I was re-reading the lovely book “Active Arithmetic” by Henning Andersen. Many of the things in this book are geared toward the Waldorf classroom, and therefore not everyone finds this a useful addition to their Waldorf homeschooling library, but I personally think there are some gems in this little book. The attitude that this long-term Danish Waldorf teacher brings is particularly powerful:
“One must know, in addition, that human development is not the sort of growth in which something is first small, then bigger, preserving the same basic structure. Rather it is one where abilities are completely transformed during growth from one level to another. A child is this kind of being, undergoing complete transformation on its way to adulthood.
In this regard the teacher must have great patience, not only from day to day when he must question the children on yesterday’s lesson, but also from year to year, and even from one phase of life to the next. Perhaps the biggest obstacles a teacher has to overcome is to avoid wanting to harvest the next day that which he has sown only the day before.
He goes on to compare the role of a teacher to that of a midwife:
….we can only act as midwife for the abilities that are already latent in the child – awaiting opportunities for growth which we as teachers can create for them. That alone is our contribution as teachers, and this does not make the job any less responsible – on the contrary, only more so.
In arithmetic and mathematics the question then becomes the same as everywhere else: “What do the children bring with them?” and not, “What does society demand we put into them?” What laws of development must be followed if these inner qualities are to be brought out? Or put another way, is is not a question of creating something, but more of bringing something forth.
In our particular case, we must ask, “What mathematics lies already buried within the child, and what are the rules for nurturing this already existing substance?”
Waldorf education looks at not filling the child’s head with facts, factoids and bits and pieces, but examines what the child has within them and how to best build on that to provide a comprehensive education. The child entering first grade should be in their bodies, and we can use movement of the body to build upon the child’s counting skills. The child knows verses and songs orally from Kindergarten, and we can use this for writing practice and then for the child to read from what they wrote.
Waldorf education is comprehensive, rigorous and builds upon itself throughout the grades to provide a complete education, but the teacher is viewed as a guide, a presenter, a natural and kind authority who builds upon the unique abilities, talents and temperaments of each child, observes what lies within each child, and assists the unfolding of the child’s development through the academic curriculum. Every seven year cycle builds upon the cycle that came before, and builds toward future physical and emotional health.
Waldorf education does not look to “fill students up” with meaningless chatter and facts, but serves to marry the unfolding maturation and soul development of the child with economy of teaching to lead to wonder of the human journey.
It is a great ride, and I invite all of you to come along.