Seven myths about the social participation of waldorf graduates


Wanda Ribeiro and Juan Pablo de Jesus Pereira
São Paulo, Brazil, May 1, 2008

1. Introduction

Waldorf Education continues to be relatively unknown. When first making contact with this pedagogy, people in general tend to find in it certain oddities that may provoke admiration or incredulity, as well as several doubts.

Parents who decide to send their children at a Waldorf school know that they are taking a courageous step to be "different". The decision is not easy because Waldorf Education really presents many differences in comparison with other teaching methods. Here are some of the most obvious ones:

  • No text books are used - students create their own;
  • There are no tests and no exams;
  • There is no failing of a grade;
  • Learning how to read and write begins only in first grade and is a slow process;
  • All students (classes) remain grouped together from the first through the last (twelfth) grade (with occasional exceptions due to students entering or leaving the school);
  • There is a teacher, called a "class teacher", who takes a class in grade 1 and ideally stays with the class until grade 8, teaching all the main subjects: Mathematics, History, Geography, the native language and sciences;
  • Main subjects are taught in so-called "blocks lessons", in daily classes which run over three or four weeks;
  • Ideally, students learn sciences such as Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Geology using the so-called "Goethean phenomenological principle" – this means that first of all they intensely experience and describe the related phenomena, and only later come to learn and elaborate abstract, intellectual concepts about them;
  • Arts have the same importance and receive the same attention as all other school subjects; this means that they are not organized as extra-classes or elective subjects. They include form-drawing, sketching, painting, sculpture, pottery, weaving, music, drama and handicrafts; furthermore, in the elementary and middle schools (grades 1-8) every subject is taught in an artistic way;
  • Waldorf Education is based on the Anthroposophical concept and understanding of the human being developed by Rudolf Steiner at the beginning of the 20th century, particularly with regard to concepts involving the processes of child and adolescent development – the content of each school subject and the way the subject is taught follow specific concepts about the characteristics of each age level.

In Brazil and many other countries, many doubts arise when people first hear about Waldorf Education, because these and other aspects lie far away from what they are used to finding in conventional schools. Some of these concerns have to do with imagined difficulties graduates may meet when pursuing a higher education in good universities, their purported tendency to stick to professions connected to human sciences and arts, their ability to later succeed in the job market, and so on.

The authors of this study were confronted with similar questions and doubts. Their daughter Renata presently attends class 10 at the Rudolf Steiner Waldorf School of São Paulo, (RSWS) in Brazil ("Escola Waldorf Rudolf Steiner de São Paulo"). Some years ago, when they first learned about Waldorf Education, Juan Pablo’s reaction was a feeling that he had somehow found a place for his child where the human beings can be well prepared to later act in the "real world". Wanda, on the contrary, experienced many doubts. She thought that Waldorf Education was interesting enough, but unfortunately "far away from reality". In 2001, when Renata was 9 years old, after trying some "conventional" schools they decided on Waldorf Education. Later on, Wanda had no more doubts about the excellence of this method.

Nevertheless, when they began to meet other parents in that Waldorf school the authors were surprised to find other parents struggling with the same old doubts that Wanda once had, and which most people outside the school usually have. So they felt the need to objectively clarify such doubts and verify whether they corresponded to some reality, or if they were simply "myths". ( in this paper, "myths" will be referred to as the phenomenon described in the American Heritage Dictionary, 3rd Edition with the following words: "A fiction, or half-truth, especially one that forms part of an ideology".)

Resorting to Wanda’s experience as a social scientist, they decided to begin with a statistical data research. Furthermore, this was an opportunity for Wanda to examine several other aspects that had attracted her interest when she first learned about Waldorf Education. Juan Pablo decided to collaborate in the study, in order to collect "serious" arguments when talking about Waldorf.

The research started in August 2003 and was based on interviews with Waldorf graduates, who are the real actors in this process and the only people in a position to bring truth and light to all these speculations and "myths".

The results brought answers to many questions and a lot of information on Waldorf Education itself. This paper presents some statistical results collected in the interviews. Of course, numbers alone can hardly express the essentials of what was learned in this study or what Waldorf Education really is, but they can surely shed some objective light on common doubts.

