Phases of Teenage Development and Waldorf High School Curriculum

By Douglas Gerwin, June 2015

In broad strokes, each of the four years in the Waldorf high school curriculum embodies an underlying theme and method that helps guide students not just through their studies of outer phenomena but through their inner growth as well.

Obviously, these themes and methods are adapted to each specific group of students and take account of the fact that teenagers grow at their own pace. Hence, the “broad strokes.” And yet, one can identify struggles common to most any teenager even though adolescents pass through developmental landscape at varying speeds, they nonetheless have to cover similar terrain.

Grade 9

As the freshmen plunge into the high school, they are also plunging with new intensity into the materiality of their bodies (with the unfolding of puberty) and into the immateriality of abstract thinking. There is tension in this opposition: often struggle, occasionally even revolt. The ninth grade curriculum is sensitive to these tremendous developmental changes and struggles. It allows the students to see their inner experience reflected back to them in outer phenomena. In physics, for instance, students study the opposition of heat and cold; in chemistry, the expansion and contraction of gases; in history, the conflicts and revolutions of France, Russia, and the U.S.; in geography, the collision of plate tectonics.

Through the chaos and tensions of these struggles, students are summoned to exercise powers of exact observation: in the sciences, to describe and draw precisely what happened in the lab experiments and demonstrations (without, as yet, an overlay of theoretical explanation), in the humanities, to recount clearly a sequence of events or the nature of a character without getting lost in the confusion of details. The objective here is to train in the student powers of exact observation and reflection so that they can experience in the raging storm of phenomena around them the steady ballast of their own thinking. Strong powers of wakeful perception form the basis for later years of study — well beyond high school.

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