Body, Soul and Spirit in Waldorf Education
VIII. The Waldorf School
30 December 1921, Stuttgart
Looking back at the past several meetings of this conference, I feel it is necessary to digress a little from our planned program and tell you something about the practical aspects of Waldorf education. From what you have heard so far, you may have gathered that the key to this form of education, both in its curriculum and in its methods, is the understanding of the human constitution of body, soul, and spirit as it develops throughout life. In order to follow this principle, it was necessary to take a new look at education in general, with the result that the Waldorf school is, in many ways, run very differently from traditional schools.
The first point we had to consider was how to make the most of the available time for teaching, especially in regard to the development of the student’s soul life. The usual practice is to split up the available time into many separate lessons, but this method does not bring enough depth and focus to the various subjects. For example, suppose you want to bring something to your students that will have lasting value for them, something they can take into later life. I will use the example of a subject taught in almost every school: history. Imagine that you want to introduce the era of Queen Elizabeth I, including the main events and people usually described to children. A teacher could do this by talking about the facts of that historical period in history lessons, and it might take, say, half a year. But you can also do this in a different way. After methodical preparation at home, a teacher can cultivate within a fine feeling for the salient facts, which then become a kind of framework for this period. The teacher allows these to work upon the soul, thus enabling the students to remember them without much difficulty. All additional material will then fall into place more or less naturally. If one masters the subject in this way, we can say without exaggerating that, in only three to four lessons, it is quite possible to give students something that might otherwise take half a year, and even in greater depth so that the students retain a lasting impression of the subject.
If you do a detailed survey of all that children are supposed to learn in school today, you will agree with the method I just described. In our present state of civilization, what our children are supposed to learn by the age of fourteen is such an accumulation of material that it is really beyond their capacity to absorb it all. No school is truly successful in teaching this much, but this fact is usually ignored. People merely pretend that the present system works, and the curricula are set accordingly.
The aim of Waldorf education is to arrange all of the teaching so that within the shortest possible time the maximum amount of material can be presented to students by the simplest means possible. This helps children retain an overall view of their subjects — not so much intellectually, but very much in their feeling life.
It is obvious that such a method makes tremendous demands on teachers. I am convinced that, if teachers apply this method (which I would call a form of teaching based on “soul economy”), they will have to spend at least two or three hours of concentrated preparation for each half hour they teach. And they must be willing to do this if they want to avoid harming their students. Such preparation may not always be practical or possible, but if the teacher wants to succeed in carrying a comprehensive and living presentation of the subject into the classroom, such private preparation is fundamental. It does make great demands on teachers, but such obligations are intrinsic to this calling and must be accepted in the best way possible.
Before we could practice this basic educational principle in our newly established Waldorf school, it was necessary to create a suitable curriculum and a schedule. Today I would like to outline this curriculum and its application, but without going into details, since this will be our task during the coming days.
And so, having prepared themselves as just described, the teachers enter the school in the morning. The students arrive a little earlier in the summer, at eight o’clock, and a little later in the winter. When they assemble in their classrooms, the teachers bring them together by saying a morning verse in chorus with the whole class. This verse, which could also be sung, embraces both a general human and a religious element, and it unites the students in a mood of prayer. It may be followed by a genuine prayer. In our “free” Waldorf school, such details are left entirely up to each teacher.
Then begins our so-called main lesson, which lasts nearly two hours; in traditional schedules, these are often broken up into smaller periods. But the principle of soul economy in teaching makes it necessary to alter the conventional schedule. Thus, during the first two hours of the morning, students are taught the same subject in “block” periods, each lasting four to six weeks. It is left to the class teacher to introduce a short break during the main lesson, which is essential in the younger classes. In this way, subjects like geography or arithmetic are taught for four to six weeks at a time. After that, another main lesson subject is studied, again for a block period, rather than as shorter lessons given at regular intervals through the year.
