Confronting the capacity for polarisation. The courage for transformation in middle school

By Claus-Peter Röh, July 2021

When young people in middle school break free from the “gold background” of childhood and undergo strong transformations in their soul, they also challenge their teachers to transform themselves. The unfolding of the personal feeling life in the transition to adolescence also includes the increasing ability to polarise.

In the course of the sixth year of school, the pupils look at the world with increasing distance and areas of tension arise that lead to new questions: why did Hannibal not conquer Rome after winning the battle? Why do the differences between square numbers result in an endless chain of odd numbers? In the class discussion, the first “why” questions ignite, aiming at causality in the thinking. The development of judgement awakens. On the one hand, the subjects of class 6 are conducive to this new ability: interest calculation, constructive geometry, physics or mineralogy. On the other hand, it is important to repeatedly develop tasks for the lessons from thematic puzzles, contrasts and spaces of tension and to sense which questions arise in which pupil personalities.

In the transition from class 6 to class 7, the pupils’ awareness of the personal forces of feeling increases significantly. The accompanying growing amplitude between affirmative sympathy and immediately rejecting antipathy includes the need for constant counter-movements between the poles. This ability to now be able to swim against the tide also seeks opposites or polarisations in learning. Thus the thinking directly questions the given things: “But what are negative numbers, anyway? Are they invisible debts or something?” - “But why does minus times minus make a plus and not minus squared?” Here the introductory characteristic “but” indicates the inner distance, which includes the feeling of growing independence as well as that of loneliness. When the young people at this developmental stage learn to deal with the calculation of abstract numbers and with geometric proofs, the teachers of the middle school classes are faced with a special challenge: is there a pedagogical way to support the newly forming ability of own consequential thinking not in isolation, but as an integral part of the whole person? 

Imagination and the will to create – the other side of the human being

Precisely because the foundations for everything later are laid in these years of upheaval and inner reorientation of the child’s soul, it is important to challenge not only the thinking but also a second side of the growing human being as diversely and strongly as possible: the emotional experience, the feeling for qualities, the powers of imagination and the will to help shape things. From this aspect of these abilities, it will depend decisively whether in later life situations the clearly thinking understanding is combined with powers of empathy, emotional flexibility and idea generation. In view of such biographical effects of a healthy development of feelings and imagination, Rudolf Steiner demanded as early as the founding the school in 1919:

“Therefore, you must strive to penetrate what you develop imaginatively in the last years of elementary school at the same time with feeling aspects in your own self.”

Rudolf Steiner, Practical Advice to Teachers

How formative the middle school years in particular are for a holistic, balanced development of both lines becomes apparent when looking at many biographies. The long-time journalist and Middle East correspondent Peter Scholl-Latour describes the moment when, as a 13-year-old, he began to read travel descriptions and discoveries by Sven Hedin, Maria Sibylla Merian or Roald Amundsen as the moment when his interest in the world was born. In another cultural, Nelson Mandela describes the interest with which he followed difficult negotiations in the council of his tribe as a 13-14-year-old and discovered principles of finding solutions to which he remained true throughout his life: “I have always tried to listen to what each individual had to say in a discussion before I put forward my own opinion” (Long Walk to Freedom).

Finding such lastingly formative experiences enables a different view of the end of the class teacher period: how can we as teachers and parents learn to perceive and support such individual approaches to the future in encounters with the pupils’ personalities? This question leads to a mysterious educational double gesture: on the one hand, it is important to meet the polarising forces of the feelings in a challenging way and to form spaces for profound experiences, contrasts, questions and thoughts. At the same time, experience at school and at home shows that the pupils in classes 7 and 8 also have a deep need to experience the attention and security of familiar teachers around these sought-after spaces for discovery.

Those who want to make such a double gesture possible need the courage to resolutely go different ways, but they must also be able to hold back in the moment of teaching. In order to perceive individual questions, thoughts, emphases or decisions, a kind of peripheral attention is needed. Flare-ups of resonance between individuality and subject matter are more likely to show up in the immediacy of what is happening. It can happen, for example, that a pupil in class 7 presents a report on Elsa Brandström and suddenly captivates the whole class with an incident from her youth: after her childhood in St. Petersburg, she grew up in Linköping, Sweden. She is very headstrong and when she and all her peers approach confirmation together, doubts about it become so great that she insists on seeing the bishop in person. Her question to him is: “Do I have to go to confirmation whether I want to or not?” Thoughtfully, the bishop answers, “No, Elsa, no one will force you to go.” Only this answer gives her the inner freedom to decide for confirmation.

In the immediacy of that situation of doubt, question and response, it seemed as if many pupils made an inner decision. When they subsequently heard the strength with which Elsa Brandström later stood up for the starving prisoners of World War I as “the Angel of Siberia”, every word met with deep approval and recognition. To enable such moments when identity and will are determined, and to connect them ever anew with the ability of questioning and thinking is the goal of teaching in this stage of development. In this sense, experiencing and dealing with polarisation in the soul can become a source of transformation and reorientation for all involved.

About the author: Claus-Peter Röh is co-head of the Pedagogical Section at the Goetheanum.

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