The art of the pendulum

By Claus-Peter Röh, July 2018

The line between challenging and overtaxing a child, between support and demanding too little is not easy to recognise and often fluid. At the teacher training seminar, a teacher can absorb the ideal of teaching individually and not tar all the children with the same brush. But really seeing the difference in the children is an art which has to be learnt, an art of attentiveness. Attentiveness is the gold of the future. How can we obtain the skill to be aware what is a challenge and what is overtaxing?

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

When on the basis of an inner image I challenge a child whom I know very well and of whom I know that something wants to develop, then they are as a rule quite satisfied and are happy to be challenged. Their inward nature harmonises with my challenge. When I do not know the child so well but nevertheless expect something specific from them which they cannot fulfil, then it is as if they are at my mercy. They are overtaxed.

Support means enabling a developmental step. There are children who want to learn to read, write and do arithmetic but cannot manage to do so without help. This is where support applies. The question is to what extent a class teacher can themselves judge whether or not support is necessary and when an outside eye is necessary.

Demanding too little means not taking the young person seriously and not perceiving what they are capable of. Demanding too little is based on a lack of knowledge. For the child this is bland and boring, they withdraw, become disruptive or turn to something else. But not every withdrawal can be explained because too little is demanded. The young Rudolf Steiner put pages from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in his school book to compensate for the lack of challenge from his history teacher, as he tells in his autobiography.

Develop an image!

We have to develop a sense of how the child will develop. If I as a teacher have fundamental confidence in the child, then I have the confidence that there is more to come – from the child, not from me. Such confidence allows me to expect something. But such expectation can also take quite a different form: I can expect something as a generalised standard that has to be met – in reality a terrible situation for the child. But alternatively I can create opportunities which challenge the child and determine from the way they deal with the task what is required and what isn’t. Here an eye that looks to the future is of help.

The important thing is that this eye should not be just my own but also that the parents, other teachers and the school doctor should together observe the child. This creates a space for questions, a kind of searching motion in joint discussion. Such joint attentiveness often produces a response in the pupil: just wait another three month; or, let’s get going. A sign comes.

The inner work of the teacher is very important in this connection. All teachers who are in such a situation describe how they get just as far with their inner work as with their outer work. The important thing is to develop an image of the child; but also that I am willing to change this image at all times. I do not develop a fixed image but, rather, it is a question which takes the form of an image. My thoughts about the child then work in me in a certain sense. And the child notices it.

The crucial thing is the work of the educator on themselves. I can look at myself as a mother, father or teacher and ask myself why, for example,  I responded with such irritation today. Or I can pause for a moment before I act. This is something which children notice. Are you acting in the moment without pause, or do you consider briefly and take a more conscious decision as to your next action? Such inner work has a direct effect. The child is guided by what they see in the adult.

The questioning attitude of the adult is important: what do I see in you, what is waiting to develop? I also see difficulties and weaknesses. But I have confidence in you to take the next step. Such an attitude enables great, sometimes surprising steps – in contrast to an attitude which is prescriptive.

A ship and many travellers

As a teacher, I don’t of course just see the individual child but also the whole class. I have to know where the whole ship is heading. I therefore have to do things with the children which are individualising and at the same time support the community. Both things have to be present in every lesson. The musical and spoken stream of the lesson possesses a quality which has a strong effect on community. The children join in the songs and discover themselves as a community. When that is well developed, the individual can come to the fore again: only one group sings, then the other. Individualisation is increasingly built out of the stream of community. It is similar with speech. The children speak in unison, but in particular games or sections they appear individually.

If a class is very heterogeneous, it is important to strengthen the community pole. I can do this as the teacher by developing narratives, scenes, songs and tasks specifically for the class. This then has a particularly strong community building effect. Painting, drawing and writing, on the other hand, support the individual aspect. If the individualising aspect of a class is its strength, we can focus on this to begin with and, for example, do a lot of intensive painting and drawing. The question then is how we get from there to the community.

One solution might be to make it a habit to hang the painting which have been done on the wall ready for the next day. The paintings are then looked at together – often with amazement. This is one way to carry the individual over into community. It is the task of the educator to maintain a balance between the individual and the community aspect. It is an art to keep this pendulum swinging.

Waldorf education is the art of challenging and supporting

It is also an art to see the strengths and weaknesses of a child in context and not just from a normative perspective. A class 1 pupil, for example, might have the kind of mathematical genius which makes them feel completely at home among numbers but like a fish out of water in the musical or social sphere. At this age a perceptual gesture would be appropriate: I can see what you can do. In such a gesture of acknowledgement, individual, more difficult tasks can also occasionally be set.

The crucial aspect is to be aware of such a gift without overtaxing it, for such an early aptitude requires a longer path to become a mature skill through further experience and practise. At the same time the child will need to be supported in other areas where it has not yet explored.

Things become much more difficult in a class 6. If a child can finish a task in ten minutes for which the others require forty, such a child needs to be individually supported. Such children should be given something each day which accords with their individual abilities otherwise they do not feel that they have been recognised. It is desirable to combine such an ability with other subject areas so that the child is not driven into one-sidedness.

For example, with mathematically highly gifted children the tasks can be combined with the laws of music or drawing, for example by drawing the way shadows fall or sailors’ knots. If occasionally they are overtaxed in other areas, that does not matter in individual instances. A similar situation applies with regard to children who always tend to be overtaxed. Here I have to give my individual attention to these children and support them separately. In mathematics that is particularly noticeable. Here the blockages grow most quickly and turn into sustained, insurmountable obstacles.

I therefore have to differentiate. In arithmetic that works very well, of course. The “merchants” for example – not the weaker pupils, such terms should be avoided – are given tasks appropriate for them. Here it is important to observe how a child reacts to the work they have been set. Do they accept the three “merchant tasks” and work through them? That would be wonderful. If they do not, then it would be important to have a person, a helper, who takes care of the child individually before despair sets in.

These children need time and it must be given them in some way. That does not mean that such a child has to leave class immediately. But discussions with parents and colleagues can show that the path into a smaller learning community is the better solution. For the overall shape of the school it is then important that there should always be an educational membrane between the support class and the large classes. Pupils should have the opportunity to return. If that happens, it can turn out to be a gift for the large class. For such pupils bring along very individual learning pathways and abilities which they have achieved with a great deal of effort.

My fundamental task as a teacher is to notice where the abilities lie. Because every child has abilities. And if I perceive them, then the class community will also perceive them. A colleague had a pupil who had great difficulty with arithmetic but was brilliant in the social sphere. He intervened when others were arguing and resolved quite a few social conflicts with his worldly-wise questions. When this pupil moved to another class after class 8, the whole community clearly expressed how much they missed him.

As we approach upper school, the problems often intensify since here the so-called performance thinking becomes much stronger. There is a tendency today to demand greater performance above all in the conceptual and cognitive sphere. The approach of Waldorf education is always to strengthen the whole human being who then awakens the cerebral human being as far as possible out of themselves.

I can only hope that each school community finds a way to take account of the children who do not directly fit into the predominantly cerebrally-oriented mainstream. Be it that they receive individual support, that a support stream is created, support classes, or subsequently a vocational stream in the school. A particular possibility to take account of the spectrum of differentiated learning pathways at the end of the pupils’ time in school is the artistic final-year projects in class 12: the young people demonstrate impressively in their work what they have achieved with regard to their individual personhood.

The Waldorf school is not simply a system but the art of awakening what the human being bears within themselves.

About the author: Claus-Peter Röh was a class teacher in Flensburg for many years; today he is one of the heads of the Pedagogical Section at the Goetheanum.

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