Four Phases of Teenage Development Reflected in the Waldorf High School Curriculum June 08 2015
Four Phases of Teenage Development Reflected in the Waldorf High School Curriculum
In broad strokes, each of the four years in the Waldorf high school curriculum embodies an underlying theme and method that helps guide students not just through their studies of outer phenomena but through their inner growth as well. Obviously, these themes and methods are adapted to each specific group of students and take account of the fact that teenagers grow at their own pace. Hence, the “broad strokes.” And yet, one can identify struggles common to most any teenager even though adolescents pass through developmental landscape at varying speeds, they nonetheless have to cover similar terrain.
As the freshmen plunge into the high school, they are also plunging with new intensity into the materiality of their bodies (with the unfolding of puberty) and into the immateriality of abstract thinking. There is tension in this opposition: often struggle, occasionally even revolt. The ninth grade curriculum is sensitive to these tremendous developmental changes and struggles. It allows the students to see their inner experience reflected back to them in outer phenomena. In physics, for instance, students study the opposition of heat and cold; in chemistry, the expansion and contraction of gases; in history, the conflicts and revolutions of France, Russia, and the U.S.; in geography, the collision of plate tectonics.
Through the chaos and tensions of these struggles, students are summoned to exercise powers of exact observation: in the sciences, to describe and draw precisely what happened in the lab experiments and demonstrations (without, as yet, an overlay of theoretical explanation), in the humanities, to recount clearly a sequence of events or the nature of a character without getting lost in the confusion of details. The objective here is to train in the student powers of exact observation and reflection so that they can experience in the raging storm of phenomena around them the steady ballast of their own thinking. Strong powers of wakeful perception form the basis for later years of study—well beyond high school.
One may summarize the approach of this freshman curriculum with the seminal question: What? What happened? What’s going on here? What did you see and hear? A final note on the freshman year. Unlike other high school programs, which often start at the beginning of Western culture in Grade 9 and work their way steadily up to modern times, our curriculum begins in the modern worlds: 19th and 20th century in history, contemporary short stories in literature, recent discoveries in life sciences, etc. Again, we find that the ninth grader hungers for experiences of the “here-and-now” the yearning to uncover the ancient beginnings of things has yet to stir.
From the turmoils of Grade 9, the tenth grader begins to discover a certain balance or midpoint between the violent collision of opposites. Physiologically, one may observe in boys a steadier gait as their legs grow to catch up with their oversized feet, in girls, greater measure of poise and self-assurance. Mentally, the sophomores may begin to seek a certain order in the confusion, a midpoint to opposition.
The curriculum responds to this search with subjects that incorporate balance: in chemistry, the study of acids and bases, in physics, the principles of mechanics in earth sciences, the self-regulating processes of weather patterns in astronomy, the co-equality of centripetal and centrifugal forces in embryology, the play of masculine and feminine influences.
Through the study of balance in natural and human phenomena, students can begin to find their own fulcrum. In doing so, they are called to exercise powers of comparison, weighing in the balance contrary phenomena to determine their value and significance—and also their origin.
Students may discover that in this balancing of opposite, new forms can arise— whether in clouds and tides, planets and solar systems, male and female sexuality. This discovery may, in turn, prompt the desire to explore the origins of things and to find the source of their forms in the beginnings of the universe or of history or of human language. In other words, the study of ancient times can now begin at a deeper level.
One may summarize the themes of this grade with the seminal question: How? How does this relate to that? How do these contrasting phenomena interrelate? And how did they come about?
As adolescents enter the second half of their high school career, generalizations about their development become increasingly difficult the strokes must grow ever broader. “Sweet Sixteen,” however, is a typical time of newfound depths to the inner life of thoughts, feelings, and deeds. Deeper—and more individualized—questions may begin to burn often this is the year in which students feel the urge either to change schools or even to drop out of school altogether. In these inner prompting, a new and urgent voice speaks. “Leave behind what you have been given,” it says, “and get on with your own journey!” Outer statements of growing independence abound also: in dress, hairstyle, part-time jobs—and, perhaps most exciting, the driver’s license.
