What is happening in your mind’s eye when you hear a story? More than likely, you make pictures of what is being told to you. And the pictures that you create are your own, unique pictures. If you are in the company of other people when you hear a story each of you is making your own pictures. If you could compare the inner pictures that you all created there would be similarities, but there would also be differences, as each of you are involved in an inner generative process. The activity is taking place inside of you, in your mind. Now in contrast, if you were to see a movie or a video of the same story there would be no need for an inner generative picture making process in your mind. The picture would be given to you from outside. Nothing of an inner generative activity would have been necessary. The information would be coming from outside into you, and you would simply remember it, or not.
Some years ago a boy enrolled in our high school. After his first biology course here at Kimberton, in which he studied marine zoology on the coast of Maine studying marine organisms in tide pools and along the beach, his mother, who was a biologist by profession wrote to us and said that in his previous high school his experience of biology had been memorizing power point presentations, in order to prepare him for tests, and she was so happy that at Kimberton he was practicing science and not just memorizing information.
One approach to education is an information based education, and it assumes that students of any age are information processors. The primary method of learning is rote memorization of information or concepts. I call this the movie approach to education. Everyone gets the same information and an inner generative process is not necessary. “The success or failure of this form of education is measured by the student’s ability to give information back on high stakes tests, that do not assess depth of understanding, meaningful application of knowledge, or original thinking.” (Olfman. 2003) It has become the dominant educational model in the United States over the past 30 years through such programs as No Child Left Behind.
The movie version of education, the information centered approach to education is based on a “model of the human mind as a kind of computer, and a view of students as information processors. However, in sharp contrast to a computer, a developing young person possesses a Self which imbues that young person with the desire to give his or her life meaning, purpose, and a moral compass. Children and young people are naturally motivated to learn by the desire to be a part of their community and the natural order, but at the same time to express their individuality and to place their own personal stamp on the world. A young person’s thinking is infused with emotion, sensory and bodily experience, artistry, imagination, and an inner life. It is through this uniquely human prism that a young person processes information; a far cry from a computer. When mere information is what we seek to instill or elicit from students, real psychological growth”, and the development of the whole human being is impaired. (Olfman)
There is another approach to education that we practice in Waldorf schools, that I would call an inner, generative approach, where students are guided to discover concepts rather than being fed concepts. I once walked into our chemistry lab before school started and I found our chemistry teacher and a visiting science teacher from another Waldorf school preparing a demonstration for a 9th grade chemistry class. They were carefully arranging a flame from a bunsen burner so that the students could observe them placing an unlit wooden match into the flame in such a way that the match would be in the flame, but would not ignite. There was a concept that the teachers wanted the students to learn that has to do with various zones within a flame and the ability for combustion to happen within those zones. Now, if their educational goal had been to simply give the students the already formed concept that there is a zone in a flame that does not have enough oxygen for combustion to take place, if their goal was to simply give the students that information, to be tested on, there would be no need for the demonstration. The students could just look that information up on a computer. But, if their goal is to educate in such a way that students have the opportunity to train their inner generative powers of thinking then that demonstration is key, because it is the first step in the process of providing a situation for the students to move from experience to concept; to discover the concept for themselves rather than being given a pre-formed concept. It begins with an experience, with perception, and through questioning and discussion the students discover the concept.
If we simply give the students the concept we rob them of the opportunity to practice the thinking that leads to the concept; we rob them of the opportunity to develop the capacity for independent, self-driven thought. This is a serious concern in the world of education today, especially higher education. College and university professors have complained in recent years that young people today can’t think for themselves, they just want to know what is going to be on the test.
In the Waldorf high school we practice the thinking of various disciplines: the thinking of the scientist, the thinking of the historian, the thinking of the mathematician, the thinking of the writer or the philosopher. Our approach is to give students the opportunity to develop their own thinking capacities through experiences, discussions, questions, projects, essays and other written assignments and artistic presentations. I have given you an example in the sciences. In English or Humanities our students will explore through readings, discussions, projects and essays the nature of truth, or evil, or what it means to be a human being. Our teachers don’t give them the answers to those topics. They lead them through a process of discovery. In History our students might interview someone who lived during a particular period of our nation’s history for example, research primary and secondary sources, and write essays to support conclusions they have reached about historical events. Our focus is not teaching students to get the one right answer on a test, but to test their own inner developing capacity of thought. That’s not to say that we don’t ever give our students tests. We do. But for us, tests are not the be-all-and-end-all of how we assess our students. We provide our students with many avenues for demonstrating what they have learned such as essays, projects, and artistic presentations.
Our goal in the Waldorf school is to provide for our students an education that guides them to be caring, ethical human beings who can consciously engage their inner generative capacities of thought and creativity, and it starts with stories. In our pre-school and our early grades much of the curriculum is built around stories that enrich our student’s imaginations and engage the inner generative process of picture making that will later develop into an inner generative process of thinking as the students get older. At each age our students have many opportunities to exercise their own inner generative capacities in a developmentally appropriate manner.
Olfman, Sharna (2003) All Work and No Play