I had this incredibly nurturing and thought-provoking day with an old friend earlier this week. I've known this woman about as long as I've known my husband (almost 17 years) but we've been out of touch for the last eight or so. I used to babysit for her daughter, who is now an adult with a Master's degree. She now has a son the same age as Little, and the boys spent the day digging in the dirt, building, and creating performances for us.
She homeschooled her daughter, and is now homeschooling her little son. We talked about many things, including various alternative approaches to education. Her daughter was enrolled in a Waldorf school briefly, but it didn't work out, so she brought her home.
I took the position in that conversation, and I'm taking it now, that any system, be it Waldorf or Montessori or NCLB or the latest ELA test imposed by New York State, cannot serve the best interests of the child. This is because the teachers (or parents) are referring to some authority outside the classroom.
The authority belongs in the classroom (or in the home) with the teacher and the children. Each teacher (or parent) has to work out for themselves whether the adult will have more say in how the learning swings or the children will, but it has to be a balance between those two: the adult who is facilitating the learning, making it possible, and the kids who are there to accrue the tools they need to function in our culture. All these terms would need to be defined, of course: learning, tools, function, culture, and it is by the definition of these terms that many policies and curricula have been imposed on many groups of kids. It is when we decide what our kids really need to know in order to function in what version of our culture that we decide how the learning is going to happen, what the kids will learn, in what order, by what means.
I think this is the primary place where public education has gone so badly awry: nobody trusts the teachers, and certainly nobody trusts the kids. But without that trust, children are just "receiving an education;" they're not actually being educated. They aren't learning how to think, to trust themselves to find out what they need to know, and they aren't learning to work things out in any meaningful way. They're just learning that somebody out there has a notion about what they should be doing all day, and they must sit still for it.
My position is this: the reference has to be the child, in the context of the larger culture and the role the child will eventually play in that culture. We want, of course, for our children to be prepared for a wide variety of roles, so it is they who are making this decision. We don't want them to be limited by their educations.
You have to look at the child, or the children, in a classroom. You can't be looking at some book written by somebody who's never met your kids, or known your community.
That's what I like about Dewey: the reference is the child, and he doesn't imagine himself to know anything about all children everywhere, except that they are capable of real work and they want to engage with the real world.
Now I am sure that there are many Montessori teachers and many Waldorf teachers (and I include parents teaching their kids at home in this category) who use the structure of the philosophy as a sort of invisible framework, and for whom the primary reference is actually the kids. This is what Anthromama was saying in the comments: you study up on the philosophy, and then you let it go when you actually engage with your kids.
My sister-in-law is a good example: she went to a Waldorf school, founded another one when she got older, and enrolled her young daughter in yet another. She loves Waldorf. But she also knows that it doesn't work for every child, and she knows her child, and when the Waldorf school seemed like it wasn't a good fit for her daughter, she brought her back home.
Evenspor is another good example. She loves the Montessori approach, but she is mostly looking at her child. She has goals that are based in a system, but then she looks at her child to figure out how to get there.
But I am equally sure that there are teachers who slavishly follow the precepts of their chosen philosophies, to the point where they don't even see the children in front of them. I might even say that there are more slavish followers than there are creative thinkers in these systems. I might even be pushed into saying that it is the very creation of a system of education that gives birth to slavish followers.
And that, my friends, is just wrong.