The curriculum for the junior year allows the students to cut free to a greater degree from their peers and set off on their own uncharted course into the invisible recesses of life within. In a way, the junior year curriculum could be characterized by this theme of invisibility: namely, by the study of those subjects that draw the student into areas not accessible to the experience of our senses. Such a journey requires a new type of thinking—thinking not anchored in what our senses give us—and a confidence that this type of thinking will not lead us astray.
In literature, this journey to an invisible source is captured in the block classes devoted to the Grail legends and to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Other subjects call upon similar power. In chemistry, the students enter the invisible kingdom of the atom (invisible because, by definition, one cannot “see” atoms) in physics, they explore the invisible world of electricity (which we can see only in its effects, not in its inherent nature) in history, they relive the Medieval and Renaissance times in which mean and women set off on their individual quests and journeys to destinations unknown (and, in some cases, unknowable) in projective geometry, they follow parallel lines to the point they share in the infinite—a point which can be through even though it cannot be seen.
In summary, like the horizon that beckoned Columbus, calling him to venture beyond its visible edge, the dimensions of the classroom are vastly enlarged in the junior year to embrace the furthest reaches of the student’s own imagination and interests. In all of these subjects, the student is launched into individual projects and research assignments. In addition, each student is required to undertake an individually conceived and executed science project.
These voyages to the invisible landscapes pose a central question intended to strengthen the student’s powers of independent analysis and abstract theorizing. The question is: Why? Why are things this way? Why did the events of history take this or that course? And even deeper “why” questions—those of destiny, life’s meaning, social responsibility—often find their way into the classroom at this stage.
The 12 years of Waldorf education have sometimes been compared to a giant tower set in a vast expanse of landscape. In first grade, one enters at the ground level of this tower and begins to climb a long spiral staircase. At each level (or floor) of the tower, one can look out through a window that gives a partial perspective on the surrounding landscape. Some curricular “windows” are set above one another, though at different turns of the spiral (for example, the “windows” at the levels of grade 7 and 11, or of 8 and 9). While it is beneficial, of course, to have climbed the full 12-year staircase, it is remarkable how swiftly students who join the climb catch up—thanks, in part, to periodic returns to the subject, though each time at a different level and with different purpose.
Approaching the twelfth grade, the seniors push open a trap door in the roof of the tower, as it were, and step out onto an open turret. Now, for the first time, they survey the full panorama of the landscape that they had previously only glimpsed from eleven preceding perspectives.
In other words, the senior year is intended, on the one hand, to be the gradual synthesis of the education—the great stock-taking and preparation for the next stage in learning—and, on the other, the fully conscious placement of oneself in the center of this panorama. The senior curriculum serves both purposes by offering subjects that synthesize many themes—world history, survey of architecture, Faust—and relate these themes to the centrality of the human being. Additional examples: the students study our relationship to the varied animal kingdoms (zoology) or to the great thinkers (e.g., the Transcendentalists) and writers (e.g., the Russian novelists who have wrestled with the question of our place in this world). Assignments increasingly call upon the students to pull together, to synthesize disparate disciplines in an attempt to address the central question of the senior curriculum: Who? Who is this being called human? And— who stands behind the outer play of events and natural phenomena, pulling them together into a synthesizing whole?
In this sense, the curriculum of the twelfth grade not only recapitulates the themes of the four years of high school but also returns to the place where the Waldorf curriculum began in grade 1: with the image of the whole. Now, however, the difference, one hopes, is that the student will truly “know the place for the first time.”
Grade 9 — trains powers of observation with the question: What?
Grade 10 — trains powers of comparison with the question: How?
Grade 11 — trains powers of analysis with the question: Why?
Grade 12 — trains powers of synthesis with the question: Who?
Douglas Gerwin, Ph.D., has been a high school and college professor for 35 years, teaching History, German, literature, music and life science. He is a Waldorf graduate himself, he has taught high school teachers to become Waldorf teachers for two decades. Dr. Gerwin has published nine books on Waldorf Education including a comprehensive "Survey of Waldorf Graduates" examining the lives of Waldorf Graduates spanning 60 years.