Dancing the waltz. Layers of consciousness in lessons

By Wilfried Sommer, February 2020

In almost every class there are pupils for whom the changing phases in a lesson represent a challenge. Once a task has been set out, for example, and the materials have to be prepared, they hesitate for so long that there is hardly any time left actually to start on the first work stages themselves.

Photo: © cliersch/photocase.de

Miniatures of a school day

In cognitive subjects, this means that there is almost nothing they have got as far as writing or noting down themselves; in practical subjects, the individual work steps are interrupted by numerous distractions. In a general desire to share, they must first search for a ruler, organise a new cartridge, return borrowed money, consider a trip to the toilet, or share the turmoils of a youthful life; or perhaps they just sit there more or less inconspicuously and wait until an explicit request from a fellow pupil or teacher reaches them.

In the class conference it then emerges that with a small group of pupils this phenomenon occurs across subjects. These pupils often have a positive attitude towards school and are not under any exceptional stress. In the course of the conference, individual teachers will then “sigh” that these pupils simply “cannot muster the will to act”. They should think about what they wanted.

If comparable pubescent episodes in the daily life of the school give rise to a meeting with the parents, the latter often expressly appeal in the course of the meeting to their children just for once to want to do something.

In both situations the will – to put it bluntly – is addressed like an abstract instance which needs to be triggered. If it was triggered in the right way, it would do what was necessary. An appropriate reflective process was sufficient in order then to be able to leave the control of the abstract instance of implementation to the pupils.

Educational steps

If in the course of a lesson we address such pupils not with instructions like “Make a start now please” but rather say casually “I would start the first sentence like this ... how would you continue”, we often get an adequate, original and aptly formulated response. With the remark “Why don’t you write that down?” we can leave them to get on with the work.

They have found an entry point, the connection with the content supports them and they remain linked with the work process. Questions such as “What was immediately obvious to you?” are also often sufficient for pupils to connect with the content of the task in a first step of their own and small bridges to concrete tasks are then sufficient for the process to continue.

We could cite numerous comparable educational miniatures here which all have in common that the pupils are offered a point of entry which then gives them the opportunity in connection with specific content to unfold their will, that is become active themselves. Their will is addressed here not as an abstract instance of implementation but as an impulse that connects them with the content. They “go with the flow” of the matter and are not thrown back on themselves. Their interest carries them in a certain sense as a matter of course.

Philosophical points

When we speak about the will, and particularly about learning as a process of the will, we can refer both to the tasks and learning steps which need to be performed and to the implementation and learning process itself. On the one hand we face the world and see what we need to do. At the same time we observe ourselves as if from outside: we are someone who has to do something. But such an objective attitude to ourselves and the world does not lead to anything, however much we want it to happen. Here we live above all in ideas and not the will.

There is no real will until we have made the jump into activity and are immersed in it. The will is no longer an object but action. The philosophers Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Karl Jaspers use the term magical for this leap. Hegel uses it to describe the situation that we can directly move our body, are at home in it, when we take action. Jaspers refers to the situation in which “something spiritual is directly implemented in physical or psychological reality”. We not only control an activity when we do something but directly have to merge with it, and thus give up any distance to ourselves.

In his lecture cycle The Foundations of Human Experience, Steiner uses the terms waking and sleeping for these different forms of consciousness. We are “awake” in objective conceptual consciousness (I as someone have to do something in this way), and “asleep” in our volition. The inner twist by which we unfold as if by magic in the flow of activity means, at the same time, letting go. In the same way that we have to let go of the events of the day and surrender to sleep in order to go to sleep, so we have to detach ourselves, according to Steiner, from an observing attitude in volition and surrender to the active flow of our life.

Taking this first magical step together with pupils can mean very different things in the everyday life of education: here it might be necessary to take the fear of “so many” pending steps and together discover confidence in joint doing; there it might be necessary to rouse interest and thus allow curiosity to take the place of the strong feeling of our own inertia. Not least, it should be the liking for a delightful world for everyone, a world which in lessons has shown itself to be an amazing, multifaceted, factual – in short, rewarding encounter.

Good teaching then “awakens” a feeling of liking so that it becomes an interested intellectual attitude. At the same time it supports the pupils in being able to become active directly themselves out of the momentum of the matter in hand, in immersing themselves “magically” or “in sleep” in their activities.

A successful main lesson in Waldorf schools thus manages the encounter with something new as meaningfully as possible; then enabling pupils to develop concepts through open questions; and, once the learning goal has been achieved, opening up a free space for them through work assignments in which they can deal with what they have learnt in such a way that it can be consolidated (internal differentiation in silent working).

