By Paul de Gennaro
When our children were little, we felt that we had some sense of what their capabilities and skills were, which led us to choose an educational environment that would best foster their growth. We felt these were the most important parts of parenting: knowing who your child is, how they learn, how they experience the world, and how to support them along their journey.
We never felt comfortable putting tremendous stress on our children to succeed academically. Instead, we focus on creating enriching learning experiences, while allowing them space to grow. We knew that this combination would lead to the development of critical skills that would pay off later.
What has been fantastic about Waldorf education is that hands-on learning experiences in drawing, painting, building, music, and more, provide children the space and time to build skills, which leads to content mastery later on.
In most schools, the emphasis is on early content mastery, driven by a belief that if you know some content, this will allow you to eventually learn more content.
I don’t believe that to be true. And I’m not just saying that as a Waldorf parent.
I completed my PhD at UC-Davis, focusing on trying to understand how people learn. My career is devoted to helping people build cognitive skills to help them succeed academically and professionally. I have data, research, and experience to support this perspective.
And, I’m a Waldorf parent of three boys who are thriving.
In my research, I have found that there are three cognitive skills that form the foundation of learning and achievement in STREAM (science, technology, research, engineering, art and math) subjects.
First is proportional reasoning, which forms the foundation for math. This basically determines how strong of an intuitive math sense a person has.
Because Waldorf immerses students in so many hands-on activities like woodworking, handwork and fine arts, it lends itself well to tangible ways of teaching math and art – building a foundation for math learning without students realizing it.
Next is spatial ability development – again, driven by drawing, hands-on activities, movement, and other enrichment activities that help a person develop depth – how things look in your mind’s eye, how shapes create structures, how we see things take form.
And finally, the last piece is pitch pattern perception, which is tied to language acquisition. Waldorf students begin their learning journeys in song and music, giving way to wind instruments, strings, singing.
They’re learning not just rhythm and pitch, but are developing language processing too, in a fun and harmonious way.
All of this adds up to a shift in the way we think about education.
The goal should be to develop skills rather than memorize facts and figures. Focusing on memorization of facts improves memorization skills.
Success in post-secondary education and later, in the professional realm, ultimately requires much more than rote memorization. Knowing your child’s abilities, with an immersion in experiential activities, as Waldorf education offers from the very youngest age all the way through to the end of high school, are the first steps on the road to skill-building and eventual content mastery.
Waldorf does a lot of really good things that support a developing child. Having an idea of where your child’s skill levels are can help remove the stress and uncertainty of what an ideal educational experience should look like.
Paul de Gennaro is dad to Dominic, 18 (a SWS graduate who is studying biochemistry at Sonoma State University); Vincent, 16 (an SWS junior); and Quentin, 12 (an SWS 7th grader). He teaches anatomy and physiology at Sacramento City College and works on a grant program funded by the Department of Education focused on helping Hispanic, Latinx, and low-income students succeed in STEM. He is founder of STEM-Score International and the STEM-Score Diagnostic.