Excerpts from: EDUCATION, TEACHING, AND PRACTICAL LIFE

Question: In the modern age we have resurrected the principle of observation in teaching. It now seems that when children leave school, they are helpless in the face of life. As a result of nothing but observation, they remain stuck with the image.

Rudolf Steiner: This question, the question of concreteness/pictorial   quality, specifically the exclusive focus on pictorial quality in teaching, is a very important pedagogical question for the present time. Now, in order to treat it thoroughly, this question should not be treated in isolation but rather in the context of a comprehensive pedagogical thinking. Here I would first like to state that teaching at the Waldorf school is built upon our knowledge of the human being’s development. The Waldorf school is definitely not the school of one particular world- view. But rather, we must put to use in the praxis of the Waldorf school whatever inspiration /support the anthroposophical soul-disposition can provide towards pedagogical deftness, method, and management of things. Indeed, the Waldorf school is intended to come into its own when integrated into practical life. For example, in a practical connection, there is the very important observation that in the child until the six-seventh year we are dealing with an imitative being. Until that time, children are imitators. This is so much the case during the kindergarten age that little can be learned in the conventional sense, but the teacher needs to rely on the child’s imitative capacity. People come and ask me all kinds of questions. A father came to me one day, quite distressed: “What shall we do? Our boy, who always was such a good boy, has stolen.” “How old is the boy?” I asked. “Five years old.” Then, I answered, “We need to investigate whether he really stole.” Investigation revealed that the boy had not stolen at all, despite the fact that he had actually taken money out of a drawer. Rather, he had observed how every day his mother would give deliverymen some money out of her drawer, and he thought to himself, “My mother does it, so it must be right.” And he simply took the money out of the drawer. He bought sweets, not to eat by himself, but to share with his friends. What he did was simply imitation, as fitted his age. It is very important for children of that age that the adults are careful to not do anything that children would not be allowed to copy. Then comes the age that starts with the change of teeth and ends at puberty, the age during which children go to primary school. This age demands simply—and this is something that various parties insist should not be obvious—that the child refer to an authority and learn to act accordingly. It is of the utmost importance for later stages of life, specifically in educating capacities for difficult developmental times to come and for all conceivable things in the course of a lifetime, that at this age, from the seventh to fourteenth year, children accept things based on authority. This relationship with the self-evident authority of a teacher and educator is irreplaceable. We can easily find confirmations of the things people cannot have later in life if they were unlucky enough to not have near them a self-evident authority. This is where this question of the object lesson for this age comes in. The current object lesson has grown out of materialism and has been pushed to the extreme. People just have to see everything with their own eyes. They do not believe in anything unless it is right before them; and so they believe that everything must be presented to children in this manner. The problems parents evoke are not the only ones; others arise from the teacher’s side. Take the Teachers’ Guides with instructions for the object lesson. The banalities and trivialities they dish out are downright monstrous. There is always a reflexive urge to reduce everything to the lowest possible level. These are the object lessons in which the teacher is never supposed to bring the child anything more than what the child already knows. This is the worst possible teaching. That teaching is the best that not only provides for the child’s present  age, but also for the entire human lifetime. If the course of life does not make it possible to have, at the age of forty or fifty, something left from the time of sitting on school benches, then the teaching was bad.

One’s retrospective view should contains living forces. After all, to grow means that our limbs become bigger, but other things are transformed too, everything in us is growing. If we bring the child static concepts, representations and observations that do not grow, that remain as they are, if emphasis is put to their staying the same, then we are sinning against the principle of growth. We must bring to the child things that become part of the living growth process. We cannot do that with the platitudes of the object lesson, but only when we truly encounter the child, Then imponderable elements come into consideration.

