Artistic aspects in the class teacher’s lessons

By Claus-Peter Röh, May 2019

The goal of all education is to bring the soul and spiritual core of our being, which we bring along with us, into harmony with the developing physical body. But how can human qualities such as empathy, imagination, the creative drive and discovery of meaning be established and developed in education?

The artistic element addresses the whole human being 

Almost arrived at school and still engaged in animated conversation, two class 2 pupils enter the classroom early in the morning and fall silent: on the floor in front of them, a shape has been drawn on the floor in large white chalk lines, but only on one side of a straight central line. Immediately one of the pupils goes to the start of the line and calls to one of her fellow pupils: “Mirror me.” A moment later both start out on their way. While one of the pupils is guided by the loops and arcs of the shape on the floor, the other tries to mirror this in the empty space. 

After a few steps, the movement begins to change: their awareness widens, the steps grow slower as if they had now found their own measure of time. With the greatest sensitivity, both of them try to become a coherent, harmonious whole. 

Beyond the outer, purely regular mirroring, the “what”, both begin to realise in the dynamics of their movements, loops and turns an aesthetic element, a “how”. Such a transformation out of an inner impulse of purely outer necessity into aesthetically coherent action reveals an initial quality of something artistic. The achievement of this quality is clearly associated with an ability to bundle different activities into a whole, as was shown by these pupils:

  • movement guided by an inner impulse,
  • associated with clear sensory and self-perception,
  • with simultaneous wakefully sensitive attentiveness to the progression of the shape, to the space, to the fellow pupil and to the aesthetic coherence of the whole event,
  • in an activity directed at a goal and which in the moment simultaneously produces its own measure of movement and time.

Such bundling of forces can be enhanced to such an extent that other sensory impressions are no longer perceived during the activity. For Henri Matisse, such a bundling, reordering force is one of the crucial conditions for artistic activity: “In matters of art, the true creator is not only the talented person but a person who has understood how to create order in a whole bundle of activities with their eye on a goal whose result is a work of art.” 

In the example of the class 2 pupils, the process starts with the activity of the whole walking, feeling, observing and at the same time cognitive person. In the next methodological step, the pupils internalise their outer action in that they begin by recreating the mirror image they have just walked with their hands in the air and then finally drawing it on a large sheet. This path from outer activity of the will to inner, comprehending recreation creates the condition for ultimately drawing the form themselves wholly out of their now released, inner artistic creative power. 

Five years on, in middle school, there have been fundamental changes in the development of the pupils. The earlier connection between outer activity and inner experience of the child has gone through a metamorphosis and now comes to expression as an emotional field of tension: on the one hand the way in which the child was naturally able to do things previously without thinking about it dissolves and the pupil fluctuates between insecurity, the search for boundaries and the pleasure in discovery. 

On the other hand the desire and ability has grown to discover and understand connections through independent inquiry and thinking. The feelings move in a constant searching motion between both poles. This developmental dynamic produces the educational challenge to address these newly awakening abilities and at the same time unite the diverging emotional levels. The quality of the artistic is revealed as the crucial key for creating such a new unity. But other than in the direct emphasis of the will in lower school, it is now important to include the level of thinking to a greater extent in this connecting experience and learning. An initial starting point for this can be biographical depictions such as from the life of Leonardo da Vinci in a class 7. In the immersion in his work, the urgent search for understanding is always connected with the struggle for the creation and realisation of his works. 

The class 7 pupils reflect this drama between cognition and action, between communicating the familiar and discovering the new through investigative observation. Thus the pupil Axel Neuhaus describes two scenes from Leonardo’s apprenticeship: “One day there was an argument among the apprentices and they divided into three sets of opinions, with every party thinking they were right. When Leonardo heard that he called out: ‘You idiots! You merely believe, but we have to understand and observe!’ Leonardo was also interested in the organisation of the human body. On many a night he would bribe the watchman at the mortuary to let him in. On one occasion he said: if we know how accomplished the organisation of the human body is, we can get an idea of how accomplished the soul is.” 

Such descriptions and experiences provide the foundation for sequences of artistic exercises: that can start with the task to observe the interplay of light and shade in a variety of conditions and to make sketches of the laws that are discovered. At the end, the pupils are faced with the challenge of choosing one light-shade situation and making a charcoal drawing of it. The tension between white and black, between light and dark soon imprints itself on the atmosphere. The clear-cut action of putting a black charcoal line on white paper in itself pre-empts a careless and cursory approach. 

The whole young person is addressed in this artistic activity: as they draw, they examine with wakeful senses and appraising feelings the lines and shading they draw, and can start again if necessary. 

Across all the levels and any resistance, the will becomes active in approaching the goal of the scene of light and shade they have chosen and inwardly shaped. In doing so, the pupils of the class 7 not only examine whether the relationship between light and shade is technically correct, but they are also guided by an inner sense of what is aesthetically coherent. 

