Expecting the unexpected. How a class teacher prepares for his lesson

By Henning Kullak-Ublick, January 2016

As a teacher, I have repeatedly made the surprising discovery that the class found the lesson all the more interesting the more I turned my attention inwardly to specific individual children as I prepared the lesson and in doing so asked them: “How can I best explain this to you in particular?” A class is a complicated social work of art that is in constant movement. Every individual child always relates to all the others.

Phto: © Charlotte Fischer

The story of Bucephalus

When teachers prepare for a main lesson, they begin by collecting any amount of information. This search, which is as arduous as it is gripping, is made very much simpler through the rather good school books today so that there is a great temptation to use them as the main source of information. That is practical but not good because the journey of discovery into unknown territory is an important part of preparation.

In Waldorf schools, class teachers have to acquire a lot of knowledge in a relatively short period of time for each main lesson in order to be able to make progress with their class. In alternation they have to deal with geography or biology, history or algebra, chemistry or physics, German, house building or agriculture. Such diversity makes it necessary to proceed by way of exemplification and find the path from all the ones that are available which is best suited for the class, its questions and stage of development.

A key step here is to consolidate the wealth of the material into strong, characteristic pictures and develop them in our imagination in such a way that they begin to breath and speak in a living way. When we deal with Alexander in Greek history, for example, the question arises as to which events in his life are suitable for giving a fully-rounded impression of this hero who despite his short life is called “the Great” to the present day.

One story which class teachers like to tell is that of his horse Bucephalus: Alexander’s father, Philipp II, was offered the purchase of a magnificent stallion. But whenever a rider approached him it shied away and kicked out. Philipp was annoyed and was turning away when his twelve-year-old son pushed to the front and said he could tame the horse. Alexander took it by the reins, turned it around, mounted it and galloped away with the applause of the people watching.

He had observed that the horse had shied away from the shadow of the riders and turned it towards the sun so that it no longer saw any shadows. Philipp bought the horse and spoke the famous words: “Son, seek a kingdom for yourself for Macedonia is not big enough for you!” Alexander rode Bucephalus from that day on and it subsequently carried him in his great campaign to the East. When the horse drowned at the age of thirty, he built the town of Alexandria Bucephalous, Jhelam today, in Punjab (Pakistan).

It is not enough simply to read out such stories; we have to imagine the scene in such a colourful and living way that we experience everything as we tell it: the smells and sounds, the heat and the blinding sun, the faces of the people present.

To begin with it can help to practice by telling the story out loud, later on it is enough to do it in our thoughts, perhaps even for a specific child. This process is an imaginative exercise because the picture becomes transparent for connections which extend beyond the concrete situation. In this example it is the power of observation, the intelligence and the inexorable will of Alexander which come to expression once more in his father’s words.

From the picture to the concept through sleep

Then sleep comes which spreads its mantle of forgetting over all our ideas. But something happens during the night – in us and in the children. Neuroscientists speak about the experiences of the day being processed during sleep: knowledge which can be recalled is stored in the “declarative memory” while in other sleep phases the sum to experiences in the “procedural memory” is transformed into skills. When the children return to school in the morning their experiences from the previous day have changed through sleep – always assuming they were interesting enough to be taken notice of in sleep.

Now there is a further interesting observation here: the more intensively I have immersed myself in the creation of a picture the evening before, the less I have to be attached to my lesson plan, the “material” or indeed the picture itself next morning. On the contrary, something quite different happens: I become curious about what the children have brought with them from their post (night time) experience in relation to what they have learnt the previous day. In learning to listen to what they tell or the unspoken questions living in them, they inspire me not simply to carry on with the material but to explore the context with them and obtain living concepts as a result which can subsequently continue to grow.

Such listening is a resonance phenomenon with which every teacher is familiar: suddenly the content acquires a depth, colour or new dimension which goes far beyond what I had planned or what was demanded by the curriculum. The space which is formed through the enhanced attentiveness to the “how” of the pupils’ recall makes intuition possible or, to use a more common form of words, learning turns into an experience of presence of mind for everyone in which the certainty arises: it really is possible for me to understand the world!

Main lessons offer wonderful opportunities for this kind of learning and teaching because the children go to bed with the expectation that there will be more the next morning. If they can look forward to that with a certain sense of excitement, they form a much closer attachment to the content than is possible through the cognitive accumulation of knowledge alone. In a much larger arc such “forgetting” is repeated between main lessons and is recalled when the thread is picked up again.

It is one of the unexpected experiences that a class at the start of a new main lesson – for example when doing arithmetic – can often fish out a greater quantity of knowledge from their memory than they had at the end of the last arithmetic main lesson. The methodological trick practiced in Waldorf schools of moving from pictorial stories appealing to the children’s imagination, or from an experiment or active perception, to repetition through description, drawing or creation, before dealing with the matter conceptually after having slept on it overnight, creates the space for the deepening described above.

