The most important thing for which we can prepare a child is the experience of freedom, at the right moment in life, through the understanding of one's own being.


Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925)

Holistic education, child development, self-consciousness, imagination, judgement, artistic approach to teaching
By: Claus-Peter Röh, October 2014, First published in the Journal of the Pedagogical Section at the Goetheanum, Michaelmas 2014, Nr. 52

Holistic Education - at the Crossing Point of Developmental Streams (Transition - Part Three)

This third and last part of the series “Transitions” focuses on the holistic quality of teaching, particularly in the middle school. In part one Claus-Peter Röh contemplates aspects of the three and four year old child, while in part two he focuses on the nine and ten year old. Part three thus completes the picture with an emphasis on early adolescence. The series “Transitions” lends itself to the preparation of the conference “Transitions in Childhood from Birth to 14 years” which is taking place at the Goetheanum from March 30 to April 3, 2015.

Please click here for more information about the conference "Transitions in Childhood".


The high goal of Waldorf Education - to "educate the whole human being" - requires an attitude in teachers and educators that is in itself imbued with holistic qualities. As we experience the dynamics of teaching, we are challenged at every moment to find an inner measure for each situation. This ongoing gauging and judging will be the more alive and confident the richer the holistic image of the human being the educator has acquired.


If we just take the example, which is much discussed today, of premature and late developments, we realise on the one hand that children are more awake in their thinking and intellect at an earlier age while on the other hand their motor and emotional skills tend to mature later. Where in this gap or dissociation the early intellectual awareness of young children is used one-sidedly as ”learning potential” we now often find “infant learning programmes”. A few months ago parents complained in a Swiss newspaper article: “Now they have grades in Kindergarten already! Standardisation in schools is growing to such an extent that Kindergarten educators have to compile progress reports…”i From the point of view of Waldorf Education this is hard to bear since the picture is quite the opposite if one looks at the biography as a whole.

The Meeting of Developmental Streams

In his lecture of 14th March, 1914, Rudolf Steiner looks at the phenomenon of premature development in connection with two different developmental streams within the human being. First, he describes the development in seven-year-periods as outlined in “The Education of the Child in the Light of Spiritual Science”; from the physical birth to the change of teeth and on to the birth of the astral body in earth maturity. He describes this transformation in seven-year-steps as being effected and guided by high spiritual beings: “We can really see the progress of evolution in those seven-year-phases and we can say that it is the progressing divine – spiritual powers that guide and direct this evolution in seven-year steps.”ii


If child development was inspired only by these powers, children would appear to be embedded in spiritual forces for much longer, only gradually emerging from a dreamlike state and acquiring I – consciousness up to their twenty-first year. This development, guided by higher beings, meets a second spiritual stream that emanates from the luciferic powers. They have the effect of making the child self-conscious in their third or fourth year. “It is the moment that we will remember in later life. … that we gain self-consciousness so early, that we can say ‘I’ to ourselves, is entirely the effect of these luciferic forces on us… we become aware of being independent, of our inner individuality and personality as a result of the second stream. We see that there is great wisdom in the fact that this second stream flows into us.”iii


In observing and describing how children in their third/fourth year gain this early individual inner autonomy (see: Claus-Peter Röh: “Transitions as Developmental Dynamics between Dissolution and Re-Birth”), we can find the measure for our educational approach by looking at these crossing developmental streams from a holistic point of view; if we took hold of, or even forced, the early powers of consciousness and memory, we would support the luciferic stream. But if we make the decision to orient ourselves on the seven-year-rhythms, we work in the interest of the evolving beings of human evolution. If the development of the physical body up to the change of teeth is placed in a health-giving and supportive environment carried by life rhythms, our education will provide a harmonising strong foundation for the stream of developing consciousness.


In the second seven-year-period, after school entrance, the developmental stream crosses yet another stream. In their ninth/tenth year children experience the inner change that transforms their relationship with the world. The ‘I’– awareness condenses so strongly that the previous child-like connection with the outside world is broken up. The child no longer sees him- or herself as part of the world but as facing it and they seek to establish their own relationship to things (See: Claus-Peter Röh: “Transitions in the Human Temporal Organism”). Rudolf Steiner described the second crossing of the developmental stream, which has a condensing and consolidating quality, as the ahrimanic counterweight to the luciferic impulse in the third/ fourth year. With the latter the danger was that the memory forces would be used in a one-sided way. With the first “Rubicon” the danger is that the judgment which has become independent too early is taken hold of one-sidedly. If we as educators withdrew from the learning process at this age and left children to form their own judgments as early as possible, we would support the ahrimanic forces. “We can now do Ahriman the greatest favour, if we say: we have to train children to come to their own independent judgment at all times. … Children are given calculating devices so that they are not even encouraged to learn times-tables by heart.”iv


