About “dying and becoming” in learning

By Claus-Peter Röh, November 2012

Birth and death are not only located as facts at the beginning and end of our life. They are the result of processes which continuously take place and, properly understood, bear great developmental opportunities within themselves. Claus-Peter Röh, head of the Pedagogical Section in Dornach and a class teacher in Flensburg for many years, shows how in teachers themselves passing away and coming into existence are associated with dying and being born, something which the pupils also experience daily.

The mystery of “dying and becoming”, the transformation of what has become into something that is on the way to becoming forms the daily core of Waldorf education: as a teacher, how can I find the impulse for transformation out of today’s lesson with all its encounters and experiences? 

Sometimes we become aware in the middle of a lesson: tomorrow the next step must go in this direction. That provides the opportunity to shape this new step in advance. What was planned previously falls by the wayside like the dying skin of a ripe fruit revealing what is inside.

Often the transformative impulse is even more hidden and contested: a kind of resistance might make itself felt semi-consciously during a lesson, as if the work was going against the grain of the whole class. In the review of the lesson we begin to ask what the reasons for that might be: was it the methodology which called forth such resistance? Was it the content? Does the subject, which has been well and truly exhausted, call for a conclusion and a kind of “euthanasia” so that something new can arise?

The key thing is whether these questions are considered in such a way that a new point of freedom of action is reached: not all resistance that is experienced should lead to a change of method. But if, as teachers, we insist on maintaining our earlier planning the resistance can rise to such a painful level that an immediate new approach or a new start becomes unavoidable. In the event of such a “precipitate delivery”, the necessary change externally breaks through the shell of what was planned and already exists and had become too fixed. If we look at such a dynamic with hindsight, we can see that future developments were already present in the transformative process. That raises the question as to the way in which we as teachers can learn to perceive these forces which want to bring about something new.

Clearly past and future always come together in lessons but as a teacher I also encounter myself: when I become alert to the encounters in the lesson, when I respect the wisdom which is at work in the life of the class community, then an openness can arise in me which allows me to “read” what is coming towards me. Looking at oneself as if from the outside in the review of the lesson can also develop the ability to recognise what lies in the future through the dying picture of what has been formed.

For Steiner, the ability to transform oneself was the key quality of the Waldorf teacher: “A certain strength is created in you by working together with the children. Quite a different person comes out of the campaign than went in ... So consider – I have to place this paradox before you – that you have taught well when you did not know in advance what you have learnt by the end of the year ... In life it is not ready-made knowledge which is of value but the work which leads to knowledge being ready-made.”

Dying and being born through learning

Such passing away and coming into existence in teaching itself is closely intertwined with a dying and being born which the pupils, too, experience daily with the content and themes. If young people can connect themselves so deeply with the content that they completely come to life in it and it in them, they can grasp the subject in a living way by means of this “path of the will”. They link themselves with invigorating and building up forces by being active and working as “a whole human being”. But if, in contrast, they withdraw step by step from “life in full” and start to look at the subject with their representational thinking, they can grasp the outer form, the concept, the connections with other phenomena and at the end perhaps the law pertaining to the subject. But the building up will forces die on this path of reflection which solidifies the subject into concepts and laws.

We can study the way in which the streams of coming to life and dying off meet one another in a famous writer who was also a historian. In his work Magellan, Stefan Zweig in many scenes skilfully plunges into the direct experience of the seafarers. This is world history at its most immediate:

“Magellan’s two ships, the ‘Trinidad’ and ‘Victoria’, start to round the entrance to the bay. ... Suddenly the wind freshens, turns into a storm and then develops into one of those sudden hurricanes which frequently arise in this area. ... In an instant the bay has become a wild, white foaming mass of water, the anchor ropes tear loose with the first squalls; with their sails taken in, the two ships are thrown about defencelessly. Pure luck that the unrelenting storm did not drive them on to the rocks. One day passes, then another before their terrible ordeal is over. ... But the other two ships must have been caught by the storm in the inner bay, in the narrows ...” At the moment in which the author takes a step back in his role as historian to reflect on questions and ideas, this direct, full involvement has to go through a process of death. Gone is the colourful vitality of adjectives and verbs, perspective and causality are required now. The language becomes correspondingly factual: “The true secret of Magellan’s story is encapsulated in this one question: ... Because we know precisely today what Magellan did not: the seafarers of the unknown Portuguese expedition in reality never reached the Strait of Magellan and their reports were a misunderstanding, an easily made error. ... So the maps based on their statements offer the best evidence that those pilots ... in fact mistakenly thought that the giant river [Plate, author’s note] was a strait.«