This research is not a pedagogical work: there are no discussions about education theories and approaches. It is a sociological work, which investigates the results of Waldorf Education in after-school life. This is what will be here called "social participation".

See also another version of this paper with graphics showing the statistical data, published by the Waldorf Researchers and Educators Network (WREN).

2. Methodology

The field of investigation was the RSWS for the following reasons: first, it is necessary to locate a piece of research in a specific time and place; second, the school has a large enough cohort of graduates to provide a reliable base for a statistical sample; third, this was the pioneer school in the application of Waldorf Education in Brazil; fourth, it has graduates covering a wide range of ages, providing for a wide view of the aspects the research wanted to explore.

135 graduates of the school were interviewed during the period of 2003 to 2006. For this first research the authors considered just those who had finished high school at the RSWS, comprising a total of 108 who graduated between 1975 to 2002. This period was chosen because 1975 was the year of the first high school graduation, and 2002 because it was found important to establish some interval between these two dates in order to analyze the social participation. This number of 108 students represents a statistical sample with 95% of confidence, with an error margin of 10%.

During the period 1975-2002 the school graduated 1,345 students, according to its own records.

Subjects to be interviewed were chosen sometimes based on indication by people outside the school, sometimes by other former students, or by randomly selecting participants of the school’s Alumni Association ("GEA", for "Grupo de Ex-alunos Waldorf") particularly during its 2003 and 2004 annual meetings.

The authors designed a questionnaire with specific "open questions". This means that the interviewed students could express anything they wished, that is, there were no pre-determined answers to choose from. The authors present here only quantitative results of this first research. Qualitative elements will be presented elsewhere, and will constitute an outcome of the main goal: showing the distinguished characteristics of a Waldorf school from a qualitative point of view. 35 questions were formulated with the goal of clarifying many aspects, most of them not included in this paper, such as the students’ relationship with their class teachers, their opinion about watching TV, about people with whom they were working, and so on.

In 82% of the cases, interviews were personally conducted by voice recording and transcribed afterwards. During the interviews, the authors wanted to apply during the interviews a basic principle of Waldorf Education, i.e. having a personal contact with each subject. Only 11% of the interviews were conducted by telephone and 7% by e-mail. The authors planned an investigation about Waldorf Education and not about the RSWS. This means that the same questions can be applied to any Waldorf school. Furthermore, this research does not compare Waldorf Education with other pedagogical systems.

The questions helped to assess what the authors call "seven myths about Waldorf Education", detailing and expanding the doubts referred to in section 1. These myths are as follows:

  1. Waldorf graduates are not able to pass the admission examinations to Brazilian colleges and universities (called "exames vestibulares" in Brazil);
  2. They are not admitted to first-rank colleges and universities;
  3. Once accepted by a good college or university, they are not able to finish their course;
  4. Most of Waldorf graduates become artists;
  5. Waldorf Education does not prepare its students for the job market;
  6. It does not prepare its students to be professionally competitive;
  7. Waldorf is a religious education.

These myths summarize just some of several common prejudices about Waldorf Education in Brazil; they constitute what seemed to the authors the most frequent typical doubts about it.

3. Sample outline

Some quantitative aspects about the graduates who were interviewed are the following.

3.1 Distribution according to age

Age interval














3.2 Sex

  • 58% women
  • 42% men

It is interesting to note that our sample had about the same distribution of gender as the total number of graduates of the RSWS.

3.3 Period of schooling at the RSWS

  • 58% did their whole schooling (1-12) at the school
  • 36% started at elementary or middle school (1-8)
  • 6% started at high school.

All students of the last group (high school) came from "conventional" (non-Waldorf) schools. For many years, the RSWS was the only Waldorf School in the city of São Paulo (in fact, in Brazil) with a high school.

It is also interesting to note that graduates who entered the school in the upper classes said that their own opinion was fundamental to this decision. They said they wre looking for a "different" education.

