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The Human Being as a Swing of the Pendulum - Part II

Created by Claus-Peter Röh | |   11. Welt- Lehrer- und Erziehertagung
Or the Art of Awakening the Intellect from out of the Whole Human Being

The Swiss paediatrician and author Remo Largo died in November. His commitment to a deeper understanding of the child’s individuality could be experienced impressively during the World Teachers’ Conference at the Goetheanum in 2012. In his heartfelt desire to acknowledge and obtain greater insight into the uniqueness of each child, he was able to provide orientation for many parents and educators.

With such an approach as his starting point, he has in the last few years taken a clear stand on the effects of standardisation trends in recent curricula. With a view to health and zest-for-life at kindergarten- and school-age, he warns against imposing on children developmentally inappropriate external demands based on adult thinking. Thus it says in an interview in the Baseler Zeitung newspaper: “Tutoring centres for pre-school children are popping up like mushrooms.[1]He describes reactions of mental withdrawal and “over-adaptation” as the effect on the young person’s individuality of such standardised and inappropriate requirements.

In the interview, in response to the question what good teaching and a good school should look like, Remo Largo talks about a teaching methodology which always enables the young person to have a real encounter with the given content and to take independent learning steps: “Learning only works via concrete and autonomous experiences.” As an example, he describes an experience from Class 3 which made a deep impression on him. The teacher had enabled the pupils to form a number range inwardly by bringing along meter sticks which she let them lay end to end until the thousandth stick had been laid down: “Since then I have known exactly how long a kilometre is. If pupils only juggle figures on a sheet of paper, no inner mental image of a range of numbers can arise. 

The path described here of embedding a conceptual picture through physical activity and sensory experience has also been investigated in recent years by embodied cognition research. Thus Christian Rittelmeyer writes about the connection between cognitive learning and physical processes: “The concept of embodied cognition refers to the scientific discovery that all of our cognitive processes – even very abstract thoughts – have their roots in elementary physical proceedings, including outside the brain.[2]

The following contribution intends to build on this description. The focus will be on the question as to the way that the rhythmical middle of the human being enables the metamorphosis from physical action to inner understanding, but also also the other way round from conscious thought to action.

Who drills whom? - Mental Images and Concepts have a Biography

In the first part of these reflections,[3] two polar shaping forces faced one another: the roundness of the head formed out of cosmic forces of the past and the radiating shape of the limbs brought about by earth forces. Since the expression of both poles extends into the physical form, Rudolf Steiner says “The human being is at the mercy of these two tendencies — either of being made a pillar, a radius, by the Earth, or of receiving a spherical form from the Cosmos. Circle and radius actually underlie the forming of a human being.[4]

Whereas the head shape forms the conclusion of a development, the limbs are the still early beginning of a future metamorphosis.

In this sense Rudolf Steiner says of the limbs in Study of Man that “these organs are the most human of all“[5].

This is the reason why the common thread of a paradigm change runs through all the lectures in Study of Man and Practical Advice for Teachers: a fundamental approach of the methodology used in Waldorf schools is to take brain work and the thinking beyond the mere acquisition of abstract knowledge to ways of learning which involve, as far as possible, the whole human being. If it becomes possible to form ideas and thoughts out of a process of will activity and feeling, a different quality of thinking develops. In the example of Remo Largo above, the mental picture and concept of a “kilometre” is enriched in this way and becomes more vivid and inwardly connected. Experience shows that such methodological processes of awakening and understanding have to be rediscovered at each developmental stage of the children.

To begin with, a look at lower school: in wonder, the pupils of a Class 1 in Frankfurt follow as their teacher begins by telling a gripping story and in a next step then creates a picture in front of and with the children. The painting of colours and forms develops out of the inner picture from listening until out of the combination of two shapes, two vowels, the “new” sound “El” separates out. Some children recognise the El, others awaken out of their work in wonder and quietly form the shape of the sound. Steiner gives the reason in the eleventh lecture of Study of Man: “When, for instance, we make an ‘F’ on the board for the children, and let them look at it and follow its form with their hands, we are then working through perception directly upon the intellect. That is the wrong way round. The right way is, as far as possible, to awaken the intellect through the will. We can only do this by passing over to intellectual education by way of artistic education. Thus, even in these early years ... we must teach them reading and writing in an artistic way[6]Anyone who experiences the way in which children in a Class 1 discover qualities and connections between picture, movement, colour, form and sound sees the opposite of “drilling”: the newly formed, discovered and understood sound has the process of its creation inscribed in it out of the individual activity of the child. In this sense each concept carries its own biography within itself.

