From image to concept in lower and middle school

Stefan Grosse

A king and queen who had remained childless for a long time finally had their dearest wish for an heir fulfilled. The queen, however, did not want to accept her child, having given birth to a donkey. But the child remained at court and, despite his big hoofs, learned to play the lute exquisitely. On one occasion, looking into the water of a well, he saw his image and, shocked by what he saw, left the court and his home. He gained admittance at another court through the beauty of his music and finally married the king’s daughter. At night he was able to shed his donkey skin and show his true human form. The old king threw the animal skin into the fire so that the king’s son also had to reveal his night-time shape in the day.

Transforming what they hear into pictures of the imagination, the class 1 pupil immerses themselves in the pictorial world of such a fairy tale in inner activity. The pictures become a reality behind which the external world has to recede. The images posses great power, they are awakening and enlivening and lead to the rich and differentiated development of the mind. In the process, the child themselves determines what they take in of the story and the weight they give to it, what they follow with particular concentration or where they don’t pay so much attention. They can therefore connect with the content in the way appropriate for them.

The fairy tale freely rendered here creates the barely to be articulated intimation of a concept of the human being: it contains animal elements. A hidden strength drives the king’s son to overcome the obstacles placed in his path and learn a skill. Painful self-knowledge drives him away from the ties of his origins. He strives for higher soul forces in the form of the king’s daughter and ultimately has to reveal his hidden higher self permanently through the intervention of the king. That the conceptual side is still completely wrapped in images at this age corresponds to the being of the child. Yet it is nevertheless effective precisely because it is hidden.

Images are not fatiguing

The situation changes when it comes to learning the letters of the alphabet. Here the connection between image and concept is specifically directed at learning a skill: Hans holds the golden goose under his arm and everyone who touches it out of unconstrained curiosity or greed remains stuck to it. Finally the goose looks round at all the people who can no longer get away.

This image is held on to and leads in an abstraction process to the capital letter “G”. The inner activity of listening and producing pictures in the imagination is joined by an outer activity: transferring the inner picture on to a piece of paper. In a further step the shape of the letter emerges from the picture. In this way, learning to write is tied to the mind and free artistic activity, not to memorising and neither to the mechanical copying of a form which corresponds little, if at all, to the child’s own aesthetic feeling. Pictures in the lower grades are particularly warm-hearted and push the concepts far into the background. This keeps changing constantly until class 8, whose pictures already clearly let the implicit concepts shine through. Fundamentally, it is desirable to depict the content of the class teacher period as far as possible pictorially. It does not mean that we should lose ourselves in telling stories! Good teaching makes use of the image as a means of expression in a concentrated and memorable way.

Pupils are able to follow such a way of presentation with concentration without tiring, whereas abstract presentations overburdened with concepts lead to restlessness and loss of concentration. Images such as we have discussed here are multi-layered, variable, open to interpretation, encourage the intuition, cannot be completely interpreted and to that extent always leave something open. Concepts, in contrast, are precise and can be framed more or less conclusively in a definition. That, on the one hand, is their benefit; on the other, it is their problem. Because they no longer contain anything mysterious and are thus in danger of ossifying. They are good to memorise and, in their unchangeable form, to slot in precisely like a piece of Lego. Because of these characteristics, they are less suitable for the early years of school. They lead the child out of their dreaming experience of the world at too early a stage.

Concepts that grow

The curriculum provides the opportunity in many instances to use similar images in different classes and situations, relate them to one another and let them be experienced in a different quality each time. It is precisely the establishment of relationships across several classes which gives the development of consciousness and judgement depth and differentiation, leading in the end to the kind of concept which is not squeezed into narrow definitions but is complex and living.

Rudolf Steiner refers in The Foundations of Human Experience to concepts that keep growing with the person; he means by this that the concepts which underlie images can continue to develop as the power of judgement of the child grows. This happens above all when they are called up repeatedly in different grades. In the intervening phases of latency they continue to grow and und return to consciousness in an enriched form

A lamb was drinking from a river when downstream a wolf accused it of dirtying his water. It should further remember, the wolf continued, that a year ago, the lamb’s father had insulted the wolf. When the lamb fearfully ventured to disagree, the wolf countered that its words were disrespectful and showed the hatred of sheep for the wolf’s kind. The lamb would now have to atone for this and the crimes of its forebears. The town of Gubbio was put in fear and terror by a wild wolf. St Francis of Assisi went to the wolf fearless and unarmed, vanquished it with the sign of the cross and promised the wolf that he would make sure that it had enough to eat if it left the people in peace.

Two images of the wolf from class 2. In the fable, the unpurified soul is described in the form and behaviour of animals; in the saint’s legend, the purified soul is described which can govern these soul forces. In the course of describing the settling of humans in class 5, the domestication of the wolf is recounted which, as a domestic animal, now becomes the guardian of its original prey. What in a previous grade was an image for a soul process now becomes a historical event. In the course of this process, the previous images resonate and augment the feelings about the size of the task which is to master the animal in such a way that it no longer eats its natural prey but protects it.

Learning to see

In the physics main lesson in class 6, Chladni’s figures provide impressive images of a new quality: fine sand or powder is spread on a metal plate which is then made to vibrate by drawing a violin bow vertically along the side. The sand or powder on the vibrating plate then form a regular geometric pattern. A picture has been created. What we see is the action of the physical forces which live in sound. The complex relationship reflected in laws of nature – concepts – becomes visible in an image and open to understanding, additionally leaving an aesthetic impression of the beauty of the shapes. The picture has created a depth which could not have arisen in this way through the pure interpretation of the laws of nature in formulae and concepts.