4. Assessment of the seven myths

4.1. Myth number one: Waldorf graduates are not able to pass admission examinations to Brazilian colleges and universities

100% of the students who took admission examinations to colleges and universities were approved. This shows something very significant in terms of academic achievement. There are many private high schools that specialize in preparing their students to take admission exams to universities; this is done, for example, by separating classes into vocatioinal streems (because of differences in subjects and difficulties tested in those exams), such as the physical sciences, math/computer science and engineering; biological and medical sciences; law, etc. and directing teaching to the programs of admission exams. No Waldorf School in Brazil has a curriculum with this goal: all of them provide for a general education. Nevertheless, the results of graduates in admission exams to colleges and universities are absolutely exceptional. One has also to understand that certainly many Waldorf graduates take 1-semester or 1-year prep courses for those exams after graduating from school, but the end-effect shows that Waldorf Education does not prevent from goingo to a university, on the contrary, as the only 3% that did not pursue a university degree show.

This study revealed another, very significant piece of information: 91% of those interviewed who did take admission exams were admitted to a university on their first attempt, 8% on the second attempt and only 1% after and including the third attempt. It should also be noted that very rarely a student in class 12 takes a prep course in parallel to attending school, because the curriculum of that class is very demanding. As a matter of fact, 21% of the interviewed graduates passed admission examinations to universities without attending prep courses, which is also a very high percentage in comparison to good high schools.

4.2 Myth number two: graduates are not admitted to first-rank colleges and universities

This myth is a consequence of the previous one. In the authors’ experience, after telling someone that graduates did very well in admission exams, they would immediately be confronted with the statement that the students were probably not able to enter a good university. Therefore, they decided to investigate the institutions that were attended. They show in detail universities and colleges that are ranked as good ones by the Brazilian Ministry of Education.

  • 23% - USP (University of São Paulo)
  • 15% - PUC/SP (Catholic University of São Paulo)
  • 10% - FAAP (Armando Álvares Penteado Foundation)
  • 9% - Mackenzie Presbiterian University
  • 2% - FEI (Faculty of Industrial Engineering)
  • 2% - Unicamp (University of Campinas)
  • 2% - Santa Casa School of Medicine
  • 2% - Getúlio Vargas Foundation
  • 1% - EPM (São Paulo School of Medicine)
  • 1% - Mauá Engineering School
  • 1% - UFPR (Federal University of Paraná)
  • 26% - other

USP is by far the most scientifically productive university in the country, ranked among the best 150 in the world; EPM and Santa Casa Faculty of Medicine rank among the main faculties of medicine in the country, etc. "Other" stands for universities and colleges not so well ranked. So, it is possible to see that 68% of all graduates went to very good institutions.

4.3 Myth number three: graduates are not able to finish their university courses

Another common statement is "if Waldorf graduates pass the admission exams to universities they are not able to finish them successfully". Here are the percentages of Waldorf students who got a university degree:

  • 92% achieved a college degree
  • 8% did not finish the course

Overall degrees attained by the students:

  • 3% - high school
  • 11% - still attending university courses
  • 6% - uncompleted university course
  • 58% - full university course
  • 22% - graduate course

This shows that 80% of the Waldorf graduates successfully finished college; one should also take into consideration those 11% who were still attending college at the time of the assessment.

4.4 Myth number four: most Waldorf graduates become artists

As Waldorf Education attaches the same importance to artistic subjects as it gives to traditional academic subjects, besides using artistic means for teaching every subject in elementary and middle school (1-8), people think it just produces artists.

4.4.1 Degrees in arts and in other areas

  • 12% - Arts (theater, plastic arts, visual arts, cinema and music)
  • 88% - other areas

4.4.2 Areas of universitiy degrees

Areas of college degrees were subdivided into biomedical, engineering/exact and human sciences; these are the areas used in Brazil for large admission exams to universities, such as Fuvest (USP along with some other independent faculties) and Vunesp , the two admission exams in Brazil with the largest number of candidates (more than 100,000).

  • 57% human sciences (including arts)
  • 31% biological sciences
  • 12% engineering and exact sciences

It is interesting to compare this distribution of candidates with the overall distribution of candidates who took the two large admission examinations cited above: 50% for human sciences, 30% biomedical and 20% engineering, physical science and math/computer science. This contradicts the common myth that Waldorf graduates tend to human sciences.

4.5 Myth number five: Waldorf Education does not prepare students for the job market

There is a belief that Waldorf Education educates people to work just in artistic areas. Here are data about jobs currently being performed by the interviewed graduates.

