Waldorf Education: Investigations into the Development of Executive Function
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Waldorf Education: Investigations into the Development of Executive Function


Despite a 100-year-old history and the existence of schools in nearly every country in the world, Waldorf education is a little known and poorly understood educational model that was developed in Europe by Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner. For many years it existed in the United States in the form of private schools. Few of their teachers or administrators were interested in the opinions of others regarding the effectiveness of their pedagogy. As Waldorf-inspired charter schools have grown across the U.S., there is a greater need to understand the system. The Waldorf curriculum was created by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner who was a contemporary of John Dewey and Maria Montessori, and who shared their belief in the advantages of active learning. Yet Steiner was unique among his contemporaries in his focus on an artistic approach to learning. Using interviews, observations, and student work, I identify the beliefs that Waldorf teachers hold around the idea of what it means to be a teacher and then describe the ways in which their beliefs influence the integration of the arts in the literacy curriculum. Interviews confirmed previous research asserting that the Waldorf pedagogy is understood by its teachers in a consistent way across wholly independent schools. All three teachers shared a common understanding of child development, as well as a wholistic view of teaching and learning. Their beliefs centered around three ideas: first, that each child develops at their own pace, second, that academic achievement is not superior to physical, social, or behavioral achievement, and third, that focusing on foundational skills in grades one through three was one of the most important ways they could affect academic achievement. The teachers saw it as their role to a) be a guide and authority who b) strove to “see” the students in front of them, and c) worked reflectively to improve themselves as teachers. Their beliefs in the wholistic nature of learning led them to approach teaching with an eye towards active experiences that focused strongly on the use of imagination to strengthen each child’s connection to the academic content. Their learning of the letter B, for example, was not a simple explanation of its formation and sound. The students were introduced to a story that included ‘B’utterflies and ‘b’oots, which they drew into their books before proceeding to discover all the words that had a similar sound and practicing the writing of the letters. Individual growth is showcased through student work as it changed over time. The second study looked more deeply at the practices of the same teachers during a time of their teaching called morning rhythmical work. Using mixed-methods design, I attempt to compare the executive function development of students in these private schools to other private schools in California. Specifically, I examine how the pedagogical practices that focus on movement, song, and playful teaching in these private schools might impact executive function development, as compared with other private schools throughout the United States. Using observations and interviews, I describe the ways in which Waldorf teachers integrate movement and games into their school day. Then I used data from the ECLS-K to compare the development of the private school Waldorf students to other matched students in private schools. Although there was much evidence to suggest that the activities the teachers are engaging in with their students do require executive function skill, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was no evidence found in the second part of study two. Finally, study three used a quantitative, longitudinal, causal-comparative study design to examine the effectiveness of Waldorf education using annual state assessment scores for Waldorf-inspired charter school classrooms. This study addresses a gap in the literature as it relates to achievement among public school students in Waldorf-inspired classrooms, as compared to other non-Waldorf classrooms in grades three through eight. I found that by eighth grade students in Waldorf-inspired charter schools are performing similarly or better in ELA and math as compared to their non-Waldorf charter school and local public school comparison groups.

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