The same applies to the term “artistic”. The conventional understanding of the word has to be extended here. The artistic part in the practice of such an educational method or such an “art of education” describes an extended activity which encompasses the whole lesson situation:

  • It transforms distinct, individual activities into an artistic whole.
  • It enhances the attitude of all those involved to include emotional activity and the participation of the will.
  • Through individual active involvement it leads to a directed and focused attentiveness.
  • It combines intensive sensory perception with simultaneous self-awareness.
  • It transforms the outer experience of time into an individually situational experience of time.

Research today is beginning to describe the effects of what happens when the activities in a lesson are organised artistically as a significant deepening of the intellectual part. To quote Carl Peter Buschkühle: „Art replaces abstraction acceleration and animation with the deepening, deceleration and increased independence of study. Abstraction can be described as what staged media images pursue in relation to reality. (…) Far from merely being compensation for ‘hard’ subject areas, art is an integration of knowledge and creation.[7]

The Transformation of the Swing of the Pendulum in Middle School

The character of such an “integration of knowledge and creation” or the swing of the pendulum between will activity and awakening understanding, which was described for Class 1 changes fundamentally seven years later. What remains, for example, in physics lessons in middle school is the goal to awaken independent thoughts from out of active sensory experience. The stages experience – description – cognition or, as it says in the ninth lecture of Study of Man, active conclusion – descriptive judgement – conceptual comprehension are now shaped by the awakening power of judgement of the pupils to a significantly greater extent. Thus the last colloquium on middle school methodology intensively worked on the connection between the so-called “triad” and the rhythm of the day-night-day experience:

  • How does the immersion in the experiment on the first morning of the lesson take place?
  • How can marvelling thoughtful attentiveness take shape?
  • How can what has been experienced be successfully called up and resonate inwardly once more – without sight of the equipment – without falling prey to premature interpretation? 
  • How can we discern next morning what the pupils (and we ourselves) bring along from out of the night in pictures and questions?
  • How do we formulate our questions such that they neither provoke mere repetition nor precipitate interpretations?
  • In any such consideration, are there also impulses from the pupils to change the experiment in a direction to follow up a question?
  • How can a law ultimately be understood in such a way that the biography of what has been experienced still echoes in the concepts that have been acquired?

From current experience in middle and upper school classes, the question arose in the colloquium as to the way that the current media lifestyle habits of the pupils influence what is lived through in the steps described. Further questions followed: how can the relationship between contemporary phenomena, the shape of the curriculum and methodological developments be looked at and worked on in a new way? Does it become possible, for example, to develop a different emphasis and different methodological approaches depending on the individual situation of the class? A second question looked at the whole of the school biography: how can abilities of thoughtful attentiveness be established in lower school as the basis for the steps in the thinking which follow at a later stage?

The work on the methodological questions of middle school clearly revealed the reciprocal relationship between limb activity and the thinking pole of the head. It seems that the goal of awakening the thinking pole from out of the whole human being can only be achieved when, in the example of physics lessons, both poles enter into a true swing of the pendulum – otherwise there is the risk of one-sidedness: if, say, the grasp of abstract concepts begins to dominate over the experiences of the pupils and what they have done themselves, there is a risk that their own will forces will be “drilled”. But the over-emphasis of the will and sensory activity can lead to a pronounced one-sidedness: if, for example, experiment follows experiment, experience follows experience without making the effort to pause, describe and intellectually process, the impressions piling up on one another can lead to an inner merry-go-round of images and chaos.

The Riddle of the Rhythmical Middle between Intellect and Activity

The consideration of these imbalances and the description that we, as human beings, are basically “stuck, locked in” between these two poles of the head and limbs which form the body, leads to the question as to the middle of the human being. A more precise observation of the examples quoted from lower and middle school reveals the middle, rhythmical system of the human being as being existentially involved in what happens in the lesson and in learning: precisely where the transitions occur in Class 1 – from being welcomed to listening, from the inner picture to becoming active, from painting back to attentive observation – the language, tone of voice, gestures and posture of the teacher play a mediating role. The dynamic of these alternating happenings could also be described from the perspective of the children as a kind of oscillating circular movement or as a supporting breathing.