  • 24% - business administration and services
  • 14% - students
  • 14% - arts (musicians, theater directors, actors, plastic artists)
  • 12% - education
  • 11% - health
  • 10% - commerce, marketing
  • 5% - industry, manufacturing and construction
  • 5% - human resources
  • 4% - nature environment
  • 1% - not working

4.6. Myth number six: Waldorf Education does not prepare students for a professional competitive world

As Waldorf Education puts strong emphasis on social relations among students, as well as on a humanistic and artistic form of education, there is a myth that its graduates leave school unprepared or have difficulties in dealing with competition in their jobs. To gain an insight into this question, graduates were asked if this had happened for them in their professional activities.

  • 38% thought competitiveness in the job market and a humanistic background are two completely different things: for them, to be prepared or not for competition is essentially a personal question, so Waldorf Education did no harm
  • 36% thought that Waldorf Education had helped them because it had prepared them to think and act in a special way, and this was positively recognized when they were seeking a job
  • 11% considered this is an individual question, but believed that Waldorf Education had given them elements that were useful in some competitive situations, or gave them some ethical support
  • 5% believed that Waldorf Education had provided for a hard beginning as far as competition was concerned, but after some time they found their way
  • 9% thought they had been harmed by Waldorf Education because they did not feel prepared for any kind of competitiveness
  • 1% did not know how to answer this question

4.7 Myth number seven: it is a religious education

Waldorf Education is strongly based upon the spiritual world view introduced by Rudolf Steiner, which he called Anthroposophy. Some people regard it erroneously as a religion, claiming that it contains a religious doctrine. In fact, Steiner introduced it with the aim of handling spiritual matters with the same approach as common science deals with the material world, that is, doing research, expressing results in a purely conceptual way (and not directed towards feelings, which is in general the religious and mystic approaches), formulating hypotheses constantly subjected to verification and revision, rather than having faith, and having practical applications in all realms of human activity. Anthroposophy is explicitly not part of the school curriculum, and is in general never mentioned by teachers, because it is generally considered that it should be studied only at the adult age, thus preserving the person’s freedom. On the other hand, religious schools follow a specific doctrine or confession and have religious classes. Waldorf Education recommends that students, mainly in their younger years, should have a religious education provided by churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, etc. ideally following their parents’ religion. In former years, the RSWS had religious representatives of various confessions coming to teach religion classes, but this ended due to the lack of interest on their part. By applying Steiner’s recommendation that small children should receive a religious education, some Waldorf Schools offer so-called "free religion classes", in general taught by the teachers themselves. On the other hand, bible stories and also stories from many old religious traditions (like Hindu, Greek and Nordic Myths, etc.) are part of the curriculum in terms of the history of mankind. The myth of Waldorf Education being religious was investigated by asking what the subject of the graduates’ religion classes was.

4.7.1 Contents of religion classes

  • 41% did not remember having had any religion classes
  • 38% remembered that classes covered histories or biographies from the bible but without any religious doctrine
  • 8% said they had no religious classes because they entered the school during high school and there were no religion classes at that level;
  • 6% reported that they had received a general view of several religions
  • 5% answered that their religion classes had Catholic contents because their parents were Catholic (probably at the time when priests came to teach religions classes for Catholic students; Brazil is the country with the highest number of Catholics)
  • 2% said that religion classes had not brought any religious doctrine, and that Waldorf Education is not a religious institution but it has a religiosity that can be noticed in several aspects, for example in the verse that the students say at the beginning of every class day

4.7.2 Graduates according to religious confessions

  • 51% - own faith
  • 17% - Christian Community
  • 13% - Catholics
  • 5% - Kardecist
  • 4% - Luteran
  • 4% - agnostics
  • 6% - others (Baptist, Jewish, Prebysterian, Buddhist, Cabalist or adepts of Candomblé Voodoo)

4.8 Summary

Myth number one: Waldorf graduates are not able to pass admission examinations to Brazilian universities

  • 100% of the graduates who took admission exams were approved

Myth number two: graduates are not admitted to first-rank colleges or universities

  • 68% were admitted to some of the best universities

Myth number three: graduates are not able to finish their university courses

  • 92% graduated in their university courses

Myth number four: most Waldorf graduates become artists

  • Only 12% had chosen artistic careers

Myth number five: Waldorf Education does not prepare students for the job market

  • 99% are participating in the job market

Myth number six: it does not prepare students for a professional competitive world

  • 84% did not experience any damage in their capacity to compete in the job market

Myth number seven: it is a religious education

  • 100% did not notice any kind of religious indoctrination

5. Conclusions

This study shows that the seven myths do not correspond to reality.

