Soaring on the wind

By Claus-Peter Röh, September 2019

The goal of giving the young person an education that makes them free is one of the characteristics of Waldorf education. The place where in lower and middle school the crucial developmental impulses in the sphere of the will and the feelings lie is precisely where the forces should be developed on which subsequent freedom in self-confident, independent thinking can build.

Metamorphoses of freedom in lower and middle school

This developmental idea is based on the phenomenon of metamorphosis: life forces which act in the first seven years on building the body are transformed after the loss of the baby teeth increasingly into soul forces of learning, for example the ability to remember specific things. At a subsequent stage the soul experiences and abilities of lower and middle school form the basis for the development of independent thinking. The extent to which soul experiences in childhood take effect in the further development of learning and life is today shown by a great variety of biographical studies, including in trauma research.

The application of the idea of metamorphosis to the quality of human freedom leads to the question of the educational attitude with which we encounter the younger child. In respecting the inner core of their being, can we create spaces in which the child’s individuality can come to an age-appropriate experience of freedom out of itself? Such respect for the spiritual power of development which lives in every young person is described by Rudolf Steiner in the years when the first Waldorf school was founded with particular emphasis.

Thus he says in the Basel course for teachers: “… that we should not clip their wings in any way at all. We will only be able to do that if we organise the art of education in such a way that it does not intervene in any way in the forces which have to develop freely in the human being.” If, on the other hand, we see the numerous calls for committed, decisive action in education expressed in the meetings with the first faculty for example, which have just been republished, a further picture emerges: as teachers, we must not educate the spiritual core of the human being because it bears its own developmental forces within it. But in the envelopes in which our habits and abilities develop we can predispose forces through a committed, loving education which the young person experiences like a wind on which they can soar.

In this sense, Steiner sets out differentiated stages in which freedom develops: “Freedom is practised in our intent; it is experienced in the feelings; it is understood in the thinking.”

Practising freedom

A first level of freedom comes to appearance everywhere where children take hold of their physical body through movement out of inner impulses. An example from everyday school life: pupils in class 1 are playing in a corner of the school playground. While a girl shuts her eyes and begins to count, the other children go and hide. Quick decisions are followed by purposeful steps. “… nineteen, twenty!” – Silence. With the greatest attentiveness the seeker moves in the field of tension between home base and the assumed hiding places of the others. Each step an adventure!

We can clearly see here the opportunities provided by children’s play to open spaces for free impulses and movement. Human beings are only wholly human when they play, Schiller says in his Aesthetic Letters. In the eleventh letter, he links our inner being, the “person” as the constant source of this ability, with the value of human freedom: “Thus we would have to begin with the idea of absolute being founded in itself, i.e. freedom.”

In devoting themselves to an activity out of themselves, the playing child’s experience of freedom is associated with a puzzling phenomenon: what previously they experienced as discrete things around them is transformed into a whole, into a meaningful context. Thus playgrounds, rooms, play areas can be transformed into the greatest variety of landscapes. At the same time many different sensory impressions are connected in the moment that play happens. At this level of the experience of freedom, the unifying action of play exerts a counterforce to all present trends towards fragmentation and isolation. Furthermore, where we can manage in lessons in lower school to take up this playful movement element in a pictorially artistic way, the children experience an element of freedom in the wholeness of their activity: thus in small scenes they act out they combine language, movement and the sense of hearing, seeing, sensing and balance with a perception of the flow of the action and the whole community.

Furthermore, where other artistic tasks are grasped in lessons out of inner strength, the free will of the child unites with a holistic structure. Often the sense for a picture as a whole only awakens with the direct pleasure of painting. Pictures from the local history and geography main lesson on the points of the compass in particular show the strength and variety with which children shape this moment of freedom out of their imagination into holistic creativity and meaningfulness (see Ill. 1 and 2).

An important but also always sensitive level of the experience of freedom opens up in all school learning in the encounter of the child with the adult teacher: the profound way in which children perceive their teacher in any given subject, but also in their whole humanity, can be experienced in visits to classes, monthly gatherings or other school events. Research today shows that the effect of the teacher on the growing human being is far deeper than previously thought. 

