- Read Shakespeare poem
- Review science chapter for test
- Do daily math exercises
- Begin writing assignment
- Read chapter in history book
I left my 10 year old at home with a list of school work, as I ran to do some errands. I told grandma not to worry, he was responsible enough to get it all done. Three hours later, when I arrive home, my son runs up to me excitedly, “Mom, Mom, can I read the Shakespeare poem to you?” Before I had a chance to breath he expressively begins “performing” the Shakespeare poem. He feels the words and expresses (and pronounces) each correctly. I listened in awe. When he finishes, he obsessively babbles about the poem – the meaning, the new vocabulary words it contains, the historical context and references made in the poem, and how he had listened to it read on youtube over and over again so he could read it with correct enunciation, pronunciation, and expression. “Isn’t it just beautiful, Mom?” – At that moment, I realized he had spent the last three hours delving into Shakespeare and checking the other items off his list had not even occurred to him.
Before I had ever heard of Waldorf or “block learning” my ten year old taught me. He was simply not capable of switching the channel in his brain to a new subject before the story line in the subject he was studying was “complete.” It wasn’t that he loved Shakespeare – although he does – because if I left him the next day with Science being on the top of the list, science is all that would be done. Thus, when I started studying Waldorf’s concept of “block learning” – it made sense to me.
What is block learning?
Block learning is the pedagogy that one subject is taught and studied for a block of time usually lasting three to six weeks. Then another topic is taught for another block of time. This contrasts dramatically with the current practice of a student studying new material in multiple subjects each school day.
In Waldorf schools, block learning begins in first grade – it is not geared for preschool or kindergarten – and runs through high school.
Math facts, mental math, spelling, and memorization exercises are practiced during circle time or extra lessons, usually on a daily basis. But, new concepts are learned during the block learning called “main lessons.”
Block learning is not student directed learning. The teacher chooses the block to be studied in accordance with the child’s natural development.
Block learning is not unit studies. One subject is studied in depth, although sometimes other subjects are incorporated in the process of teaching that main subject.
Waldorf is often associated with “delayed learning” philosophy – not introducing symbolic letters and numbers until the age of seven. What may not be known is that because of “block learning” students go much more in-depth on topics and their base of knowledge and understanding passes their peers in public school – usually by 4th grade. This is because of the concept of spiral learning.
Spiral learning is the progression of a subject from block to block within a grade level and then throughout the grades. Different methods of teaching are employed throughout different grade levels, which take into account child development. For example, math is taught through manipulatives in first grade, fourth grade math holds more emphasis on art and beauty, and eighth on logic and reason. Thus, students are not only learning at increasing complexity, but able to retain the information because it is taught in a way that resonates with their souls.
Why use block learning?
Block learning has proven successful. Students are fully immersed in a subject which is intensely and economically taught in an age appropriate manner. A Canadian study found that average intelligent students who studied in a Waldorf school showed the same characteristics of creative behavior, problem solving, and subject integration as gifted students who studied under mainstream methodology. Block learning and the spiral curriculum is beneficial to students ability to understand, think, reason, remember and cross-apply information.
How does block learning work?
Often when we think of learning for a two hour time frame, our mind goes to sitting in a desk, listening to a professor, twirling our pencil as we try to stay awake. Main lessons look nothing like this. They integrate mental, physical, and artwork to balance the learning approach. Listening, active learning, singing, storytelling, recalling information, and quiet seat work are beautifully balanced. Waldorf main lesson pedagogy used a multiple intelligence approach, before multiple intelligence was a thing.
What blocks do you teach?
Three to five subjects are covered per school year. A typical year may include 3 or 4 Language Arts blocks, 3 or 4 Arithmetic Blocks, 1 or 2 blocks of Science, Humanities, or Form Drawing, and often the last block of the year is saved for a school play.
Block learning may be the most distinctive element of a Waldorf education, and for good reason. It is highly beneficial in developing children into lifelong learners. Thank you, Andres, for making me a believer.