The holistic view of this second crossing in the ninth/tenth year shows how Waldorf Education again connects with the stream of human development. In recognising this wise impulse towards independence, teachers will enter so decisively, so warmly and competently, with their whole being, into their teaching, that they can become loved and respected authorities for their pupils. As whole human beings we will teach the young people everything from the Creation of the world to handiwork and crafts, to writing and arithmetic. In summary, the transitions mentioned illustrate how the overall view of human development provides new benchmarks for the pedagogical approach to the phenomenon of premature or late development. The holistic approach allows for harmonising and healing impulses:

The Importance of Imagination in the Middle School

Looking at the holistic development of children in the middle school years we see the next incisive crossing and transformation in the twelfth year. As the forces of growth turn away from the rhythmic system of breathing and circulation in order to connect more strongly with the mechanisms of the skeleton, the child’s entire being changes. The natural swinging with the musical rhythms we see in classes 4 and 5 fades away, while the lawfulness of the bone system moves into the foreground. The children increasingly ask for reasons and origins as their inner experience of causality develops. The curriculum addresses this new capacity by exploring new contexts and concepts in mineralogy, physics and history, and from class seven also in chemistry. With the beginning of causal thinking which is addressed by, among other things, the development of history up to class 8, there is again a danger of one-sidedness. As adolescents take hold of their bodies and move towards earth maturity, with all their senses awakened, their ideas, thoughts and judgments are in danger of focussing too much on the material outer world. How can we, at this particular time, when, with the birth of the astral body, high individual and common ideas begin to appear, build a bridge between a thinking that tends towards the mechanistic and material and inner, spiritual ideals?


In the fourteenth and last lecture of “Foundations of Human Experience” Rudolf Steiner addresses this question by emphatically describing an inner soul faculty which is of the greatest importance from class 6 onwards. He begins by outlining how the etheric, formative forces that were transformed in the change of teeth enter into the soul life and make it possible for children to learn drawing, writing and reading. – Now, six to seven years later, the forces of the metabolic and limb system push themselves in a transformed process into the young person’s soul life. Again a soul quality is set free that is, however, dependent on being developed and enhanced through education. It is the power of independent, free imagination. “And as the capacity to learn reading and writing in the first years of school is an indicator of the soul’s teething, we can sense in everything that is imaginative and permeated by inner warmth the qualities the soul develops from the age of twelve.”v


If we look at this stage of development from a holistic point of view we see from the twelfth year the stream of the growing capacity for judgment which can go in two directions: based on outer sense experiences, the thinking can become connected with material ideas. If we succeed in inspiring the pupils’ imagination through their soul life, entirely new qualities of experience and cognition can arise. The outer application of geometrical theorems in the drawing of platonic solids in class 8 is one experience. We bring in an entirely different quality by allowing pupils to imagine themselves as a spider inside these imagined colourful shapes and to discover properties of angles and planes from the inside. “We appeal to the imagination if we endeavour to explain areas not only intellectually, but if we demonstrate the essential nature of the area to the children in such a way that they have to use their imagination even in geometry and arithmetics.”vi


Appealing to the power of imagination as a means of enlivening the learning process could mean in a class 8 grammar lesson that we engage the pupils first in making up familiar dialogues. As they inwardly experience their own activity they can discover the rules of style and grammar. Imagination, at this age in particular, seems to have the power to allow the children to grasp and understand the inner quality of thoughts and contexts. The transformative power of imagination has the effect of placing the lesson content into a holistic and ever new relationship with the phenomena, their relevance and with the pupils themselves.


From what has been described it is obvious that the enlivening, inspiring power of imagination has to come initially from the teacher, especially at the end of the class teacher period. The more life teachers bring to the lesson content, the more alive it will be when the students absorb and process it. In lecture 2 of The Foundations of Human Experience we find the quality of imagination entirely on the side of the will, of the forces of sympathy and the blood or life forces, and this can inspire us to work on our own imaginative powers.

  • Any will activity, i.e. artistic work on the topic in question, can lead to new inspiration.

  • Repetition, also of previously imaginative approaches, belongs to the realm of memory and concept.

  • It is therefore better not to hold on to records of teaching methods.

  • It helps during preparation to consider and mentally run through at least one entirely different approach.

  • Be unprejudiced: which approach is most promising when it comes to future potential?

  • Thinking of individual pupils or the class as a whole can lend wings to one’s imagination.