Thus one introduces the various main lesson subjects according to the principles we agreed on, which include a carefully planned economy of the children’s soul life. At all costs, one must avoid too much stress on the mind and soul of the child. Children should never feel that lessons are too difficult; on the contrary, there should be a longing in the child to keep moving from one step to the next. Students should never experience an arbitrary break in a subject; one thing should always lead to another. During the four to six weeks of a main lesson block, the class teacher will always try to present the material as a complete chapter — an artistic whole — that children can take into later life. And it goes without saying that, toward the end of the school year before the approaching summer holidays, all the main lesson subjects taught during the year should be woven together into a short, artistic recapitulation.
Just as we provide children with clothing with enough room for their limbs to grow freely, as teachers we should respond to their inner needs by giving them material not just for their present stage but broad enough for further expansion. If we give children fixed and finished concepts, we do not allow for inner growth and maturing. Therefore all the concepts we introduce, all the feelings we invoke, and all will impulses we give must be treated with the same care and foresight we use to clothe our children. We should not expect them to remember abstract definitions for the rest of their lives. At the age of forty-five, your little finger will not be the same as it was when you were eight, and likewise, concepts introduced at the age of eight should not remain unchanged by the time students reach the age of forty-five. We must approach the child’s organism so that the various members can grow and expand. We must not clothe our material in fixed and stiff forms so that, when our students reach forty-five, they remember it exactly as it was presented in their eighth or ninth year. This, however, is possible only if we present our subject with what I call “soul economy.” During the remaining hours of the morning, the other lessons are taught, and here foreign languages play the most important part. They are introduced in grade one, when the children first enter the Waldorf school in their sixth and seventh year. Foreign languages are presented so that the children can really go into them, which means that, while teaching a language, the teacher tries to avoid using the children’s native language.
The foreign language teacher naturally has to take into account that the students are older than they were when they first learned their own language and will arrange the lessons accordingly. This is essential to keep in harmony with the student’s age and development. The children should be able to get into the language so that they do not inwardly translate from their native tongue into the foreign language whenever they want to say something. Jumping from one language to the other should be avoided at all costs. If, for example, you want to introduce a particular word such as table or window, you would not mention the corresponding word in the child’s native language but indicate the object while saying the word clearly. Thus children learn the new language directly before learning to translate words, which might not be desirable at all. We have found that, during the early stages, if we avoid the usual grammar and all that this entails, children find their way into a new language in a natural and living way. More details will be given when we speak about the various ages, but for now I wanted to give you a general picture of the practical arrangements in the Waldorf school.
Another very important subject for this stage is handwork, which includes several crafts. Because the Waldorf school is coeducational, boys and girls share these lessons, and it is indeed a heart-warming sight to see the young boys and girls busy together engaged in knitting, crocheting, and similar activities. Experience shows that, although boys have a different relationship to knitting than do girls, they enjoy it and benefit from such activity. Working together this way has certainly helped in the general development of all the students. In craft lessons that involve heavier physical work, girls also participate fully. This is the way manual skills are developed and nurtured in our school.
Another subject taught during morning sessions could be called “worldview.” Please understand that a Waldorf school — or any school that might spring from the anthroposophic movement — would never wish to teach anthroposophy as it exists today. I would consider this the worst thing we could do. Anthroposophy in its present form is a subject for adults and, as you can see from the color of their hair, often quite mature adults. Consequently, spiritual science is presented through literature and word of mouth in a form appropriate only to adults. I should consider the presentation to students of anything from my books Theosophy or How to Know Higher Worlds the worst possible use of this material; it simply must not happen. If we taught such material, which is totally unsuitable for schoolchildren (forgive a somewhat trivial expression used in German), we would make them want “to jump out of their skin.” Naturally, in class lessons they would have to submit to whatever the teacher brings, but inwardly they would experience such an urge. Anthroposophy as such is not to be taught in a Waldorf school. It’s important that spiritual science does not become mere theory or a worldview based on certain ideas; rather, it should become a way of life, involving the entire human being. Thus, when teachers who are anthroposophists enter school, they should have developed themselves so that they are multifaceted and skillful in the art of education. And it is this achievement that is important, not any desire to bring anthroposophy to your students.
