The question about the nature of living things – one of the core concerns of anthroposophy – is a central element of biology lessons. Teachers of this subject cannot ignore the numerous comments by Steiner about the characteristics of living things which also cast radical doubt on the dominant theories in the natural sciences. Steiner for example held the view that it was not the heart which moves the blood but the blood which moves the heart. It is not therefore sufficient to have studied biology and the associated teaching methodology and then to have undergone further training in Waldorf education. Rather, we have to scrutinise textbook views and independently collect material to find our own independent standpoints.
Human beings and nature – together and separate
Natural history spans the whole of the Waldorf school years: it starts with apt stories and fables, still without a clear separation between human beings and animals (class 1/2); moves to the beginnings of zoology (class 3/4); followed by the first botany (class 5); and only after and together with the latter, enters the inanimate part of nature in the form of geology (class 6). In classes 7-10 the whole of biology is then developed – appropriately for the time of puberty – in relation to the human being: nutritional and health issues (class 7); relationships between movement and the senses which can be seen externally in the human form (class 8); investigating the same relationships analytically and causally in anatomy from the inside (class 9); and the physiology of the internal organs (class 10). In the final three years, all the current questions are tackled starting with cytology, the primitive plants, embryology and heredity (class 11); then molecular genetics, ecology (with two overview main lessons of the plant and animal realms), behavioural biology and neurobiology; until finally with evolution the human being comes into focus again (class 12/13). We can see: in the beginning human beings are closely connected with nature; the lessons move further and further away from them as nature is increasingly dissected; they return to them for a longer period in middle school – with a symmetrical step at the class 8/9 transition; lessons move away from human beings again with a strong emphasis on scientific abstraction; until at the end of the years of school human beings and nature with their reciprocal evolutionary happening are recapitulated in an overview of all that has been learnt so far.
Furthermore, it is worth noting that this span is furthest removed from living things at the time when according to the anthroposophical understanding of the human being causal thinking as such starts. If/then relationships are easiest to understand and practice by means of inanimate facts. Alongside geology, physics is thus also taught for the first time in class 6. As the young people now simultaneously become less receptive to what adults wish to tell them verbally, it is educationally exceptionally important to introduce craft subjects as an additional new element. Here the successes and errors of our own actions are directly apparent in the result without a red pencil or lengthy explanation being required.
Sustained learning through own experience
From the perspective of biology teaching, it was a brilliant move by Rudolf Steiner to introduce horticulture which is then sustained to include practical experience of agriculture and/or forestry in upper school. As a result the young people learn many biological facts almost in passing – and, as current research shows, in a more sustained way than through purely cognitive teaching.
This is preceded in class 3 already by the active pursuit of the path from corn to bread, that is from the tilling of the fields to the consumption of the nutritious end product. This counters from the beginning the loss of reality among many young people which can be observed today. Statements such as from British school children, of whom 34 percent believe, for example, that bread is a meat product according to a study, should not therefore be possible in this form among Waldorf pupils. Such learning from the world which surrounds us is greatly made use of in science lessons by means of phenomenology: first exact observation, then reflection on it. Pupils can thus come to their own judgements which they can verify and which are independent of the teacher’s, something which contributes to their independence and self-confidence.
New forms of thinking: reciprocity and metamorphosis
Alongside linear causal thinking, Waldorf education has the explicit aim of practicing additional forms of thinking in the school years to stimulate and enable the pupils to realise the creativity within them in the further course of their lives. Therefore biology lessons in class 11 move from simple to more complex causalities: causes are no longer looked at just with regard to their effects but the effects are also considered in reverse as the cause of other reactions and effects: the caring hand of the horticulture pupils allows many herbs to grow in the school garden and when they thrive it encourages the commitment of the pupils. But if such cultivation is omitted, other plants establish themselves. They in turn prepare the increasingly wild garden for bigger plants by which they in turn are displaced. The associated animal species come and go with the plants. In developing such considerations, appropriate trains of thought regarding reciprocity can be practiced very well.
