We think in pictures - Waldorf education's foundation


In seminar we studied Rudolf Steiner’s book Intuitive Thinking as a Spiritual Path which is his ideas on the act of thinking (and my favorite Steiner book). One of his observations were thoughts are conveyed or communicated as pictures.

If we think about this, we can recognize that when someone says ‘tree’ or we read the word ‘tree’ we picture a tree in our minds. Sometimes these images flash through our minds so quickly we don’t even realize that we have done this. Our minds work like dream time or a movie reel playing back events of the day, expressing our feelings, thoughts and reflections. When we think about the past, present or future, we picture it. When we think, we see.

Steiner applied this recognition of how we think to Waldorf education. This is why storytelling and imaginary work is so crucial to the Waldorf philosophy and the philosophy of learning. Steiner also took his understanding of the evolving human being and the evolution of humanity and applied this to education. In other words:

1. We think in pictures.
2. The child is evolving or developing (physically, mentally, and spiritually).
3. Humanity is evolving (physically, mentally, and spiritually).

He layered his understandings, like a casserole so that the educational philosophy he developed would be a complete meal – a complete meal for a growing child’s needs.

Brain research explains that one of the most effective ways we learn is through story. There is a book I discovered after my Waldorf years called The Seven Secrets of Learning Revealed by Dr. Laurence Martel that explains how the brain organizes and recalls information through story. Story engages both sides of the brain. I now understood scientifically, not just intuitively why Waldorf is referred to as whole-brain learning.

At the heart of cultures around the world, the beat in which knowledge, traditions and histories are kept alive is through story telling. Telling stories is intertwined with language and spans as far back as time itself. In the beginning was the word.

It’s a heck of a lot more interesting than listening to a lecture or God forbid a Power Point presentation. Whenever you’re in a lecture and the speaker says, “This reminds me of a story. . .” Everyone in the room will perk up, maybe even sit up a little straighter. Suddenly you’re awake and eager to hear what the speaker has to say.

In Waldorf education, story serves as a backbone or theme for a particular grade. For example: First graders are engaged in fairy tales (from around the world), Second graders: fables and legends about the saints, Third graders: stories from the Old Testament, Fourth graders: Norse mythology, Fifth graders: Greek mythology, Sixth graders: Roman and Medieval history, Seventh graders: Renaissance history, and Eight graders: modern history.

The reason why Waldorf teaches specific histories and stories during a particular year is because the stories echo what the developing child needs. Like how a good novel soothes your soul, it’s the right book at the right time. Good stories nourish your head and your heart and with children it’s not any different. Third grade is a good example of how the Old Testament meets the child’s specific needs or stage in life.

What do you think of when you think of the Old Testament? Yeah, one angry God with a thing for head games. Yes, third graders need a little hell and damnation. Nine year olds benefit from the trials and tribulations of the Israelites. Steiner observed this is the year (more or less) when children 'wake up' from childhood dreaminess. This is referred to in Waldorf circles as the nine year old change, not unlike the more commonly known phrase “the terrible twos”.

I imagine the nine year old change is a lot like culture shock. If you’ve ever been out of your native country for a long period of time, you'll understand. You feel disconnected, maybe even disgusted. Many people who have been in the Peace Corps or who work abroad often feel this way when they return to America. When they return they feel out of touch or removed from popular society probably from having spent time in a remote setting or simply being submerged in a completely different culture.

When I was around that age, I remember I was convinced I was adopted. I didn’t believe that this pedestrian existence was where I truly belonged. What I believed was that I was the daughter of a Chinese king and queen and any day now this mix up would be sorted out. Somebody grabbed the wrong baby.

I think my first epiphany occurred at this time as well. It happened while I was staring out the car window which I remember doing a lot of. Larry, my brother, was in his proper place, the backseat. We endlessly argued about who should sit where and each and every time I declared that the eldest should sit up front with mom. I don’t know why I was so mean.

As my mom drove past everyone (she has more speeding tickets than anyone I know), my thoughts rolled in rhythm with the passing landscape. Suddenly it hit me that I was a separate being, having separate thoughts from everyone else around me. I watched the other cars go by and thought about all these other people moving about, doing their own thing and each having their own private thoughts. Just like me.

I wondered at everyone else moving about, each of us encapsulated in our little vehicles, our bodies snug and safe driving down the road of possibilities. I wondered what they were thinking. I wondered at the thought of thoughts. It sounds stupid, but to a nine year old, I was struck by the thought of other people having thoughts too. I leaned into life and the world looked very different. I was waking up.

The Old Testament stories help bring the child back to earth, kind of like shaking off the disorientation they feel but at the same time letting them know that there is an authority figure that guides and protects them. Some teachers have a problem with teaching something Biblical but I never saw it as an issue.

Third grade for Waldorf students is also considered the “doing” year where the children are engaged in “down to earth” activities like farming, building, measuring, and gardening. I thought this was brilliant considering what the children were starting to wake up from childhood dreaminess.

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