Waldorf education is meant to be pragmatic. It is meant to be a place where anthroposophic knowledge is applied in a practical way. If you have made such a worldview your own and linked it to practical life, you will not become theoretical and alienated from life but a skilled and capable person. I do not mean to say that all members of the anthroposophic movement have actually reached these goals — far from it. I happen to know that there are still some men among our members who cannot even sew on a trouser button that fell off. And no one suffering from such a shortcoming could be considered a full human being. Above all, there are still members who do not fully accept the contention that you cannot be a real philosopher if you cannot apply your hands to anything — such as repairing your shoes — if the need arises. This may sound a bit exaggerated, but I hope you know what I am trying to say.
Those who must deal with theoretical work should place themselves within practical life even more firmly than those who happen to be tailors, cobblers, or engineers. In my opinion, imparting theoretical knowledge is acceptable only when the other person is well versed in the practical matters of life; otherwise, such ideas remain alien to life. By approaching the classroom through anthroposophic knowledge, teachers as artists should develop the ability to find the right solutions to the needs of the children. If teachers carry such an attitude into the classroom, together with the fruits of their endeavors, they will also be guided in particular situations by a sound pedagogical instinct. This, however, is seldom the case in the conventional education today.
Please do not mistake these remarks as criticism against any teachers. Those who belong to the teaching profession will be the first to experience the truth of what has been said. In their own limitations, they may well feel they are the victims of prevailing conditions. The mere fact that they themselves had to suffer the martyrdom of a high school education may be enough to prevent them from breaking through many great hindrances. The most important thing while teaching is the ability to meet constantly changing classroom situations that arise from the immediate responses of one’s students. But who in this wide world trains teachers to do that? Are they not trained to decide ahead of time what they will teach? This often gives me the impression that children are not considered at all during educational deliberations. Such an attitude is like turning students into papier-mâché masks as they enter school, so that teachers can deal with masks instead of real children.
As mentioned before, it is not our goal to teach ideology in the Waldorf school, though such a thought might easily occur to people when hearing that anthroposophists have established a new school. Our goal is to carry our understanding gained through spiritual science right into practical teaching.
This is why I was willing to hand over the responsibility for religion lessons to those who represent the various religions. Religion, after all, is at the very core of a person’s worldview. Consequently, in our Waldorf school, a Roman Catholic priest was asked to give Roman Catholic religion lessons to students of that denomination, and a Protestant minister teaches Protestant religion lessons. When this decision was made, we were not afraid that we would be unable to balance any outer influence brought into the school by these priests, influence that might not be in harmony with what we were trying to do. But then a somewhat unexpected situation arose. When our friend Emil Molt established the Waldorf school, most of our students were from the homes of workers at his factory. Among them were many children whose parents are atheists, and if they had been sent to another school, they would not have received religious instruction at all. As such things often happen when dealing with children and parents, gradually these children also wanted to receive some form of religion lessons. And this is how our free, non-denominational, religion lessons came about. These were given by our own teachers, just as the other religious lessons were given by ministers. The teachers were recognized by us as religious teachers in the Waldorf curriculum. Thus, anthroposophic religious lessons were introduced in our school. These lessons have come to mean a great deal to many of our students, especially the factory workers’ children.
However, all this brought specific problems in its wake, because anthroposophy is for adults. If, therefore, teachers want to bring the right material into anthroposophic religious lessons, they must recreate it fresh, and this is no easy task. It means reshaping and transforming anthroposophic material to make it suitable for the various age groups. In fact, this task of changing a modern philosophy to suit young people occupies us a great deal. It means working deeply on fundamental issues, such as how the use of certain symbols might affect students, or how one deals with the imponderables inherent in such a situation. We will speak more about this later on.
