Differences Between Waldorf and The Well-Trained Mind: Grades One Through Four


I set out to write a post about the differences between Waldorf and The Well-Trained Mind for the Early Grades, since the post about Waldorf and The Well-Trained Mind in the Early Years was fairly popular.

It has been difficult to write this post.  I do know homeschooling mothers who seem adept enough to combine both a classical approach with Waldorf elements, but I found it extremely difficult to find the similarities because the assumed views on childhood development is just so very different. Please feel free to add in comments at the bottom to assist other mothers.

Here is a little chart I made to keep track of things, and you can see for yourself where things coincide or don’t.


The First Four Grades:

  The Well-Trained Mind Waldorf
Overall emphasis “A classical education requires a student to collect, memorize, and categorize information.  Although this process continues through  all twelve grades, the first four grades are the most intensive for fact collecting.”  (page 21, TWTM 2004)Works within four year cycles of history, literature and science.   Has three stages – Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric stage.

Academic works starts early, with the Parroting Stage

An education that focuses on the whole human being based upon Steiner’s philosophies.  The human being is regarded as a spiritual being on a spiritual journey, and as such, the educational curriculum is set up to develop the young child’s skills and abilities in accordance to this standard.  Works within seven-year-cycles and what is appropriate for one age is not appropriate for the other ages.
The Seven Year Stages include Willing, Feeling and Thinking – logical thought is seen coming in at age 14.Truly focused academic work starts at age 7, prior to that the child learns through play.
Approach to Creativity “Your job, during the elementary years, is to supply the knowledge and skills that will allow your child to overflow with creativity as his mind matures.” (page 22)
”Too close a focus on self-expression at an early age can actually cripple a child later on; a student who has always been encouraged to look inside himself may not develop a frame of reference, a sense of how ideas measure up against the thoughts and beliefs of others.”
(page 23)
“in these years we must always take care that, as teachers, we create what goes from us to the children in an exciting way so that it gives rise to the imagination.  Teachers must inwardly and livingly present the subject material; they must fill it with imagination.” (page 210, The Foundations of Human Experience)Emphasis on the teacher preparing the material and having the teacher present the material as opposed to reading it from a book. No textbooks are used.

In Steiner’s views, the teaching through art and rhythm and music IS the way to teach, , the children do   what the teacher does (although if you look at the Main Lesson books of a Waldorf class none of the paintings, books, etc look the same!) 