I often use an example like the following: Let us assume we want to teach the child the concept of immortality. It can be symbolized by natural processes, for instance with the image of the butterfly and the cocoon. I can say: The immortal soul within the person is like the butterfly in the cocoon; it develops into a spiritual world, just like the butterfly develops out of the cocoon. This is one image, but I can present it to the children in two different ways. The first way would be for me to think: I am the teacher; I am extraordinarily smart; the child is young and frightfully stupid. I will therefore present this concept to the child as a symbol. I am way beyond these things, but the child needs to understand in this way the concept of immortality of the soul. So I will explain in an intellectual manner. This practically guarantees that the child will not learn anything, not because what was brought was false as such, but because that is not the right way to teach children anything. If I fully familiarize myself with anthroposophical spiritual science, it will not be just an image that makes me feel smarter than the child, but it will be a truth. Nature itself offers us at one level the butterfly that evolves out of the cocoon, and at a higher level the passage through the gate of death. If I bring the child something that is truly alive in me, the child will get something from it.

We cannot state flatly that we must do things in such or such a way, for it boils down to imponderable elements, a certain soul disposition that I have as the teacher and that is the most important thing. One also needs to consider other difficulties resulting from remaining mired in banal object lessons, which become ever more impersonal: At the very age when teachers should be playing the important role of moral authority, they take themselves out of the picture. Certain things should absolutely be taught to children from a place of authority. It is impossible to transmit everything by way of an object lesson, for instance moral concepts. One cannot proceed from object lessons, nor can one proceed from rules/laws; they can only be transmitted by way of a self-evident moral authority. And it is one of the most significant experiences for later in life to have accepted something when one was eight, nine or twelve years old because a respected individual considered it right. This relation- ship to the respected individual is one of the imponderables of education. And when we turn thirty, a particular experience brings back from the deep recesses of human consciousness something one had learned long ago; I can comprehend now what I had simply accepted twenty-five years ago. This is tremendously important. It is actually the experience of something growing towards me which I had accepted in childhood. As a result, all theoretical discussions about more or less “observation” are  futile. Things must come from the objects themselves.

Similarly discussions about thinking are also not very important or appropriate. The important thing is that teachers should be assigned to the right place, that human beings assembled in a school organization should be brought together in the right way. This should be our true goal. Curricula and anything else that can be reduced to paragraphs are useless in real life—and education is real life. For if you put together in a room three, or six, or twelve people independently of their predecessors, social origin, or prior education, they will be able to design on paper an ideally beautiful curriculum. Whenever we think up a curriculum this way, paragraph-by-paragraph, it can turn out inordinately beautiful and grand; it can contain the most wonderful things. Yet this is not the issue. The issue is that within the school, which has a certain number of teachers, life should be really alive; each of these teachers has particular capacities, and this is the concrete reality with which one must work. What good is it for a teacher to look and decide: such and such is my “teaching goal”? That is a pure abstraction. The real issue is what the teacher can be for the children as an individual with a particular stance in the world.

The “school-problem” in our time is primarily a “teacher-problem” and all questions about details, for instance, the question about the object lesson should be treated from this point of view. To put it bluntly, can one teach children through object lessons? I must say I feel a sense of silent dread when I see the tortures (children are subjected to) with calculators in a classroom, or when I see material being made into object lessons, material which really should be approached quite differently. If one simply keeps doing nothing but object lessons, one ends up with awkward children, and I say this based on observation. It has nothing to do with phenomenology or phenomenalism; if we truly want to teach phenomenalism we first need to know how to think. Schools are about pedagogical methods, not about scientific method. But we need to know how close the relationship is between sound thinking and not just the brain and the person’s head, but also the whole person. How a person learned to think has a lot to do with that person’s manual skills. For we really do think with our entire body. Nowadays people believe that we think with the nervous system, when in fact we think with the entire organism. And the reverse is also true. If one is able to give a child, in a natural way, quick and ready thinking and to some extent presence of mind, one is supporting (working for) physical agility, and if one drives this thought-nimbleness into the body, the children’s physical agility  is in turn strengthened.

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