Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What influence does the Waldorf Curriculum have on the modern child’s brain?

This question has intrigued me for the last ten years, since neurological research began to shed light on how the educational experience manifests in the brain of a child. I would like to address this question by posting a piece that speaks about this and other related issues. This piece that I wrote was published in Renewal several years ago, but I believe it is still current today.


Each morning when I open the door and step into my first-grade room, I immediately feel at home. I like my classroom—the plants by the windows, the children’s watercolor paintings brightening the walls, the wooden desks and chairs all ordered and arranged to face the blackboard. I like to think that this classroom is lovelier than the ones I entered as a child, but the truth is that there are strong similarities between this room and the classrooms of my past. Many of today’s young teachers would say that my classroom is old-fashioned. It is noticeably lacking the modern accoutrements. There are no laptops, no white boards, no markers, no active board, no CD or DVD player, not even an intercom speaker. My classroom is a low-tech environment—one seemingly behind the times. Perhaps I should be worried that I am a dinosaur, some relic from another educational era when teachers stood at the front of the room and when pencils and paper, chalk and erasers were essential ingredients in a school experience. And yet, when I read what is being written today about education, brain development, and the dramatically changed world that awaits our children, I am absolutely convinced that my Waldorf classroom is leading my students back to the future.

Two years ago, Thomas Friedman, New York Times reporter and author of The World is Flat, spoke to a group of students at a highly respected prep school. The students wanted to know what they should do to prepare themselves for tomorrow’s workplace. Friedman’s answer was striking. He told these students that their education had primarily developed the left side of their brains and that if they wanted to be prepared for the future they needed to develop the right side of their brains as well. He told them “to think art, to think green, to think connectedness.”

As it turns out, Friedman’s ideas were influenced by what he was seeing in our rapidly changing global economy, in which American jobs are continually being outsourced to countries like India, China, and the Philippines, and by what he had read in a book by Daniel Pink, called A Whole New Mind.

In A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink makes it clear that our standard approach to education utilizes only the left side of the brain. This is the education that we are currently promoting with No Child Left Behind, and what Pink states very clearly is that it will not prepare our children for the future. If we educate only the cognitive capacities of children, only capacities that can be tested, we are going to make them economically obsolete. If young people are schooled in a traditional manner, using only the left side of their brain, someone in a developing country is going to do what they are trained to do more cheaply. Pink cites research which indicates that by 2015 at least 3.3 million white collar jobs and 136 billion dollars in wages will shift from the United States to low-cost countries like India, China, and Russia.

Pink also notes that if we educate children in this conventional way, using only the left side of their brains, the computer is going to do what they are trained to do more quickly. If we truly wish to prepare our students for the future, Pink proposes that we help them develop new capacities in art, storytelling, play, empathy, finding meaning, and symphonic thinking.

What I find reassuring is that these are the very capacities that are being developed in children at a Waldorf school. Art and storytelling are essential parts of the Waldorf experience right from the start of school. When children are taught their letters in grade one, they are introduced to the sounds and shapes of these letters through a story. A fairy tale about an enchanted snake can be told in a lively, expressive manner. In that telling, the students will hear the sound of the snake hissing as it slithers and slides through the softly stirring grass. On the blackboard they will see a large, colored-chalk picture of this sinuous serpent shaped exactly like the letter S, which they will draw in the books they create. They will run the letter S, paint it, even shape it in modeling wax, all so that they will have a multisensory experience. But, most importantly, they will be developing their whole mind.

In her book Endangered Minds, Jane Healy underscores the value of this approach to teaching letters.

 All thinking, even language processing, calls upon both hemispheres at the same time. . . . Since the hemispheres carry on a continual and rapid communication over the bridge of fibers (corpus callosum) that connects them, their ability to interact is probably the ultimate key to higher level reasoning of all kinds. (p. 125)

Healy goes on to say that communication between the left and right hemispheres of the brain occurs when language instruction includes picture letters.

