How Do They Compare? Waldorf, Montessori & Charlotte Mason

Guest Post by: Jean Miller
deskHave you ever wondered how different learning approaches compare? I have. And knowing that the Waldorf, Montessori, and Charlotte Mason methods are all experiential in nature and honor the individual child, I set out to dig a little deeper into a comparison of these three.

I have varying degrees of experience with each of these methods, so that’s the place for me to start. I have lots of experience with Waldorf-inspired homeschooling: twenty years and three kids, along with leading small groups. I have some experience with each of the Charlotte Mason and Montessori methods: I incorporate some Charlotte Mason materials into our homeschooling as my kids reach middle school; and I worked in a Montessori 3-6 year olds classroom for a year after grad school and then sold handmade Montessori materials to teachers and schools.

So that’s the personal perspective. What about the historical perspective and the methods themselves? The founders of Charlotte Mason, Montessori and Waldorf all shared the desire to counteract “industrialized schooling,” the common practice of training a child for a specific job from a very young age. None advocate the use of textbooks or testing. They were British, Italian and German, respectively, and each founder had a deep desire to contribute to bringing about a better world through education. They each created a method that honors the child as both a physical and spiritual being, built on a liberal arts foundation. For these reasons, I have a deep respect for all three of these approaches.

The Charlotte Mason method came first with Ms. Mason’s publication of Home Education in 1886. She created a Parents’ Educational Union (PEU) in England to help parents educate their children at home or in small groups prior to their entering school. Ms. Mason believed that parents were their children’s first teachers and therefore might benefit from understanding basic principles of child development. She published a monthly newsletter for parents.

Today, there are charter and private schools using the Charlotte Mason method; and after her writings were re-published in the 1980s, this method really took off in the homeschooling world. The method is characterized by short lessons of 10-20 minutes each and the use of “living books” that teach “noble ideas” rather than relying on teachers to do the teaching directly.

Photo credit: valilouve / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Maria Montessori opened Casa dei Bambini, the “house of children,” in Rome in 1907 to bring “real work” to children who had little structure or security in their lives. She had noticed that when she gave these children from low income families child-sized but “real world” materials to work with, they stayed focused for hours and thrived. In fact, she concluded that children prefer real work over fantasy play.

The Montessori method is characterized by beautiful learning materials that have a “control of error” built in (a way for children to check their work) so that children can work independently. Montessori children teach themselves in a “prepared environment” after the teacher has set up the materials and instructed the child in how to use them. Children learn through their senses at an individual pace. And in the elementary years, children work on independent research projects.

Rudolf Steiner founded the first Waldorf School in 1919 for the children of factory workers. His aim was education toward freedom and to open the heart forces through the arts in post-WWI Europe. His approach incorporates the arts into all lessons as a way of strengthening the will and bringing joy to learning.

5629372237_8e896b85ff_nA Waldorf kindergarten classroom has many natural playthings that children can use to recreate scenes from real life and from stories. In the elementary years, children record their learning by drawing and writing in main lesson books.

Interestingly, all three of these methods advocate for a home-like environment in the kindergarten years, with lots of time spent outdoors. We can do that at home! In the elementary years, the main differences are in the amount of time a child works independently and who or what does the teaching: Montessori uses the most independent learning and the materials do the teaching, then comes Charlotte Mason where the books do the teaching, and finally Waldorf where the human connection is key. I have found that the amount of independent work can be adjusted at home according to each family’s situation. Generally speaking, the more kids and/or more responsibilities Mom has, the more she needs to find at least some ways for the learning to happen independently, particularly as children get older. And this is not a bad thing; after all, becoming an independent learner is the goal by the time a child goes off to college!

Of the three methods, Waldorf and Charlotte Mason are the most similar from the perspective of learning. In Waldorf, the arts train the will; in Charlotte Mason, habits train the will. In both methods, lessons are built around “living books” and rich stories. Their main difference is in the length of the lessons. Charlotte Mason lessons are short and switch often from one subject to another often; Waldorf main lessons are generally around two hours and go deeply into one subject for weeks.

How does this all translate to homeschooling? My experience has shown me that main lesson block learning incorporating the arts really makes for memorable lessons; children are engaged and retain the learning in a deep way. Shorter lessons then work well in the latter part of the morning or early afternoon, such as skills review for math or foreign languages, exposure to the work of particular artists or composers, and independent projects on a topic of the child’s choice related to the main lesson. With an understanding of child development and knowledge of the roots of each of these approaches, we can set about taking the best from each to help our children blossom into adults who will contribute to a better world. I leave you with a quote from Rudolf Steiner:

“Our highest endeavor must be to develop free human beings who are able of themselves to impart purpose and direction to their lives. The need for imagination, a sense of truth, and a feeling of responsibility—these three forces are the very nerve of education.”

JeanJean Miller shares resources and blogs at Her new eCourse, Inspired Learning!, goes even deeper into a comparison of experiential learning approaches and explores the unique aspects of Waldorf education, including main lesson blocks and the lively arts. Check out her Summer Sale going on through the end of June on all products; use the coupon code: “summer14.” Jean has been homeschooling for twenty years. She lives in Northeastern Ohio with her teenage daughter, husband, dog, three cats and a bunny. She is grateful that her two grown sons also live in Northeastern Ohio (at the moment anyway)!



Photo credit Learning Lab: Blue Yonder / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Photo credit Montessori en famille, vie pratique: valilouve / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Photo credit Wet on Wet Watercolor: AlyssssylA / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


  1. says

    Great post Jean. I like your idea of a standard Waldorf ML in the morning and then more of a CM approach in the afternoon. Will consider this as I work on our rhythm for next year.

    Any favorite CM resources for middle school?? I loved the business math curriculum you suggested for grade 6. (I recommended it to Donna for her girls this year!)

    Fun to see you over here!

  2. Lynette Hailstone says

    Great post, my learning and experience with Waldorf is that the main lesson of 2 hours is actually broken into a rhytmn of 15 minute or so of actual activities, expanding and contracting, movement and stillness for the younger children especially too, even with a short break in the middle if it suits. People are sometimes turned away with the thought of a two hour lesson, especially if they try and do it without awareness of this and consider it a failure when the child won’t sit for 2 hours in a ‘contractive’ activity.

  3. says

    Great point, Lynette. The 2 hour main lesson is not meant to be sitting at a desk for those two hours! The activities definitely vary in a rhythm, and there is so much hands-on learning so that children don’t get tired.

  4. says

    My favorite CM resources come from Simply Charlotte Mason where you purchased the business math curriculum. Or if you find you want/need more of a simple workbook for older kids, check out Queens Homeschooling; their Language Lessons books are simple copywork lessons. But I wouldn’t use these before grade six!