Living concepts not definitions – botany in Waldorf school

By Nico Schapitz, September 2019

Teachers preparing themselves for the botany main lessons in the fifth or sixth year of school face a major task because they should follow a new approach suggested by Rudolf Steiner.

That means: intensive textual work and an investigative look into surrounding nature. In my experience that is not easy to master in the everyday work of the Waldorf teacher. The aspiration connected with the teaching profession can all too easily give rise in us to a need for concrete lesson content and compact forms in which it can be presented. It can easily happen that we then arrive at a methodology of definitions and rigid concepts.

A compartmentalised world

What does a conventional approach look like? The pupils learn to distinguish between plant species, define plant families and give precise names to individual plants. Teachers can easily prepare themselves for this with a simple classification guide. But what do such lessons mean for the pupils? The children are given the task of looking at the plants. They have to investigate specific characteristics in a specimen which show clearly that it is a particular plant with a particular name. In other words, the children isolate the plant from its environment. Everything is omitted that does not fit into the spectrum of the search. Their eye turns blind to any other observation. Once a particular characteristic has been found, the intellect steps in and makes the judgement: the plant has this name and belongs to this family – check.

Steiner gives a compelling description of the effect of this common way of proceeding: ‘When we are still very small children, our limbs have to grow. We must not encase the hand in an iron glove because it would not be able to grow. But the concepts we teach children are supposed to have the sharpest possible contours, be definitions, and the child is always supposed to define. The worst thing we can teach a child is definitions, is sharply defined concepts because they do not grow […].’

No plant is an island

So what then? Steiner demands that the child should be located in the world “with their whole soul, physical and spiritual life”. What does that mean with regard to the development of children? Children in class 5 have left the Rubicon behind them. Their relationship with the world has fundamentally changed: they experience their own I as something separate from the world. They have distanced themselves from their environment and can now look at phenomena at a distance. One consequence is the pronounced investigative drive of many ten- or eleven-year-old children. 

Steiner formulates the goal that the intellect of the child should develop through living botany. Living concepts in the field of living things developed intelligence in a child’s thinking in a natural way. This could be done by showing children the parts of the plant (root, stem, leaf, flower) in relation to the elements of water, light, air, warmth and earth and their effects. The plant should always be observed in relation to its environment. That is, no lessons just looking at things, no herbarium, no picked plants! The children should go out into nature to familiarise themselves with the plants.

When pupils look at a plant as the topic of the lesson for the first time, it is crucial that they receive a strong inner picture of the plant. This can then be used to form concepts in the course of the lessons. This first plant can serve as a model for looking at other plants. That is why it makes sense to spend a lot of time on this first plant. It lends itself to begin by telling pictorially about the plant and its growth. In doing so, the teacher has the opportunity to guide the children inwardly through an observation.

As long as the phenomena are exclusively described in telling about the plant – that is, the things that can be concretely experienced in the plant and its environment – no judgement or insight is preempted. What is the shape of the plant? What is particularly noticeable? At what time of the year does the plant grow and in which way? Is it exposed to light and wind? How warm is it? What does the earth look like? How does it smell? How does the plant feel to the touch? Once the children have listened to such a description and developed an inner picture, they can look at the plant itself outside and add their own observations. Apparent contradictions supplement the picture and make it richer. The observation of the children increases the more they practise. Details become more noticeable.

The child creates the concept themselves

But how do the children then learn to understand how the individual parts of the plant are connected with the elements?

Now we can compare: how does water manifest in nature? What forms does it create? What observations of the plant fit with that? What does it look like in a watery environment, and in a dry one? What part of the plant changes in particular as a result? The more phenomena are placed next to one another, the more clearly a concept of the part of the plant forms as if by itself. 

The concept encompasses its shape and consistency but also its connection with an element and the surrounding conditions. In this way the children develop a structure of concepts surrounding the plant. Now they can diversify and look at plants “of their own”. They can investigate by themselves, draw and observe. Here it is very helpful if plants are chosen which are very clearly related to an element. One of the parts of the plant should be particularly pronounced such as for example in grasses the stem, in crop plants the fruit, in flowers the blossom. We ask: what shapes does the plant form? What part is particularly pronounced? What are the conditions at its habitat?

When the children now approach a plant, their way of looking at it is quite different from a defining one. They will look at the plant just as precisely. But they will not filter out all the ‘extraneous’ information and look exclusively at the defining characteristics; they will try to combine all their observations. It is looking at the plant in an inquiring way: what does the shape reveal? What element comes to expression in it? The children do not, of course, formulate these questions but they are the questions which underlie such a way of observation. The focus is now on two things: the intrinsic nature of the plant and the inner activity of the observer. The concepts which the pupils have formed of the plant and its parts grow with every newly observed phenomenon, with every new experience.

On such a foundation the thinking can be kept flexible, a thinking that never becomes abstract but keeps checking itself against concrete reality – an ability which can be brought to bear in many other subject areas.

About the author: Nico Schapitz is a class and horticulture teacher at the Eisenach Free Waldorf School.

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