Approach to Reading “Let him read, read, read.  Don’t force him to stop and reflect on it yet.” (page 23) Reading is taught by introducing the letter sounds through moving their bodies like the letters, drawing the lines and curves, writing letters from the  fairy tales,  and then the child learns to read through their own writing and then through printed text.  Steiner said in “Soul Economy”, page 142:  “In many ways, children show us how the people of earlier civilizations experienced the world; they need a direct connection with whatever we demand of their will…..we must offer children a human and artistic bridge to whatever we teach. “  On page 144, Steiner said, “We have to point out that our slower approach is really a blessing, because it allows children to integrate the art of writing with their whole being.”
”It would be inappropriate to teach reading before the children have been introduced to writing, for reading represents a transition from a will activity to abstract observation.” (page 148).
Priority in Education in the Early Grades “In the elementary grades, we suggest that you prioritize reading, writing, grammar, and math.” (page 25)
”In a way, grammar of language is a foundation on which all other subjects rest.  Until a student reads without difficulty, he can’t absorb the grammar of history, literature, or science; until a student writes with ease, he can’t express his growing mastery of this material.”
Teaching academic subjects through movement, rhythm and art; fostering a sense of imagination and liveliness in children; teaching with economy; understanding and teaching in accordance with the view of the child as a three-fold human being; fostering a sense of love throughout these early grades and a natural respect of adult authority.
Grammar in a traditional German Waldorf school was taught rather early (second grade)  as it is nearly impossible to write in German without the grammar piece.  Donna Simmons comments on this in her “Living Language” book
Spelling, English Grammar, Reading and Writing Spelling – recommends spelling workbook and spending 10 minutes a day on spelling
Grammar – learning parts of speech, proper relationship between these parts of speech, and the mechanics of the English language with First Language Lessons for The Well-Trained Mind.  Uses narration as a tool for grammar.
Reading follows history; First Grade – Ancients, Second Grade – Medieval- early Renaissance, Third Grade- Late Renaissance-early Modern, Fourth Grade- Modern.  Memorizing of poems of four to eight poems during the school year.  Free reading time each day. 
Most Waldorf students will be reading by the second or  third grade well because they start later. And contrary to popular belief, Waldorf teachers do expect their children to read well! Grammar is taught starting in First Grade with simple punctuation.  Steiner talked about the control of speech development through grammar and what comes through speech enters into writing and then reading (page 209, The Foundations of Human Experience).
Memorization also emphasized with students learning many lines (usually hundreds of lines by the end of the school year) of poems, verses, songs, and dialogue for plays that change with the seasons, festivals.
Math Starting with concrete objects and moving into mental math.  Recommends math programs, workbooks Starts with math by examining qualities of numbers and moving into all four math processes in first grade through story;   For complete goals, do see Ron Jarmon’s math book.  Math is a whole body experience of games, stomping, clapping.  No workbooks, but concepts may be drawn into Main Lesson Book .  Emphasis also on mental math.
History “History, in other words, is not a subject.  History is the subject.” (page 104)  “A common assumption found in history curricula seems to be that children can’t comprehend (or be interested in) people and events distant from their own experience.  So the first-grade history class is renamed Social Studies and begins with what the child knows: first, himself and his family, followed by his community, his state, his country, and only then the rest of the world.  This intensive self-focused pattern of study encourages the student of history to relate everything he studies to himself, to measure the cultures and customs of other peoples against his own experience.  And that exactly what classical education fights against – a self absorbed, self-referential approach to knowledge.”  (page 106)  For first grade, recommends Story of the World as written by the Bauers, coloring pages and original drawings by the child of Ancient History events with captioning, use of maps.  Use of hands-on projects as well as books.
Second Grade much the same with memorization of such things as the rulers of England from Egbert through Elizabeth I, along with each ruler’s family allegiance, ruler of Scotland form Malcolm II through James VI, major wars and disc overies (page 116). Third Grade about the same, Fourth Grade use of map to learn 50 states of the United States, history of own state.
History is traced and intermingled with the way people viewed past events – starting with stories pre-literate people may have told around the fire at night (fairy tales), moving into fables and folktales, tales of Saints and Heroes (not taught within a religious context)  and Buddhist tales in the second grade, using the history and stories of Creation, Native American myths and the Old Testament from the Bible for the third grader going through the nine-year change, Fourth grade Norse myths to speak to the ten-year old and then moving into traditional history as we know it – Greeks, Romans, Medieval and Renaissance and Modern History.History is seen as the backbone of the Waldorf curriculum throughout the grades 1-8.
Science First Grade – Animals, Human Beings and Plants by reading from a science book and having the child narrate two or three facts about what you have read along with experiments that are later  narrated.  Second Grade is Science and Astronomy.  Third Grade Chemistry with writing definitions, experiments that are narrated in notebook.  Fourth Grade physics with experiments Please see full and complete post on Science throughout the Waldorf curriculum on this blog.  A totally different approach that focuses on phenomenon, plants and animals in the natural environment, always bringing science back to its relationship to Man.
Latin in third or fourth grade (or start teaching foreign modern language and save Latin until the fifth or sixth grade), according to The Well-Trained Mind. “Latin trains the mind to think in  an orderly fashion.  Latin (being dead) is the most systematic language around. …Latin improves English skills.” Typically two modern foreign languages taught in Kindergarten onward; Greek and Latin not widely taught in Waldorf schools although some homeschooling parents work Greek in with the 5th grade study of the Greeks and Latin in the with the 6th Grade study of the Romans.  Steiner did work with Latin and Greek in the founding of his schools  per his lecture notes.
Art and Music Alternate reading art books about great artists and art projects.  Picture study per Charlotte Mason.
Music – listening to classical music twice a week for half an hour.  Possibly piano lessons.
Infused throughout the curriculum with modeling, drawing and painting experiences used to teach academic subjects – art is not separate within the curriculum but infuses all subjects.  Main Lesson Books are often compilations of drawings, verses, best written work for a subject taught in a block.  Music, verses, and singing is also seen throughout the curriculum, with special emphasis on a blowing instrument (recorder, pentatonic flute, pennywhistle leading to diatonic flute in the Third Grade) in the Early Grades leading to study of a stringed instrument in the Third Grade.
The Three-Day Rhythm and Use of Sleep As A Learning Aid Not mentioned Unique to Waldorf as a way of teaching
Teaching in blocks versus daily or weekly practice Subjects are taught anywhere from daily to two to three times a week Teaches in blocks with daily math practice and eventually daily practice in other academic areas with times when the subject completely rests and is not taught at all. 
”The usual practice is to split up the available time into many separate lessons, but this method does not bring enough depth and focus to the various subjects.”
(Steiner, page 117, Soul Economy).
Attitude of the Teacher   “It is inappropriate to feel, “I am intelligent, and this child is ignorant.”  We have seen how cosmic wisdom still works directly through children and that, from this point of view , it is children who are intelligent and the teacher, who is, in reality, ignorant.”  – From Steiner’s lectures
The role of the teacher to student   The teacher is a natural authority (not in a mean, nasty way, but a child should naturally look up to the teacher and accept what the teacher says at this age).  Steiner says after the age of 14, authority has provided a foundation for the child to have  a capacity to love and to have responsibility to themselves and others in society  in a mature way.
What is most important in teaching   That the teachers use their available lesson time in the most economical way, building lessons upon major lines and leaving the child wanting more