Stages of meditation

Preparation proceeds from the collection of material to the creation of the picture and from there to an enhanced attentiveness for the questions and thoughts which come from the children next morning. This can lead to the creation of an atmosphere in which the unexpected happens – presence of mind. This triad leads to a qualitative enhancement in the development of cognition and not to an indeterminate mawkish sentimentality.

These methodological steps cannot, however, be acquired just like that. They are a training path which has the benefit that the important thing is not only the result but also the process itself. And that starts with the first try. The road from the material via the picture to “listening” as far as presence of mind corresponds to the higher knowledge which Rudolf Steiner described with the terms imagination, inspiration and intuition. He said of them that they exist as a predisposition in every person even if it requires particular attentiveness to develop them in a purposeful way. It is nevertheless the case that these three stages of knowledge are much closer than we might initially assume.

The meaning of the word imagination arises already out of the preparatory path in which it is a matter of finding living pictures which are suitable for giving us an inkling of something of the spiritual substance of things. In a meditative context this can be reflecting on the relationship between wisdom and love and light and warmth, or contemplating the picture of a rose as the image for the purity gained on a thorny path.

More deeply anchored in feeling is inspiration, of which the enhanced attentiveness to the unspoken questions of the children is a preliminary stage. It goes further than imagination. When I become aware of what the children experience or have experienced in the pictures, I no longer have a feeling (just) of myself but of the world which speaks to me through the children. Feeling becomes purified into an organ of perception.

With intuition, of which the experience of presence of mind is the preliminary stage, the separation of subject and object which is necessary and common in our day-to-day consciousness is removed; recognition and what is recognised are no longer opposites. Many mystics describe this. Dostoyevsky says succinctly: “Love makes us sighted” – as does Steiner, by the way.

In a religious context this corresponds to communion, to which Rudolf Steiner refers in his Philosophy of Freedom with the words: “Becoming aware of the idea in reality is the true communion of human beings.” If we summarise the stages of meditation, the path starts with a consciously constructed picture in which the meditating person immerses themselves. If they succeed in feeling this picture inwardly and increasingly to direct more attention to these feelings than the picture, this can eventually turn into an experience of the intrinsic reality of the spiritual world. What we normally only experience selectively in art or in the encounter with a beloved person expands into cognition of the world.

Fusion reactor or star of love

One morning, a class 4 pupil came to me and said with a challenging look: “The sun is a fusion reactor!” On the previous day I had told the amazed children how the whalers and Jamaica-bound sailors in earlier times had found the way back to their home ports with the help of the stars. When he had told his father about it, his father had shown him a popular scientific film about astronomy.

Now the definition of the sun as a fusion reactor represents a mechanistic reduction for a ten-year-old child which not only kills off the imagination but also demands too much of them intellectually: when I asked him what a fusion reactor was, I learned that small crumbs are baked together. So much for the reality of the way that model was represented…

What to do? I neither wanted to negate the model nor cast doubt on the authority of his father. But I could clearly feel how the boy hoped that I would help him out of his existential fix. Until the day before the sun had still been a mighty being, now it had turned into a mechanism. So I had to find a picture which would encompass all of that, and I had to do so quickly because the conversation was taking place right now.

So I asked him where he noticed it when he was fond of someone. He pointed to his heart. We spoke about the way we had a warm feeling when we were fond of someone. Finally I added: “The sun has so much love that its light and warmth is enough for all the animals, flowers, fishes, birds and all people. And whenever a person is fond of another person and is good to them they fetch a little bit of it down to earth until in the future the earth itself will have become a star.” Such a small imagination can grow without contradicting explanatory models which can be grasped by the analytical thinking which awakens later on.

Freedom is often mistaken today for the ability to keep one’s distance. But that is only the prerequisite for a deeper freedom which creates new connections out of our own volition. In order for children to be able to go their own path to achieve understanding when they start from the already existing, finished knowledge of adults, they need pictures as the stimulus to think for themselves.

Freedom is a balancing act between arbitrariness and randomness, with which it is all too often confused. An education which has dedicated itself to freedom would do well to practice maintaining its balance because the skill of always finding our balance anew as we stride forward is not only the basis of every good education but also of every art of living.

And it is precisely this art which saves us from ossification or fading away – both in school and in life.

About the author: Henning Kullak-Ublick is a board member of the German Association of Waldorf Schools and head of its public relations department in Hamburg. He was a class teacher in Flensburg for 27 years and represents the German Waldorf schools in the International Forum for Steiner/Waldorf Education – The Hague Circle. His book Jedes Kind ein Könner was published in 2014.