The authors had the opportunity to present these results in lectures addressed to parents, teachers and the general public in 12 Waldorf schools throughout Brazil. It was very gratifying to meet mony people who were anxiously awaiting for the confirmation of their positive feelings with regard to to Waldorf Education. The audiences found these results important because they shed light on some of their own questions regarding Waldorf schools.

Waldorf Education has its own specificity. One of its distinctive features is the essential participation of parents, teachers and students. This participation is very important because Waldorf Education does not follow the usual educational standards, so students and parents develop a feeling of being "different". Many people don’t like to be called "different", so it is important that they become aware of the good results provided by this education.

The number of differences between Waldorf Education and all other educational methods is overwhelming. Nevertheless, the interviewed graduates found that the differences they had experienced during their education mainly fell into two categories: the respect for the individual rhythm and maturity of each student, and by assigning to the arts the importance they really have in education and in developing individual abilities and sensitivity. Herewith we reproduce some quotes from the interviewed graduates about these two aspects.

5.1 On the respect for the individual rhythm and maturity of each student

  • "Waldorf´s aim are the needs of each human being according to his age."
  • "There I could be myself. It is a question of trust."
  • "Human development for the entire life, not just preparing for college."
  • "Respect for each student’s learning process and individual assessment of each one’s progress."
  • "Different kinds of experiences, producing a wider development."
  • "Respect for individuality."
  • "Creative autonomy."

5.2 On the importance of the arts in the whole educational process

  • "It gives a global view of life."
  • "It gives flexibility to act in the world."
  • "It teaches many capacities."
  • "It gives self-confidence, and leads to self-knowledge and respect for people."
  • "It makes the world bigger, shows other universes and expands your action."
  • "Art is a serious thing and we need to regard it as such."

The authors did not have the intention of stating that Waldorf Education is the salvation for the world; they simply wanted to bring by means of this paper some objective elements to help people to learn about the results of some specific non-standard practices and points of view regarding education. Moreover, they know that the school is an essential period of the human life, but it certainly is not the only aspect in the formation of an individuality. There are others linke family, friends, culture, religion, etc.

About Waldorf Education in Brazil

The first Waldorf School in Brazil was the Rudolf Steiner Waldorf School of São Paulo, founded in 1956. In Brazil there are now about 70 schools that follow the principles of Waldorf Education, including elementary/middle schools (with and without high schools) and independent kindergartens (see the Waldorf Education directory for Latin America, and the Waldorf kindergarten directory for Brazil There are a number of Waldorf teacher training courses (the earliest and main is situated exactly at the RSWS), for those who want to become Waldorf teachers – the demand for them is steadily growing every year.

About the authors

Wanda Ribeiro (O endereço de e-mail address está sendo protegido de spambots. Você precisa ativar o JavaScript enabled para vê-lo. ) has a B.Sc. degree in Social Sciences from the University of São Paulo (USP) which she got in 2001, and a degree in Social Education in 2003 also from USP. She has been a "Waldorf mother" since 2001 and took the Waldorf Teacher’s Training at the Rudolf Steiner Waldorf School of São Paulo

Juan Pablo de Jesus Pereira (O endereço de e-mail address está sendo protegido de spambots. Você precisa ativar o JavaScript enabled para vê-lo. ) has a B.Sc. degree in Civil Engineering from the University of São Paulo (USP), in 1978. He has also been a "Waldorf father" since 2001 and took the same Waldorf Teacher’s Training.

Translation: Valdemar W. Setzer; revisions: Belinda Heys (May 10, 2008) and Rose Lee Holland (May 4, 2008)


Last revision: July 12, 2008
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