The approach that Waldorf takes looks at the journey of the entire child, academic and spiritual and moral.   Every subject is picked, choosen and presented in a way to coincide, fulfill and enhance where the child’s soul development is at that time.   Christopher Bamford writes in the Introduction to “Human Values in Education”:  “Education today, like so much else, suffers from a split between theory and practice or actuality.  Most educational philosophies are theoretical and divorced from life.  The experiment with children, because they are no longer able to approach them with their hearts and souls.” 

To me, The Well-Trained Mind can be rather contradictory as it assumes many things about training logic in young children when the premise of the book is that the logic stage comes much later in childhood development. Waldorf Education is about soul economy, about introducing things at the right time as the child’s maturation and abilities unfold to be able to meet the academic demands.  The curriculum is matched to the soul development of the child. 

I personally also truly dislike the focus on history during the Early Years – as I explained to a friend, I have a hard time really grasping the time period of Ancient Egypt and such and I am a grown-up!  I do not think that starting with the tangible things around a small child will lead a child to be egocentric in world views as they grow, mature and develop.   The ability the Waldorf curriculum develops in compassion, gratitude, love and responsibility can be translated in looking at any time period and in studying any culture.  These qualities transcend academic areas and are indeed the heart of Waldorf curriculum.

My other quibble with The Well-Trained Mind is the focus on what I call “fact-jamming” in the Early Elementary Grades.  It fits in well with the view of current society, and also the view that the child is a miniature adult with less experience and therefore just needs to be “filled up” with facts, but this is not Waldorf’s view of the child.  Waldorf views the child as full of their own potential, on their own path, and that we essentially help and assist what is “unfolding.”  That is a distinct difference!

Waldorf looks at education as the way to secure the  future health of the child once they become an adult and establishing an almost Renaissance kind of education.  Health is of utmost concern.  In this day of skyrocketing ADD/ADHD, childhood obesity, sensory processing disorders, teenaged drug abuse and other adult problems setting into the early years of childhood, it is well worth your time as a parent to look into!

To a future healthy society,


14 thoughts on “Differences Between Waldorf and The Well-Trained Mind: Grades One Through Four

  1. Thanks for such a wealth of information, Carrie.

    As I’m currently reading Rhythms of Learning, this is most useful for me.

    I’ve had many of the same feelings about WTM, but couldn’t have possibly articulated them well.

    More power to the homeschooling families that finds WTM works for them, though, I’m not trying to be critical or judgemental.


  2. I can’t get over this:

    “First Grade – Ancients, Second Grade – Medieval- early Renaissance, Third Grade- Late Renaissance-early Modern, Fourth Grade- Modern.”

    How is a child supposed to relate to that material? Might as well just throw geology in first grade too. How about a little chemistry in second grade. 😉

    • We actually do teach chemistry in second grade in classical… my second grader is memorizing some of the periodic table right now. But they aren’t supposed to understand it. That’s not the point. The Well Trained Mind does a poor job of explaining that. The point is to get little kids to hear a whole lot of words and ideas that they can grow into. If they have memorized bits and pieces of the periodic table from age 7, chemistry in high school is suddenly less intimidating. It’s about exposure, not understanding.

  3. Thank you for all you write! I truly enjoy reading it and learning from you.

    Just to let you know, I am pretty much in the waldorf camp even as I say the following.

    Your comparison, though helpful, would’ve been more accurate if you had been comparing, say, christopherus home school resources vs well trained mind. As of now, its a comparison between a philosophy (waldorf) vs a specific approach (well trained mind) to another philosophy (classical).

    It seems to me that giving a child lots of things to memorize, without asking him to understand or analyze it, would be in the “willing” sphere and therefore in accord with waldorf. It does not seem to be unduly awakening, if he is not asked about it, akin to memorizing poems in a foreign language.