I am sure you can appreciate that one has to make all kinds of compromises in a school that tries to base its curriculum on the needs of growing children in the light of a spiritual scientific knowledge of the human being. Today it would be quite impossible to teach children according to abstract educational ideas, subsequently called the “principles of Waldorf education.” The result of such a misguided approach would be that our graduates would be unable to find their way into life. It is too easy to criticize life today. Most people meet unpleasant aspects of life every day and we are easily tempted to make clever suggestions about how to put the world in order. But it completely inappropriate to educate children so that, when they leave school to enter life, they can only criticize the senselessness of what they find. However imperfect life may be according to abstract reason, we must nevertheless be able to play our full part in it. Waldorf students — who have probably been treated more as individuals than is usually the case — have to be sent out into life; otherwise, having a Waldorf school makes no sense at all. Students must not become estranged from contemporary life to the extent that they can only criticize what they meet outside.
This I can only touch on here. From the very beginning, we had to make the most varied compromises, even in our curriculum and pedagogical goals. As soon as the school was founded, I sent a memorandum to the educational authorities and requested that our students be taught according to the principles of Waldorf education, from the sixth or seventh year until the completion of their ninth year, or the end of the third class, without any outside interference. I meant that the planning of the curriculum and the standards to be achieved, as well as the teaching methods, were to be left entirely in the hands of our teaching staff, the “college of teachers,” which would bear the ultimate responsibility for the running of the school.
In my letter to the authorities, I stated that, on completion of the third school year, our students would have reached the same standards of basic education as those achieved in other schools, and thus would be able to change schools without difficulty. This implies that a child with a broader educational background than the students in this new class will nevertheless be able to fit into any new surroundings, and that such a student will not have lost touch with life in general. For us, it is not only important that teachers know their students well, but that there is also a corresponding relationship between the entire body of teachers and all the students of the school, so that students will feel free to contact any teacher for guidance or advice. It is a real joy, every time one enters the Waldorf school, to see how friendly and trusting the students are, not only with their class teachers but with all the teachers, both in and out of class.
Similarly, I said that our teaching between the end of the ninth and twelfth years — from the end of class three to the end of class six — is intended to achieve standards comparable with those of other schools and that our students would be able to enter seventh grade in another school without falling behind. We do not wish to be fanatical and, therefore, we had to make compromises. Waldorf teachers must always be willing to cope with the practical problems of life. And if a student has to leave our school at the age of fourteen, there should be no problems when entering a high school or any other school leading to a university entrance examination. So we try to put into practice what has been described.
Now, having established our school through the age of fourteen, every year we are adding a new class, so that we will eventually be able to offer the full range of secondary education leading to higher education. This means that we have to plan our curriculum so that young people will be able to take their graduation exams. In Austria, this exam is called a “maturity exam,” in Germany Abitur, and other countries have other names. In any case, our students are given the possibility of entering other schools of higher education. There is still no possibility that we will open a vocational school or university. Whatever we might try to do in this way would always bear the stamp of a private initiative, and, because we should never want to hold official examinations, no government would grant us permission to issue certificates of education without test results. Thus, we are forced to compromise in our Waldorf plan, and we are perfectly willing to acknowledge this. What matters is that, despite all the compromises, a genuine Waldorf spirit lives in our teaching, and this as much as possible.
Because we wanted a complete junior school when we opened our Waldorf school, we had to receive some students from other schools, and this gave us plenty of opportunity to witness the fruits of the “strict discipline” that characterizes other schools. At this point, we have a little more than two years of “Waldorf discipline” behind us, which, to a large extent, consists of our trying to get rid of the ordinary sort of school discipline. For example, just a few weeks ago we laid the foundation stone for a larger school building; until now, we have had to make do with provisional classrooms. To my mind, it seemed right that all our children would take part in this stone-laying ceremony. And, as so often happens in life, things took a little longer than anticipated, and by the time we were just getting ready for the actual ceremony, our students were already in the building. First I had to meet teachers and several others, but the children were there already. The adults had to meet in our so-called staff room. What could we to do with all those children? The chair of the college of teachers simply said, “We’ll send them back to their classrooms. They have now reached a stage where we can leave them unattended without bad consequences. They won’t disturb us.”