People who learn to read both a letter-type and a picture-type script, as in Japan, tend to process language more equally between the two sides of the brain than do people who read only letter-type scripts. (p.212)

But it is not just in the Waldorf elementary school where children are heading back to the future. The Waldorf preschool provides a similar mix of tradition and innovation that is truly in tune with our times. Americans are an intuitive people, and there are certain assumptions that we innately embrace. One of these is that youthfulness is a desirable trait. Sometimes we go about pursuing youthfulness in puzzling ways, spending millions of dollars on cosmetic surgery and on drugs like Cialis and Viagra. And yet, even when our response is misguided and shortsighted, we clearly sense that when older individuals retain a lively, adventurous spirit, it is a sign of health.

In their book Geeks and Geezers, authors Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas note that this quality, which they call neoteny—the ability of a species to maintain youthfulness in old age—is often a characteristic of our creative leaders. For instance, the architect Frank Gehry is close to eighty years old, and yet he says that some of his best ideas come to him on the ice when he skates. What we see is that his playful, youthful nature is an important part of what makes him so creative.

Several years ago, the Smithsonian Institution held a conference on the role of play in the lives of geniuses. The conference underscored the formative influence of play in the lives of innovative individuals whose discoveries impacted our society in dramatic and positive ways. One of the unique capacities of scientists such as Albert Einstein, Alexander Fleming, and Barbara McClintock was imagination. What was clear at the conference was that playfulness and imagination are characteristics of genius.

The wooden sinks and stoves, the natural building materials, the dolls, and the wooden toys that are still part of a Waldorf preschool classroom allow young children the creative play experiences that will enhance their problem-solving ability by fostering divergent and imaginative thinking. This stands in sharp contrast to most contemporary schools, where children are required to do less imaginative assignments at tables with workbooks and pencil and paper.

In the Waldorf high school, we are also working to lead students back to the future. Waldorf high schools are small schools with a required curriculum that is both diverse and integrated. Requiring students to take choral music, or to play an instrument, or to be on a sports team may seem restrictive to some, but these activities are a valuable preparation for the future.

In The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman writes about the educational rebirth that occurred at Georgia Tech in the 1990s. The school’s president, G.Wayne Clough, knew that the country needed more good scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs. He began rethinking Georgia Tech’s approach by reflecting on his own experiences as a working engineer. Some of the best engineers he had collaborated with over the years had not been the best engineering students. However, they were able to communicate well, relate to others, think creatively, and tie things together from different fields and disciplines. On campus, Clough encountered students with these same characteristics and realized that they tended to be persons with varied interests and activities. They sang in a choir, played a musical instrument, were on an athletic team. Clough encouraged the admissions office to recruit and admit good engineering students who had artistic and extracurricular interests (see Friedman, pp. 310–312).

This ability to integrate knowledge and see connections in seemingly unrelated areas has been an emphasis in Waldorf schools since their inception. It is the reason the curriculum is integrated, so that music is taught in conjunction with history, so that art is part of all science studies, and so that writing is used to enhance the teaching of mathematics. Daniel Pink calls this symphonic thinking—thinking that asks us to recognize patterns and motifs, to synthesize information, to see the big picture, and to make connections in surprising new ways. Frans Johannson, in a recent article in the journal The Urbanite, calls this capacity the Medici effect, referring to the Renaissance family that supported a remarkable burst of wide-ranging creativity in the fifteenth century.

It is this innovative thinking—the ability to connect the seemingly unconnected to create new solutions—that is at the heart of the kind of problem solving that we need for the future. It is this ability that led the architect Mick Pearce to design an office complex in Harare, Zimbabwe, that does not need air conditioning. To do this he incorporated into his architectural design an understanding of the way in which termites cool their mounds in the hot, African sun.

Writing in The Urbanite (March 2007, p. 56), Frans Johannson describes the project:

Pearce’s passion for understanding natural ecosystems allowed him to combine the fields of architecture and termite ecology and to bring this combination of concepts to fruition. The office complex, called Eastgate, opened in 1996 and is the largest commercial/retail complex in Zimbabwe. It maintains a steady temperature of 73 to 76 degrees and uses less than ten percent of the energy consumed by other buildings its size. And it saved 3.5 million dollars immediately because [an air conditioning plant didn’t have to be installed].

Clearly, in our era of global warming with the heightened need to reduce fossil fuel consumption, Pearce’s creative problem solving is in demand. If we are truly preparing our children for tomorrow, we should be educating them as Thomas Friedman said, “to think art, to think green, to think connectedness.” And this requires that they use both sides of their brain.

