A committed affair with here and now – young people and teaching

By Wilfried Sommer, October 2020

Under the title “Is school too stupid for our children?” the publisher and education expert of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, Jürgen Kaube, published a number of provocative hypotheses in June 2019.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

In particular, he refused to join in the chorus of voices in all parts of the country that teachers in future would first and foremost be facilitators of autonomous learning groups who – supported by digital teaching and learning platforms – would only any longer channel the intrinsic motivation of the pupils so that young people would without exception joyfully expand their competences in their specific learning environment. Kaube’s plea cuts across this kind of debate about education – and he goes further: “The educational aim of turning children into persons by enabling them to reflect on things, understand things and be articulate suggests also seeing school classes [...] as groups which work on themselves by working on illuminating extracts of the world. School is work, being a pupil a job” (p. 319).

It may be thought that a patriarchal view of school is on the rise here again: being a pupil is a job, education entails more than supporting autonomous learning groups. The statements quoted above will be considered in what follows as pointed invitations to reflect on these matters and will not be played off against one another. What does the joint work on “illuminating extracts of the world” produce? Where are the independent responsibility and autonomy of young people located? What educational processes open up the world and simultaneously constitute the subject?

Overblown demands of progressive education

Educational processes with adolescents are not the same as education in early childhood. Imitation of the world as the intrinsic motivation is replaced by a relationship with the world which is personally coloured to a greater extent. Puberty is the great gift which allows pupils to experience a new dimension of autonomy.

Autonomy in school comes to expression in that there are subjects which pupils like and ones which are done more out of a sense of duty or because they might bring a benefit. To this extent the high expectations of intrinsic motivation are not fulfilled in every subject. Patterns of expectation of progressive education can turn out to be overblown. 

To the extent that there are choices available in upper school, they can accommodate the desire of the pupils for autonomy. Life has shown in many places that upper school pupils particularly appreciate it if not everyone any longer has to do everything but if it is transparent for them out of which kind of understanding of education choices are opened up and some provision is made mandatory.

If the upper school faculty feels it necessary within a certain framework to promote a certain balanced relationship with the world through obligatory provisions, this means at the same time that not only does curricular balance have to be negotiated but, on the contrary, it is just as important to provide the experience through gripping and good teaching that such a balance is justified. Then the pupils can experience how through the lessons they are also working on themselves. They not only open up the world for themselves in a balanced way, they themselves are opened to a balanced relationship with the world.

The general in the mirror of the particular

When a main lesson opens a sphere of the world with descriptive miniatures set in context  which can stand paradigmatically for the great themes of the subject being taught, the pupils experience how a dimension opens up in their thinking which they can only learn about through this specific subject: what does it mean do be able to execute a calculation any number of times to determine a defined boundary value? Does development really bring something new into the world? What is matter if atoms only represent a model and not reality? To what extent are the fictional spaces which we enter into when we read literature real? What does it mean in history lessons to reconstruct the past out of present-day consciousness?

What Wagenschein (2008) called concrete single problems of “highly concentrated reality”, in which something specific points to something general, stands paradigmatically for main lesson in Waldorf schools. In the tradition of Klafki this is described as teaching and learning by way of examples. Here teachers place a productive example, which fundamentally stands for the relationship between self and the world and opens up a content of the world in an elementary way, into the centre of their didactic analysis.

It makes good sense to use main lessons for these educational processes; in contrast, pure practice units and specific exam preparation can be moved to subject lessons. The paradigmatic dimension of theses educational processes justifies making them obligatory and including them in the canon which stands for a balanced relationship with the world.

It is not easy to find insightful, concrete single problems of “highly concentrated reality density”. Prospective upper school teachers have to be well trained so that they know not just meaningful series of experiments or set matters out in a concrete and illustrative way but can also profit from the great wealth of experience which has developed over almost 100 years of upper school teaching at Waldorf schools. Against this background 200 hours of subject teaching methodology per subject is obligatory for teachers who attend a teacher training provision certified for upper school in the German Association of Waldorf Schools.

Making new spheres of the world accessible through such educational processes represents, not least, a task for curriculum-related research into the teaching methodology of Waldorf schools, such as is coordinated and undertaken by the Educational Research Centre at the German Association of Waldorf Schools.

If teachers succeed in managing these educational processes in a sovereign manner, then main lessons become the jointly lived present. Here it remains the responsibility of teachers to shape processes which both unlock and which create accessibility as a participatory experience. It remains the responsibility of the pupils to take hold of the new dimension of their thinking autonomously – and to work through it in a form adequate for them where lessons give them the freedom to do so. Lessons then turn into an exciting affair with the here and now. The pupils notice that their relationship with the world stands paradigmatically for a life fulfilled through education. They discover a rewarding engagement which pervades this perhaps fleeting affair.

Learning without fear to celebrate without worry?

The guiding principles of Waldorf education include pupils learning without fear. In the urge to experience wonderful episodes, learning without fear may represent a pleasant, indeed often appreciated backdrop in a young life to celebrate without worry. On the one hand, we can be happy about that – after all, the enterprise of young people keeps introducing something new into the world.

The commitment which, on the other hand, is also part of life has to be supported during this phase by routines but also – as explained above – be constantly re-established through perspectives full of content. If pupils experience teaching staff who tell them something – better still, make something accessible – through the mirror of their subject in a way that is paradigmatic for life, then their fluctuating self-perception can find a specific direction through the lessons – and perhaps lets them find something on offer that they feel to be suitable for their life.

The yardstick for their actions would have opened up for them through good teaching. Through a relationship between self and world, shaped with responsibility and full of content by their teachers, they would experience biographical episodes in which they themselves opened up to the world and constituted their subjective existence. An experience which would, that at least is the justified hope, legitimise school attendance for them within a certain framework.

Teachers, too, would have to learn with them without fear. Young people should encounter teachers – if we pursue the educational progressions presented here – who stand for a relationship between self and world and thereby create harmony between factual and personal learning. Clear periods are required for exam preparation and for a school climate in which clear technical language and exact representation are practised daily in main lesson, something that, of course, also helps prepare for exams.

But at heart upper school teaching must start with the aspiration to flesh out the educational progressions which open up the world and constitute a subject. Why? Because fulfilled human existence is a value in itself and every fulfilled encounter with the world is a gift.

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

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