Every child the world’s stage. The concept of learning in Waldorf education

By Peter Loebell, November 2017

It is like in the fairy tale: when the class 1 pupils rush out of the school building at break time and see a tree trunk lying at the side of the path, it seems to challenge them to balance along it, and the swing in the playground exercises a magical attraction on the children. That the world speaks to us is something we also experience as adults.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

Our experience shows that the world does not present itself to us as the sum of indifferent phenomena. The philosopher Lambert Wiesing therefore thought that we cannot create any “access” to the world because we are already a part of it. As I perceive the world I do not stand opposite it, on the contrary, I am always already enmeshed with it. Steiner says similarly that the human being was “interwoven” with the world through body, soul and spirit.

Schools forms a significant part of the world in which pupils live. In the latter each phenomenon has its meaning and this is dependent on the expectations and early experiences of the children. Anyone who attended a Waldorf kindergarten might experience the colours and forms of the classroom, the seasonal table and the furniture as being familiar, indeed homely. For other pupils the new environment might be alien and irritating.

The attitude of the teacher and the way they move, their voice, choice of words and intonation combine with the content of the lesson into an overall impression which the children experience inwardly and which can be rendered only inadequately through an outer description. As Wiesing puts it, it is therefore logical that human beings are never spectators in the world. Steiner, too, points out in his lectures on The Foundations of Human Experience that human beings are never just spectators but the stage of the world.

Learning in sleep

This leads to far-reaching consequences for learning in school: if the learning person is already always connected with the world, then the whole of the physical body will also always be involved alongside soul and spirit. Thus there are adults, for example, whose pulse rate or breathing increases when they are asked to solve a mathematical problem. Others will talk about key experiences when they were at school which their fellow pupils cannot remember at all. And it would appear to be self-evident that every growing child and young person develops their abilities in a very personal way at school.

Learning is a highly individual process through which participation in the world is constantly extended, changed and developed. In school, the teachers must therefore try to discover above all what the significance of an experience is for the individual child. An important goal is to support the ability of independent knowledge and judgement in the young person. The method which makes use of the so-called educational “triad” is of importance in this respect.

For example, the observation of the learner is to be stimulated as a first step through a scientific experiment or the vivid description of a historical event. When a heavy stone is moved by using a lever, pupils may recall toys from their earlier childhood. In the classroom the action of a two-arm lever can be demonstrated more precisely using the example of a beam balance.

By placing the processes in a spatial and chronological order, the whole human being is fundamentally addressed in body, soul and spirit; so-called embodiment research shows that observers unite with physical forces and laws simply through watching; in doing so, they experience the effect of leverage unconsciously in their own body.

In a next step, the facts that have been observed should be characterised. The learners remember the processes but now highlight the important parts, evaluate and assess the position of various details in the overall context. The aim here is to stimulate the feeling; the observations and judgements which have been formed in this way continue to act during sleep.

On the following day – here we can see the purpose of main lessons – the objects of the originally waking observation are created as (initially) unconscious images. If then the events of the previous day are looked at with the aim of conceptualisation, then this follow-up work aims to lift the laws of the processes to consciousness: how is it that when we push a weight outwards along a beam balance this can equalised by making it lighter? What relationships can be discover here?

Here it is not the task of the teacher to ask questions which check answers which pupils are already supposed to know. The goal of the cognitive process is to grasp the law or concept associated with the situation that has been observed. The concept appears in the thinking after the structuring forces in the brain were active in sleep. In this way the pupil undertakes during the night a cognitive step from their individual conception to an understanding of the supra-personal happening in the world.

The concept can thereby contain more than what initially revealed itself to the observation. In the best case a feeling of evidence can arise in the pupil, the certainty of having experienced a truth. The teacher cannot teach this feeling but they can create the prerequisites for it.

Thinking, feeling, and acting acquisition of the world

The educational triad makes clear that the interweaving of the human being with the world appears nuanced in a differentiated threefold way in their thinking, feeling and action (will). The polarity of thinking and will forms an important foundation of Steiner’s The Foundations of Human Experience. The conscious conception of something, Steiner says, creates an image of reality. The opposite pole to this kind of participation in the world is formed by the human will. In volition human beings can have a direct experience of the vitality of their own body while at the same time object consciousness wanes.

Steiner therefore argues that it is not possible directly to make the child use their will. This would only be possible if the whole human being were educated in such a way that they developed soul and physical ways of life. In terms of methodology the task is to “always engage the whole human being” (Steiner). He continues this thought by calling for upbringing and teaching itself to become an art.

As the third quality, the human feeling is positioned between the polar, apparently irreconcilable gestures of thinking and the will. Through its proximity to the will, feeling can stimulate the disposition to take action. Specifically in the period from the age of seven to 14, the feeling forms an important foundation for human learning, according to Steiner, whereby artistic activity is particularly relevant.

But in learning it is not just a matter of expanding skills and knowledge but also of a person’s responsibility for the world in which they live. If the human being becomes the “stage of the world” the consequence is that the latter could not exist without human beings; human knowledge would be of fundamental importance for events in the world.

In his Philosophy of Freedom Steiner developed the thought that the perception and the concept of an object should be seen as the two sides of the one world. The perceiving person, who grasps the concept of a thing in the cognitive act, brings together the two sides of the world which initially appear separate into an objective unity. In doing so, the cognitive human being learns “that their striving does not evoke a process which runs alongside the events of the world but one without which these events of the world cannot be completed into a whole” (Kallert).

The view that such human cognitive endeavours are necessary for the development of the world was framed in lyrical words by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke in his ninth Duino Elegy. Rilke starts with the question as to why we “have to be human” and responds: “Because apparently everything here needs us”. Perhaps human beings had the task to notice the simple things in the world and recognise their value:

“And these things, living / in passing, understand that you praise them; transient, / they trust us, the most ephemeral of all, to save them. / They want us to transform them wholly in the invisible heart

in – o infinitely – in us! Whoever we may ultimately be.”

Rilke’s poem leads to the question:

“Earth, is this not what you want: to arise in us / invisibly? – Is it not your dream / to be invisible one day?”

And, finally, he professes:

“Earth, dear one, I will. […]

Nameless, I am committed to you, from far afield.”

Each person is indispensable and unique

It accords with such an affirmation when Waldorf education starts from the basis that the young people enter the world with an individual impulse and the will in their life to manage the problems of the world. If school is meant to prepare them for this, then learning success does not consist primarily in reproducing finished knowledge but in identifying and grasping challenges.

Hence the teacher refrains from asking questions that merely check existing knowledge and instead shows an interest in the independent cognitive efforts of the pupils. The actual learning processes can take many different and individual courses. That is why the greatest value is placed on a long-term reliable relationship between teacher and pupils in Waldorf schools alongside the thorough education in the subjects. This is intended to enable the teacher to sensitively asses and individual support the pupils.

Through the elements mapped out here, Waldorf education realises in daily teaching practice an understanding of learning through which the growing child is taken seriously in their participation in the world: in school they can experience that every person is a unique and indispensable part of the world.

About the author: Dr. Peter Loebell is professor of learning psychology and school development at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart. 

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