Geometry reveals a special relationship between image and concept: here we can “see” the concept, it becomes graphic. In the diagram we can see that like removed from like must produce like, namely the non-congruent rectangles a and b which are equal in area.

The proof is simply what our eyes can be guided or trained to see put into words, the thought is evident in the image.

Experiencing cause and effect

The following examples from history lesson in class 7 can further illustrate the developing relationship between image and concept:

The Portuguese Infante Henry the Navigator increased the seaworthiness of the ships of his time with numerous small technical improvements as well as having the captains of the Crown trained at nautical schools in navigation, logbook keeping and cartography. His instruction to them was to sail southwards down the west coast of Africa in sight of land and to map it. In this way the Portuguese rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1488. The process is empirical and, if you like, relatively terrestrial. There is no need for a concept of the shape of the earth; rather, we trust our eyes, progress step by step and can abandon the voyage at any time. There is no real point of no return.

Four years after the discovery of the Cape of Good Hope, Christopher Columbus set out to discover India. He had a clear concept of the spherical shape of the earth. He left the secure line of the land and sailed into the void of the unknown ocean. The only security he possessed was an idea. Both Henry the Navigator and Columbus provide key pictures of a radical change in order to enter a new age. Relying wholly on ideas and then having them confirmed by reality  (Columbus) as well as the use of a trial-and-error research process (Henry the Navigator) are the two methods with which the world was conquered in the modern age.

Two nineteenth century men markedly shaped the consciousness and history of the twentieth century with their ideas: Karl Marx and Charles Darwin; we can use them as an example for dealing with the topic in class 8.

Karl Marx, a restless and productive intellect, who, always in revolt, was driven through half of Europe as an itinerant, finally ending up being tolerated ill and destitute as an exile in north London. It is only through the constant financial support of his friend Friedrich Engels that he can somehow manage to keep going. He analysed the social upheavals of his time very precisely and on this basis developed the idea of the perpetual conflict between the classes as the motor of history. The force that shaped society was conflict.

Charles Darwin, who as a child loved to roam through nature observing it in detail, was intended to become a doctor like his father. When blood flowed in the first surgical operation he attended, he fainted. He had to change subject and studied theology in the absence of any better alternative. Shortly after he concluded his studies, he was invited to join a five-year circumnavigation of the earth as a naturalist. With great diligence he recorded innumerable data, kept making significant observations and gathered a huge collection of specimens. After he returned home, he married his cousin and lived with his family in a small village in southern England which he hardly ever left again until his death. In the quiet of his study he evaluated the records and samples from his research trip and came to the conclusion that development in the realms of nature occurred through a continuous struggle for survival.

Twice the same thought in different fields of life, once in nature, once in society: struggle as the shaping force, a force which has elimination at its heart. It set a mechanism in motion which, the claims was, created our natural and societal world. In the sciences, Darwin’s idea leads to a strongly mechanistically shaped and ultimately reductionist image of nature and human beings; and the ideas of Karl Marx are reflected in the communist state and social systems which as they unfold are among the triggers of two world wars.

When the Darwinian idea of natural selection starts working in racist thought as the shaping force in the social sphere, an unholy alliance comes about which unfolds its destructive power not just in 1933 but much earlier already in the Balkan crisis preceding the First World War; it also comes to the fore for example in the ideology of the Young Turks and their treatment of the Armenians.

The images are created here primarily through the biographies of Marx and Darwin. But in the higher classes in middle school the ideas increasingly emerge. A curious aura surrounds the biographies of these two men. We see them sitting at their desks, developing their thoughts. But then it is as if these ideas are knocked out of their hands to unfold a no longer controllable historical dynamic of their own. From these images we can vividly derive the conditions and consequences in the historical and social events of a whole century.

From exploration through reflection to abstraction

The exploratory phase in lower school is followed in middle school by the phase of reflection. In the abstraction phase in upper school the task consists of developing the concepts in their purity. Lower school leads to an experience – as comprehensive as possible – of the world through activity and the development of the mind through living ideas. Middle school makes reference to these experiences but now they are reflected upon in a larger context of ideas.

The following example can illustrate this: in class 3, the children produce clay bricks and build a small structure. In class 5, they hear in history lessons about the ziggurat buildings of the Mesopotamians. It is the task of upper school to develop a concept of the settlement of humanity and the high cultures which built on this form of living.

In this respect lower and middle school lay the foundations in two stages which then have to be explained abstractly in upper school. Many such explanations, based on the images in the lower classes, finally lead to the complex concept of the human being. “You must not give them [the children] dead concepts about life in detail, dead concepts which should not persist; you will have to give them living concepts about life and the world in detail which continue to develop organically together with them. But you will have to relate everything to the human being. Ultimately everything will have to flow together in the child’s comprehension in the idea of the human being ... But the concept of the human being should only be developed gradually, you cannot teach the child a finished concept of the human being. But once it has been developed, then it can remain. Indeed, it is one of the best things you can give the child to take into later life, an idea of the human being which is as many-sided possible and contains as much as possible” (Rudolf Steiner, GA 293).

About the author: Stefan Grosse has been a class teacher and teacher of free religion lessons at the Esslingen Free Waldorf School since 1984. Member of the international and German religion teacher panel. Since 2014 board member of the German Association of Waldorf Schools.