Scientific Study on Waldorf Education and the Centralized Abitur

Pupils take a sample of water out of a pond
Biology class at Waldorf school, Photo: C. Fischer

One of the most striking characteristics of Waldorf education is its division into what are called “epochs”: teaching units in the natural sciences that last three to four weeks each. The students' own observations and experiences form the starting point for the epochs. Carefully selected, exemplary, and particularly insightful curriculum elements, such as meaningful experiments, are placed in the center of teaching. Learners are thus given the opportunity to develop further conclusions based on how they perceive the world and themselves in it. The focus is also only secondarily on the acquisition of factual knowledge defined in the curriculum. This methodological and didactic approach has sometimes received criticism. Some parents worry that this approach does not transmit enough “hard” factual knowledge.

But the actual experiences of Waldorf students, and especially the studies of graduate performance, do not confirm this critical opinion. There are increasing signs that students at Waldorf schools are especially motivated and, above all, that they learn “differently.” In 2006, a PISA survey in Austria caused quite a stir in this regard. The study examined students' competence in the natural sciences. The results revealed that Waldorf students performed well, but even more than that: in terms of their interest and enthusiasm for the natural sciences, they ranked far above the national average and clearly above the OECD average.

Dr. Dirk Rohde, who teaches biology at a Waldorf school in Marburg, has made a similar observation. As the centralized Abitur (the German equivalent of the baccalaureate or A-levels) was introduced in Hessen, his colleagues weren't sure how well Waldorf students would perform in a direct comparison. Their worries proved to be unfounded. Waldorf students not only performed on par with public school graduates, but achieved in part better final grades. This trend continued in the following years, and Dirk Rohde's scientific interest was awakened. What were the exact results? And why were Waldorf students performing better? But the paths to the Abitur are very different. Dr. Rohde, who also lectures part-time in the department of education sciences at the University of Marburg, has been exploring this question since 2011 in a post-doctoral study. He is concentrating on the subject of biology.

The first task was to collect and process large amounts of data in order to be able to provide solid evidence of the results. This fieldwork was supported by his colleagues in the Waldorf schools in the state of Hessen as well as by teachers at a number of upper-level public schools. The collected information gave the study a concrete and solid foundation of data. The data showed that Waldorf students tend to perform better than public school students on the centralized state Abitur examination in advanced biology.  Grades alone, however, do not take into account aspects such as the socio-cultural backgrounds of the students.  For example, there are some upper level public schools which have a large percentage of students with non-German backgrounds. To at least partially control for such differences, the study selected public schools located in neighborhoods similar to those of the Waldorf schools. Quantitative weighing is also a difficulty, as there are many more students enrolled in public schools than in Waldorf schools. The initial, statistically verified results are now available. They show that Waldorf students in Hessen do not have problems with the centralized Abitur; in fact, at least in advanced biology, they are at least as good as students at public schools. The data are themselves are even clearer, but the difference can be partly explained by the fact that the Waldorf students who selected advanced biology as an exam subject performed at an average level in all subjects in their graduating class, while at public schools, it tended to be less high-performing students who selected advanced biology.

“The results are significant, because in public schools the curriculum builds, brick by brick, in logically dependent steps that lead to the goal of Abitur; but in Waldorf schools in Hessen, we have a completely different situation: one teacher for the whole class, often up to the eighth grade, which means there's no special teacher for upper-level biology; a very different teaching strategy; purely epoch-based biology classes, in general up to the tenth class; less time spent on biology from the fifth to tenth classes in general; in part, a very different focus in terms of content; and all of that without the pressure of grades or demotion - in short, a completely different educational concept in which the Abitur is not the goal, but a goal,” Rohde summarizes. From the perspective of the state, therefore, the results of the study should not even have been possible.

There are many hypotheses as to why different educational paths could lead to these remarkable results. To take the insights of the statistically verified data one step further, Dirk Rohde decided to perform qualitative interviews. The goal of achieving a certain comparability of the data was retained from the quantitative part of the study. Two Waldorf schools were each matched with a public “partner school” in the neighborhood. In January 2014 Dirk Rohde began to interview 25 students. The students are taking part in the study voluntarily. So far each student has been interviewed twice: once immediately following the written Abitur exam, and once after all exams were complete. A number of them will be interviewed again a third time when they are finished with the Abitur and begin their professional education.

“Methodologically, Dr. Rohde chose a very elaborate qualitative research design in which students' subjective learning and education biographies, their underlying goals, motivations, and attributions of meaning were collected in open interviews using a documentary method of interpretation,” said Professor Dirk Randall. This made it possible to obtain a considerably clearer picture and more accurate interpretation of the complexity of effects and influences - compared, for example, to a simple questionnaire. Dirk Randoll, Professor of Education and Director of the Institute for Education and Empirical Education and Social Research at Alanus University in Alfter, is certain of this.

“It is expected that the results of the research project will be instructive not only within the Waldorf school movement, but also in mainstream public education,” said Randoll, who managed the project on behalf of the Software AG Foundation. Thanks to the study, the specific knowledge and experience gained in biology class at Waldorf schools, in particular a phenomenological teaching approach, will be made available and understandable for a wider audience. This creates a valuable contribution to the dialogue between Waldorf educational methods and traditional education science.