Jack Petrash and the Value of Waldorf Education in our Modern Age

Jack Petrash, longtime Waldorf teacher, educator, author and founder of the Nova Institute, recently visited Waldorf School of Orange County and shared the many ways in which Waldorf education is relevant (more so now than ever!) in today’s complex world.

Speaking to a packed Eurythmy Hall at WSOC, Petrash described an “a-ha” moment he had while on sabbatical many years ago. The New York Times ran a piece on Deborah Meier, an innovative principal at an East Harlem public school, who received a MacArthur Genius Grant for education. She was commended for the following:

• Doubling the length of class lessons because meaningful teaching cannot take place in 45 minute periods

• Recognizing that inter-curricula teaching is more effective, such as teaching math through writing, science through art, history through music, etc.

• Understanding that the vital decisions affecting curriculum should be made by teachers working at the school

These innovations, Petrash realized, had all been a part of Waldorf education for seventy-plus years, and yet there was no mention of it by either the Times or the Foundation. He also mentioned other examples, including articles lauding teachers staying with a group of children for an extended amount of time (“looping”), and positive feedback on arts-based curriculums and the importance of playing an instrument. The Nova Institute, he said, was born out of a recognition that Waldorf education needed to be integrated into these conversations in a way that was accessible to all educators.

The Waldorf movement, Petrash told the audience, is one of education’s best-kept secrets. Steiner was “ahead of his time,” he said, but we are now at a point where these ideas are finding common acceptance in schools across the country. He described a prestigious prep school at which Thomas Friedman, a New York Times journalist, came and spoke to a select group of high school students about the new local economy. One student asked, “What should I do to prepare myself for tomorrow’s job market?”

Friedman replied, “Your education has been very good, but you’ve only been using the left side of your brain. If you don’t begin to use the right side as well, someone in a developing country is going to do what you’re doing more cheaply and a computer is going to do what you’re doing more quickly. For the future: think art, think green, think connectedness.”

Friedman, said Petrash, had been reading a book by Daniel Pink: A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers will Rule the World. The book asked, why is the U.S. outsourcing millions jobs to China and Philippines? What capacities does the U.S. need to be ready for a new economy? There are six capacities mentioned in this book, said Petrash, that need to be part of our educational approach:

• Play

• Art

• Storytelling

• Finding Meaning

• Empathy

• Symphonic Thinking: seeing the motif that runs through all subjects, and finding the connectedness in each

Petrash found that all six of these capacities are in fact essential parts of Waldorf education, which works with the right and the left brain, both affective and cognitive. It may look old-fashioned inside the classrooms, but that’s misleading, he said.

“It’s like when we went to school. Blackboards with dusty chalk, wooden desks. Students wearing shirts without writing on them, kids wearing galoshes in the rain, everyone playing outside. You might think, oh, that school harkens back to the past. But when you read Pink’s work, you realize that Waldorf education is really about tomorrow,” said Petrash. “We are preparing our children for the future.”

The Waldorf early childhood program, he noted, is play-based. Play is the foundation of creative intelligence. He referenced a large exhibit at the Smithsonian that focused on play in the lives of geniuses. Playful people, he said, change the world. Einstein discovered the theory of relativity playing with the notions of time and space, utilizing his own unique creative intelligence. Play, said Petrash, engenders creative thinking.

He discussed Malcolm Gladwell’s best selling book Outliers: The Story of Success, which explores the fundamental issues with testing IQ; these kinds of intelligence tests are deeply flawed. If IQ were a measure of high intelligence, he said, than we could predict where Nobel Prize winners would come from: they’d come from the Ivy League. However, this is not the case. Many Nobel Prize winners have hailed from smaller, less “prestigious” schools.

IQ tests measure convergent thinking: there’s only one answer. If you can discern this one correct answer, than your IQ is ranked higher. Nobel Prize winners, on the other hand, employ divergent thinking, said Petrash. Divergent thinking explores the notion that there are many possible answers, not just one right answer.

This is a method in Waldorf education as well. Divergent thinking starts in Early Childhood at Waldorf, Petrash noted. A basket of acorns or a set of wooden boards can become anything. Open-ended play stimulates creative thinking. Self-directed free play creates focus of attention, a valuable trait for academic learning and discovery later on. Creative intelligence, Petrash said, is crucial in today’s society. The global problems our children are going to inherit are incredibly complex. We need creative thinkers to solve them.