The Teacher-Student Encounter in the Stream of Time

In the three stages of child development described above the attempt to find a holistic teaching approach led in each case to a field of tension between the changes of consciousness, the physical development and the educational approach:




The vertical gestures indicate that it is the basic task of education to bring the soul-spirit of the growing children or adolescents in harmony with their physical body. Let us look again at the development in the Middle School on the basis of an actual lesson situation. The example shows us that the tension of the vertical polarity is crossed by yet another holistic level:


A class 7 had worked on the biography of Leonardo da Vinci. In the end the students were given the task to present motifs from this biography narratively and in drawing. When the capacity for absorbing any more contributions was basically exhausted, a rather feisty girl pointed provocatively at a somewhat shy boy as if she wanted to say, ‘Well, let’s see what he’s come up with.’ Everyone looked at him as he reluctantly opened his book and began to read. With each sentence he read the mood in the classroom was transformed as the initial curiosity turned into intense, astonished interest. Everybody sensed the immediacy of experience that led the boy to emphasize every word. He had clearly chosen a situation that touched him personally and had described it, out of his imagination, in clear-cut, concise sentences:


[…] one day his father found the hidden sketches in his room and took them to the well-known artist Verrocchio. Verrocchio said, ‘ask your son to come and see me tomorrow.’ Then the father said, ‘Go to Verrochio tomorrow.’ Verrocchio had many trades: he was a goldsmith, sculptor, stone cutter, carpenter, painter, builder, smith. One day Verrochio was commissioned to paint a picture with angels. He started straight away. In the night Leonardo also painted an angel. When the morning came, the apprentices agreed that Leonardo’s angel was better than the master’s. Verrochio overheard them, looked at the painting and snapped his brush in two. From now on Leonardo was the master. – One day an argument broke out among the apprentices. Each of them was convinced that he was right. When Leonardo heard them he called out angrily, ‘You nitwits! You only believe, but you should find out and observe!’…”


In some mysterious way not only the scene described was strongly present in the room but also the boy’s development: his reluctance to speak in front of the class in the first years. – His overcoming of his shyness when he began to speak his report verse calmly. – The interest that lay in his wakeful, observing glance. – His ability to place himself sometimes – unexpectedly – among fighting classmates. –


With these pictures of the past a clear blueprint of the future was suddenly also present, in a different colouring and much less precise, formulated as a silent thought. Something like, ‘the scene you chose is your scene. Everything resonates within it. It shows what is important to you. You will now be faced with other challenges in that direction and you will master them.”


The lesson described had shown clearly how other, deeper teaching experiences are possible, especially when students struggle to bring an artistic approach to their work. Such encounters not only show the connection between a topic and the relevant developmental stage, but they can, over and above that, reveal aspects of the wholeness of an individual biography. As the children grow older, the teacher, who accompanies them for a long time, is ever more able to read out of such encounters not only the past but also future impulses and they can use this to enhance their teaching. Rudolf Steiner spoke about this further level of wholeness in the encounter with the children:


The teacher works as a whole but has to be aware at the same time of what he has to do in detail with a child. Both aspects must always be present in education; on the one hand the single teaching goal and on the other hand the many thousand imponderable details that work intimately from one person to another.”vii


The essential task of the long class teacher period is therefore, especially in the middle school up to class 8, to work imaginatively and artistically so that spaces for encounters are created where the biographical past as well as future goals can be experienced:



Just as the artistic element in teaching inspires holistic experience, Rudolf Steiner also described the teacher’s sensitivity for seeing the topic, the situation and the personality of the pupil in one picture as something artistic:


It will be part of our method that we always address the whole human being. We would not be able to do that if we did not focus on developing an artistic sense that is part of our disposition. In doing so, we will achieve that the young person will later be inclined to develop, with his whole being, an interest in the whole world.”viii



Claus-Peter Röh, born, December 15th, 1955, studied Education and in 1983 became a class teacher. He also taught music and RE at the Freie Waldorfschule in Flensburg, Germany. He has been a guest lecturer at the Pedagogical Hochschule in Flensburg and has held courses at various teacher training institutions in Germany. In 1998 he became a member of the initiative committee of the Education Section in Germany. In September 2010 he started to work for the Education Section in Dornach, Switzerland. He has been head of the Section in cooperation with Florian Osswald since January 2011. Claus-Peter is married and has two children.


Translated from German by Margot M. Saar


i Basler Zeitung, 7 February, 2014

ii Steiner, R. Die Welt des Geistes und ihr Hereinragen in das physische Dasein. GA 150, lecture 1, 14 March 1913, p. 14

iii Ibid., p.15f.

iv Ibid., p. 17

v Steiner, R. Allgemeine Menschenkunde als Grundlage der Pädagogik. GA 293, 2005, lecture 14, p.226

vi Ibid., p. 227

vii Steiner, R. Erziehungs- und Unterrichtsmethode auf anthroposophischer Grundlage. GA 304, p. 83.

viii Steiner, R. Erziehungskunst, Methodisch-Didaktisches, GA 294, Lecture 1, p. 11



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