Metamorphoses of attentiveness

By Claus-Peter Röh, January 2016

Developing a culture of attentiveness and interest belongs to the highest goals of Waldorf education. Witnessing how children and adolescents turn the whole of their attention to a person, a story or a natural phenomenon is an uplifting experience: the impression arises that the young person grows a little bit beyond themselves in their undivided attention.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

A person must turn their undivided attention or their I on everything they hear.


With such profound attention, the thing that is perceived simultaneously appears in a new light, from a new perspective. Its potential is described by Goethe in Wilhelm Meister in the words: “For that is precisely the feature of true attentiveness, that in the moment it turns nothing into everything.”

This description of “true attentiveness” leads to the educational question as to stages of quality: in what way is a young person connected inwardly and outwardly with their attentiveness?

Free attention or drilling?

Some patients are sitting in a waiting room. There is a large screen on the wall. Whereas the adults turn their attention to other things again, having looked at it briefly, two children aged six and ten are completely fascinated by the cartoon which is playing: the sound has been turned off and instead large text is scrolling under the pictures.

An oversized cursor dictates the unvaryingly brisk reading speed in parallel to the progression of the film. Both children try to grasp the many impression, primarily through where they are looking, while outwardly sitting motionless on their chairs. While the six-year-old boy is staring spellbound at the sequence of images, we can obtain an idea of what the older girl is experiencing inwardly when we follow the way her eyes keep moving from the cartoon drawings to the scrolling words and back. After 15 minutes the film starts from the beginning again.

In a discussion with school parents about the educational effect of such waiting rooms or of the “public screens” which are increasingly being used in shops and on public transport, there was a clear verdict at the end: the immediate reaction of children to such sensory impressions is not real attentiveness. On the contrary, it represents an understandable fascination caused by dominant perceptions which directly bind or basically “drill” the senses and thinking of the young person: the complete human being with their impulses of feeling and will has no chance, cannot come to life, when faced with the speed of the changing images and writing.

This brief reflection alone already reveals three qualities which are the necessary prerequisite for a deeper attentiveness:

• The respective age plays a crucial role with regard to the type of attentiveness.

• In order to deepen sensory impressions attentively, the child requires the appropriate time.

• Fascination can be generated from outside. Deep attentiveness can be motivated but the crucial part must come from inside the young person, above all from the feeling and volition.

In kindergarten attentiveness is still wholly supported by the child’s capacity for devotion. Embedded in the overall rhythmical course of the morning, spaces are created which above all motivate and spur the will forces of the children. The more decisively and strongly they grasp their play and imagination out of themselves, the deeper and more healthily they create a home for themselves in their body.

A five-year-old boy enters the room in the morning and on being greeted asks directly: “May I get into the boat?” When the kindergarten teacher says “Yes, you may” his face lights up and he immediately sets to work: a wooden bench is dragged into the middle of the room and turned over. Two small brooms are fetched into the boat, a handful of wooden blocks are spread about and he is ready to row out, cast his nets and gather in his catch. Every move is assured.

Such attentiveness in outer creativity is infectious and so later on other children sit in the fishing boat on the high seas as well. As we experience what is going on here, we can see the clear connection between wellbeing and being grounded in ourselves and the ability to pay attention.

When at the end of an eventful morning all the children in the group gather together and, “work accomplished”, a cosy stillness sets in, they can fully devote their attention to the puppet show: as the kindergarten teacher brings the clear flow of her speech into harmony with the calm movements of the puppets, a space is created in the course of events which invites deep attentiveness. The children enter this space with their unrestricted wonder and imagination with such devotion that they wholly become one with the words, images and events.

The harmony between the feelings and will and the human values of the fairy tale play enhances attentiveness into a devout stillness: developmental images are stimulated, lived through and preserved inwardly.

The role of the beloved authority

In the transition to school lessons the prerequisites set out above for the development of attentiveness enter different registers of interaction. With the metamorphosis of the change of teeth new qualities of perception open up. The school child now turns their attention to adults and educators in a much more wakeful, subtle and intensive way: how do the latter address the child? How do they act? What is their intention? Such expectant affection provides the educational foundation for the beloved authority.

