Published January 30, 2017
A Rumination on Relevant Education and Great Teachers (part ten)
Growing in Stages
“It is only when we have the right conception of man’s life as a connected whole that we come to realize how different from each other the various ages are”. (Rudolf Steiner)
Have you ever examined a snail shell, the seed head of a sunflower, or the water swirling around the drain of your bathtub? All of these objects and processes are the result of spiral growth. If we examine growth in general we will see the movement of the spiral is within the growth process everywhere. What makes the form of the spiral so profound is the fact that we are moving along connected circles that seem to go on endlessly winding and turning through many stages of growth. We could place one point on a ring of the spiral and one on the ring above or below it and that point will mirror the other in the exact position raised or lowered by an octave. A new level of evolution has been realized, yet the position has not significantly altered.
As much as we change and grow, we actually do not move far from our essential nature. But as we travel along these cycles from birth to death, we change incrementally as we go. Like fingers running up and down the strings of a guitar, the pitches of our awareness and understanding create new melodic and harmonic propensities and levels of distinct growth. We stand more revealed to ourselves, as if each step in new awareness is another layer peeled from the onion. Somewhere beneath all the layers lie the core, our quintessential nature and point of unity, where our true purpose as human beings on this earth is unveiled. We are spiritual beings incarnated into human bodies. Within the great realm of spirit our physical, emotional, and mental aspects are going through stages of evolution that affect how we perceive and absorb our environment, how we relate the perceived information to our core. Everything revolves around this spiritual center, metamorphosing through time, earthly and otherwise.
Everything in nature grows in stages. The natural order of unfolding transforms matter into infinite shapes, textures, colors, vistas and perspectives that go on transforming and transcending one another endlessly. According to time, place and person we are enmeshed in a web of life unique to the particular milieu in which we live and breathe. It is here that I would like to take a page out of the work of Rudolf Steiner and his system of Waldorf Education, which was created a half century ago in Europe.
The wisdom of Waldorf Education is based in the very natural growth cycles that we are speaking about. Steiner perceived that all human growth and development occurs in seven-year cycles, the major ones for the school child at the first change of teeth (seven years) and at puberty (fourteen years). The three seven year periods, from birth to seven, seven to fourteen and fourteen to twenty-one years of age have their own, intrinsic meaning within what Steiner refers to as the “threefold” understanding of the human being.
Our physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual “bodies”. Steiner, as theorist and teacher, was able to blend the natural growth of all the bodies into a natural learning progression for the student. Each area of curriculum corresponds exactly to what is taking place inside the human being. The basis for the threefolding of the human being goes something like this: our upper pole (related to the thinking and intellectual functions and the senses) is located in the head and upper body. Our middle, or rhythmic pole, lies in the chest area where the heart and lungs work together in the rhythmic oxygenation and pumping of blood throughout the human form. It is here, in the realm of feeling (heart and breath), that the life of imagination and artistic expression bear fruit. In the lower pole resides the metabolism where the digestive process transforms food into nourishment for the body’s health and wellbeing. Heat and an act of will are required to transmute external sources of food into substance that the body can utilize efficiently for its maintenance. The will lies in this metabolic pole.
Of course, I am encapsulating a very complex set of processes. But as we delve deeper into this threefold architecture and begin to apply it to all aspects of life, we begin to see its wisdom from countless perspectives. These three areas of human “physiology” develop to a large extent in the first twenty-one years of life. From birth to seven years of age the child is a being of will, kicking its legs out in all directions, reaching and grasping constantly for things, sucking its mother’s breast, taking in nourishment to supply the burst of growth since departure from the womb. It is interesting to note that the head, where the forces of intellect reside, is enlarged in proportion to the rest of the body at this young age. Yet the incoming spiritual forces lie in the lower metabolic pole of the will.
During the second set of seven years the body begins to lengthen at the torso. This is a crossing point where the area of the rhythmic system and the artistic and imaginative qualities grow together both physically and spiritually. During this period the child experiences a vibrant internal life of pictures, colors, shapes, textures, sounds, vibrations- an artistic and creative existence. At the age of fourteen the limbs (metabolic pole) begin to extend physically as the spiritual forces of growth are released for thinking. During this time, the functions of analysis and intellectual activity surface and become prominent.
In general, Steiner’s educational activities are designed to mirror and reflect these growth levels. For example, between the ages of seven and fourteen, when the rhythmic system is in full swing and the children are steeped in an internal artistic process of life, Pstudy is directed through creative activity: mathematics as music, writing as drawing and painting, language as the sounds of poetry. Only after puberty, when the powers of thinking come to the fore, are the more abstract subjects of grammar, higher mathematics and history revealed. Other authors have depicted a life of evolutionary stages in similar terms. The Luvmores, Erickson, Piaget, and many thinkers and researchers in the art of education have seen and applied the wisdom of natural growth cycles described here.
In the natural world, forests are always forming and reforming. Reclaimed farmland will eventually become climax forest. Birds lay eggs and incubate them, the eggs hatch and the young fledglings grow tufts of feathers and learn to fly after a period of being nurtured by caring adults. Everything in nature is always in a dynamic state of change, reaching out toward full potential, true purpose, ripening into fully developed spiritual entities. And we, as human beings, after realizing many new stages and stations of growth, will arrive at a conscious experience of spirit and unity. Fully ripened, we will merge with the greater whole. The complexion of our experience on the education path will determine whether we wander aimlessly, struggle between intention and drifting, or flow effortlessly toward that quintessential goal.