“Sleep is the umbilical cord with which the individual is connected to the universe.” Friedrich Hebbel
The importance of sleep for developing memories and the ability to be inventive
In the following paragraphs an attempt is made to build a bridge between the indications given by Rudolf Steiner concerning the structure of a lesson that includes the night (with its methodological consequences) and the results derived from empirical research into the consolidation of learning during the night.
With attentive observation we can realize that experiences, questions or problems we are grappling with change after a night’s sleep. Questions can be answered or problems may take on a different quality. It is still a mystery what exactly happens during the unconscious state of sleeping. It was revolutionary for the pedagogical understanding of the time when Rudolf Steiner advanced the idea of making use of these experiences to deepen the learning process. At that time sleep was seen as a passive time for recuperation. Rudolf Steiner explained in one of his lectures that what we experience in the world is anchored in our memory after one to three days but not without having slept on it. (1)
From research into brain activity and sleep, a deepening of insights can be gained in how important sleep is to digest and assimilate daily experiences as well as learned content. Here indications can be gained how to use these insights for the learning process. (2) For the teacher in the classroom it is important not only to know about the “transformative forces of sleep” but to actively include in the structure of lessons the effectiveness of sleep for the learning process in the “what” (didactic or instructional) and the “how” (methodological) aspects of teaching.
Sleep is not important only for recuperating but plays a vital role in many other functions of the body, e.g. the strengthening of the immune system. For several years evidence has been built up showing how experiences are transformed and anchored as memories during the different phases of sleep. The phases of sleep are differentiated into deep sleep and REM-sleep (rapid eye movement), which alternate and repeat themselves five to six times during the night. Dreams occur predominantly during the REM phases. During the day the time to memorize information can be as short as milliseconds (so-called ultra-short time memory). Out of this brief moment short-term memory and long-term memory are differentiated. For the latter the focus is more on what has been learned: facts, events, etc. (declarative memory) or on learned skills like motor activity: dancing, cycling, etc. (procedural memory). For both of these memories different areas of the brain are active; the patterns of the activity in the brain during learning are similar to those of sleep. (3)
Contrary to earlier theories claiming that learning takes place primarily in the REM phases, Jan Born showed in extensive experiments that the declarative memory is deepened during deep sleep and the procedural memory during the REM phases. (4). On the other hand, it is also possible to examine the consequences on the human being of sleep deprivation. In this context research has shown how already one sleepless night has a negative effect on our ability to think innovatively and to make effective decisions. (5)
During learning it is not only the working on our daily experiences or the sorting into “important” or “unimportant” which is significant. There is quite plainly also an interesting qualitative change, which has been expressed in the daily experiences mentioned above, when intensively asked questions have taken on a different perspective or have received an answer after sleep. These new insights have been verified. In one study the rules for a sequence of numbers and the last number of this sequence was to be derived. Almost twice as many participants found the answer instantly after a night’s sleep compared to two other groups who had worked again on it after eight hours during the same day and or had not slept during the night. (6) Many of the experiments conducted on this subject demonstrate that we use our brain also during sleep; we deepen, preserve and interpret our memories and experiences. On a scientific basis it remains inexplicable how and from where the new evaluations and the innovations arise.
Applying the insight into learning during sleep
Next to our own experiences with the changes occurring during sleep we have numerous pictographic proceedings to examine the activity of the brain. With these it is possible to illustrate the areas of activity (assimilation of substances) of the brain (EEG; PET; MRT; fMRT; 3-Tesla MRT amongst others). The use of oxygen and glucose, blood circulation or electrical manifestations are measured – not thoughts, nor learning, nor dreams. Therefore special care has to be taken when terms are used in the interpretation of these measured phenomena since the question about what actually is happening during sleep is still wide open. There are only tentative explanations for how memories are stored.
Methodical structure of lessons including the night: conclusion, judgement, concept
It is significant how suggestions on how to improve efficiency of learning focus on success in learning; however, they omit the question of the relationship between learning and knowledge as well as how it relates to other human faculties. This becomes clearer if we look at a good learning atmosphere. Interest, motivation and attention have to be awakened; and the importance of having an emotional connection to the content is well known. Furthermore, it is not only important to take in and then restate the learned content. Part of it is also that the student grasps and understands the world, that skills and abilities are developed in the learning process. Essentially it is the process of becoming human and understanding the world. Rudolf Steiner gave indications already in 1921 to integrate this fully into the learning process. (7) The main lessons (block periods in which a content is worked with over for a number of weeks) can be organized effectively to accommodate this approach, which unfolds between teacher and children in three phases.
Wilfried Sommer characterises the three phases, which unfold regardless of the content of the lesson: ”While looking into the world and meeting the world is in the foreground of the first phase, the emphasis of the second phase is placed on the individual’s wrestling with this encounter, so that in the third phase logical or comprehensible connections, an evaluation or analysis can be arrived at.” (8)
Rudolf Steiner outlines an unusual path to learning in that he starts with perceptual observation or what is called conclusions; then judgement follows; and only then, as the highest quality, does he arrive at the concept. (9) Through this process the teacher addresses the whole human being as a being with cognitive, sentient and active powers and capacities with appropriate emphasis at different times.
