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