The Results of Waldorf Education

June 6, 2010

This essay is republished from

What really are the results of Waldorf (Rudolf Steiner) education? One may feel that the brochures and websites make Waldorf look excellent, and that the goal of “Education Towards Freedom” is very sound. One may be impressed by the enthusiasm and commitment of teachers in a Waldorf school, and admire both the academic and artistic work of the students. But it is good to hear from people outside the Waldorf movement, who have worked together with – or in some other way have had experience of – Waldorf graduates and who have an objective professional basis for judging whether this form of education really accomplishes its goals.

The following three short articles, coming from California, New York and Europe respectively, offer just this kind of professional and objective evaluation.

The Waldorf Grade School

shipmanJames Shipman History Department, Marin Academy, San Raphael, California.
(Explanatory note: The Marin Waldorf School ends at Eighth Grade. A number of its graduates have gone on to the Marin Academy – not a Waldorf school – for their secondary education.)

What I like about the Waldorf School is, quite simply, its graduates. As a high school teacher at Marin Academy, I have seen a number of the students who come from your program, and I can say that in all cases they have been remarkable, bright, energetic and involved.

One of my duties is to teach World Civilizations to incoming 9th graders, so I tend to be one of the first people who encounter a Waldorf graduate. My course is not like the standard History of Western Civilization course, but rather requires the student to investigate the deeper aspects of the world’s cultures. For example, we are not so much interested in the chronology of Chinese emperors and the dynasties to which they belonged; instead we want to explore and understand the principles of Taoism and Confucianism and how these underlying philosophies helped shape the Chinese culture. We aren’t so much interested in memorizing names and dates as we are in understanding what motivates people, and why they make the choices they do.

I find the Waldorf graduates to be entirely willing to undertake this sort of investigation. They are eager to learn. They do not complain when I assign, for example, a passage from the Bhagavad Gita and then ask them what they think. Indeed, that is what I find most remarkable about Waldorf kids: they have been taught to think; thinking is an “okay” activity for them to engage in. I think they intrinsically understand the difference between thinking about an issue and merely memorizing “the right answer” for the test.

Waldorf students are not simply bookworms, however. In fact one could find Waldorf kids completely involved in the theatre, the arts, music, and sports here at Marin Academy. What I see here is an integration of the faculties – mental, emotional, physical and spiritual – which, when coupled with the overtones of personality unite to form unique individuals. Marin Waldorf students to me are interesting people. They can converse intelligently on almost any issue, because they have been taught to examine. They can be enormously sympathetic to almost anyone’s plight because they have been taught to tolerate. They can gracefully dance or score a goal because they have been taught to move. They can circulate among the various groups on campus and engage in a variety of activities because they have been taught to harmonize.

We used to use the word “holistic” or “whole person” to describe the kind of person I have outlined above. Whatever the term used, it is apparent to me that the Marin Waldorf School consciously turns out calm, centered and confident students. For my part, I deeply appreciate the school’s efforts, because based on their work, I get to enjoy those students who come to Marin Academy. It is with humility that I note that Waldorf students allow me and my colleagues to influence them.

It is as if somewhere in their early years of schooling they somehow got the idea that learning is a lifelong enterprise.

The Waldorf Graduate – A personal Reflection

adelphiDr. W. Warren B. Eickelberg Professor of Biology, Director, Premedical Curriculum, Adelphi University, Garden City, New York.
(Explanatory note: Most, though perhaps not all of the students referred to here as “Waldorf graduates” had their high school years in a Steiner school.)

The 1986-7 academic year will mark my thirty-fourth year of teaching at Adelphi University. When I began, no biologist knew what a gene was and now we manufacture them. When I entered teaching, there were but a dozen antibiotics, and now they number in the thousands. Thirty Four years ago many of the biological sub-disciplines did not even exist and much of what we taught then would now be incorrect. The minds of men and women have opened for us new vistas to view; the hands of men and women have given us new technology, but the souls of men and women remain the same, always searching for the answers as to who we are, why we are here, and what our destiny is.

As there have been changes in academic content and technology, so the undergraduate student has changed. I lived with and experienced the job-orientated World War ll veteran. I remember well the recall to active duty of many for the “peace action” in Korea. I sat through the “teach-ins” and the campus strikes of the Viet Nam era. I lived through the revealing anatomy of the miniskirt, the drabness of the dark blue jeans phase, the demands by students to develop their own curricula, the reorientation of learning by professors and administrators, the establishment of obviously immoral sex mores, the decline in admission standards, and the unique and possibly devastating effect that the medium of television has had on young people. Without a doubt, my past three decades have been marked by change, and ever more change.

