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Rudolf Steiner: The Three Day Rhythm in Waldorf Education

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This article starts with a brief description of the Three Day  Rhythm in Waldorf education followed by some thoughts of Rudolf Steiner on the three stages of sleep, remembering, forgetting and how to strengthen memory. There after I have shared some practical suggestions on how to manage the Three Day Rhythm based on my experience in the classroom.

The Three Day Rhythm

The three-day rhythm in primary school is a certain rhythm in Waldorf education that is followed in teaching new content to children and is spread over three days. An important aspect of the three-day rhythm is that it incorporates the element of sleep as a teaching tool. It also aims to develop memory and incorporates intellectual activities with repetitive artistic expression and physical movements in order to develop willing, feeling and thinking at the same time.

The three-day rhythm works as follows: On day one, new content are presented to children. It can be a mathematical story introducing one of the four processes in foundation phase, it can be science experiment in the later grades or a fairy tale in grade one. It all depends on what main lesson block you are teaching. The children absorb this new information and take it home with them into their sleeping night. During sleep the body, soul and spirit of the child assimilate this new information and the next morning the child returns to school ready to give its own version and understanding of the events that took place in class yesterday. Thus on the second day, the content is reviewed and the students are encouraged to share their understanding and conclusions. The teacher then delves deeper into the subject and presents new material that will have to be remembered and reviewed the next day and so the cycle continues. On the third day the content is briefly reviewed again and then written first in their summary work books and then beautifully in the main book with a picture to illustrate. What happens in real life though is that often the different aspects of the main lesson moves between a two and three-day rhythm. In my experience one will have a two-day cycle for giving new content and review. However, book work often follows a different pattern according to children’s capabilities and work speed. The teacher must use his/her discretion when managing the balance between speed, beautiful and correct work and keeping up with the given content. One also must keep in mind that although a certain amount of content has to be covered and understood, the main aim of the lesson is not for the child to remember as many facts as possible but to develop the strength of will, feeling and thinking. More about this later in the article.

 What happens when we sleep?

The time we wake up until we go to sleep is when we enter consciousness or are ‘awake’ in the sense that the I is present in our actions, feelings and thoughts. We leave the world of consciousness when we sleep and we generally are not aware of time until we wake up to another day. Sleeping has a profound effect on our being, much more so than is realized. Rudolf Steiner says that during sleep, processes of the greatest intensity and far-reaching effect take place in the soul. Nothing is known of all this because in sleep the person is without consciousness. This nightly journey into the spiritual also has a profound influence on the learning processes of the human being and in Waldorf education it is actively incorporated into the learning process.

Here follows an explanation in simplified terms of what Steiner says happens when we sleep at night:

There are three stages of sleep. In the first stage the astral body and Ego travel through the physical and etheric body on their journey towards the outer realms of the spiritual worlds. It is during this time, when the Ego and the astral body find themselves in the etheric body, that dreaming occurs. This is the time when the astral body and the Ego become part of the formative forces of the universe. Steiner says when we dream we float through the thought processes of the cosmos. Dream images arise and bring with them intense emotions and feelings. The images change and shift and often clothe the same recurring feeling. It can be dread, terror or an elated feeling of being saved etc. Steiner says that it is the dramatic feeling or quality of dreams that is important. The dream images will always be subject to change. It is the underlying dramatic emotions and feelings accompanying our dreams that will lead us to the world where the forces live from which dream pictures arise.

Then, as we enter the deeper stages of sleep we reach ever deeper aspects of the spiritual worlds. The second stage of sleep is a deeper sleep and we cannot remember anything that happens during this stage. Nothing can be brought back to consciousness in an ordinary way.

During the third stage humans as a rule also have no awareness and the most we can know is something of a residue feeling in the mornings when we awake, of the presence of something difficult that needs to be overcome during the first few hours of the day. Rudolf Steiner says this presence of something difficult is of the greatest significance. In this third stage there is something present of the mineral world. The human being is completely out of its body and lives in the essential being of the spiritual world itself.

Rudolf Steiner says we can refer to the three stages of sleep as follows: During the first stage of sleep we enter the world of pictures or the world of manifestation. In the second stage one can relate it to the revelation of spiritual beings and when we reach the third state, we live within the divine spiritual beings themselves. We as humans have the ability to develop a special kind of super-sensible consciousness to understand the impulses and forces behind the three stages of sleep. However this would mean a much more in depth study of Anthroposophy and following the required practices and exercises of the soul.