In the school years of the class teacher period this becomes a bridge, a gateway for growing attentiveness which turns to ever wider cultural content and connectedness in the world. The decision as a teacher to become such a “bridge for ideas” in the child’s attentiveness means having the will for steady, transformative work on ourselves.

A cheerful coming together in the morning in first class: the children play, balance, chatter away. When the class teacher sounds the bell three times, the children take notice and everyone makes their way to their desk. More and more eyes are turned on the teacher. She makes mention of the pupils who are ill, welcomes the class and in the expectant attentiveness begins with the morning verse, with the children joining in.  In the following “sun song” all the verses are accompanied by expressive, calm gestures with the pupils wholly turning their attention to the quality of the inspiring images.

While such solemn seriousness tips the scales towards the inside, our colleague notices the need in some children to balance the scales towards the outside again. Immediately she strikes up an autumn song which is marked by quick rhythms: joyfully the children join in moving their fingers, hands, arms and feet. The outer dynamism turns attentiveness into a quick reaction game: “Put your left hand on your – right shin! And the right index finger on – the tip of our nose!” Laughter ripples through the class.

Doing such coordination exercises in wide awake attentiveness not only trains dexterity. The wakeful combination of thinking and will lays the foundation for the healthy interaction of the I, the feelings and the body. In his studies on the time organism of life Rudolf Steiner points out that such harmonisation obtained through active attentiveness continues to act in the human being in later life: “If we carry out such movements, which we have to think about, on our own body with quick presence of mind, then we will become worldly-wise in later life; we will be able to notice the connection between the extent to which a person is worldly-wise at the age of 35/36 and such exercises which they were asked to do at age 7/8.”

After the teacher has increased such dynamic exercise of wakefulness in external movements in class 1 to such an extent that a certain level of skill and feeling at home in the body has been achieved through effort of will, she notices the need in the children to turn towards the other side of the scales again: responding to this need, she starts to tell the story connected with the introduction of the next letter. Through the language of the teacher the children direct the whole of their attention to the inner images with such intensity that an attentive quietness arises in the room.

In the light of such alternation of inwardness and outwardness, concentration, fulfilment and reversal, we obtain an image of a musical composition: the teacher can only become the conductor of this “concert of attentiveness” at this age if she develops the methodology for her lessons directly out of the rhythmically enhanced nature of the children.

Stimulating and deepening the attentiveness of the children in a full lesson of 90 minutes in many different ways in such an “art of education” promotes not only their immediate learning: the foundation is laid for a healthy, harmonious relationship between the soul and spiritual presence in the body and for the inner reservoir of developmental impulses which in the further course of the biography provides a basis for the powers of interest, concentration, orientation and the will.

The will to be attentive in the face of resistance

Seven years later, at the end of the class teacher period, the natural forces of devotion of childhood have disappeared. In puberty the pupils experience strong emotional forces which influence their interests in all kinds of different directions. Turning their attention to a subject in a specific way now requires a decisive effort of will.

Class 8 is walking to the offices of a daily newspaper. On the way through the city they encounter numerous impressions: a demonstration with a rally – there is a large police presence – triggers disquiet and debate.

There is a lot going on in the newspaper offices: telephones are ringing, faxes are chattering away. A reporter appears and the tour begins. She speaks in a quiet voice about the stages which news coming in from all over the world passes through before it appears in print. The pupils begin to listen, notice her engagement and despite the outer and their own inner restlessness turn their attention to the reporter’s words.

When she describes a feature about an anti-whaling campaign as an example, and the political reactions to it, a space of stillness develops in which the shock of everyone is concentrated. In focusing attention in this way, the external sounds of the newspaper office have receded into the background and questions about whaling have moved to the centre. Torn between empathy and anger, a girl asks: “Can you really write what you think?” This triggers an intense discussion. Carried by the almost burning will of the pupils’ attentiveness, perspectives and judgements change: new perspectives and connections emerge, but also existential questions.

That girl resolves together with other pupils to become involved. Where pupils in the higher classes succeed in asserting their willed attentiveness also in the face of inner and outer resistance, their experience and learning are enhanced: in grasping the envisaged goal or subject, the I of the young person is revealed at the same time in its individual intent. Hence the attentiveness which the pupils have acquired for themselves carries within it the potential to strengthen the personality and transform it through the intensive involvement in what has been absorbed. In such intentional attentiveness the young people grow beyond themselves towards the world.

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