In the further process of objectification and solidification, only a sentence fragment remains in the chronology about the event and the flow of ideas:

The fleet enters the Strait of Magellan - 25 October 1520

Solidified concepts at the death pole

The Wikipedia encyclopaedia – far removed from life – no longer contains anything but fixed technical terms, figures and facts:

The Strait of Magellan is a navigable sea route immediately south of mainland South America and north of Tierra del Fuego. The waterway is the most important natural passage between the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans, but it is considered a difficult route to navigate because of the unpredictable winds and currents and the narrowness of the passage. Coordinates 53°28’51”S, 71°47’00”W

The reflective thinking reveals four qualitative stages in the increasing movement away from the life pole to the fixed, dead concepts:

From left to right: In the happening “here and now” / Living narrative /  Direct action / Development of images | Thinking observation /  Distance /  Overview | Conceptual summary / Designation | Figures / Data

If we want to connect ourselves with the fundamental direction of the building up life pole, we are challenged in our whole person to develop strength of will, dedication and imagination in order finally to achieve the full vividness of a story or an artistic representation. In the second and third lectures in Study of Man, Rudolf Steiner contrasts the stream of dying off (blue) with the stream of renewal (red) in a drawing:

From left to right: Cognition / Antipathy / Memory /Concept | Blood / Nerves | Will / Sympathy / Fantasy / Imagination

The third lecture presents a supplementary perspective: “However nice the laws of nature might be which you experience with the help of reason, which are found with the powers of reason, these laws of nature always relate to what is dying off in nature. Something quite different from these laws of nature, which relate to what is dead, is experienced by the living will which is there in embryo when it is directed at nature.

Individual new creation between life and death

This contrast is of decisive importance in education: if we emphasise the aspect of reflective thinking in a one-sided way, then the children connect with their whole organism, with their living growth forces, in a one-sided way with the reflective, the dying side of the subjects. For this reason a wealth of creativity is developed to begin with particularly in the younger pupils in Waldorf schools which stimulates the building up life forces through imagination and imagery. If then, after the artistic work has been done, the inner pendulum swings across to observation, cognition and memory, the words and concepts which are discovered carry within themselves the vitality of the previous active creativity. In this way it is possible to form living concepts in lessons which are not frozen by the death pole of factual knowledge but preserve a developmental potential within themselves and thus in the growing human being.

The secret of the right quality in lessons therefore lies neither in the over-emphasis of the thought element nor in one-sided living, artistic creation, but specifically in the harmony and interaction of both forces. If young people succeed in penetrating also the death pole with all the creative power and soul activity of the life pole in respect of a subject, then new creative forces can develop through that tension from out of the creative activity of the individuality.

In other words, the space to develop for the creative individuality of the young person can be opened up in lessons through the alternation between the forces of life and death.

Take the “explorer main lesson” in class 7, for example, at the end of which Magellan’s biography was presented as inspired by Ste­fan Zweig’s book. At the life pole, pictures and maps were created out of the stories. In a next step the stories and descriptions were retold in a way which was clearly dependent on the respective individuality of the pupil:

“Magellan let his gaze wander around the ship until suddenly he saw something out of the corner of his eye. He turned in that direction and saw hundreds of small ships of the Malaysians approaching. ... Magellan suddenly had the terrible feeling that he had been betrayed. In the meantime, the admiral on the other ship was unaware of anything. He was too deeply immersed in the game of chess and his opponent was good. ... Magellan thought briefly and then ran to a skiff. On his way to the boat he quickly grabbed a bottle of wine and rowed over to the admiral’s ship. As he stepped on deck, he pretended that he wanted to bring his commander a bottle of wine. And while he was handing the bottle to the admiral he whispered in his ear: ‘Red alert!’ The admiral understood immediately but now he had to think about two chess moves simultaneously: on the one hand how he could defeat the enemy and escape from the harbour, on the other hand about his next move on the chess board. Of course he now made bad moves but right then he did not care about that. When clouds of smoke rose above the trees he knew that this must be the signal.”

When the author of this essay read out her work aloud, total silence descended on the classroom. It was as if everyone realised that the wheel of the main lesson had been given another turn here. The arc of tension of the immediate happening had been woven into direct unity with the clearest power of thought. In the alternation of life and death forces, a piece of history had been reproduced here through the re-creative objective imagination.