A Waldorf-inspired model approaches the study of mathematics with consideration of the abstract properties of the subject as a form of flexible thinking and reasoning. Students learn the historical contexts of mathematical theories and they learn about the innovative mathematician founders, theoreticians and practitioners who developed the field as we know it today. As with science, the study of math is presented as a process of questioning. It invites improvisational, exploratory thinking as well as the memorization and application of formulas and computational processes.
Why do we learn math? So we can manage financial matters? Get a good job? Understand statistics in the newspaper? Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, urged teachers to connect all their teaching to practical life, and surely would favor these uses of mathematics. But he had something more in mind as well, saying in 1921: “In the process of mathematical thinking, one is assured of continually following everything one does with full, clear consciousness…We have ourselves in complete control, so to speak, when we think mathematically. And, dear friends, the condition of consciousness present in mathematical thinking is in fact what a person strives for who strives for what I call imaginative knowledge.”
How does a model inspired by Waldorf education not only prepare students to use mathematics in life, but also develop the kind of mathematical thinking that Steiner describes? Like all the subjects within this model, math is introduced artistically and in a developmentally appropriate way. In the earliest years, teachers work with the mathematical knowledge that is alive in the physical body and movement of the young child through rhythmic clapping, games, and other activities. In the early childhood classrooms, children view geometric patterns in natural objects, to be encountered again in the study of geometry in the older grades.
As arithmetic is introduced, children experience qualities of numbers that relate to human experience (one person, two hands, four limbs, five fingers…). Operations are often taught through imaginative pictures and stories. Thus, mathematics is taught by engaging both the will and the feeling life of the young child. As the capacity for conceptual thinking and analysis unfolds in the upper grades, the students are ready for the more abstract work involved in mathematical rules, formulas, geometry and algebra. Teachers aim to ensure a solid foundation in math facts and skills, as well as foster the sense of wonder, beauty, and joy in discovery that every math student deserves.