(Modern science also have done important research on sleeping patterns which links with Steiner’s research. You can read an interesting article by Rebecca Turner on modern research on sleeping cycles here.)

 Developing a good memory

The process of forgetting and remembering and how it relates to sleeping and waking

Steiner defines ‘remembering’ as the ‘awakening’ of  an integrated group of mind pictures and ‘forgetting’ as the going to sleep of an integrated group of mind pictures. What is important to know is that ‘forgetting’ and ‘remembering’ are actual processes and not just mere words and that one can compare ‘forgetting’ with going to sleep and ‘remembering’ with waking up.

Let us look at the process of ‘forgetting’ first. In Waldorf education ‘forgetting’ is an important part of the learning process. According to Steiner you have to forget something several times before you know it. Forgetting is an active and important process. Mental images, thoughts or impressions don’t just disappear when we forget. It  is still in our being but now it has moved to the subconscious where it starts working in on the etheric body strengthening it. Steiner says the following:

Now there is a tremendous difference between a mental image whilst it is in our memory and after we have forgotten it. So let us imagine a mental picture we have formed of an external impression, and now have in our consciousness. Then let us see with our soul’s eye how it gradually disappears and is forgotten. It is there nevertheless, and remains within the whole spiritual organism. What does it do there? What does this so-called forgotten image do? It has a very important function. From the moment of being forgotten it begins to work in the right way on the free part of the etheric body we have been speaking about, and make it serviceable for man. It is as though it were not digested until then. As long as the human being uses it for acquiring knowledge it does not yet work inwardly to bring life into the free etheric organ. The moment it sinks into oblivion it begins to work. So it can be said that work is continually in progress in and upon the free part of the etheric body. And what is it that does the work? It is the forgotten ideas! That is the great blessing of forgetting! As long as a mental image remains in your memory you connect it with an object. If you observe a rose and carry the mental image of it in your memory, you connect the image of the rose with the outer object. The image is thus chained to the external object and has to send it its inner force. The moment you forget the image, however, you set it free. Then it begins to develop germinal forces which work inwardly on man’s etheric body. So our forgotten memories have great significance for us.”

Rudolf Steiner also refer to ‘remembering’ and ‘forgetting’ in terms of sleeping, dreaming and awake in a spiritual sense. In a previous blog  we saw how the human being is asleep in the willing aspect of life, dreaming when we experience our feeling world and awake only when the ego or I is present in the intellect and thoughts and finds itself in the knowing. Now we must take note that Rudolf Steiner explains that ‘remembering’ happens when the will takes an image from deep in the unconscious and brings it into consciousness. It is a process that we are not aware of since we are asleep in the willing aspect of life. Important to know is that Steiner says that it is the strength of the will that enables the process. So if we would like to develop memory in the child we need to strengthen the willing aspect of the child in this particular area. But how to do it? The child is ‘asleep’ in its will and the process is unconscious.  The way to do it Rudolf Steiner says is through developing specific habits of soul, body and spirit. Habits that will strengthen the will in this particular area. He gives the following example to illustrate how this can be done:

Suppose, for example, that through a particular method you awaken in the children a lively interest in the animal kingdom. Of course, you cannot develop it in a single day. You will have to arrange the instruction so that an interest in the animal kingdom gradually develops and awakens. When children undergo such instruction, the more lively their awakened interest is, the more the instruction affects their will. If, in the normal course of life, they need to remember ideas about animals, the will is then able to bring these up from the subconscious and out of forgetfulness. Only when you affect what is habitual in people can you bring order into their will, and thus into their power of remembering. In other words, you must see why everything that awakens intense interest in children also helps strengthen their memory. We must increase the power to remember through the feeling and will and not through simple intellectual memory exercises.

The teacher has to deliver the content to children in a fashion that will awaken the children’s intense interest. This interest will have a strengthening effect on the will of the children. When the children are done with the lesson what they have learned will be forgotten to a certain extent. The children will take this ‘forgotten’ content with them into their sleep that night. During sleep this information and activities will then be integrated into the children’s individual cosmic realities. The whole being of the child readjusts to the cosmos incorporating this new information on a thinking, feeling and willing plane. The next day, the previous day’s work is reviewed with a keen awareness of the happenings during the night. This will give the review the importance and weight it deserves. Afterwards the setting should be perfect to go deeper into the subject with new fresh information. Rhythmic and other artistic activities related to the content as well as the element of music should be incorporated later in the day in order to strengthen and intensify what was done in main lesson.