In class 12, metamorphosis is studied – that is, the change of entities while their own identity is preserved: an organ like a plant leaf can take on completely different forms, colours and functions, depending on its environment, and yet it always remains a leaf. Physiologically relevant processes can also change depending on context. The formation of an internal space which occurs with gastrulation in the transition from plants to animals (embryology, class 11) is now treated as a much larger phenomenon of “internalisation” with the associated increase in autonomy. Thus the sea water which washes around and supports many living creatures is placed in transformation at the service of internal circulation as development progresses.
The optimum time structure for the treatment of such important themes is the three to four-week-long main lesson with its daily two-hour period at the start of lessons. That provides an ideal environment for making use of the procedure developed by Steiner in science lessons: if on the previous day the lesson was concluded with the consideration or experimental investigation of new aspects and the associated open questions, this provides an excellent starting point next morning. Very lively phases of discursive discussion can now arise which come to an initial conclusion in working out new laws and rules. Once these results have been secured, the lessons can move on to new aspects and questions which arise as a natural consequence of what has been discovered so far. Material experienced in this way is further processed during the night so that next morning it can be penetrated with the thinking with clearly greater intensity and depth after such a break – in comparison to an immediate discussion. Memory performance is also enhanced. For that reason alone, main lessons should not be lightly abandoned in upper school in favour of weekly subject lessons because it is thought that otherwise the material for the school leaving exams will not be managed. I can attest as a result of my own research results that such a concern is without foundation.
Positive perspectives for adult life
At the end of school, pupils should without fail be given a positive perspective on future global tasks to take away with them. Of course we can identify powerful threats in biology such as for instance certain aspects of genetic engineering, but there are also already numerous worldwide initiatives which contribute valuable new aspects to permanent peaceful coexistence through organic agriculture, ecological architecture, bionics, etc. From competition to cooperation – this change of social paradigm which is currently underway can be documented and debated also, and particularly, in biology lessons on the basis of a wealth of facts.
As long ago as 1978, Robert Axelrod showed that in computer models the most successful long-term survival strategy consists neither in taking as much as possible away from others nor in constantly giving something away, but that the approach “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours – be cooperative” works best. In the first step, cooperation is offered. But if the other side then exploits that, it is repaid in kind. But as soon as the other side cooperates, there is immediate forgiveness and cooperation. Evolutionary progress is not by any means based exclusively on competition and self-assertion either. Thus endosymbiotic theory states that photosynthesis – as one of the central vital processes on earth – was originally made possible for more advanced living creatures because photosynthetic single-cell organisms were once eaten by other single-cell organisms but not digested. Rather, they continued to live in their predators, supplied them with energy, carbohydrates and oxygen and in return received other nutrients and protection from their hosts. Such symbioses, in other words cooperative win-win situations, contribute at least as much as anything else to progress.
An outstanding and encouraging examples in the cultural context is the Japanese Teikei system. A couple near Tokyo puts it into practice in this way: they undertake ecologically intensive agriculture with energy self-sufficiency on a few hectares. They harvest as many healthy, tasty products as are required to feed both themselves and a series of families in their part of the city. The reciprocal giving and taking is expressed with regard to nature in that the soil remains as fertile as ever without having to buy in fertiliser from outside and there are hardly any diseases. With regard to society, the cooperation operates on the basis that the farmers do not sell their products at a fixed price but supply them to customers they know personally as requested. The customers return the favour as they deem appropriate with donations of money and occasional help in the field. The whole of humanity could be fed well and healthily in this way. Such examples play a key role in upper school teaching because there is something which is even more important than the exam the young people have just passed. It is a perspective which feeds into their mood of embarking on something new as to how and where they might contribute something useful to the world in the future!
About the author: Dr. Dirk Rohde is an upper school biology and chemistry teacher at the Marburg Free Waldorf School.