A systematic rethink. Scharmer’s “Theory U” could help Waldorf education

Walther Dreher

That contains both a message and a task. As a message, it aims to encourage people to engage with metamorphosing processes. 

The task contains a pointer that something wants to enter the world, something new that wants to create enthusiasm through potentials which are yet to be discovered.

The message from the people affected

The perspective of the people affected is expressed by the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and can be summed up in these simple words: “All people have human rights. People with disability have the same rights as all other people. Wherever they are in the world.” The initiators of the Charta in the United Nations consulted people with disabilities, they were involved and it is their reality which is articulated and seen through their eyes. This is its central message and also an appeal to perceive the reality articulated in this way and “accept it as true”, as Jean Gebser has put it. The core question of inclusion is then: how can it be made possible for the individual citizen, for institutions and particularly for the academic discipline of “inclusive education” to see with new eyes the person described as having a “disability”? How openly can we, do we want to face the people affected?

Young people with disabilities themselves, for example, have expressed their views in the 2007 Lisbon Declaration. Their conclusion is: “We are the ones to build our future. We have to remove barriers inside ourselves and inside other people without disabilities. We have to grow beyond our disability – then the world will accept us in a better way.”

Early on and tirelessly, Georg Feuser demanded that the experts change their outward perspective: “It should actually be an ‘intrinsic’ educational concern to be guided by what a person can become out of his or her possibilities and not by what we see at that particular moment. ...” There are equally critical words from Hans Wocken when he asks critics of inclusion who emphasise the child’s best interests: “Who actually (knows) precisely and with certainty what the child’s best interests are in a child with disabilities?” And: “To whom do we attribute the competence ultimately to decide what is in the best interest of the child?”

What is our task?

Why is it that an education which focuses on the child, the young person, the growing adult with disabilities finds it so difficult to enter into a relationship based on participation and dialogue? Not just closing ourselves off to such a relationship and not just giving way to the sceptical attitude towards inclusion raises the question: what is our task?

Mathias Maurer gives a summary of three presentations at the thematic day on inclusion in Kassel in 2012. Their messages contain key indications with regard to inclusive thinking and the fundamental outline of its future task: for Heiner Prieß, an inclusive force is created when a reference point in the spiritual world is recognised which arises from the relationship between the special-needs teacher and the teacher as a result of their observation of the child. Florian Oswald asks directly “whether the Waldorf schools experience the idea of inclusion as an inner need or as a constraint imposed from outside” and Claus Peter Röh’s perspective is “that the Waldorf and special-needs schools are placed in an open situation the outcome of which is unknown”. What a challenge, what an opportunity!

Metaphorically, these three impulses are located in three spaces:

in a space of the spiritual world,

in an inward space

and in an open developmental space.

How can we enter these spaces, how can we – together – pass through them, into an open expanse?

Transforming the thinking

Claus Otto Scharmer’s “Theory U”, which has meanwhile become accepted in many social and economic fields, suggests transforming the thinking, giving space to the development of the heart and releasing inner intent in the self which allows new things to enter the world and create realities other than those with which we are familiar.

In the fairy tale of Mother Holle, in the scene in which the girl “in the sorrow of her heart” jumps into the well, we can discover an existential symbolism which is reflected metaphorically in “Theory U”.

“Theory U introduces processes which support groups in questioning their own positions and practices, immersing themselves in new contexts, consciously recognising their own task and uniting with it on a deep and sustained level. It allows us jointly to sense our way towards future possibilities and thus bring new things into the world as conceived from a future perspective” (Lyra).


(In accordance with: C.O. Scharmer: Theory U, Leading from the Future as It Emerges, 2007)

The process indicated by the “U arrow” runs on its downward trajectory through the cognitive spaces of downloading, seeing and sensing until it reaches its deepest point with presencing in order then on its upward trajectory to bring new things into the world through crystallising, pro­totyping  and performing. The levels to pass through and the deepening steps bring together experiences in the “U process” based on a cognitive and emotional self-encounter as is familiar to many from their personal and professional life. We are particularly familiar with the three inner voices of resistance: the Voice of Judgement (VoJ), Voice of Cynicism (VoC) and Voice of Fear (VoF).

Scharmer cites three sensoria: an Open Mind, an Open Heart und an Open Will. The coherence of the head, heart and will levels makes it possible not to get lost in restructuring the past and remaining entangled in the habits of downloading.

Clear intellectual work requires the emotional supplement of being able to perceive from the perspective of another person.

Opening the will has a cathartic effect. In passing through the turning point at the base of the U, a concealed source opens up for my higher self. Only now can I be attentive for something that wants to come.

Inclusion in this sense means more than sharing. Inclusion as a guiding principle becomes an expression and foundation of the ability to transcend the way a person has become at any given time “through the presencing of an essential possibility, the arrival of a future potential” (Scharmer 2009). “Wanting inclusion” is synonymous with this depth dimension.

And here we have a secret: the thing that wants to come is not (only) dependent on what I want but comes out of a “great, a deeper will”, as Martin Buber puts it: free human beings “must sacrifice their small will, the unfree one governed by things and drives, for a great one which moves away from being determined to determination. They no longer intervene but neither do they just let things happen. They listen to what is developing out of itself, the path of being in the world; not to be carried by it but to realise it in a way in which it desires to be realised by the one who needs it, through the human spirit and human deeds, through life on earth and death. They believe, I said; but that means: they encounter” (Scharmer 2009).

When rationality and emotionality are extended through such a space of spirituality, we can only guess at what will happen when we commit ourselves to such a path in participation with the others affected. A path of which Nicanor Perlas writes: “Theory U has a good chance of becoming one of the determining paradigms of the twenty-first century.”

At the agricultural conference in Dornach in 2011, the initiators, actors and more than 600 participants dared to take such a step and returned from the conference “laden with riches”, as the conference report illustrates. Could we analogously dare to take such a leap into the “well of inclusion”? A leap which is necessary and called for with regard to each individual, with regard to institutions and organisations up to an including the local community?

Such a leap into a “U process of inclusion” is not enforced by anybody, it is not mandatory, it is not something done to fit in with coalition building. Those who take it, do so encouraged by the power of a new transformed consciousness seeking to take form. They place their trust in a comprehensive “connectedness” (Hüther/Spannbauer). In the words of Jaworski they become mediators between the poles of “separateness without separation”, they will participate in and help to bring about what Jean Gebser describes as “integrality”, and in resurfacing they will participate in the process of creating a reality which contributes to “the establishment of a culture based on an interest in the other person” (Lievegoed). The times will change when we, and thus the times, change.

About the author: Dr. Walther Dreher held a chair in education and special needs focusing on “mental development” in the Special-Needs Faculty of Cologne University until 2006. He was its dean from 1997 to 2003.