So when I enter my seemingly old-fashioned classroom each morning, these are the understandings that reassure me. When I taught my first graders their letters through art and storytelling, I did so with confidence that I was stimulating the kind of brain activity that will give rise to higher-order, creative thinking. And in fourth grade, when I will watch each of these same children begin to play violin, viola, or cello, I will rest assured that their ability to think creatively and to work collaboratively is being strengthened through music.

When these same students, in grades six, seven, and eight, encounter the synthesis of art and science and the love of nature that lived in individuals like Leonardo da Vinci, George Washington Carver, and Rachel Carson, I will hope that these same qualities will have been cultivated in them and that these students will be multidimensional individuals, accustomed to using their whole mind in surprisingly new and innovative ways.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

What is really at the heart of a Waldorf School?


Sometimes it feels better to circle in on the answer to a question through a story.  I would like to answer this question by describing a fourth grade science lesson that I taught last year.  Only the names have been changed to protect the fleet of foot.

It seemed like the perfect fourth grade question: “Who is the fastest runner in the class?”
The hands shot up. I knew they would. Fourth graders divide their classes like fractions into a wide array of categories, the fastest runner being just one of them.

“Matthew” was the first answer that came from the students, and there were nods of agreement throughout the classroom.

“Who’s second?” I asked.

“Lydia is the second fastest.” Again there were nods of agreement – no dissension.

“Third?” I continued.

“Ben,” they said.

“Okay,” I said, “if I were to ask Matthew to stand by the window of our classroom and when I said, “Go” to run across the blacktop, touch the fence, and turn around and run back, how long do you think it would take him?”

The students thought for a few seconds, and then the hands went up again.
“Sixty-five seconds one student suggested.”

“No, that’s too long,” came an immediate reply, “forty seconds.”

“Twenty-seven seconds,” another exacting student offered.

I wrote all of the times up on the board, and then I said something that I knew would make this lesson memorable.

“Matthew, stand up. I want you to climb out of the classroom window; and when I say go, you are to run across the blacktop, touch the fence, and run all the way back. But first, who has a watch with a timer?” (There is always a fourth grade boy with one of these!)

Matthew climbed out the window while envious classmates looked on. He waited for his signal and raced across the playground and was back in 32 seconds. Lydia went next. Her time was 35 seconds. Ben was third, and his time was 37 seconds.

Of course, there were more students who wanted a turn, both to run and to climb out the window, but we needed to move on. I had a lesson in mind, and all of this was just the beginning.

I started my Waldorf teaching career nearly forty years ago, and I haven’t always been able to remember where I get my ideas for lessons. So many conversations have faded in my memory that I have started to think that these ideas are mine. However, the lesson I wanted to impart on this day, I knew originated with Dorothy Harrer.

Dorothy Harrer was a master teacher at the Rudolf Steiner School in New York City.  When I took my first grade one, back in the early 70’s, the woman who was my unofficial mentor (we did not designate mentors back in the “old” days) was a friend of Dorothy Harrer’s. Every holiday season she would receive hand written notes on yellow legal pad paper with poems and verses and stories, all original pieces written by Ms. Harrer herself. Eventually, someone realized that all of these “gems” should be collected in books and that led to the publication of “Math Lessons,” “English Lessons,” and “Nature Studies.” The lesson that I was planning to use in our fourth grade study of the eagle came from Dorothy Harrer’s book on nature.

Continuing on then with the lesson, I was ready to ask my students the next question. “Can anyone think of a way to get to the fence and back more quickly?”  I scanned the faces of my students, and I could see by the look on one student’s face that I had not been precise enough with my question.

“But you cannot use a machine, I added.”

The student in question sighed with exasperation. He had been thinking “motorcycle.” However, his spirits revived instantly.

“Bicycle,” he said.

He was disappointed when I informed him that the bicycle is also a machine even though it doesn’t have a motor and now the rest of the class was puzzled as well.

Then a quiet girl, who sat in the back of the room, calmly raised her hand. When she answered, I realized again how perceptive and thoughtful these quiet children can be.

“With my eyes,” she said. “I can look at the fence and look back to the school instantly.”

I smiled and then said to her,

“But what if I had asked Matthew to run all the way down the hill to where the first grade plays at recess? What if I had asked him to go to a place that you couldn’t see, how could you get there more quickly?”

