The teacher as temporal artist

Christof Wiechert

If we search for “Mozart Symphony No. 39” on YouTube we find an older film in which the European Youth Orchestra is conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who died this year. He recorded the last three Mozart symphonies with this orchestra. Apart from being a feast for the ears, the pictures of the young people and the conductor making music are something which can occupy us for a long time: we see the musicians with their complete dedication to the work, the human yet transcendental concentration of the conductor, no trace of any movement without meaning; we can imagine ourselves in another time and place.

We can begin to get some inkling of what Wagner meant when in Parzival he wrote “Time here turns into space”: it becomes a direct experience, we are “in” it and experience neither time nor space.

Another great conductor was asked whether he did not get bored performing the famous symphony of the even more famous composer for the umpteenth time. His response: at the moment in which the work starts he has forgotten that he has ever performed it before. Every tone, every moment that passes is new and has never existed before.

Every teacher should practise art

The concept of art in education is debated in many different forms. Thus for example the fact that there is painting is seen as the artistic part in the art of education or that art lessons in upper school account for the artistic element in the Waldorf school. In fact we can distinguish between four different manifestations of art. There are undoubtedly more, but we  will limit ourselves to four in this article:

1. It is probably not wrong to hope that everyone who teaches somehow and in some field has a creative streak and also practises it occasionally. One person might paint, another make music; others are enthusiastic dancers, some are great artists at the blackboard (also during lessons, not just on a Sunday afternoon), others again are great cooks – that, too, is an art. In short, everyone who teaches should engage in some sort of artistic activity.

Why this hope? Because an artistic activity keeps a person young, mentally agile and flexible. It is the best antidote against the arch-enemy of the art of education: petit-bourgeois smugness and hypocrisy.

2. We apply art. The chemistry teacher draws the structure on the blackboard after the successful experiment. The history of art teacher speaks as if he were painting the scene, the class teachers actually do paint and draw. The middle school teacher sketches the action of the steam engine but earlier in the morning he already sang with the class and one class lower the day started with the recitation of a ballad. In short, Waldorf teachers apply art without being trained artists in these various disciplines.

3. Psychology teaches us that the environment of a person leaves a conscious, but primarily an unconscious effect in the soul life. Thus we know today that white tiled hospitals induce anxiety which comes to expression in slightly raised blood pressure (including in adults!).

In Waldorf schools we therefore pay particular attention to the aesthetic design of the surroundings because we know about these effects of unconscious sensory stimuli.

4. But the final element is the by far most important one because at a pinch a good lesson could also be taught in a garage. This last element is the art of education itself. That is to say, teaching as if teaching itself were an artistic activity.

It is not easy to characterise this artistic element. Yet it is the main feature, the essence of a Waldorf school: the teacher as an artist, as an artist of education. Routine, conventionality and pedantic posturing play no part for the educational artist. Neither does the complete and utter predictability of a lesson or a lesson which cannot do without paper.

Then there is also the excessive organisation of the school as if lessons were subordinate to the structure desired by the school management instead of overriding it. I am convinced that parents should resist these bad habits to a much greater extent than they do. As a rule parents are much too moderate and understanding in the demands they make of schools. But even if these horrors were suddenly blown away, the question remains, what it artistic teaching?

Let us try to formulate an answer.

The interaction of spacial are and temporal art

Art is expressed in two dimensions but selects one dimension as its main expression. These dimensions are space and time. If we go to an exhibition of Odilon Redon or to the MoMA for a Pollock exhibition we are in space. We can forget about time in looking at the paintings. The same happens when we look at the sculptures in a sculpture collection. But a view of Rome can create the same experience of spatial art.

In contrast we have the temporal arts: concerts, making music, declamation, the theatre. We go to a concert and know that this piece will take this length of time and the whole concert will be over at half past ten. The uncut Hamlet takes longer and Peer Gynt even more so – arts which are revealed in time and therefore have a beginning and an end. There are of course bridges between these worlds. That is dance and opera which we see and hear. And it would be fascinating to look at eurythmy against this background. It was introduced by Rudolf Steiner and combines both worlds.

