction when introducing new work. These practices don't seem especially friendly toward young children. Plus, while the academic and practical side of learning is addressed, values are not a part of the curriculum.

The truth is, there's never going to be a perfect school, but Waldorf works for my parenting style and my family. I identify with so many of the tenets. It is rooted in truth and beauty and community. It is media-free. It is about spurring a lifetime of curiosity and a deep connection to learning. Most importantly it is developmentally appropriate each step of the way. Waldorf has done so much for my daughter. (Next school year, my son will benefit from it as well when he starts at the same Waldorf school.) Waldorf Education has fostered a sense of confidence in my child that I believe comes from its slow and reverent pace, honoring each age and stage. It meets her where she is and adapts to her as she grows and matures.

To read more about the inner workings of a Waldorf Classroom, read my piece for Renewal Magazine: A Day in a Waldorf Kindergarten

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Renewal Magazine Feature: A Day in a Waldorf Kindergarten

Written for the national publication, Renewal Magazine, this piece paints a picture of what it's like to spend the day in a Waldorf Kindergarten classroom...