Another thoughtful child in the back of the room raised her hand.

“In my imagination,” she said. “In my imagination I could go to the first grade playground and back in an instant.”

Now we were at the place where we could really begin Dorothy Harrer’s lesson. I asked the children to close their eyes and to imagine that they were all outside the classroom as Matthew and Lydia and Ben had been. Then I asked them to imagine themselves in the air above the school as they had done when they made their map of the school (also part of the fourth grade curriculum).

“And now,” I said, “imagine yourself flying west above the blacktop. Look down; there are the basketball courts and the trees by the first grade playground. Let’s cross the Potomac River. We are over the state of Virginia. Look up; you see the mountains in the distance. Those are the Blue Ridge Mountains. Let’s keep going.”

I continued to describe our imaginative journey across West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois (states that I told the students we would study in fifth grade). We crossed the Mississippi and looked down on the Great Plains. Finally, we could see the Rocky Mountains in the distance. From this point on, the lesson was pure Dorothy Harrer.

“Let’s let our quick, wakeful thought make its way, now, in this instant, to the high mountain cliff that rises up above the prairie, way off to the west, farther than the eye can see or legs can run. Let’s go to the rocky ledge, like a platform, where the storms have made the rock break away. Far below us, lies the prairie. Far up above, rises the top of the cliff. Here on the ledge, we find that a bird has its dwelling which looks like a giant robin’s nest. Sitting in the nest, are three strange looking young birds, already bigger than any robin. We hear the sound of wings beating in the air.  As we are only here in thought, we are invisible, and the great bird that soars down to the nest doesn’t even see us. And life goes on as if we weren’t there at all. The big bird has a body that is almost as long as Neal is tall. Its wings spread out so far on each side that we could lay a yardstick down three times from one wing tip to the other. Now we know that it is an eagle.

In its great, hooked claws the eagle carries a fat, but lifeless jackrabbit. This it lays before the young birds who crouch and spread their half grown wings and utter squeals of excitement, but they do not approach the rabbit. The mother bird then stands on the dead rabbit and with her strong hooked beak begins to tear it into pieces, some of which she swallows herself while others she passes over with her beak to the beaks of her children. Each one of them patiently awaits his turn. It isn’t long before the rabbit has disappeared entirely.

Just as the meal is over, the father eagle soars down from the blue sky, carrying in one foot a dead mole which he soon disposes of with a few sharp strokes of his beak.

Then as the mother settles down and draws her eaglets under her great wings, the father perches on the rim of the ledge. He scans the sky as if on the lookout for any enemy that might sail down upon them. He peers downward toward the prairie as if to spy out another meal moving among the grasses far below.”

As I described the eagle lifting up and rising on the warm air currents, I told the children how the eagle is a kin of the air, how its feathers have air within them, as do its bones and how it even has small air filled sacs within its body. As the eagle rises higher above the land and I described how with its keen vision, it spies its prey hundreds of feet below. “The eagle,” I said to the children, “has remarkable eyesight. I have been told that if an eagle could read, it could read a newspaper from a quarter of a mile away.” When I finish saying this, the eagle is drawing in its wings and plummeting toward the earth like lightning, descending to strike its prey with its talons and carry it away. Finally I said to the class, “ Do you know children, where you are like an eagle? It is in your thinking that you can see so clearly. It is in your thinking and your imagination that you can soar to such heights and move from one place to another in an instant. It is in your thought-filled, wide awake mind that you are like eagles.”

And that was my “aha” moment, and I wondered why it had taken me so long to understand. In a Waldorf School we are continually helping the children know what it means to be a human being. Yes, we teach many other subjects and develop a wide array of capacities, but this was the underlying assignment. And I had to ask myself, “What else would a school based on Anthroposophy (the wisdom of the human being) offer its students?” At that moment I felt that above our school entrance there was a sign, written in invisible letters, just like the one at Plato’s Academy, “human being, know thyself.”

What better lesson could I bring to the children? How wonderful that I could let them know that within their thinking is the power and the strength of this magnificent bird. It seemed like the same understanding that the Native American people had, that the spirit of an animal they revered could empower and inspire. I had started out to teach my class about the eagle, but in the end we had both learned so much more.

Jack Petrash