Dancing the waltz – shapes of a learning process

When we learn to dance a waltz, we first of all have to observe and internalise the sequence of steps and then remember it step by step in order to perform it. As we progress in the process of learning, the sequence of movements becomes more natural and finally we can dance both the left and right turns without thinking about it. Our explicit memory with its objective awareness (“this sequence of steps in this way!”) is transferred to our implicit memory. Now we no longer have to steer our body, we have what we have learned at our disposal “magically” or as “in sleep”, we are it directly in our body. When the music plays, the implicit memory of our body becomes explicit again: we move with increasing speed as the tempo rises in the closing sequence as the lady does her turn on the final chord. The more we dance the waltz, the more freely we can follow the moves and in the end naturally find our choreography in harmony with the music.

There are both conscious and unconscious layers in the temporal shape of the learning process: the wakeful first encounter “goes to sleep” in our corporeality as we practice. Paradoxically, this means a growth in our skills. It is “reawoken” with each new waltz and grasped by us explicitly, that is wakefully.

The “rhythmical section” in upper school

There is a similar learning shape in main lesson in upper school. In the so-called “rhythmical section” of middle and upper school, results are quizzed in the first five minutes of the double lesson which were developed and practised in the preceding days.

In physics lessons in a class 10, for example, such a sequence might begin with the following questions: “What is the symbol for gravitational acceleration?”, answer: “g”. “What is the general symbol for acceleration?”, answer: “a”. “What is the source of the abbreviation ‘a’?”, answer: “acceleration”. “What unit is commonly used for acceleration?”, answer: “m/s2”. “Would millimetre per hour squared (mm/h2) also be a possible unit?”, answer: “yes”. “Bodies fall to the earth in such a way that the distances travelled per unit of time … – who can continue?”, answer: “…behave like odd numbers”. “Bodies fall to the earth in such a way … – who can continue?”, answer: “… that the distances travelled per unit of time behave like odd numbers”. “Who’s going to try and formulate the whole sentence by themselves?” – now two or three pupils will be helped as necessary as they try.

For teachers, building such series as the basis for the conceptual exercises means a lot of preparation; after all, it is necessary to achieve a certain lightness in the series, a specific rhythm in the movement of the thoughts which, avoiding any clumsiness, is connected coherently with the preceding learning and cognitive paths. Furthermore, it turns out to be a challenge to find the right breathing rhythm between the questions asked and the free space left to the pupils so that they can develop their ideas autonomously. The pupils in this way pass through stations in a learning shape which leads them from the explicit to the implicit and from the implicit back to the explicit memory.

If this is successful, they “incorporate” what they have learnt in a similar way to waltzing. Here, too, various layers of consciousness alternate in learning and are mutually dependent.

Learning in the alternation of sleeping and waking

It is one of the paradoxes of learning that we cannot control ever step consciously as we learn but that we have to immerse ourselves directly in the flow of learning and what is to be learnt. The growth in our skills has its conscious and unconscious signature.

Teachers can make themselves increasingly sensitive to these signatures. In contact with individual pupils, they may then be more successful in drawing the latter into the flow of their own learning and in avoiding throwing them back on themselves in an understanding of the will and learning which only makes demands. If the change between more conscious and more unconscious phases with its own choreography pervades lessons, its rhythm can carry and intensify the learning process. Many considerations in Waldorf education relate to this.

The change between waking and sleeping as a life process which gives learning its own dynamic extends as far as the principle underlying the main lesson: major themes running through a particular subject and, for example, placing the human being in a physical, historical or mathematical context in the world are experienced intensively in a main lesson, but then entrusted to life.

When in a subsequent main lesson what has been previously learned becomes the topic in a new and changed way, the relationship with the world is transformed. Of course facts which have been forgotten have to be re-learnt or there has to be a brief reminder, here there is no “unconscious learning”. The increase in skills through the unconscious life phase is, on the contrary, revealed in the garment of a deepened relationship with the world which makes it appear even more amazing, multifaceted and factual – and of course has to be supported by processes of continuous mathematical and linguistic practice in subject lessons. These possess a different dynamic and form an essential foundation for main lessons.

Note: The present account relates to work which was undertaken as part of a research project on Rudolf Steiner’s anthropology. The relevant publications are available at www.ars-studien.de with additional references.

About the author: Prof. Dr Wilfried Sommer works at the interface of school and university: on the one hand as professor of school education focusing on phenomenological teaching methods at Alanus University of Arts and Social Sciences, Alfter, and on the other hand in teacher training at the teacher training seminar and as a physics teacher at the Free Waldorf School in Kassel.


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