Throughout this dynamism of activity where values were under attack and standards of behaviour were challenged, from time to time there would be a unique stabilizing influence in my classes: a Waldorf School graduate. And they were different from the others. Without exception they were, at the same time, caring people, creative students, individuals of identifiable values, and students who, when they spoke, made a difference.

Let me share with the reader some of those features so that you might see the difference. Almost without exception, every Waldorf School graduate showed concern for the embalmed animals we use for dissection in Comparative Anatomy. I was always asked if the animal died painlessly, and they further questioned as to how. The Waldorf School graduates of the fifties, and of today, still show a unique reverence for life, and they regard an experimental animal, whether dead or alive, in a special way?.not just another reagent or piece of equipment to use in an experiment. While all students are surprised to see the giant liver of a shark, it is always the Waldorf School graduate who sees this massive organ filled with oils as the result of a unique plan to give the animal buoyancy.

When describing geologic time, I have often told the true story of a man whose calculator could record the number 9.9x 10 to the power of 99. He discovered that even the estimated number of atoms in the universe or the volume of our known universe in cubic millimeters could not begin to approach this order of magnitude. It was a Waldorf student who found an article suggesting that the chances of two human beings, other than identical twins, being genetically alike would approach one out of 1×10 to the power of 6,270, and thus concluded that indeed each person is a unique and specially created individual.

We know the atoms in every cell of every living being are found in the stars and the intergalactic gases and that we all make up a Community of Matter. As we in science view the universe from its creation to its predicted end, man may seem, astronomically speaking, rather insignificant, but any Waldorf School graduate will remind each of us that Man is still the only astronomer.

Once when I was discussing the decreasing gene frequencies of Blood type B from Siberia through Western Europe, it was a Waldorf student who related this fact to the invasions by Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. It has been said that historians see civilization as a stream through history, and the stream is often filled with blood, loud shouts, killing, and discoveries. Somehow it is the Waldorf School graduate who sees the stream, but also focuses on the banks where there are people who love, raise children, build homes, write poetry, worship and carve statues.

Waldorf School graduates see behind the facts that often must be repeated or explained on examination. They are keenly interested in the macrocosm of the universe and the microcosm of the cell’s ultrastructure, but they know that Chemistry, Biology and Physics can’t tell them much about the nature of love. They see, in embryology, a fetus developing a compound called prostaglandin enhancing the mother’s response to oxyticin so that labor can begin, and they see this as a reflection of a guided universe. I feel certain that all Waldorf School graduates believe in the ordiliness of our universe, and they believe the human mind can discern this order and appreciate its beauty.

Research on Waldorf Graduate

Excerpts from an article in Der Spiegel, December 14, 1981 (Translated by Renate Field)
(Explanatory Note: Der Spiegel is a German weekly newsmagazine, somewhat analogous to our Time or Newsweek.)

Waldorf schools, generally reputed to produce “beautiful souls” weakened to the tasks of real life, actually do quite the opposite, say the result of a study which could even correct the evaluation of Gesamtschulen (twelve-year schools which include both those students preparing for college and others as well). During the current school year, 32 000 students are being educated outside the state school system in 72 Free Waldorf Schools according to the pedagogical concepts of the anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner. They attend a school which, according to the aims of their founder, aspires to transmit not only knowledge and ability but also content helpful for life and a perspective on life’s purposes. Their school day does not follow the 45-minut beat of strict timetables, but runs according to the rhythm of “blocks” and, during the first eight years, with strong artistic emphasis. Their career is not accompanied, year after year, by reports, marks and promotions, but is free of streaming and the pressures of grading – a tempting perspective surely, but for many parents hardly a realistic one or adequate preparation for the battles of life.

This view is now being shaken by a scientific study of ” The Educational Background of Former Waldorf Students” – the first empirical research of the Waldorf Movement.

Three independent scientists, paid for by the Bonn Department of Education, interviewed 1460 former Waldorf Students born in the years of 1946 and 1947 and came to a prevailingly positive result in favor of the Waldorf Schools. Their students have achieved, so the examiners have discovered, “an educational plateau well above average.”

The results appear to be formulated conservatively. For it is just this achievement of the Waldorf Schools that holds surprises for the educational policy-makers. Twenty-two percent of the students passed the Arbitur at their own Waldorf school – even back in the years 1966 and 1967, almost three times more than in the state schools. Moreover, 40 percent of those polled. Who had never attended any other school than a Waldorf school from grade 1 through 13 passed the Arbitur.