Teaching is rhythm

By Tomáš Zdražil, July 2021

The young Romanian writer Lavinia Braniste describes her experience of lockdown in her story “Corona has aged us all”. We are living in “a nebulous, confusing time” that no longer supports and sustains us, which is immobile and uniform, in which everything has become indistinct. Many doctors report that there have never been so many patients who have forgotten their appointments as they have lost their sense of time.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

“Today is Moonday, 47 March.” We are stuck in the frustrating present, the eternal now, in timelessness. The only alternative is to define temporal structures from within ourselves. However, children, and to some extent adolescents, are not yet capable of this task; they need a social space, the school, and with it the external support of the classroom as a source of rhythm and time. According to Piaget, children from the age of seven to eight are capable of making some initial assessments of time, but they are still dependent on the rhythm of the social and educational chronological framework that supports them.

Let’s take this experience of coronavirus as an opportunity to explore the rhythms of teaching.

Waldorf education encourages the teacher to develop a fine sense for these rhythms – right into the psychological rhythms of the consciousness of the soul. It is a familiar experience for teachers that standing at the front of the classroom and explaining something at the end of the main lesson, for example in the context of a history main lesson, is not particularly productive for a class, but that a picture or a small written reflection is much more appropriate.

In history classes, for example, the teacher presents many images and ideational relationships and tries to encourage the students both to imaginatively recreate the images and to think and evaluate them. The pupils thereby come out of themselves, so to speak, along with their soul. The following process of drawing harmonises and leads the soul back to itself. In this way, history lessons have a choral quality, while drawing has a soloistic quality.

Things are a little different when it comes to maths. Maths confronts the pupil entirely with themselves, it individualises. At the end of a maths lesson, telling a story is therefore very appropriate. When listening, pupils are distracted from themselves and open themselves up to the community – this balances things out. Here, the act of listening acts as a hygienic agent that leaves the students relaxed and at peace for the break, and even has a positive effect on the lessons that follow.

In the classroom, the teacher attracts the attention of the class through the spoken word, through what they present. This is an important element of teaching, but certainly not the only one. A lesson should not only be shaped through the teacher’s presentation, but also through dialogue with the class. Discussion, as a form of heightened mutual perception, carries a rhythmical quality in any case: I see someone, listen to them, engage with them and then follow them. Then I return to myself, think, then speak. Dialogue is always a rhythmical pendular movement between forms of dreaming-listening and waking-speaking.

On the other hand, there is the teacher’s encouragement towards individual work, especially through writing, drawing and artistic creativity, which is expressed in the main lesson books. How can a healthy transition be made from copying from the blackboard or photocopied sheets to texts written by the pupils themselves? How can the individualisation and creativity of the pupils be fostered through their own attempts at writing?

A reciprocity of these two elements and approaches – the contemplative and the self-directed element – ensures a good and healthy learning atmosphere in the class. The teacher’s task is that of a choreographer, an artist in time, who rhythmically shapes class periods from an understanding of the duality of the interior and the exterior individual.

A fundamental polarity is found in the morning verses, as they are called, which are spoken by the children and young people every day. They point to this dual aspect – to the development of the body and the soul – to “working” and “learning”:

The morning verse in lower school states: “... that I may be industrious and eager to learn” and in the middle and upper school, then: “... that strength and blessing may be mine to learn and to work ...”.

The pupils “work”: this refers to physical activity and its meaningful integration into a social and ecological context of life. This also includes all artistic subjects and activities, such as music, eurythmy, painting, (form) drawing, clay modelling, handicrafts, gymnastics, handwork and gardening, as well as writing and a significant portion of mathematics and geometry.

The pupils “learn”: this refers to the educability of their soul, to the curious relationship with the world and the gradual understanding of conceptual contexts. An active perceptive activity of the pupils is stimulated for example by listening to stories, but also through such subjects as history, geography, natural history, physics and chemistry, where appropriate also religion and of course reading. .

The aspect of “work” comes first in the morning verse in lower school; from middle school onwards, “learning” comes before work in the verse. Isn’t this an interesting indication that physical activity is of particular importance in lower school and that soul development comes to the fore later on? However, these two educational approaches always stand side by side as equals in schooling and in this way complement each other: “I want to work while learning, I want to learn while working” (R. Steiner). The soul should not learn without the body, the body should not be active without soul and spirit.

Here cognitive learning processes occur within a broader framework of psychological and physiological processes, without which purely cognitive learning at school becomes a stress-inducing risk factor for the health of the pupils. Pupils’ ability to learn and their ability to cope with stress are subject to physiological fluctuations that occur according to the rhythm of the day. It is during the morning and mid-morning hours that, for example, body temperature, electrical skin resistance or blood sugar levels rise. As a result, the ability to quickly perform calculation also increases over the course of the morning, and it appears that short-term memory retention is better if the material is absorbed in the morning.

The most important rhythm in life as well as when it comes to the ability of a person to learn is the rhythm of waking and sleeping. Rudolf Steiner speaks of it as the rhythm of the human I. The main lesson at the Waldorf school ensures that a subject area is dealt with at the same time every day over a longer period of time. This allows the child to become increasingly immersed in one area and to organically acquire knowledge and skills through their engagement with it.

However, the main lesson can also slow down the often too rapid, even bulimic, pace of the imparting of knowledge at school and stimulate independent, more individual thought formation. It can incorporate the rhythm of wake and sleep and thereby increase the effectiveness of the learning process by first of all striving for the child’s full immersion in the new subject matter, its connection with the person as a whole and the body in movement, in creative design and in perception through all the senses.

After this initial, but intensive, approach, the second step is to reflect on the encounter with the new material during the same main lesson unit, to sort out the essential and the less essential experiences and aspects, and perhaps also to make a written record of its quintessence. Only after the end of the main lesson, after having let go, forgotten and slept on the impressions and experiences, does the following day (or days) bring about a deepening of the mental processing and the formation of ideas, stimulated by the distance and the forgetting. Letting go and forgetting is, as it were, the digestion phase of the learning process. Therefore, learning can be understood as a form of nourishment for the soul as well as a rhythmical life process.

This leads to a harmonisation of the physical and soul, but also of the various soul forces of the pupil. This requires a lively interest in and understanding of the multi-layered complexity of the child. The human being is permeated by the most diverse rhythms, which mediate and synchronise these polar processes. The human being is designed for rhythm, all processes of the soul are based on rhythmical life processes. The deliberate incorporation of these rhythms into teaching harmonises and strengthens. Such teaching hopefully enables the pupils to be increasingly autonomous and responsible for the time structure of life and work, a skill that seems to be becoming very relevant in view of current technical and social developments in the world in which we live.

About the author: Dr Tomáš Zdražil is a professor at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart – Seminar for Waldorf Pedagogy

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