Goethean geography

By Hans Ulrich Schmutz, May 2013

The goal of geography lessons is to awaken an interest in the world and develop a concept of distance. Once children conquer distance, they unite with the world and awaken to their own self.

Dry Falls, Washington © Lorenzo Ravagli

Rudolf Steiner on geography lessons: “We produce a certain consolidation in people by doing geography in a quite vivid way, but doing it in such a way that we always create the awareness that the Niagara Falls are not on the Elbe river and of the distance between the Niagara Falls and the Elbe.” If pupils learn about new cultures in other places and can marvel at that, then this has an effect of developing social skills and tolerance towards other people. Rudolf Steiner very clearly spells it out in the same lecture of 14 June 1919: “A person with whom we adeptly do geography is more caring about his or her fellow human beings than one who has not learnt about spatial relationships. He or she will learn to coexist with others; he or she will take account of others.” Geography is observing and studying what is special about a specific location. It is therefore about qualitative experience and not statistical values. And geography always refers to the interaction between nature and people as it appears to the neutral observer. Models and hypotheses do not make sense when describing the earth. How, then, does the teaching of geography change with the ongoing development of the pupil?

Middle school: creating a connection with the earth

Geography lessons in class 4 start with the children drawing a map of the location where they live and go to school. They sever their natural connection with the world and step-by-step recompose their surroundings into a map. At the same time they reconnect again with the world through the map in that they recreate it with their hands. A year later they conquer a foreign territory by experiencing the way to the new location on a river trip: in doing so, they exercise their extended idea of distance. In class 6, examples of representative European landscapes are studied. Thus the teacher will compare a northern Scandinavian granit landscape with the sparse chalk landscape in the Mediterranean region. The pupils also experience the great contrast between an Atlantic coastal landscape such as in the Netherlands and the vast open spaces of Belarusian farmlands. The focus is on the activities of the people in the selected regions. When Africa is studied in class 7, the pupils observe the way the different climate zones arise through the influence of the sun at the different latitudes. That gives an entry to a spatial understanding of the earth from the north to the south pole. The focus is on the specific cultural characteristics of the people living there. This perspective is expanded in class 8 when the cultures in the region of Asia make their interest in the world grow further: now they have made the whole of the earth their own. In seeking to comprehend the earth, we see how the north-south alignment of the mountains in the Americas lies at right angles to the east-west mountain ranges of the Eurasian hemisphere. Moving into upper school, this raises the question about the significance of such a cross-shaped alignment of these mountain ranges on earth.

Upper school: awakening an interest in the whole of world

In upper school, the subject should be selected above all from the perspective of whether it is suitable for developing judgment. A Goethean approach is suitable here, too. For factual geographical knowledge as required for exams is acquired by pupils outside school lessons if enough of an interest in the world was aroused in school. An interest in the world can arise if phenomena are presented without theorising in lessons in such a way that they raise questions which the pupils want to follow up of their own accord.

Examples in class 9 are earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, the rise and fall of sections of the earth’s crust. Here we can successfully ask about cause and effect. If pupils investigate the expansion and compression zones of the earth’s crust, they not only rediscover the cross-shaped alignment of the earth’s major mountain ranges but can also identify the shape of two interpenetrating tetrahedrons rounded to a sphere. Geometrically visual thinking is trained further. In class 10 the focus is on the different ways that water moves in the world’s oceans, air in the troposphere and the different types of three-dimensional rock in the earth’s interior. That trains thinking which is flexible enough to look at things from different angles. Astronomy in class 11, with its rhythmical relationships between the earth, sun and fixed stars, is related to rhythmical phenomena on earth such as the rhythms of the ice ages. We study the way that civilisation converts energy and build a bridge from the current climate change debate to the astronomically related climate rhythms.

Class 12 at the end of school is concerned with the development of the earth and of humans. By learning the sequence in which the typical living creatures appeared in the history of the earth, the principle of evolution can be grasped with the thinking. The cross-shaped alignment of the earth’s mountain ranges can now be comprehensively considered as a spatial guiding structure in the migrations of plants, animals and humans throughout the earth’s history. By independently thinking through the factual phenomena in the history of the earth, the foundation is laid for dealing with the crucial question of young people: how do I want to engage myself on this earth?

About the author: Hans-Ulrich Schmutz, geologist, upper school geography and technology teacher at the Wetzikon Rudolf Steiner School. He is now engaged in teacher training and research.


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