In physics in Class 7, these breaths have extended to greater arcs and longer rhythms: there they lead from involvement in the experience of the experiment to describing the qualities that resonate afterwards and to the next lesson steps. On the following morning, this breathing in the processing can then transition to intellectual questioning and observation. In other words, a constant conveyance upwards of earthly will forces and conveyance downwards of cosmic thinking forces encounter one another in the middle of the learning and teaching human being. Such constant interaction is described by Steiner as being supported by the breathing movement of the heart and circulatory system: “What is this trunk- or torso-man? He is essentially the rhythmic man who causes the cosmic to swing down continually towards the earthly and the earthly to swing up towards the cosmic. We have circling round in us a continuous stream from the limb-system and this finds its way to the head through the breathing, while a stream from the head makes its way through the breathing to the limb system. So that there is always this wave movement, this surging to and from between limb-system and head.“[8] 

This description is remarkable also because it refers to something that is “merely” intermediary and enabling as a kind of strength and independence of the rhythmical human being which keeps causing the cosmic to “swing down” and the earthly to “swing up”. It does both “through the breathing” so that the interaction between the head and limb poles becomes possible for human beings. If we go one step further in respecting the riddle of the rhythmical human being this way, we can think of it – perhaps as a thought exercise – also as a big sense organ. The heart-lung human being in us is clearly always facing in two directions in its perception: on the one hand, facing the head, it can accompany each word and every thought with feeling – while at the same time, imbued with feeling, experiencing every movement and action.

Could we conceive of or experience this heart-lung human being as perceiving tendencies to become one-sided in the one or other direction during the lesson? Then this human “sense organ” would, to begin with, probably notice a great wealth of vitality, creativity and sense of self in the activity of the limbs. But if this creative activity gets out of hand, the need can arise in the perception of the whole human being to change back to the other pole, to reflection and cognition.

In the Ilkley lectures Rudolf Steiner describes this process of the swinging pendulum as developing the body and health of the child. The consequences of a premature, not child-appropriate emphasis on intellectual activity is described as a physical hardening. But at the other pole, too, a one-sided emphasis of the will can call for a counter-movement: “…; whereas artistic activity makes him inwardly rich, so rich in fact that this richness must somehow be modified. The pictorial and artistic tends of itself to pass into the more attenuated form of concepts and ideas, and must in a measure be impoverished in this process of transference. But if, after having stimulated the child artistically, we then allow the intellectuality to develop from the artistic feeling, it will have the right intensity. The intellect too will lay hold of the body in such a way as to bring about a rightly balanced and not an excessive hardening process.“[9]

In view of the current situation in which schools find themselves, the following question arises: many teachers have in recent months increasingly used online teaching to handle meetings and their responsibilities for their classes. Can we learn to ask the “educational observer” of our rhythmical middle what perceptions were possible in doing so? Did a need for a counter-movement, for example, arise “of itself”?

It becomes clear as we look in conclusion at the threefold human being that everywhere where a free swing of the pendulum and the re-establishment of a balance by the rhythmical human being is enabled, the quality of humanly educational freedom can blossom.                                                                                                       

Translated by Christian von Arnim


[1] Remo Largo, “Kinder werden zu überangepassten Wesen”, interview in the Baseler Zeitung, 24 October 2018.

[2]  Christian Rittelmeyer, “Vom Sinn der Sinne für die menschliche Bildung”, in Johannes Weinzirl, Peter Lutzker, Peter Heusser (eds.), Bedeutung und Gefährdung der Sinne im digitalen Zeitalter, Witten Colloquium Volume 5, 2017.

[3] See Journalof the Pedagogical Section No. 69, Midsummer 2020, p. 8

[4] Rudolf Steiner, The Bridge between Universal Spirituality and the Physical Constitution of Man, Lecture 1, 11 November 1920, (in German: GA 202, p. 20)

[5] Rudolf Steiner, Study of Man, Lecture 10, 1 September 1919, (GA 293).

[6] See note 5, Lecture 11, 2 September, 1919

[7] Carl Peter Buschkühle, “Bildet das Ästhetische Überlegungen zu einer ästhetischen und künstlerischen Bildung?”. Pädagogische Rundschau 5 (112), 2015, p. 467-486

[8] See note 4, (in German p. 22)

[9] Rudolf Steiner, A Modern Art of Education, CW 307, lecture 7, Ilkley, 11 August 1923. SteinerBooks, Hudson N.Y. 2004 (in German: GA 307, Dornach 1986, p. 125)

foto: Claus-Peter Röh