Small home – large home

By Christoph Göpfert, October 2013

Christoph Göpfert, a German teacher and lecturer on geography for many years, outlines in broad strokes the importance of the subject of geography for the development of the growing human being.

Picture: © Charlotte Fischer

Local geography

Geography, which after all is meant to teach us about the earth, is a prime example of the cohesion with which Rudolf Steiner designed the curriculum. Foundations are laid in middle school on which the upper school teacher can build. It also becomes clear how impulses can come from geography which can extend as far as home life – just think of gifts, excursions and holiday trips.

Such opportunities can be found starting with local history lessons in class 4: so many ancient and modern things, unique features, wait to be discovered in our home town! The children can contribute a lot through their own observation which can be put in the larger context in the lessons. The location of the school is investigated in its land forms down as far as the geological substrate. That is already a step towards a “geological local history” which the geology main lesson in class 9 can subsequently use as a starting point. What luck if the unregulated stream in the vicinity meanders or a large river opens our gaze to the world. In class 10, pupils then learn the laws governing the circulation of water when they deal with the hydrosphere.

When looking at the economy of where we live – this is the focus up to and into class 6 – there is no need to stop at agriculture and the trades but new jobs can also be included – a preparation to some extent for the history lessons in class 11 and 12 in which questions of economic geography are discussed.

From local history the next step in class 5 leads to central Europe as our extended locality. Here we should talk about Europe as a landscape, not a political structure. That includes Germany, Switzerland, Austria and the Czech Republic.

Mysterious Eifel maars

Following Steiner, we will work methodologically to a great extent in polarities, contrasting high mountain regions and coastlines, and then characterise the different medium-sized mountain ranges. A thorough discussion of the Alps, including their separate limestone and granite geology, creates a foundation for all later encounters with the tertiary folded mountains of the earth which are studied in class 9. But the German medium-sized mountain ranges also display interesting differences: there are ancient rumps of mountain ranges which were originally folded mountains and belonged to a huge system of such ranges: Harz Mountains, Rhenish Massif, Black Forest, Vosges and Bohemian Massif. Quite different from the South German Scarplands with their limestone rocks and dripstone caves which conceal lots of marvels for children.

Then we have the extinct volcanic activity with the mysterious Eifel maars, the Rhoen and the volcanic vents in the Hegau where one can walk between the basalt pillars. Everything connected with volcanic activity fascinates the pupils, and that includes the higher classes – they feel in touch with the pulse of the earth.

Also appealing is the wealth of ice age forms in the Alps and northern Germany which tell of the diverse movement of the glaciers – a rich field for the child’s powers of imagination which is worked through in upper school from the aspect of causality. In class 5 and 6 the important thing is that the children should be able to describe the facts precisely.

Rivers as vital arteries lend themselves to pursuit of the methodological path from our home town to “central Europe”. Here we should illustrate the phenomena of flowing water with river profiles, cut banks und slip-off slopes right at the start. The Mosel offers a good example of this. Class 5 pupils may also have encountered currents at the North Sea and Baltic with ebb and flood. Perhaps there is also enough time to look at rivers as different as the Rhine, Danube or Elbe so that the children can experience that every river has its own character. In conclusion, a look at the cross of mountain ranges reaching out from the Fichtel mountains with rivers flowing in all four directions of the compass can leave them with the thought that central Europe has a pronounced physiognomy. The pupils should have a thorough image of this by the time they enter upper school and learn in class 9 and 10 to understand the mantle of rock and water which covers the earth as part of the its living organism.

The face of the earth

In class 6, the focus is on a so-called overview main lesson. The aim is to give a brief and systematic picture of the whole earth with all continents and oceans. The things which the pupils discover in this respect on a world map or a globe as the “face of the earth” (Eduard Suess) is surprising: arrangement, form and topography of continents and oceans, the young fold mountains encompassing the earth, deep oceanic trenches, mid-oceanic ridges and rifts or also the circulation of the ocean currents. These are all facts which the upper school teacher will be happy utilise in class 9 and 10 when setting out plate tectonics and the currents in the water mantle of the earth in order to make the earth comprehensible as a total organism. If time allows, the teacher can show the mirror arrangement of the landscape zones in a north-south transit of Africa as it applies to all parts of the world. Or, using the Amazon, Nile and Huang He (Yellow River), he or she describe the individuality of three rivers which make their regions what they are – that also can be a contribution to a systematic look at the earth.

Physical experience of cultural spheres

The remaining continents are dealt with in class 7 and 8 from the perspective of cultural geography, anticipating class 12 in which such questions are taken up from the wider perspective of the present political and social conditions. In middle school, the aim is to let the pupils vividly experience what the difference in religions and customs, in the various arts and crafts, but also in language and writing mean for the different peoples. The individual characteristics of particular cultural spheres can be seen – for example the Oriental, Indian or black African cultural area. Here the pupils can also undertake practical activities so that they can “physically experience” the foreign outlook on the world: writing, brush painting, instrument building ...

Then there are examples from the practical life of the people in particular types of landscape and climate: how people cope with the rainy and dry season, what particular economic systems they have developed, for example the development of rice terraces. That also leaves room for presentations and class parent afternoons, and it can stimulate the occasional discussion at home. Settlement can be left for class 11.

The transition to upper school

The transition from middle to upper school, that is from childhood to adolescence, is also reflected in geography lessons in a clear change of perspective. Until then, individual, separate parts of the earth were looked at in regional geography. That not only expands the horizon but also makes an important contribution to the development of the individuality of the growing young person which occurs in the third septennium. While in German and history lessons biographies are intended to awaken an interest in the special nature of the human personality, in geography the pupils encounter a section of uniquely formed, “individualised” earth with each region. In this way the external world reflects for them their own inner development at that time.

In upper school, a kind of inversion occurs in the observation of the earth as a whole. Such an expansion of the horizon corresponds to the needs of the young person who is continuously developing mentally and spiritually. In this context the curriculum of classes 9 to 12, as it has meanwhile developed, covers the four “mantles” of the earth: in class 9 the rocky shell (lithosphere) and in class 10 the spheres of water and air (hydrosphere and atmosphere) in which the earth appears as a flowing organism; in class 11 the human forms of existence as determined by our physical and mental needs. The question as to the nature of the human being as an independent, responsible personality, as an I, underlies the so-called overview main lessons in many subjects in class 12. That corresponds to the developmental phase of the 18-year-old who is searching for answers to this question in class. In the geography lessons of class 12 he or she encounters once more the whole soul and spiritual diversity of humanity as it comes to expression today in the different cultural areas, including all the unresolved political problems. Perhaps the soul of the young person can then begin to develop a notion that the earth is designed to be the “bearer of the I”.

The lesson content as set out here is already inherent in the “original curriculum”. Those indications were then developed further by many colleagues. They have repeatedly proved their worth. The contemporary relevance of the curriculum thus arises not just from its socially relevant content. It also arises especially from the way it connects with the respective psychological developmental situation of the growing child and young person. That is shown in two ways in the geography curriculum of the Waldorf school: in middle school in the notion of the individual aspect of the world and thus also of the human being; in upper school in a growing awareness of the earth and in an experience of the consolidating power of the I urging the individual to act on his or her own responsibility.