So, despite the dubious “discipline” imported from other schools, and despite having rid ourselves of so-called school discipline, it was possible to send the students to their classrooms without any disturbance. Admittedly, this peace was somewhat ephemeral; overly sensitive ears might have been offended, but that did not matter. Children who disturb overly sensitive ears are usually not overly disciplined. At any rate, the effects of imponderables in the Waldorf school became apparent in the children’s good behavior under these unusual circumstances.
As you know, various kinds of punishments are administered in most schools, and we, too, had to find ways to deal with this problem. When we discussed the question of punishment in one of our teacher meetings, one of our teachers reported an interesting incident. He had tried to discover the effects of certain forms of punishment on his students. His students had experienced our kind of discipline for some time, and among them there were a few notorious rascals. These little good-fornothings (as such students are called in Germany) had done very poor work, and they were to be punished according to usual school discipline and given detention. They were told to stay after lessons to do their arithmetic properly. However, when this punishment was announced in class, the other students protested that they, too, wanted to stay and do extra arithmetic because it is so much fun. So you see, the concept of punishment had gone through a complete transformation; it had become something the whole class enjoyed. Such things rarely happen if teachers try to make them happen directly, but they become the natural consequences of the right approach.
I am well aware that the problem of school discipline occupies many minds today. I had the opportunity to closely observe the importance of the relationship between a teacher and his students, a relationship that is the natural outcome of the disposition of both teacher and students. One could go so far as to say that whether students profit from their lessons or how much they gain depends on whether the teacher evokes sympathy or antipathy in the students. It is absolutely open to discussion whether an easygoing teacher — one who does not even work according to proper educational principles — may be more effective than a teacher who, intent on following perfectly sound but abstract principles, is unable to practice them in the classroom. There are plenty of abstract principles around these days. I am not being sarcastic when I call them clever and ingenious; their merits can be argued. But even when slovenly and indolent teachers enter the classroom, if they nevertheless radiate warmth and affection for their students, they may give their students more for later life than would a highly principled teacher whose personality evokes antipathy. Although the students of a genial but untidy teacher are not likely to grow into models of orderliness, at least they will not suffer from “nervous” conditions later on in life. Nervousness can be the result of antipathy toward a teacher — even one using excellent educational methods — who is unable to establish the right kind of contact with the students.
Such points are open to discussion, and they should be discussed if we take the art of education seriously. I once had to participate in a case like this, and my decision may evoke strong disapproval among some people. During one of my visits to the Waldorf school, I was told of a boy in one of the classes who was causing great difficulties. He had committed all kinds of misdemeanors, and none of his teachers could deal with him. I asked for the boy to be sent to me, because first I wanted to find the root of the trouble. You will admit that in many other schools such a boy would have received corporal punishment or possibly something less drastic. I examined the boy carefully and concluded that he should be moved into the next class above. This was to be his punishment, and I have not heard any complaints since. His new class teacher confirmed that the boy has become a model student and that everything seems to be in order now. This, after all, is what really matters. The important thing is that one goes into the very soul and nature of such a child. The cause of the trouble was that there was no human contact between him and his teacher, and because he was intelligent enough to cope with the work of the next class (there was no comparable class in his case), the only right thing was to move him up. Had we put him down into the next lower class, we would have ruined that child.
If one bears in mind the well-being and inner development of a child, one finds the right way teaching. This is why it is good to look at specific and symptomatic cases. We have no intention of denying that, in many ways, the Waldorf school is built on compromise, but as far as it is humanly possible, we always try to educate from a real knowledge of the human being.