“Knowing the answers to a multiple choice test won’t help us. We haven’t even asked the right questions yet. We must preserve and protect the creative mind.”

He quoted William Wordsworth’s Ode: Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood, giving a vivid picture of the fleeting magic of childhood:

“There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,

The earth, and every common sight,

To me did seem Apparelled in celestial light,

The glory and the freshness of a dream.

It is not now as it hath been of yore;— Turn wheresoe’er I may,

By night or day,

The things which I have seen I now can see no more.”

Our children live in a world of wonder. Why would we want to rush them out of that? Let’s preserve it, he said. There is great value in maintaining youthfulness. To remain young at heart, adventurous, curing and daring. There’s even a word for it: meotony, the ability of species to keep youthful characteristics into adult life. He referenced famed architect Frank Gehry, who in his 70s said his best ideas came when he was playing ice hockey. Key word: playing. Walt Disney said he woke up every morning with “uncontaminated wonder.” As a society we spend millions on cosmetic surgery and medications for virility, said Petrash. But being young at heart is what truly matters.

While Waldorf schools are not “art schools,” art is everywhere in the Waldorf curriculum. Art speaks to the heart and the emotions, and it makes learning appealing to children. Another vital aspect of Waldorf education is storytelling, he said. He gave an example to the audience of a fairy tale told with the help of chalkboard drawings. This teaching style appeals to many forms of learning: visual, auditory, and kinetic, to name a few. He also shared a story he’d used in his classroom about a naughty boy named Nimy who always said NO, never. He refused to do as he was told. Once when Nimy was in the woods the king’s procession went by, and he was asked to be quiet. He said NO, never. This, Petrash explained with a smile, is why that when you see the King (“K”) with Nimy (“N”) next to him, you’ll never hear the king (“K” sound) at all. This was a wonderful example of a creative teaching moment that will likely be remembered!

One of the misconceptions of Waldorf education is that reading is not taught, or at least not taught in a timely manner. This is because we believe in building a strong foundation first, he explained.

“First we live in the sounds and the pictures, and we begin to feel it. Our children are taught to read actively. To read with perseverance, with imagination, to create pictures in our minds.” The challenge in our country is not illiteracy; it’s actually aliteracy, he said. Children have the ability to read and they don’t. In the digital age, everything (including attention span) is shrinking, and fewer children have the patience to stick with a challenging book.

They way children learn in Waldorf education, the whole brain is engaged. How reading is brought, learning pictorial languages such as Chinese and Japanese, playing violin and sight reading music, geometric drawing, practicing Eurythmy; all of these subjects encourage engagement on multiple levels and also ignite both hemispheres of the brain.

The Waldorf curriculum is designed to mirror the inner life of our children, he explained. First grade supports a world of wonder. Third grade is waking up to the world. Their growing sense of self-awareness creates separation and a fear of the unknown. Our third graders learn about farming, which reassures them that the Earth provides. They learn about building homes and structures, which supports the notion of something solid and lasting, something to depend upon. Biblical stories echo leaving the “Garden of Eden” of childhood. Fourth graders study geography, echoing their desire to expand their world and their sense of adventure. Each grade represents a move toward growing independence which is supported in the curriculum. This support continues into the middle school and high school as well, with the curriculum nurturing the blossoming of the pre-teen and teenager into a young adult.

Storytelling —  itself a fundamental part of Waldorf education —  is becoming more and more popular in many professions, Petrash told the audience. Doctors now want stories from their patients to help build a better health picture. Xerox and 3M have created collections of shared stories in place of technical manuals. Storytelling is the way people have always learned about the world and themselves. You never have to explain what the “lesson” is, he said. Each individual will take from the story what they need, whether it be a fable, folk tale, history lesson, or mythology. Storytelling “moves from the heart of the storyteller to the heart of the child.” Stories create lasting impressions and more depth to the lesson because emotions are engaged.

Waldorf education, he said, sees all aspects of the human being. It acknowledges there is a spiritual component to our existence. We look at both sides of the brain. We nourish the outer world of academics and also the inner world of each individual, and we see them as equally important. We teach our children to learn through doing, to learn though feeling, and we activate their hearts so that they love what they learn.

“Something unpredictable and mysterious lives in each human being,” Petrash told the audience. “We have a vast well of potential when we turn our attention to our best selves.”

By Alyssa Swanson Hamilton

Waldorf School of Orange County

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