Upper school: education to freedom?

By Dirk Rohde, September 2019

“Receive the child in reverence, educate them in love, let them go forth in freedom.” That is a precise characterisation of Waldorf education as a whole as well as its focus in the first three seven-year periods.

Photo: © kallejipp/photocase.de

If we adopt the perspective each of the teacher and the children, we can see that both of them look at one another when the child is admitted to kindergarten or class 1. In lower and middle school they both look together at the content to be learnt. And in upper school their joint perspective is on the end of the time in school and beyond. At this point the teachers are called upon above all to let the young people “go forth in freedom”. What does that mean?

Freedom primarily means being free in our thinking. And thinking has to be learnt. Thus Rudolf Steiner sees a pronounced turning point in the transition from class 9 to class 10 in which in a short period of time the “transition from knowledge to insight” has to be found. If previously lessons were all about “what” and “how”, the focus is now increasingly on “why”. This is the start of a development which at the end of the time in school leads to a certain kind of independence: “Something which really requires a judgement which is acquired in active thinking cannot be known at all until a time in life which lies approximately between the age of 18 and 19” (Rudolf Steiner). A central task of upper school teachers lies in preparing the pupils for the transition into adulthood through practising the various forms of judgement.

That includes practical and theoretical judgements, comparative judgements, aesthetic judgements and so on. The motion of thinking as such also becomes the subject of discussion, whereby metamorphoses and inversions are a feature of Waldorf education. All of these things are practised in all lessons – in the cognitive subjects above all through the thinking; in the artistic subjects with a sensitive emotional emphasis; and in the practical and movement subjects above all through the limbs. Using biology lessons as an example, the metamorphosis of butterflies can be discussed in this context. This is already familiar in principle from lower school and can be deepened in a detailed way in upper school.

While the caterpillar is a kind of slow-moving intestine, with the main task of the rapid digestion of food and speedy growth, the adult sexually-mature butterfly is organised in the polar opposite way. After an explanation of the nature of the individual organs and how they work in both forms (“what” and “how”), both can be transposed into one another through the thinking, moving forwards and backwards (metamorphosis). Then we can move on to “why”: how can the meaningfulness of such a development be understood? By this route we can get to the reciprocal relationships between the sexual animals on the one hand and their relationship with the flowers they visit on the other. This leads us from one-sided causalities to reciprocal dependencies. Such relational structures are of immense importance in human coexistence. Understanding this can be distinctly helpful for the pupils throughout their life.

Drilling down

Once the foundation has been laid in this way, we can use the remarkable example of the peppered moth to show towards the end of school the necessity of working out our own judgements. Its biology has been well understood for a long time. It exists in two forms as an adult, a light and a dark variant. Almost only light animals were caught originally. Industrialisation in the nineteenth century led to the burning of coal and the resulting air pollution. In the course of this, it was observed in England that the trunks of the birches grew increasingly dark while the number of dark peppered moths also increased. When in the course of the twentieth century environmental measures led to cleaner air, the trunks of the birches also grew lighter again and the number of light peppered moths increased. The conclusion seemed obvious that in accordance with Darwin’s assumptions the light moths were better protected against their predators on the light trunks and the dark variant on the dark trunks. This example can be found in many school textbooks worldwide as an illustration proving evolutionary progression. It is all we need to know to pass the university entrance exams.

But we can also go further. Gradually this situation began to be questioned in expert circles. It was mostly dead animals which were fixed to the corresponding tree trunks for the photographs in the school textbooks. The problem was, that they rarely spend time on such birch trunks during the day. Furthermore, it is still not precisely known where the nocturnal moths hide during the day – it is assumed in the crowns of deciduous trees. Whether their colouring protects them from predators there is uncertain. It is also unclear to what extent they are eaten by bats which locate them by their movements during the night. If living specimens are released during the day, they will seek the nearest tree trunks. If their colouring is then different from the base, they are quickly found by birds and eaten.

But this cannot happen so easily during their nocturnal activity. All these things are therefore still the subject of controversy. The evolutionary connections are clearly significantly more complex than originally thought. After some introductory pointers, the pupils can investigate them for themselves and reach their own conclusions. That includes examining the original studies and formulating further research tasks. The experience of really drilling down into a subject, understanding it at the current state of knowledge and discovering their own possibilities in doing so, making their own contribution to further progress, can strengthen trust in their our own abilities and provide a decidedly optimistic outlook for the time after school.

Individualisation through the year project

On the way through upper school, the increasingly evident individualisation of the pupils is an important developmental step. This must be satisfied. Waldorf education offers a range of possibilities in this respect. Thus role behaviour can be explored in a creative context in class plays, and in year projects the pupils can pursue their own interest intensively and independently. The pupils are left to get on with it as far as possible. They can freely choose the approach that best suits them, starting with a decision whether to adopt a more cognitive, artistic or practical form, or something that integrates several approaches. At the end there is a result which could be relevant for future work and in a portfolio could also be part of the school leaving qualification. Such and other results of school work frequently turn into highlights at school gatherings involving the whole school community.

Do university entrance exams counteract development to freedom?

These educationally productive and sustainably effective elements of teaching in upper school can be counteracted through the Abitur, the German university entrance exam. As the WEiDE study, the first representative survey of German Waldorf school parents, has impressively shown, the Abitur as the highest school leaving exam is rated very highly by our educationally keen parents. They want it to be assured in Waldorf schools in a form recognised by the state and two-thirds of parents want their children successfully to pass it. Teachers thus run the risk of teaching for the exams.

Yet the Abitur is an “illusory giant”. Its requirements are clearly lower than those demanded by a successful Waldorf school leaving qualification. Questions from previous years can help with preparation since the principles remain the same. The entrance exams for university and universities of applied science are meanwhile obtained by approximately fifty percent of a year and no longer represent an elite selection, even if they are demanding. But the interests of Waldorf education not only pursue a different route with their support of the growing independence of the pupils, they also go beyond the Abitur in their requirements.

In order to find out to what extent this is reflected in the preparation of Waldorf pupils for the Abitur, I carried out an interview study which is likely to be published at the end of 2020. There were pupils who expressed exam anxieties two to three years before the Abitur which grew less as the exam approached. And there were others who did not really know how they could learn independently in a way that was appropriate for them. In the former case we may assume – in combination with other facts – a successful Waldorf school career while in the latter case an improvement in teaching might be necessary.

Particularly impressive is the completely independent way of dealing with the Abitur that Waldorf pupils in Freiburg have developed. The decided to prepare together for the exam independently of their school and to that end founded the “methodos” association twelve years ago. They organise the necessary resources for themselves, employ learning guides and learn in a way that makes sense for them. In this way they combine subject learning with preparation for the many challenges which life after school will throw at them. After the first successful year, other pupils followed in subsequent years – meanwhile also from other school types – and an offshoot was founded with ABINOM.

According to Steiner, it is the goal of Waldorf education “to offer the soul and spiritual entity what we might describe as the opportunity to develop out of itself”. Accordingly, pupils do not have to be educated to freedom. Rather, they have to be given the opportunity to develop the freedom which is already predisposed within them. In upper school this happens particularly by showing them ways of developing their skills. That starts with practising varied, creative ways of thinking and questioning norms. On this basis, own judgements can be arrived at which allow for independent action appropriate for their own life plan. 

Letting them go forth in freedom thus means that the young adults become aware of their freedoms alongside the associated responsibilities when they decide the contexts in which they wish to apply their abilities in the future. 

About the author: Dr Dirk Rohde is an upper school science teacher at the Marburg Waldorf School, lecturer in Waldorf education and education researcher.