Human beings do not live in the head alone

Henning Kullak-Ublick

When children come to school in the morning, they always live in two worlds: on the one hand sensory impressions, feelings, thoughts, images and ideas pass through their heads; on the other hand they have slept well or badly, are tired or awake, have had a good breakfasted, or not, and are correspondingly full or hungry. In short: they have to deal not just with their thoughts but also with their growth and metabolism. No child ever just sends his or her head to school! Children always bring the whole of their being along and everything they do acts back on the whole human being. This reciprocal relationship is one of the most important research tasks of Waldorf education. 

While the skull encloses the motionless, weightlessly floating but incredibly energy-hungry brain – it uses almost a quarter of our body energy – the digestive organism is an exceedingly lively quick-change artist which supplies the whole body with energy and is closely connected with the human being in motion. A tireless mediator works between these two poles which comes to expression most notably in the chest organs of the heart and lungs: the rhythm which pervades all organs.

The functional tripartite division of the human organism:

►  Head – nervous and sensory centre (brain) – rest

►  Chest – breathing and circulation (lungs and heart) – rhythm

►  Torso – metabolism and limbs (digestion) – movement

The nervous and sensory system, the rhythmical system, and the metabolic and limb system each work in the whole organism but have their main organs either in the head (brain), chest (heart and lungs) or torso (digestion, movement organism).

One of Rudolf Steiner’s most important discoveries was that he did not simply postulate the trichotomy of spiritual, soul and physical existence as a philosophical idea but was able to relate the reciprocal actions of these three planes of existence to one another in concrete terms. Steiner sets out these relationships in a systematic way for the first time in his book Riddles of the Soul. In doing so, he created the basis for an educational idea which under its keyword “salutogenesis” has only recently been recognised in its forward-looking importance. Every soul activity – be it thinking, feeling or the activity of the will – corresponds to one of the physical functions referred to above. It is intuitively obvious that the brain, as the central organ of our nervous and sensory system, should be the physical foundation of our thinking. That our rhythmical system (particularly the breathing and blood circulation) forms the physical basis of our feelings is not as immediately clear: if someone “gasps” in shock, their “blood boils” or “runs cold”, if they blush, go pale or become “breathless” in a flurry of activity, it becomes more evident. Recognising the connection of the will with the metabolism and the limbs is even more difficult. But everyone knows from their own experience that we sometimes find it difficult to “bestir” ourselves to do something, then drag ourselves along or energetically “head towards” our goal. We never experience the physical side of the will directly but only as an effect. Although we can see that when we lift our arm, we “sleep through” the process itself. Thus a functional physical system, a soul activity and a specific state of consciousness each belong together:

Nervous and sensory system – thinking – waking

Rhythmical system – feeling – dreaming

Metabolic and limb system – the will – sleeping

What might at first appear to be a dry formula is in fact a very living reality. For education, this discovery plays a key role because every activity which we undertake with children also has an effect on their constitution. It is never just the head which learns but always the whole human being. If we keep stuffing our children full of definitions and facts, that only addresses their head and drains them physically. They become pale, tired, nervous and listless. Conversely there are increasing numbers of obese children who are virtually overcome by their metabolic processes. Instead of waking up properly in their head they develop a tendency to become apathetic which is by no means innate but is most certainly instilled into them.

The archetypal gesture of learning

Like every person, children need a living alternation of activity, feeling experience and thinking knowledge in order to learn. At the start of his or her life, every child conquers three great liberating skills. It starts with the unconditional devotion to his or her surroundings: at first the child imitates adults by practicing until her or she can stand upright and walk. The child acquires language through devotion to his or her speaking surroundings without every going near a grammar book. The child’s thinking is ignited through his or her mother tongue. What starts with a pure effort of will (raising oneself to an upright position, walking), turns inward (language) and finally becomes reflective consciousness (thinking). These three steps are so remarkable because they all start with the devotion to the surroundings and then, through practice, develop into an individual ability.

Teaching in the Waldorf school, too, mostly starts for the younger children with movement, such as skill and balancing exercises or finger games. That not only helps them to arrive properly in the classroom in the morning but also to discover and conquer their own body; the effect extends as far as the development of differentiated brain structures.

The human being in motion is, as we saw above, closely connected with the life of the will. One of the most important challenges for all children is to learn to activate their will in their consciousness when it is initially completely immersed in their movements. That path is difficult and leads by stages from the development of memory through the imagination to logical thinking.

Rhythm plays an important role here because it ensures that the awakening, consciousness-forming and vegetative but debilitating activities alternate with relaxing and building up phases. In the teacher training course held in advance of the establishment of the first Waldorf school, Steiner devoted large sections of his introductory reflections to rhythm and the question as to how children can learn to inhale and exhale, go to sleep and wake up in a healthy way. He was not in the first instance thinking about the common practice of all kinds of rhythms but had fundamental teaching methods in mind such as alternating phases of concentration and relaxation, speaking and listening, contemplation and action.

Learning to trust our own judgement

For learning, of course, amounts to more than rhythm and movement. Our experiences also have to be penetrated by the thinking. That requires the requisite degree of attention and reflective ability. Repetition, exact observation, precise descriptions and the joy in asking question are just as much a part of it as the composition of the main-lesson books. Such effort of will gives comprehension a depth which has been individually acquired. Standardised learning targets are replaced by a trust in our own ability to think and our judgement which has been actively obtained.

The archetypal gesture of learning described above always works when children first do something, then experience it in a many-facetted way and finally summarise it, i.e. understand it conceptually. Pupils in first class can, for example, practice rhythmically walking and speaking the multiplication tables. When they have slept and woken up again on that a few times, they might throw a ball to one another: whoever catches it has to say the next number in the sequence. Finally they are asked the tables in random order. In this way the knowledge which is initially based in movement (will, limbs) moves through the memory of rhythm (feeling) into waking cerebral consciousness: the whole person is involved in the learning process.

An age-appropriate variation can be illustrated in the physics lessons in middle school. One group of pupils loosely inflates a light, black bin bag, ties up the end and places it in the hot sun. A second group builds a wafer-thin paper lantern below which it fixes a tea light and a third group observes the way that the sparks fly from a camp fire. All of them describe very precisely what they did and observed. Next day they move on to the next experiment but first recall the experiments of the previous day and exchange their observations using all available sensory qualities. On the third day they condense what they have learnt into a law, in this case of thermodynamics.

That can provide the basis for new questions and experiments whose decisive value lies in the pupils having created the connection between their actions, observations and the development of a concept. The law could, of course, already have been formulated on the first day, but it is the process described here which creates the trust in their own judgement. A PISA study on science learning which was separately analysed in Austria ascribes the far above average abilities of Waldorf pupils directly to this teaching approach.

“Tell a fairy tale!”

Einstein was once asked how one could educate children to become geniuses. His prompt reply was: “Tell the children fairy tales!” When asked what more could be done, he answered: “Tell them more fairy tales!” Fairy tales live through transformation and stimulate the child’s imagination to visualise the story as he or she is listening. In order to do so, children have to activate their will which is otherwise asleep in the physical processes. The triad which starts with own activity and  moves through experience to independent knowledge is the modern way of learning. It creates the basis for the reverse path which leads from freely obtained knowledge to self-determined action. Education for freedom is, on closer inspection, always more than the sum of head, heart and hand.