Goethe in the classroom. Sense experience and the joy of discovery

Claus-Peter Röh

“... that lighting smells!”

The main break period has started. Surrounded by the hubbub and play of numerous children, a first class pupil stands quite still and stares pensively into the gathering clouds. When one of the teachers supervising break comes up to him, the boy says, still looking at the clouds: “There’s something brewing there.” He noticed it before anyone else. Fifteen minutes later such a powerful thunderstorm breaks that many pupils can only just reach shelter before the clouds burst. Defying the might of nature, one class 6 pupil remains standing outside. Drenched and late he enters the classroom with the words: “I didn’t know that lightning smells!” Months later, in the experiments dealing with electrical charges in the first physics main lesson, the memory of that phenomenon of “lightning that smells” is revived. We find the pleasure of a direct encounter with natural phenomena described in many different ways by Goethe:

“I am interested only in the sense impressions which we cannot obtain from any book or any picture. The thing is that I am interested in the world again, am trying out and testing my spirit of observation …” (Italian Journey). Precisely such an awakening through the phenomena of the world produces a depth of interest also in lessons which opens up new ways of looking at things and new layers of understanding. The purely conceptual understanding of relationships is corrected through perception and experience.

These two in turn stimulate new thoughts. Goethe describes this reciprocal relationship in the following words: “Anyone who subscribes to the law ... that they will examine their activity in the light of their thinking and their thinking in the light of their activity cannot go wrong, and if they do go wrong they will quickly be put back on the right path again” (Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years, book 2, chapter 9).

In conclusion of its first local history main lesson, a class 4 goes on a “great city ramble”. A new building site is blocking the way in the old town. As a digger opens up a pit, various layers of earth can be seen at its rim. Immediately one of the pupils calls out: “You can see the two places where there was a fire quite clearly!” Everyone looks at them in silence. It seems for a moment as if the fires which raged through the town with its wooden buildings in the past had flared up again. When next day the children draw that picture of the layers of earth in their lesson books, one pupil suddenly remarks: “Now I understand why the word is ‘Ge-Schichte’.” (Translator’s note: the German word for “history” (and “story”) = Geschichte. It can be divided into the two parts: “ge” which sounds like a form of the German verb gehen = ‘to go’ or ‘to walk’ and “schichte” which sounds similar to the German word for “layer” = Schicht.)

A dead body is not the whole animal

The natural history main lessons in Waldorf schools are characterised by the aim of giving the growing young people the fullest and most holistic understanding of living things. If through our narrative we succeed as educators in awakening in the pupils both veneration and respect for the life of nature as well as their joy of discovery, they later have a rich inner foundation for dealing with scientific facts so that they can see them in turn as part of a wholeness. Goethe’s outlook provides crucial methodological approaches specifically for understanding organic life in its metamorphoses. As early as 1770 he writes in a letter on butterflies: “The poor creature flutters in its net, sheds its beautiful colours; and even if we can catch it unharmed, it will nevertheless eventually end up stiff and lifeless. The dead body is not the whole animal, something is missing, a main part, ... a principal main part: life.” (Letter from Goethe of 14 July 1770).

Zoology in class 4 starts with a description of life. Here the pupils can connect with the way of life and shape of an animal through their own inner activity. The start of an essay from class 4 provides an example of such an inner connection: “During the day it hides on the seabed. Only its eyes are visible. Its back is the colour of sand. When it is hungry and a crab emerges from the stones, it does the following: the crab approaches, the squid becomes excited and its back turns all different colours. The colours ripple very fast on its back. Once the crab is within reach, the squid casts out its eight tentacles and catches the crab with its suckers. The squid consumes the crab with relish.”

If in a next step relationships are set out on the basis of the way a creature lives, it directly makes sense to call the squid a “cephalopod” (head-feet). Although one pupil commented that it should really be “cephalolingua” (head-tongue).

If in middle school the pupils have experienced such a phenomenology leading to discovery and characterisation in the subsequent natural history, physics and chemistry main lessons, they can combine the concept of life in a new way with a scientific approach in upper school: inner spiritual life forces take shape in outer organic forms which form a totality in the individual creature but also in the larger context of nature. The ability to conceive single parts in the whole led Goethe to discover the intermaxillary bone in humans. He says in his poem “Epirrhema”: “When observing nature we have to regard one and all: nothing is inside, nothing is outside; because what is inside is outside.”

When studying the skeleton in biology in class 9, that can lead to the task of comparing, for instance, the bone structure in humans and in higher vertebrates. Great inner flexibility is required here and it is impressive how the young people develop their own approaches, discoveries and ways of presentation.

About the author: Claus-Peter Röh was a class teacher and also taught music and religion for 28 years at the Flensburg Free Waldorf School; today he leads the Pedagogical Section at the Goetheanum in Dornach with Florian Osswald.