Transformation of time through the artistic experience

These couple of examples already show how the construction and experience of polarities lead methodologically to an artistic experience: the contrast of two forms which mirror one another, the polarity of light and shade are required for the development of fields of tension which challenge the young person to be alert in their senses, to have a sense of different qualities and to be creative. 

One fundamental polarity which comes to expression in every lesson in various ways is the relationship to space and time. In the examples described, the focus lies initially on space. This comes to expression in human sensory perception, orientation and movement above all through drawing and sculpting. 

But a chronological development also underlies both examples. By starting to bundle their forces and direct them at an artistic activity, their experience of time is transformed. 

An argument has broken out between the pupils in a spirited, energetic class 4. Early the next morning they enter the room with heated emotions: after seeing the pro and contra in the discussion, things calm down to a certain extent with the morning verse and first singing. Yet some pupils are still affected by the argument. So the teacher decides to bring the story, which is normally told at the end of the lesson, forward. She continues with the story of a Viking boy who with great courage helms a longboat for the first time to bring help to his friends in the village. Gradually all the children are immersed in the flow of the language and images in the story. When she has finished, she distributes large sheets and sets the task to draw the boy in the boat on the sea. Some pupils are unsure how to proceed. For them she indicates the shape of such a Viking longboat with the wet  “magic brush” on the blackboard. 

Soon the wet lines dry again and disappear. One pupil asks the teacher for help. There is an expectant tension in the room. A little earlier the imagination was still being stimulated by the story, now the gaze turns inward. Hesitantly the first lines are placed on the paper. Every beginning is difficult but there is also a certain magic in every beginning. Gradually the stream of creativity takes hold of all the pupils. Each one is so connected with the creation of their picture that chronological rhythms of their own arise: some aim straight for the goal, other enjoy weighing things up and taking smaller steps. 

A particular kind of silence sets in which comes about when people are hard at work. Alongside her pleasure in the situation, the teacher also has a sense that she shouldn’t “interrupt” right now. It seems as if every pupil is engaged in a kind of dialogue between the nature of the topic and each pupil’s very own inner source of activity. The intensity of this dialogue leads not just to the momentum arising from the experience of time but also to the will to continue steadily developing: challenges and resistance which arise are overcome in the joyful stream of creation. 

The inner assurance with which many children embark on their work as soon as they have found their own creative rhythm is astonishing. Clearly the individual orientation develops in the flow of artistic activity which can turn the individual elements into a whole. Thus it is not surprising that the pupils exceed their normal limits of perseverance in the ongoing process of creating something new and works of individual expressive power are produced. 

Let us now look at the transformation of the experience of the quality of time from the perspective of another age group and another artistic activity: using the example of a part in a play in class 8, Claus Otto Scharmer describes the transition of the experience of time from the preparatory period to the moment of creating and wrestling with the role in the performance: “You’ve learnt the script and the stage instructions by heart. Then the moment arrives. The curtain is about to rise. The voices in the audience grow silent. Suddenly you feel as if the earth has stopped turning. Everything, all the months of preparation shrink into a small heap of desperation and wanting to run away. Everything disappears. You forget everything that you have ever learnt. You are terrified. You are alone. More in desperation than hope you remain. Not because you are brave but because it is too late to run away. Then, before you know it, you see how the curtain rises. Too late. There is no escape, no way back. Now the only way is forwards. Time stops.” 

In the words “time stops” everyday life comes to a halt. The security of existence in the familiar chronological stream is lost and leads through the experience of fear of the unknown to a new experience. Scharmer describes this as being immersed in an initially unfamiliar envelope of heightened attentiveness. As if in slow motion, he stumbles into the first movements, words and gestures in order then to find the specific measure of time appropriate for this performance of a supporting inner dialogue with the part and the audience. The transformation of the experience of time as we dip into the stream of artistic creativity can be seen in the two examples in connection with the following phenomena:

  • In different ways, the familiar experience of time which gives us security must be let go and transformed.
  • The interaction between outer perceptions and challenges and inwardly responding stimuli to take action gives rise to a heightened attentiveness and a kind of supporting dialogue.
  • This “dialogue” has its own measure and dynamic of time.
  • The ability develops of an inner orientation which harmonises individual steps with the whole.
  • In the creative process, the will forms to persevere in continuing to develop and complete the work.

The educational aspect of artistic activity which has been set out here in a number of brief examples should continue to be deepened and investigated. A look into the specialist literature on education shows the relevance of the issue. Thus Carl-Peter Buschkühle writes: “Art replaces abstraction, acceleration and animation with a deepening, deceleration and independence of how we deal with something. We can describe abstraction as being what staged media images represent in relation to the experience of reality.” If after a hundred years of development we today face the question as to what impulses will be crucial for the future of the Waldorf schools, then the permeation of the methodology with the forces of artistic and aesthetic creativity undoubtedly belong to the key goals. 

About the author: Claus-Peter Röh was a class, music and religion teacher at the Flensburg Free Waldorf School for 28 years; today he leads the Pedagogical Section at the Goetheanum in Dornach  together with Florian Osswald.