Let us return to the curriculum. The morning sessions are arranged as described. Because it is essential for our students to be able to move on to higher forms of education, we had to include other subjects such as Greek and Latin, which are also taught in morning lessons. In these ancient languages soul economy is of particular importance. The afternoon lessons are given over to more physical activities, such as gym and eurythmy, and to artistic work, which plays a very special part in a Waldorf school. I will give further details of this in the coming days. We try, as much as possible, to teach the more intellectual subjects in the morning, and only when the headwork is done are they given movement lessons, insofar as they have not let off steam already between morning lessons. However, after the movement lessons they are not taken back to the classroom to do more headwork. I have already said that this has a destructive effect on life, because while children are moving physically, suprasensory forces work through them subconsciously. And the head, having surrendered to physical movement, is no longer in a position to resume its work. It is therefore a mistake to think that, by sandwiching a gym lesson between other more intellectual lessons, we are providing a beneficial change. The homogeneous character of both morning and afternoon sessions has shown itself beneficial to the general development of the students. If we keep in mind the characteristic features of human nature, we will serve the human inclinations best.
I mentioned that we found it necessary to give some kind of anthroposophic religious lessons to our students. Soon afterward, arising from those lessons, we felt another need that led to the introduction of Sunday services for our students. This service has the quality of formal worship, in which the children participate with deep religious feelings. We have found that a ritual performed before the children’s eyes every Sunday morning has greatly deepened their religious experience.
The Sunday service had to be enlarged for the sake of the students who were about to leave our middle school. In Germany, it is customary for students of this age to be confirmed in a special ceremony that signifies the stage of maturity at which they are old enough to enter life. We have made arrangements for a similar ceremony that, as experience has shown, leaves a lasting impression on our students.
In any education based on knowledge of the human being, needs become apparent that may have gone unnoticed in more traditional forms of education. For instance, in Germany all students receive school reports at the end of each school year, because it is considered essential to give them something like this before they leave for summer holidays. In this case, too, we felt the need for innovation. I have to admit that I would find it extremely difficult to accept the usual form of school reports in a Waldorf school, simply because I could never appreciate the difference between “satisfactory” and “near-satisfactory,” or between “fair” and “fairly good,” and so on. These grades are then converted into numbers, so that in Germany some reports show the various subjects arranged in one column, and on the opposite side there is a column of figures, such as 4½, 3, 3–4, and so on. I have never been able to develop the necessary understanding for these somewhat occult relationships. So we decided to find other ways of writing our school reports.
When our students leave for holidays at the end of the school year, they do receive reports. They contain a kind of mirror image, or biography, of their progress during the year, which has been written by their class teachers. We have found again and again that our children accept these reports with inner approval. They can read about the impression they have created during the years, and they will feel that, although the description was written with sympathetic understanding, they do not tolerate any whitewashing of the less positive aspects of their work. These reports, which are received with deep inner satisfaction, end with a verse, composed especially for each child. This verse is a kind of guiding motive for the coming years. I believe our kind of reports have already proved themselves and will retain their value in the future, even though in some parts of Germany they have already been referred to as “ersatz” reports.
Students have responded to life in the Waldorf school in an entirely positive way. To show how much they like their school, I should like to repeat something I recently heard from one of our mothers, for such an example helps to illustrate more general symptoms. She said, “My boy was never an affectionate child. He never showed any tender feelings toward me as his mother. After his first year in the Waldorf school — while still quite young — his summer holidays began. When they were nearly over and I told him that soon he would be going to school again, he came and kissed me for the first time.” Such a small anecdote could be considered symptomatic of the effects of an education based on knowledge of the human being and practiced in a human and friendly atmosphere. Our school reports also help to contribute towards this atmosphere. As an introduction to life in the Waldorf school, I felt it necessary to digress a little from our planned program. Tomorrow we shall continue with a more detailed account of the child’s development after the change of teeth. Meanwhile, I wanted to include here a description of what by now has become the outer framework of practical life in the Waldorf school.