by Henry Barnes
When children relate what they learn to their own experience, they are interested and alive, and what they learn becomes their own. Waldorf schools are designed to foster this kind of learning.
Infants and young children are entirely given over to their physical surroundings; they absorb the world primarily through their senses and respond in the most active mode of knowing: imitation. Imitation is the power to identify oneself with one’s immediate environment through one’s active will. Everything – anger, love, joy, hate, intelligence, stupidity – speaks to the infant through the tone of voice, the physical touch, bodily gesture, light, darkness, color, harmony and disharmony. These influences are absorbed by the still malleable physical organism and affect the body for a lifetime.
Those concerned with the young child – parents, caregivers, nursery and kindergarten teachers – have a responsibility to create an environment that is worthy of the child’s unquestioning imitation. The environment should offer the child plenty of opportunity for meaningful imitation and for creative play. This supports the child in the central activity of these early years: the development of the physical organism. Drawing the child’s energies away from this fundamental task to meet premature intellectual demands robs the child of the health and vitality he or she will need in later life. In the end, it weakens the very powers of judgment and practical intelligence the teacher wants to encourage.
In the nursery-kindergarten, children play at cooking … they dress up and become mothers and fathers, kings and queens … they sing, paint and color. Through songs and poems they learn to enjoy language … they learn to play together, hear stories, see puppet shows, bake bread, make soup, model beeswax … and build houses out of boxes, sheets and boards. To become fully engaged in such work is the child’s best preparation for life. It builds powers of concentration, interest and a lifelong love of learning.
When children are ready to leave kindergarten and enter first grade, they are eager to explore the whole world of experience for the second time. Before, they identified with it and imitated it. Now, at a more conscious level, they are ready to know it again, by means of the imagination – that extraordinary power of human cognition – that allows us to “see” a picture, “hear” a story, and “divine” meanings within appearances.
During the elementary school years, the educator’s task is to transform all that the child needs to know about the world into the language of the imagination – a language that is as accurate and as responsive to reality as intellectual analysis is in the adult. The wealth of an earlier, less intellectual age – folk tales, legends and mythologies, which speak truth in parables and pictures – becomes the teacher’s inexhaustible treasure house. When seen through the lens of the imagination, nature, the world of numbers, mathematics, geometrical form and the practical work of the world, are food and drink to the soul of the child. The four arithmetical operations can, for instance, be introduced as characters in a drama to be acted out with temperamental gusto by first graders. Whatever speaks to the imagination and is truly felt, stirs and activates the feelings and is remembered and learned. The elementary years are the time for educating the “feeling intelligence.”
It is only after the physiological changes at puberty, which mark the virtual completion of the second great developmental phase, that imaginative learning undergoes a metamorphosis to emerge as the rational, abstract power of the intellect.
Throughout the glorious turbulence of adolescence, the personality celebrates its independence and seeks to explore the world once again in a new way. Within, the young person, the human being to whom the years of education have been directed, is quietly maturing. Eventually, the individual will emerge.
In Steiner’s view, this essential being is neither the product of inheritance nor of the environment – it is a manifestation of the spirit. The ground on which it walks and into which it sinks its roots, is the intelligence that has ripened out of the matrix of will and feeling into clear, experienced thought. In traditional wisdom, it is this being who “comes of age” around age 21 and is then ready to take up the real task of education – self-education – which distinguishes the adult from the adolescent.
The Ascending Spiral of Knowledge
The curriculum at a Waldorf school can be seen as an ascending spiral: the long lessons that begin each day, the concentrated blocks of study that focus on one subject for several weeks. As the students mature, they engage at new levels of experience with each subject. It is as though, each year they come to a window on the ascending spiral that looks out into the world through the lens of a particular subject. Through the main-lesson spiral curriculum, teachers lay the ground for a gradual vertical integration that deepens and widens each subject experience and, at the same time, keeps it moving with the other aspects of knowledge.
If the ascending spiral of the curriculum offers a “vertical integration” from year to year, an equally important “horizontal integration” enables students to engage the full range of their faculties at every stage of development. The arts and practical skills play an essential part in the educational process throughout the grades. They are not considered luxuries, but fundamental to human growth and development.
The Arts and Practical Skills
Waldorf teachers believe that the human being is not just a brain, but a being with heart and limbs – a being of will and feeling, as well as of intellect. To ensure that education does not produce one-sided individuals, crippled in emotional health and volition, these less conscious aspects of our human nature must constantly be exercised, nourished and guided. Here the arts and practical skills make their essential contribution, educating not only heart and hand but, in very real ways, the brain as well.
The sixth grader who, as part of the class study of Roman history, has acted Cassius or Calpurnia, or even Caesar himself, has not only absorbed Shakespeare’s immortal language but has learned courage, presence of mind, and what it means to work as a member of a team for a goal greater than the sum of its parts. The 9th grader who has learned to handle red-hot iron at the forge, or the senior who caps years of modeling exercises by sculpting a full human figure have, in addition to a specific skill, gained self-discipline and the knowledge of artistic form.
Students who have worked throughout their education with color and form … with tone, drama and speech … with eurythmy as an art of bodily movement … with clay, wood, fiber, metal, charcoal and ink … and, ideally, with soil and plant in a school gardening program … have not only worked creatively to activate, clarify and strengthen their emotions, but have carried thought and feeling down into the practical exercise of the will.
When the Waldorf curriculum is carried through successfully, the whole human being – head, heart and hands – has truly been educated.
About the author
Henry Barnes trained at Lincoln School of Teachers’ College and obtained a B.S. degree from Harvard in 1933. A year-and-a half before graduating, Henry’s roommate and dearest friend committed suicide. This traumatic event compelled Barnes “to begin a search for an education that could go beyond the intellect …” His search brought him to the work of Rudolf Steiner. He enrolled in the relatively new Waldorf Teacher Training Programme in Stuttgart, Germany, immediately after graduating from Harvard. Henry Barnes was a Waldorf teacher, a prolific writer, a Chairman of the Board of the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America (AWSNA) and a President of the Rudolf Steiner Educational and Farming Association in New York.
The above was extracted from an article by Henry Barnes, titled: Waldorf Education . . . An Introduction found at www.waldorflibrary.org The article originally appeared in the October 1991 issue of Educational Leadership Magazine under the title: Learning that grows with the learner – An Introduction to Waldorf Education.