Driving down the hill for the first time onto the SWS campus 17 years ago, I stepped out of my car and felt that I had found the school I had been searching for. I immediately recognized there was something special about this campus and this school. I had no idea what Waldorf education was, but I certainly wanted to learn more.
My daughter and I began attending the Parent-Child program, and I enrolled in the high school teacher training program the following summer. Those initial feelings are linked up with my feelings for this school. They are part of my learning.
Have you had the experience of driving when a song from a different place and time in your life begins playing on the radio? It’s not only the song you remember, but where you were when you originally heard it, who you were with, and how you felt.
That song is linked up within the context in which it was first heard. Part of what Waldorf education does well is recognize that learning is linked with the environment in which the learning takes place. Waldorf education respects and nurtures children’s innate ability to learn better than any form of education I have discovered.
Understanding Learning & Human Development
Before finding Waldorf education, I completed a four-year training in the Feldenkrais Method. Based on the work of Moshe Feldenkrais, a Ukrainian-Israeli physicist and judo master, this method is a type of somatic education that uses gentle movement and directed attention to help people improve their self-use. “The Feldenkrais Method is based on principles of physics, biomechanics, and an empirical understanding of learning and human development.”
Our nervous systems are learning systems. They tend to do what is most efficient when we do not interfere with them. An Olympic gymnast makes a floor routine look simple and effortless. They eliminate all extraneous, parasitic effort from their movement.
Similarly, we probably all remember our wobbly first attempts when learning to ride a bicycle. My son received a wooden bike when he was three years old. It consisted of a wooden frame, two wheels, and a seat. The bike lacked pedals, a chain, or sprocket. He sat on the seat, both feet flat on the floor. That enabled him to scoot around and motor up and down the driveway Flintstone–style.
Within a few months, he was coasting up and down the driveway without touching the ground. He learned to ride a bicycle at his own pace without the interference of a well-meaning parent. When he made the transition to a real bicycle with pedals, he didn’t need training wheels. While still three years old, he simply hopped on a regular bicycle for the first time and rode off like he had been riding a bicycle his entire life.
Since he was afforded the time to learn at his own pace, he naturally assimilated the efficient and over time discarded inefficient effort. His maiden voyage nevertheless provided a risible scene of learning to break for the first time. Waldorf education recognizes and embraces the learning differences inherent between children and allows them to learn to read, play instruments, and write at their own pace.
Our nervous systems are designed to notice small differences. The slower we move, the finer a distinction we can make. For example, a person holding a hammer will not likely notice a fly landing on it; however, a person holding a feather will notice a fly coming to rest on it.
This principle is the reason why Tai Chi is practiced slowly: to allow one’s nervous system, like the Olympic gymnast, to gradually eliminate extraneous effort from movement.
Consider the many ways Waldorf education creates an environment to allow children to assimilate what is essential and eliminate inefficiency from their movement.
Current research demonstrates how the social-emotional aspect of learning is integrated into and a central part of the learning process. Attending to the social-emotional element of learning is a central aspect of Waldorf education. This fact is acknowledged in the first sentence of the school’s Employee-Student Interaction Policy… “The human relationships formed between Waldorf educators and our students and their families are at the heart of our education.”
One of the first lessons Waldorf teacher training programs instill in their students is that teachers must be worthy of imitation because “what teachers really teach is themselves.”
Moreover, “children learn from people they love, and that love in this context means willing the good of another and offering active care for the whole person.”
The social–emotional aspect of learning is one of the keys to academic success and one that Waldorf education prioritizes. “An emphasis on these capacities is not the sacrifice of rigor; it is a source of rigor.”
A Waldorf education encompasses and embraces all these important aspects of learning. Anyone who has stepped into a Waldorf kindergarten classroom intrinsically recognizes the qualitative difference in that learning environment compared with a mainstream kindergarten classroom.
The environment is not rushed. Children are encouraged and able to repeat activities, movements, and songs as many times as they like during the time allotted. They begin practicing fine motor skills through painting and structured and unstructured play time.
The same rich and supportive learning environment continues through the grades at a developmentally appropriate pace. By the time Waldorf students reach our high school, they have been bathed in an environment that has supported and hopefully awakened all a student’s capacities for learning.
Our high school teachers build on and take advantage of the foundation laid during lower school and early childhood years. And although each grade in the high school wrestles with different questions and has a curriculum directed for a specific developmental age, our curriculum and teachers are always working in the service of guiding each student to realize their full potential and become who they are meant to be.
The school can only achieve its mission, though, by teaching students the process of learning itself, and we can only do that by tapping into the innate learning systems of the human being that Rudolf Steiner so deeply understood.
Every year, our high school graduates impress me with their well-developed capacities for the practical and fine arts, music, athletics, writing, science and math. They consistently win National Merit Commended Scholarship awards and are accepted into some of the best colleges and universities in the country.
While these honors and abilities are certainly important ingredients of a well-prepared high school graduate, they are ancillary benefits of a Waldorf education. The most important and relevant parts of a Waldorf education cannot be measured by standardized test scores. What makes a Waldorf graduate special has to do with her sense of self as illustrated by the following story.
Several years ago, I asked a parent why he had his kids in a Waldorf school. He told me that before he had children, he struck up a conversation with three young men he met while camping. The three young men so impressed him as people he wanted to be around and wanted to be more like that he asked them what they had in common—they all seemed so authentic and comfortable with themselves.
They replied that they had all attended a Waldorf school. The parent told them that he didn’t know what a Waldorf school was but that if he ever had kids, they were going to attend a Waldorf school.
Our students and graduates provide the most powerful evidence of our success because they have learned how to learn and, most importantly, have learned to be themselves. They are prepared for life and have the skills to be successful in any situation.
Dean Smith is High School Administrator.
 New York Times “Students Learn from People They Love”
 To a Nation at Hope
 About the Feldenkrais Method
 Sacramento Waldorf School Employee-Student Interaction Policy