    Getting the child to read early might be just specific to well trained mind and not to classical education, although I do not know for sure.

    Thanks again, and looking forward to more!

  4. HI Carrie

    I am fairly new to homeschooling and fairly new to TWTM and Waldorf. But I combine the classical method and the Waldorf method and it works well for my children.

    Regarding history in the early grades, I don’t see that much difference as in listening to fairy tale stories / saints stories. It takes the child to another land. Like someone said, a good story is a good story. So if a younger sibling hears a saints story, it is alright.

    We do memorize a lot of facts but like Faiza says, it does not require the child to understand it and is akin to listening to songs/learning a foreign language. This is to take advantage that the child absorbs and retains the info much easier at this age. When they come to the material again in the higher grades, they will not spend a lot of time on the “vocabulary/grammar” of the material and is ready to go into the material deeper.

    I like that Waldorf is sensitive to “mirroring” the child though stories but honestly had a tough time with it when my daughter was 6 and listening to fairy tales. Now she is 7 1/2, the fairy tales are working out better for her. But sometimes, I just feel it’s hard to tell and to be sure. I don’t feel it is necessary to wait until 7 years to start academics. It depends on the particular child though in China, formal academics also starts when the child is 7 .

    I also like that Waldorf is “holistic” and is concerned with the whole child and not just academics. I think the math stories are fantastic and makes it much more fun and alive for everyone. The hand work in Waldorf is another reason I appreciate this method of education.

    Anyway, I enjoy following your blog and haven’t seen this post until today.

  5. Hi everybody! I’m going start homeschooling my 5&10 year old babes. I am very drawn to both Waldorf & classical. How do you go about combining these two methods in a practical way, bearing in mind the age difference 5&10?

  6. Thanks for this. I have been thinking a lot lately about differences and similarities between waldorf and classical methods and how one might combine them, what parts of each are important to me, etc.

    • Thanks Robyn, I tried to be objective so people could do just that – discern the essential.
      Many blessings,

  7. Pingback: It’s That Time Of Year!! Questions About Waldorf Homeschooling! « The Parenting Passageway

  8. I actually find them very similar. I have a friend who wants to do Classical and I am sold on Waldorf. She was surprised that I also like Classical.
    I actually wrote my own little comparison for my friend and then found yours. Mine is not quite as clear as your above, but… a few things I mentioned to her:

    -Mastery of what they do.
    -Waldorf also drills facts, they just mask it via movement, game playing, drawing and stories
    -They both rely heavily on reading, being read to and literature
    -They rely heavily on culture and history
    -The parroting stage of Classical can directly relate to the immitation stage of Waldorf
    -Both programs are designed to start at 6 or 7 years old
    -In the 1-4th grades, the children are doing what the teachers do; and not necessarily being allowed to do as they choose, as some would believe. It is the art of teaching, not teaching through art. The art of teaching in a Waldorf school is a use of techniques to get a child to accidentally memorize things with out even realizing it sometimes.
    -Both programs ask the children to memorize poetry, verses, music, etc. Waldorf is full of memorization.
    -both programs recognize that different ages MUST be taught differently and have very similar splits in their ages.

    Anyway, I see both programs to be asking teachers to develop the children in the same manor and sequence and the emphasis on material and what is important is very similar. What I love about the Waldorf is the many ways that they have of slipping memorization in. They use an “art” in the way they teach.

  9. I found this a wonderful, and lively topic! I am a trained Waldorf teacher and also a credentialed public school teacher. For years now, I have been utilizing the WTM ELA program in my public Waldorf school, and it has been an incredible fit. To me, the heart of the “Waldorf” segment happens in Main Lesson. Here is where we introduce the new materials and work them through an artistic/rhythmic approach. That being said, the other five hours of school are practice periods and time for specialty classes (violin, painting, etc). These periods are perfectly suited for a more classical approach. Writing with Ease / Writing with Style has fit in these periods very well. I also have had success using the materials from First Language Lessons in our morning circle time.


  11. The Well Trained Mind, in my opinion, is one of the worst books available about classical education. It erases so much of what really matters to classical education and only focuses on academics. I would not ever suggest basing your opinion on classical ed on that books. Leigh Bortins books (The Core, The Question, The Conversation), Norms and Nobility by David Hicks, Something They Will Not Forget by Joshua Gibbs, Classical Me, Classical Thee by Rebecca Merkle, The Lost Tools of Learning by Dorothy Sayers, and Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning by Doug Wilson are all far, far better.

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