Math and Arithmetic in a Waldorf School May 24 2017
Children learn arithmetic in school. Most of what we call “math” is arithmetic — the skills of computation and calculation. When we do addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, times tables, square roots, calculating area — for examples — we are doing arithmetic. Arithmetic is a division or department of mathematics. Geometry, algebra, and calculus are other branches of mathematics.
Teaching children skills in arithmetic tends to be a cause of anxiety in our culture. Comparative studies accomplished in the latter part of the last century, comparing the attitudes of Japanese parents and American parents about arithmetic skills was revealing. American parents believed that children were good at arithmetic or they were not. If they were not naturally good at it, there was little to be done and fear for their children’s success at school created much anxiety. Japanese parents, on the other hand, felt that a natural gift at arithmetic was nice to have but was irrelevant to learning arithmetic skills. Practice was what made a skilled calculator of a youngster and the more practice, the better the skills. If a child works hard, arithmetic can become easier and clearer. This belief leads to confidence and determination. This was the biggest determinant in the abilities of the young in the two cultures. Japanese students at that time tended to achieve more easily than American students.
In all learning anxiety and stress get in the way of deep comprehension and thought. What has come to be called “Math Anxiety” is likely to be one of the worst things that can happen to a child. In our educational world in North America, stress, pressure and demands to perform have become the norm over the last few decades, despite all the evidence underscoring that we are making things worsen not better.
Waldorf education looks at learning of all things differently from mainstream points of view. Waldorf education actually teaches both math and arithmetic. In all subjects, the understanding is of learning as a process, not an event. This is truer in the arena of arithmetic and math than in any other of the subjects mastered during a Waldorf school journey. Most subjects are taught in blocks, and actively forgetting about a topic for a while helps in the rhythm of the learning process. When a block comes up again, say, botany in grade five, teachers find the remembering, that might be slow after long forgetting, turns up rich with depth after a resting time. Math and arithmetic are a little bit different. Yes, there are blocks of focused work, but each day there is a brief moment of calculation, number journeys, patterned number games, stamping and clapping of times tables, quick calculations of percentages, square roots, or prime numbers, even in blocks devoted to history or anatomy.
Artistic activity and playful repetition are the keys to success: drawing, painting, rhythmic hand and foot activities, singing, playing instruments, sculpture, and poetry all play a part in human comprehension at a deep level. In Waldorf schools, we want not just smart heads but also intelligent limbs, feet, hands, hearts. This takes practice of different kinds, not only the kind that sits at a desk with a piece of paper.
In Waldorf schools, there’s plenty of time for sitting still and practicing arithmetic, of course. But the time spent at a desk is made lively on the inside by the memory of the stories, the games, the movement that make arithmetic understood and alive, active, memorable!