Figure 1: The three phases of a lesson structure including the night
After conclusion, judgment and concept have been completed, a period of work and practise follows, or development of new questions, in which “the individual takes hold of the learned content and material”. (10)
How Angelika Wiehl (11) has compared and summarized the viewpoint of teaching and learning methodology can be seen in Figure 2:
Figure 2 Phases of perception and understanding
Summary and conclusion
Conditions and methods with emphasis on deepening the learning process during the night have been described. These methods are employed in Waldorf pedagogy as indicated by Rudolf Steiner and are receiving ever more confirmation through scientific research. Whether more encompassing results for learning and education can be gained has not been researched yet although tangible and positive experiences in lessons (as seen in “experiential pedagogy”) speak to this outcome. We are not dealing with a mechanical process which works on its own when we speak about this content, which is detached from the quality of the learning process during the day and the manner in which we fall asleep. The old whim of putting the school book under the pillow before a test is in itself no guarantee that memory will be activated during the night. Nevertheless, to recall the previously learned content before going to sleep and then enjoying a sound sleep has been shown to help the learning process. Sleep disrupted by what happened before settling in for the night, however, is not very helpful. It is similar to the learning situation during the day. We may remember situations in which we paid a great deal of attention, because of intense and emotional experiences, special encounters or because of an accident. It follows that, in order for the learning during lessons to be successful, positive emotions, attention and the awakening of self-directed activity are better preconditions than connecting only superficially with the content of the lesson. In this context, a phenomenological or “Goetheanistic” approach to the lesson is especially useful.
Translated by Gabriele Feiter
Reinhard Wallmann completed his 1st state examination in biology in 1975 and subsequently helped to set up a Waldorf school and a social therapy institute in Delsbo/Sweden. In 1980 he passed his 2nd state examination for grammar schools. From 1980 to 2012 he worked in biology and other subjects at the Rudolf Steiner School in Dortmund. He is currently active in the training of Waldorf teachers at various institutes in Germany and abroad.
(1) E.g. in: Rudolf Steiner, Natur und Moral (Nature and Morality), Rudolf Steiner Ausgaben, Bad Liebenzell 2016, p. 25.
(2) Jan Born, renommierter Schlafforscher im Interview: Wie man Schlaf gezielt einsetzen kann (How to make targeted use of sleep), Spiegel-Online, 8. 5. 2010.
(3) S.-J. Blakemore, U. Frith, Wie wir lernen. Was die Hirnforschung darüber weiß (How we learn. What brain research knows about this), München 2006.
(4) Z. B. S. Diekelmann, J. Born, The memory function of sleep. Nat. Rev. Neuroscience, 2010 Feb; 11(2): 114-26. Doi; 10.1038/nm 2762. Epub 2010 Jan 4.
(5) Y. Harrison, J. A. Horne, The impact of sleep deprivation on decision making: a review, Journal of Experimental Psychology, Applied 6 (3): 236, 2000.
(6) Wagner u. a., Sleep inspires insight, Nature 2004; Jan. 22; 427 (6072): S. 352-5.
(7) Rudolf Steiner, Menschenerkenntnis und Unterrichtsgestaltung, GA 302, 14. 6. 1921.
(8) Wilfried Sommer, Zur Rolle der allgemeinen Didaktik in der Waldorfpädagogik (The Role of General Didactics in Waldorf Education), in: Jost Schieren, Handbuch Waldorfpädagogik und Erziehungswissenschaft, Weinheim 2016, S. 495.
(9) Ausführliche Begründung: Jost Schieren, Schluss, Urteil, Begriff – Die Qualität des Verstehens (Conclusion, judgement, concept - the quality of understanding), in: Jost Schieren, Was ist und wie entsteht: Unterrichtsqualität an der Waldorfschule? München 2002, S. 11 – 31.
(10) Siehe Wilfried Sommer, Didaktik, Einleitung (Didactics, Introduction), in: Jost Schieren, Handbuch Waldorfpädagogik und Erziehungswissenschaft, Weinheim 2016, S. 502.
(11) Angelika Wiehl, Das propädeutische Methodenkonzept der Waldorfpädagogik (The Propaedeutic Methodological Concept of Waldorf Education), in: Jost Schieren, Handbuch Waldorfpädagogik und Erziehungswissenschaft, Weinheim 2016, S. 561.
With kind permission of the publishing house at the Goetheanum.
You can find out more about the Upper School (in German) in: Landl, Richard (ed.), Aufbruch in die Welt, Waldorfpädagogische Grundlagen der Oberstufe mit Unterrichtsbeispielen, Verlag am Goetheanum, Dornach 2018. https://www.goetheanum-verlag.ch/nc/einzelansicht/artikel/aufbruch-in-die-welt/shop/5987/