Education and sleep

Christof Wiechert

Sleep disturbances in early childhood have a negative effect on the development of the brain and increase the possibility of the occurrence of ADHD by a factor of three. Sleep disturbances refer to a chronic lack of sleep, disturbed sleep or sleep onset disorders, for example as the result of sensory overstimulation. Regular science today also refers to the beneficial effect of a bedtime ritual for every child. A lovely task for parents. As early as the introduction to his Waldorf educational anthropology Rudolf Steiner points to two basic facts which provide the foundation for every reasonable education system: breathing and sleeping. 

With regard to the latter he says succinctly: “The child cannot take everything ... they see with their eyes, hear with their ears, do with their little hands, the way they kick their little legs … into the spiritual world and process it there and then take the result of that work back to the physical plane. Their sleep is characterised precisely by the fact that it is different from the sleep of adults.”

A fact which has been thoroughly researched today: the experiences of the day are processed in sleep during the night. What has been learned during the day is anchored in the declarative memory (knowledge that can be consciously recalled) and the experiences are then transferred to the procedural memory where they become skills. That is what we hope happens in pupils and expect in adults.

As long ago as 1924 Steiner described how with the proper teaching of arithmetic the child continued to develop their arithmetical abilities in sleep and could do more the next day than on the previous one. With the knowledge we have today such a statement by no means appears strange.

No main lessons without sleep

How does the art of education developed by Steiner integrate sleep into teaching practice? We might well say that he has a significant number of inventions to his name. We need only think of eurythmy, biodynamic agriculture, the extension of medicine, of the important inspiration of the threefold nature of the human being and the social organism. But there are also a number of “smaller” inventions which are barely acknowledged as such.

Main lessons for example. A truly inspired idea of which we might well ask why it has still not been taken up by mainstream education. The amazing thing about main lessons is that pupils have the opportunity over a number of weeks to work on the same subject during the first two hours of the day. We can imagine what that means with regard to sleep, with regard to the night: tomorrow we will continue! What did we do yesterday? How did the week go? Next week we will deal with this and this.

These words alone allow us to see that the teacher who is aware of these opportunities and applies them enters a stream of time which is a stream of development. Learning becomes a pulse of waking and sleeping, a surging life like the waves at the shore. Just think of the opposite: we learn an important piece of geography – continued the following week. But by then everything has gone again which was prepared by the brain during the night from today for tomorrow. Nothing is done with it and the following week it is gone and learning remains a patchwork.

We can see from this example that the teacher has to make lessons dynamic. They have to contain a clear breathing rhythm of concentration and relaxation, of orientation and activity. Anyone who does that feels the need to create an arc between yesterday and today, between last week and today, between today and what will happen tomorrow. The learning process becomes an organism. The content of every day builds on the night time processing of what was done the previous day!

Forgetting means transformation into abilities

Much depends on how the teacher themselves stands in life. Do they see each day as a “digit” in a sea of “digits” which are therefore discrete entities without any coherence? Or does the teacher experience the waves which roll from day into night and from night into day? Do they pose a question or set a riddle before the pupils go home and ask them to bring the answer next day? Will they enquire about the experiences of the day before with genuine interest? These are questions of the inclusion of night in day. The night belongs to life like the day.

It is not for nothing that we still habitually greet our partners or colleagues in the morning with the question “Did you sleep well?” Apparently something important after all!

It is worth noting that Steiner – there are interesting studies in this respect today as well –recommends that after a main lesson what has been learnt should be forgotten for a time. Because forgetting means digesting what has been learnt, turning it into a skill.

A system of education which were to prescribe that everything has to be remembered, that all facts always have to be immediately to hand, would be a problem. But Steiner recommended bringing back everything to memory at the end of the school year in a special main lesson organised for that purpose. Such recommendations reveal the great dynamic which Steiner hoped there would be in the way that teachers taught.

There is another important reference to the action of lessons during the night. This is the so-called three-step process in which Steiner deals in a detailed way with the way that the teaching material is “incorporated” through the so-called constituent elements of the human being over several nights until it is anchored in the brain, the physical body, and how good teaching supports this process.

The pupils will not experience much of that in normal everyday school life but the insightful teacher will use precisely such teaching methodology without which there cannot be any main lessons.

We cannot deal here with the way that other teaching subjects mature through the night. Developing skills in art, for example, does not require main lessons. Foreign language teaching is open to both forms.

Going prepared into the night provides answers

Let us look at another subtle relationship between day and night, sleeping and waking.

Anyone who reflects on a problem or question at night can have the experience that they look differently at the question or problem in the morning. That is easy to say and is contained in the words: “I’ll have to sleep on it.” But the fact is that it requires intense thinking activity on the evening before if the result is to be there the next morning.

Now we apply this fact as parents to an existential question concerning our own child. We are concerned for example about the behaviour of a twelve-year-old who is not really within themselves. It may well be that nothing has happened by next morning, no new sense, no new thoughts, no unexpected feeling. The attempt is made a second or third time with the same result.

There are two possible causes for this: we do not notice in ourselves that “something else” is there, or we reflected still on other thoughts the evening before which were not part of the question. The former happens frequently: we have a new idea, a different sense but we cannot “capture” it in our mind. Like a fisherman on the high seas, we have to acquire the skill to trawl our nets through the ocean of the night and identify what is there in the morning.

The second cause is connected with the preparation for the night. Just as we ask in the morning: “How did you sleep?”, so it is an ancient habit to make a transition from day to night not just for children but also as adults. For thousands of years there has been the habit of praying as we pass into night. Why so? The prayer or meditation prepares the transition into night. Now imagine that such a structured transition carries the feeling of my question, my worry. It will work! Answers will come from the spiritual ocean of the night as thoughts, a sense of something, a feeling or also as secure knowledge of what to do next.

Parents may create such situations. We expect Waldorf teachers to do so. It is expected that they make use of this technique of soul and spirit. Qualitatively good teaching requires the inclusion of the forces of the night. Because we cannot know everything and do everything right at the first attempt. We teachers must approach the immeasurable reservoir of intuition in all seriousness and humility and ask for help at the threshold of the night. The teacher who strives for this will learn to understand and love every pupil, even the most difficult one. Then the path to effective assistance is smoothed.

Steiner gave the teachers meditations for their profession to build this bridge between here and there, between this world and the other world, between day and night.

About the author: Christof Wiechert was for many years the head of the Pedagogical Section at the Goetheanum in Dornach.