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Pupils of Waldorf schools very weak at maths

Attitude towards learning is more positive
27 February 2009

Pupils of Waldorf schools are very weak at maths compared with pupils from regular schools. On the other hand, their attitude towards learning is significantly more positive, Hilde Steenbergen discovered in her comparative investigation of the learning outcomes of both types of education. Steenbergen will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 12 March 2009.

Traditionally, Waldorf schools concentrate on the broad development of children. At these schools, artistic and social-emotional development is as important as cognitive development. That starting point meant that comparison with regular education was barely possible until a few years ago; the content of the two educational systems differed too much from each other. In 2000, however, the Waldorf schools were included in the regular education system and thus endorsed the core aims of basic education. Steenbergen: ‘Thanks to this joint foundation, comparisons became possible.’ 

Significantly lower scores

Important differences between the two education systems can be found at the cognitive level. After three years of secondary education, Waldorf schools score lower for Dutch and mathematics. With regard to maths, Waldorf school pupils often start their secondary education with significantly lower scores. The deficiency they developed while at primary school (often Waldorf primary schools) cannot be remedied at secondary school.

Higher academic self-image

What is noticeable is that Waldorf school pupils have a higher academic self-image than pupils from regular schools. This is despite the fact that their performance in general is poorer. ‘That could be caused by inflated egos, but could also be a question of less fear of failure,’ thinks Steenbergen. ‘This could be because Waldorf schools not only emphasize the cognitive capacities of pupils. Their attitude towards learning is clearly more positive than that of pupils in regular schools. There you can see that the motivation to learn drops much faster between the first and the third year.’

Lower level of intelligence

Pupils at Waldorf schools are relatively often from families with a higher socioeconomic background. ‘For this reason it’s often assumed that they come from articulate families and thus have a head start in this area,’ according to Steenbergen. ‘This turns out not to be the case. Their verbal intelligence scores are virtually identical and even significantly lower for symbolic intelligence.’ Steenberg says that this means that children with a higher socioeconomic background choose a Waldorf school more often if a gymnasium (pre-university school) does not appear to be possible. After all, when accepting pupils, Waldorf schools are not influenced by the advice issued by the primary school. And what is perhaps more important, the various educational levels (VMBO-TL, HAVO and VWO) are all kept together at Waldorf schools.

School choice

According to Steenbergen it’s not easy to link a clear conclusion to the results of this research. Which school choice is better is heavily dependent on the importance attached by parents to certain qualities. ‘If parents think it’s important for their children to develop well in the cognitive domain, then a Waldorf school is not the best choice.’ On the other hand, if they think it’s important that their child enjoys going to school – a frequently heard answer to the question parents are asked about what influenced their choice of school – the answer to whether a Waldorf school is the best choice is more nuanced.’ Steenbergen also points out that the creative development of pupils was not covered by the research and that this is where the added value of a Waldorf school lies for many parents.

Curriculum Vitae

Hilde Steenbergen (Den Helder, 1967) studied didactics in Groningen. She will be awarded a PhD in Behavioural and Social Sciences. Her supervisors are Prof. Greetje van der Werf and Prof. Bert Creemers. Her thesis is entitled ‘Vrije en reguliere scholen vergeleken. Een onderzoek naar de effectiviteit van Vrije scholen en reguliere scholen voor voortgezet onderwijs.’ [A comparison of Waldorf and regular schools. An investigation of the effectiveness of Waldorf schools and regular schools for secondary education.] Steenbergen is currently a study advisor for the Department of Sociology of the University of Groningen.

More information

Hilde Steenbergen, tel. (050) 363 62 17 (work), e-mail:

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.27 p.m.
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