An initial answer as to what constitutes the art of education is: a certain balance has to exist in lessons between both dimensions in order to give them a health-giving effect. At the end of the last century there was a study in American junior high schools on this question. The result: more than 90 percent of the lesson was communicated visually which was seen as one-sided and not conducive to health.

Teachers speak, perhaps sometimes too much. But let us assume a teacher who knows their trade. They will speak, arouse interest and curiosity in the pupils, and then they will explain the new parts which have to be learnt in positive dialogue with the pupils. And then the moment arrives in which the teacher feels: enough of the words, now something else is called for otherwise the pupils will lose their connection with the subject.

The teacher might say, for example, please take your jotters. I want you to write something about this subject. Or in mathematics: now that we have understood this, I will give you four assignments to solve. Or in botany: now that we have seen and understood the daffodil, and the simple principles out of which it can develop so wonderfully, let us try and draw it as beautifully as we can in our jotters.

But then the moment will soon return: when has there been enough drawing, when does something else on the “other side” have to be done once more? Being able to sense the right moment in this way was described by Steiner as the “education instinct”. It is a key moment in the art of education. This context also throws another light on one of Steiner’s “inventions”, the “main lesson book”. It is an excellent instrument to allow the verbal to pass over into the visual.

As an educational artist, the teacher will apply the material in such a way that pictures and words are presented in a “mixture” which benefits both the subject matter and the pupils equally. That is one aspect.

Another lies in the fact that lessons themselves take time, that is, belong to time.

How does the teacher use this time? Do they use and “consume” time as demanded by biological time? This is the same river of time which inexorably carries us closer to our life’s end. Or are they able to be creative with time, to become a time artist?

What does it mean to be creative with time?

We have all had the following experience. We go to a lecture. It starts and we feel, without knowing why, that it is going somewhere, the speaker has a plan which they have not yet revealed but something is coming. We are fascinated, curious, wondering where it is heading. And all of a sudden we are carried along in a stream of ideas and images, we are completely immersed, forget time, and when it is over we look at our watch: what, is it that time already? We call it the dynamic organisation of time.

Everyone understands that it is a musical principle. We might of course also have the opposite experience: a lecture in which after the first quarter of an hour we check the time every few minutes: how much longer?

Teaching requires time. We are in the “temporal space”. How do we organise it so that a dynamic comes about in which we and the pupils are “within time” and not “outside” it looking at our watches?

Music can be a help here. It sounds classical, but it is a very simple and elementary principle of music, the so-called sonata form. What does it consist of? It consists of an exposition, a development and a recapitulation.

Mozart and Haydn already supplemented that with two smaller structural principles, the introduction and coda. Introduction: setting the mood, preparation. Coda: the path to the conclusion. Exposition: the material to be learnt is presented, the subject matter unfolds. Development: the “material” is now worked on, it is looked at from various sides. The pupils work on what has been presented and at the end it is repeated and looked at once more in summary – the recapitulation.

And the coda is that we reflect on what has been done and what is to be expected tomorrow. If we try to teach in this way we quickly notice that this is where the heart of the art of education beats. Because teaching in this way is exciting, dynamic and allows us to be within time.

Breathing in and breathing out

A second characteristic of the art of education is the breathing. The lesson must be based on the breathing: contraction and expansion. It is like the pulse or heartbeat, systole, diastole. Anyone who tries it and get something of a grasp on it will notice the following: this type of teaching is not tiring and the pupils are much more attentive because they particularly like to move in such a pulse.

Disruption in class is reduced significantly as the pupils are carried along in such a wave movement of time. Thus a third feature of the art of education arises of its own accord: it is (both for teachers and pupils) a healthy experience. From about the fourth or fifth year of school the pupils begging to feel: we – the pupils and the teacher – have done it together! There arises a gentle and beautiful pride in one another – just like the conductor does not force “his” music on the musicians with wild gestures but makes and creates it with his musicians.