Thus Joachim Bauer, for example, coming from neurobiology, describes in his book Lob der Schule (In Praise of School) that alongside the content every nuance of language, every movement, every gesture of the teacher is inwardly followed and absorbed by the pupils as far as into adolescence. Out of this need of the child to learn from the other human being, the question of freedom also arises alongside the existential question of the teacher’s responsibility: can we, in loving respect for the being of the child, transform all teaching and simultaneously ourselves in such a way that the young person always seizes their experience and learning out of their own free impulses?

School education becomes an art of education where teachers realise the free interplay between respectful perception of the young person, proactive action and constant self-education. Such free interplay from one person to another is described by Steiner in the Oxford cycle with “three golden rules”:  

  • Receive the child in reverence
  • Educate them in love
  • Let them go forth in freedom

Class and subject teachers who connect themselves in a deep way with a class, and within that with the individualities of the pupils, experience the free interplay described above particularly in all smaller and greater decision-making moments: often a profound gratitude arises in the teacher, for all the dynamic and challenges, that they have been able to respond to the development of the pupils with free initiative. The experience of acting out of inner freedom is, in turn, perceived with great sensitivity by the pupils. Often in reviewing the school day the impression arises that it was particularly the freely achieved decisions as to the next steps which opened the gate for the young people to contribute initiative and decisiveness of their own.

Such free harmoniousness is not something to be taken for granted and can only ever be striven for. But if it succeeds, the learning atmosphere is transformed towards trust in the potential of the other. Furthermore, where during an activity school classes meet people who do not work directly in school but in quite different fields of life, a remarkable phenomenon can often be observed: the younger pupils in particular are clearly very choosy whether to give a person who addresses them their attention or not. 

Is it conceivable that alongside the content of the words they have a sense of the degree of inner human freedom their counterpart has achieved? The direct effect of such a “sense of freedom” can be seen for example in a class 3 where a craftsman explains a complicated process and yet all the pupils listen quietly to the final word. If such experiences are drawn after an activity, the pictures of the people frequently reflect very accurately the attitude experienced in them (see Ill. 3).

Between ideal and reality

The profound transformation of the experience of freedom towards middle school can be seen particularly in the metamorphosis of the imagination. In a class 5, the forces of feeling in the soul are still  connected with a kind of basic sympathy with life and learning. New stories can still be followed with full abandon at this level. In deepening drawings, the will as a rule still smoothly follows such a feeling of amazement. Accordingly the pictures can still be full of colour and childlike imagination (see Ill. 4).

Three years later, the previously still resonating forces of feeling have detached themselves in the highs and lows of experience and have freed themselves in a first step. In class 8 there is now a more wakeful and rather questioning consciousness. Much work that was previously supported by the feelings now requires a lot of effort and a new resolve. In order to reach the free will of the pupils, teachers now as often as possible take a step back from the level of direct impact and introduce world events and the reality of human biographies to the classroom. They now have the power to make inner freedom soar. The free will of the pupils can be kindled by the challenges of concrete life dramas. But that only happens inwardly in each individuality and is at most confided to a personal diary or a best friend.

The colourful imagination which earlier could often be stimulated from outside, inverts to the inside. Gradually it learns to place itself freely between contrasts and opposites, between ideals and reality. Thereby the new experience of freedom also encounters a first contrast between the “freedom from” earlier ties and a beginning future “freedom for” new steps which are recognised as being correct. The initiation of such a contrast in life finds its artistic expression in the black-and-white charcoal drawings of a class 8 or 9 (see Ill. 5).

With a view to the following upper school period, the metamorphoses in the development of freedom enter a crucial third phase: after the child’s practise of free play, and the experience of freedom in the feelings during the class teacher years, the ability now approaches of being able to recognise the quality of human freedom out of our own, living thinking. Thereby the education to freedom begins to be realised in a first step.

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

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