Saturday, November 7, 2009

Differences Between Waldorf and Montessori - Classroom Structure

In a recent article I highlighted a few of the differences between two alternative education modalities: Waldorf and Montessori, focusing on classroom materials and fantasy versus reality. In this article I will explore the differences between the two in terms of the classroom structure and teaching.

In Montessori, transitions are structured in three year cycles. Students typically stay with a teacher for three years (less time for babies and toddlers) and there is a three year age span grouped together. This cohort works well in many ways. As the children get older, they take pride in showing the younger kids around the classroom and getting them acquainted with the rules and customs. The oldest children get plenty of experience in leadership and nurturing. The younger children seem to really like getting help and instruction from their peers.

Being in the classroom with the same teacher for three years is beneficial in that the teacher gets ample time to really get to know the children and to see them grow. Because there are three different age groups in the classroom and because of the nature of most Montessori classrooms with the students' ability to choose their own work, it enables all students to learn at their own pace. Montessori classrooms are set up with "work stations" full of manipulative materials that the students are allowed to choose to use. When it is done in pure Montessori fashion (which is not always the case) it is very student-directed rather than teacher-directed. The teacher acts as a facilitator and supervisor. This is anything but chaotic though. There is a hum to the classroom but the students are engaged in their work. In addition to academics, there is an emphasis on harmony, social graces, personal responsibility, independence, productivity and quiet. Montessori teaches "the whole child" and art and music are components of their day, usually done as "specials" taught by different teachers in different classrooms.

Parents with high energy children may initially find this untraditional classroom to be a good fit because students are not forced to sit in a desk all day, but it takes a high degree of personal responsibility and independence to thrive in this kind of classroom and many parents with these energetic children did not think the unstructured Montessori classroom worked well for them.

In Waldorf classrooms, the children are all generally the same age starting in first grade and they are with the same teacher for eight years in most cases. The students shift classrooms each year but all stay together. There are many advantages to this structure as well. The Waldorf teacher has the time to form a strong community. The teachers, parents, and students become a family after so long together. It promotes continuity and even more of a deep understanding of each child's growth and abilities. There is often the fear that if there is a poor fit between a teacher and a student, eight years is a long time, but this is relatively rare. Waldorf teachers tend to be very committed (it's a way of life for them, not just a job) and are also highly educated. They generally have plenty of support in their community as well to help students in any way they can. Because they teach more than just academics (the are also artists, musicians, singers, actors, story-tellers, knitters, etc.) there is plenty of ways to reach a child in ways beyond academics.

The Waldorf classroom resembles a conventional classroom in that learning is teacher-directed, not student-directed, there are desks (or tables) rather than work stations, and the day is very structured. Just like in conventional settings there are benefits and drawbacks to this arrangement. However, because the children get daily nature walks, art, music, and knitting, among other things (usually done by the main teacher in the same classroom - they are very talented, renaissance people!) there is opportunity for creating and movement that help with classroom management. In the pre-school setting, the classrooms look much more chaotic and are louder than any Montessori I have ever seen, but fantasy and play are being encouraged more than productivity and quiet as in the Montessori classrooms.

Our family was very fortunate to have gotten to know both of these modes of education and we appreciated many aspects to both of them. It is interesting to me that they are both alternative education and both have the goal of teaching to the whole child, yet they go about doing that in very different ways. The outcome is typically good for children in both environments.


  1. My daughter attends a Waldorf school and I work at the school; the class teachers here do not do art, music, languages etc with the children. There are specialty teaches for those subjects.

  2. True. To be sure not all Waldorf schools do it the same way. The one we attended did knitting and some music and dance from separate teachers. However, because of the nature of Waldorf education, typically a teacher teaches literacy, numeracy, and other subjects through art and story telling and there is typically a great deal of singing in the class.

  3. My youngest attends a Montessori school and we're loving the experience. I am reading The Science Behind the Genius and it's opening my eyes to many ways of learning.

    On another note, I am a teacher for DPS and I teach language through storytelling - also a lot of music and art!

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed your article as I've been reading about alternative learning education. There seems to be several different ways to educate the "the whole child" and be very successful. I'm reading a book called "Lives of Passion, School of Hope"
    by author Rick Posner. This book changed my mind about what constitutes a good education. Now I realize that a well-rounded approach is the best way to guide kids towards being lifelong learners.

  5. Thank you, Betty. I will check out that book you mentioned.