What Rudolf Steiner Told the First Waldorf Teachers

Martin Schmandt

After fifteen years working mainly as a class teacher, my focus this year has been on educating teachers. This has included working with both Michael Hall’s teacher trainees and a group of teachers new to Michael Hall having no previous Waldorf experience. I have also made several trips to China to support the burgeoning Waldorf movement there. A very rewarding part of the teacher training work has been sharing the study of Steiner’s basic educational lectures.

Three Courses for Teachers

In 1919, to prepare the first group of teachers in the inaugural Waldorf School in Stuttgart, Rudolf Steiner led three daily sessions over two weeks. (He continued to oversee their work as the year progressed.) These three courses, two consisting of lectures and one of discussions, are now known as Foundations of Human Experience, Practical Advice to Teachers and Discussions with Teachers. In this article I will focus on the first chapter of Foundations of Human Experience, after offering a very brief glimpse of the content of the other two courses.

Practical Advice is the key text describing how the child is best taught at different stages of development, with key turning points around the ages of six, nine and twelve. It also has much to say about art in education – not just teaching art but teaching artistically and about how the performing arts socialise and the visual arts strengthen the individual. It is not possible in a short article to elaborate on these themes, but anyone familiar with the Waldorf approach knows that an art-rich curriculum, using age-appropriate methods and aims, is central to it.

In Discussions, Steiner asks teachers to prepare ideas for how best to teach certain subjects, and then works through their proposals. During the two weeks of teacher preparation, Steiner himself suggests four different ways to present the Theorem of Pythagoras regarding right- angled triangles. Each of these is pictorial, imaginative and practical in its own way, so that is important. However the suggestion is also clear from the given options and the whole structure of the seminar Steiner was leading, that the teachers are expected to exercise initiative and develop teaching material out of their own immersion in the subject rather than adopting a standard approach.

Foundations of Human Experience consists of fourteen very dense lectures in which Steiner describes the nature of the growing human being in terms of soul, spirit and body as a basis for establishing a curriculum and teaching methodology.

Our Educational Task

In the first of these lectures, Steiner states that “our educational task” is to harmonise what lives in the spirit and soul of the children with their particular bodily constitution. If you were to depict this diagrammatically, you might think of two triangles, one above pointing downward and one below pointing upward. The upper one represents the child’s unique set of nascent gifts, and the lower one represents their physicality, state of health and any neurological particularities. Both triangles are valued, but they are considered as fundamentally different in their nature. The ideal is that the two triangles healthily interpenetrate one another (in terms of the diagram, forming a diamond in the middle). The gifts can then stream through the person into the world. Right from the beginning, there is a recognition that each child is different: for example, one child comes with a burgeoning inner life but a weak constitution, and another might come with a robust constitution but little apparent imagination or cognitive agility. The point is not to judge these capacities but to understand them, so as to be able to facilitate the fullest manifestation of the child as he or she moves into life.

Vitality and Consciousness

The first chapter also introduces the idea of helping the children breathe; not only in the physiological sense, but also in developing different facets of their being through different kinds of activities in rhythmic alternation. A basic polarity in Waldorf Education is that between vitality and consciousness: when you are moving vigorously it is hard to think; when you are pondering deeply you tend to be still. When you are making art, you are calling on both, holding a balance between one and the other. This is the familiar “head, heart and hands” of holistic education, or thinking, feeling and willing. Steiner discusses these in depth identifying another polarity between what he calls “sympathy,” an immersion which is associated with sense perception, in movement, in vivid imaginative pictures, and “antipathy,” that detachment we need in order to consider what we are seeing or doing and arrive at concepts. A well-planned and delivered lesson will include opportunities to immerse sympathetically in an activity and opportunities to reflect, thus encouraging a fuller, more nuanced and balanced engagement with life.

For children in the Lower School, sympathy, the forward-reaching pole, is the more natural and healthy, which suggests why teaching via imagination rather than fixed concepts is so crucial to Waldorf Education.

(The implications of a distinction between vitality and consciousness, are worth noting, in that, if the above is true, then education in the UK can be understood as being in a crisis of excessive consciousness at the very direct expense of vitality. There is an implicit misguided belief that if we force schools to be conscious of every last possible risk and contingency, and document every iota of progress or challenge, then everything will be all right. But it won’t—it will only be conscious, like a hospital patient unable to participate in life but aware of everything that is going on.)

Following the Spirit Through Will and Feeling to Thinking

So how are children to arrive at concepts? An approach to this which Steiner recommends is hinted at in the first chapter when teachers are invited to consider deeply the relationship between sleeping and waking. In following lectures, Steiner elaborates that the spirit is powerfully but unconsciously present in the child’s will, dreaming in the child’s feeling life, and gradually awakens in the child’s conscious thinking.

Each child has a time that is right for her or him to wake up into a conceptual understanding, both generally and regarding individual ideas. In order to let that awakening take its course, Waldorf teachers engage the children in relevant activities, stories and art-making, and then let the impressions arising from these settle. Only after a night’s sleep is the child guided into an opportunity for experience-derived concepts to crystallise into full conscious awareness.

This is obviously a less direct method than simply stating the concepts at the outset and requiring the children to retain them, but is one that allows the child to keep relating to the world as a whole person.

Education as Human Sharing

“For you can only become good teachers . . . if you pay attention not merely to what you do, but also to what you are.”

Rudolf Steiner, Lecture 1, Foundations of Human Experience

In my comments above regarding Discussions with Teachers, it is already hinted that for Steiner, differentiation is not only about how an individual child learns best, but also about how an individual teacher teaches best.

In Waldorf Education, an important aspect of every lesson is that the lesson is being taught from one unique human being to a group comprised of other unique human beings. That Waldorf teachers tend not to rely on textbooks, and that they tell the children stories rather than reading them stories are just two manifestations of this. Human sharing is part of the content of the lesson, not just its method; process is content.

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Michael Hall has been and will continue to be under tremendous pressure to conform to external demands and scrutiny. All who hold the school’s practical fate in their hands have been working hard for its survival via compliance with those demands.

There will not be any significant external pressure, on the other hand, to deliver on the kinds of paradigm-defining principles outlined above; the commitment to this must come from within. For the benefit of the present and future generations of children, may the teachers and parents find the strength, love, and evolving insight to continue to ensure that the survival and flourishing of the spirit of Waldorf Education. This is the central endeavour of our community.