 Managing the three-day rhythm and practical suggestions

I will now share a few of my own observations over the years regarding the three-day rhythm and suggestions on how to optimize the work flow for the children in your class or the individual child with his/her specific needs.

The three-day rhythm sounds easy enough until you try to implement it in a class with many children of different temperaments, different work speeds and different strengths. You will find that the review if done in depth can easily take the entire time that was meant for the main lesson. You will find that some children spend hours trying to draw the perfect picture and end up working on one picture for two or three days even. Other children will spend more time on the writing and never actually get to the picture part. Other children will finish the picture and writing all in ten minutes and then ‘having nothing to do’ keep everyone else from working and some children battle to do the required task at all. Very easily your carefully planned three-day rhythm can become disentangled with you as the teacher ending up just trying to keep your head above water.

Over the years I have realized that there is a lot that one can do to regulate the three-day rhythm in such a way that it works for all the children. As Steiner has said, the only true teacher is real life and each one of us will have a different situation and solution. So what I will attempt to do is to give certain guidelines on how to find your own equilibrium in the classroom. What I have found though was that if I followed these guidelines, the children responded beautifully every time. Perhaps you find that it might work for you as well.

To make the three-day rhythm work one has to look at how you as teacher present teaching content to the class. In my experience there are three qualities that need to imbue the learning activities in the classroom in order to make content live for children. These qualities come from the teacher’s inner being. These qualities being enthusiasm, inspiration and a sense that the content is more than just facts but an essential knowledge imparted to the children that will aid them in their life journey forward. A sense that what we are doing in class is important and valuable to the children themselves, their role in the community, their country and the world. A sense that what we do is good and true and that it matters. This is why it is so important for the teacher to allow ample time for preparation. Teachers need to find their own inspiration and purpose in the subject matter and translate it into teaching activities the children can relate to and enjoy. If you find it interesting so will the children. If you are inspired the children will pick it up from you and pour it into their work. When you present a lesson and the children are inspired by what you taught them you will find that it is much easier to manage the workflow. The children are so absorbed in the content that they will willingly cooperate and quietly carry on with their work with little disturbance. It will be much easier to manage the differences in the way they work.

Also important is to meditate on all the different scenarios that can arise when teaching a class and to have solutions ready  beforehand. For instance with the review you can ask leading questions in general, guiding each child towards quiet reflection on what was done the previous day. Then select one or two children to verbally share their reflections with the class. One can go by a certain order to ensure each child gets a turn. I also tried to incorporate each child’s individual working pace in my class. For the fast workers I had some extra activities ready to keep them busy when they are done. For the artists in the making who spend days on drawing the perfect picture (and some of the pictures were wonderful) I allowed them to live their artistic expression (within reason of course) and let them skip a lesson in their main book every now and again in order for them to keep up. One can be creative when finding solutions as long as it is within the guidelines of Waldorf education. (This is not an attempt to give solutions to learning problems but simply suggestions to manage workflow in the class. Overcoming learning problems is a topic on its own. You can read more about the extra lesson here.)

You will find that even with doing all the above there will be days when the three-day rhythm stretches to four days and sometimes you and the children flew through everything in two days. One strives to keep to three days but again a real life situation sometimes calls for some adjustment and adaptation. Always do what is best in the real life situation and do not try to force the three-day rhythm when for instance you sense that your child or class need some more time to assimilate all the information you have been given them or on the other hand if you sense that they need more content to keep them interested and occupied.

References

Steiner, R, 1975. The Three Stages of Sleep. Anthroposophy Today, No 4

Steiner, R, 1996. The Foundations of Human Experience. 1st ed. New York: Anthroposophic Press.

The e.Lib: An Electronic Library. 2017. The e.Lib: An Electronic Library. [ONLINE] Available at: https://wn.rsarchive.org. [Accessed 24 February 2017]. Steiner, R. The Being of Man and His Future Evolution – Forgetting.

 

Rudolf Steiner