The main lesson as a foundation for living education

By Tomáš Zdražil, June 2021

Between five and six million people regularly watch the quiz show “Who wants to be millionaire” on the German broadcaster RTL. The selective knowledge pulled from a wide variety of subject areas is completely incoherent and isolated, and the value and importance of this knowledge is questionable and arbitrary. Cooking appears alongside geography, football alongside literature, Hollywood alongside opera. Actual knowledge becomes blended with hunches and guesswork in the multiple-choice form that the questions take. The questions on meaningless trivia are fuelled by both a desire to win and to create thrilling entertainment. Since 1998, the show has been running in more than 100 countries around the world.

As long ago as 1986, a shockingly prescient critique of society by Theodore Roszak was published in New York under the title The Cult of Information. Roszak warned of the predictable decline of education and reasoning if the education system did not resist the strategy and propaganda of computer and technology corporations. Knowledge will soon be decomposed into fragmented atomised data: “The mind thinks in ideas, not in information ...”. He continues: “A culture survives by virtue of the power, the mobility and the fertility of its ideas. The primacy lies with ideas, because ideas define, maintain and ultimately generate information. The main task of education, therefore, is to hone the child’s mind in how to deal with ideas ...”

Almost 35 years have passed since then and subsequent developments have vindicated Roszak’s concerns to a great degree. In 2006, the Austrian philosopher KP Liessmann put forward a theory of uneducation: he argued that today’s highly touted knowledge and information society actually consists of an increasing mass of ignorant, uneducated individuals who largely languish in their echo chambers and information bubbles, and whose ability for independent critical thought and autonomy are threatened. This critical contemporary context highlights the very quality that is at stake in education, in any serious educational work, and to which Waldorf education is particularly committed. “The foundation” (Steiner) of teaching here is the main lesson. What educational philosophy underlies the structure of the main lesson?

Education requires time and a continuous engagement with a subject. Every morning at Waldorf Schools, almost two hours are dedicated to this over a period of – ideally – four weeks, based on chronobiological principles. The pupils’ attention is focused, not fragmented. The pupils are immersed in the subject. The approaches are numerous: employing music, poetry, images and, of course, above all, the teacher’s presentation and the subsequent discussion of the subject with the class. Only gradually do knowledge and insights develop out of the perceptions and experiences. Sleep plays a particularly active role in this process, providing some separation, differentiating between the important and the unimportant and individualising the knowledge. Sleep becomes a participant in the formation of knowledge.

A topic is embedded in diverse conceptual contexts, illuminated and cross-references to other topics are established.

Let’s look at some examples

In class 5, lessons are devoted to historical periods that are far in the past. The teacher discusses the life of people before they “settled down” and recounts ancient Indian legends. The geographical features of the Indian subcontinent, the features of its landscape and its weather conditions, emerge from the narrative. It is appealing when an example of a typical plant or animal illustrates this depiction – or what this environment yields in the way of nourishment. Spirituality and religious life are also represented. Everything is presented through images, as if the class itself were in India. The children jointly recite sacred verses from India, they draw beautiful colourful mandalas, they attempt several exercises from the ancient practice of yoga, they describe these narratives in their main lesson books. They are motivated and continue to raise questions. A pictorial, vivid impression of ancient nomadic humanity is formed, using India as an example.

In class 7, one main lesson addresses the way in which the metabolic system sustains, enhances or troubles the human body, that is, the topic of health and disease. When the anatomy of the internal organs is described, the question often arises as to how long people have known about the internal structure of their body. And so we arrive at the dawn of the modern era. The inquisitiveness and boldness of the first anatomists are described. Then metabolism is described as a combustion process. This is a major topic in the first chemistry main lesson. The subject of energy, heat and light retention and emission is introduced. In the study of the human being, the connection between botany and chemistry is established. One pupil asks the question, “How did the energy that is released from nutrients in our bodies actually get into the plant?” This moment when a question is asked is always a very important one. A window of interest and attention is opened for the class. Even if a question seems very much removed from the “actual” topic of the lesson, it is nevertheless important. Now the teacher’s presence of mind is what counts! Despite the limited time available, it is possible to present a great variety of ideas and to call upon the particular receptivity and readiness of the child’s spirit.

The answer then points to the significance of the sun for all living beings on earth. When talking about the beet sugar, which is very much loved by the pupils, the economic aspects of its production and consumption as included here too. One student asks, “Why is there so much advertising for sweets if they are so unhealthy?” Here, the problem of advertising and the economic interests that drive human desires emerges. Perhaps a digression might be in order as to how the American sugar industry has spent decades trying to block scientific research on the connection between sugar consumption and fatal heart disease. The question of where our food comes from geographically opens up a tentative glimpse into the broader global economy. A dense network of connected ideas between physiology, history, chemistry, astronomy, economics, as well as many other subjects, is revealed. However, the human being always forms a focal point and is held as a point of reference.

The subject of geography assumes a very special integrative significance in this context. It has the function and the task of establishing connections. All aspects of natural space and culture, soil composition, weather conditions, the biosphere with its plants and animals, landscapes and mineral resources, culture with its folklore and history, monuments and famous personalities, in short: the world appears before us with all its aspects. The pupil’s interest expands from the native country, via neighbouring countries, to all continents and cultures. 

Making such conceptual connections requires the teacher to practise inward agility and contextual thinking themselves. “We as teachers must have an interest for everything worldly and for everything human.” Steiner names the force that inspires and enlivens our thinking and education as imagination. It fires the thoughtful search for the hidden conceptual connections in the world and becomes the most essential motor of cognition.

The preparatory course for the first Waldorf teachers is, in its practical advice to teachers and discussions with teachers, full of suggestions for the development of the imagination and the disposition of a living education. For example, the following topics appear as activities on one day of the course: initial musical education, interest calculation using algebra, the founding of medieval towns and the invasions of the Magyars, mathematical geography, astronomy, ancient Egyptian history and myths, as well as conic sections. Such staggering abundance and challenging diversity!  Each aspect is approached from the perspective of childhood development and its relationship with the strengths of the human spirit. All of this together forms a whole in terms of education that is becoming ever more alive.

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