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.