Friday, September 23, 2011

DRAWN TO MEANING





 A Buddhist nun once  asked a teacher about the meaning of a sutra she had been studying for many years. The patriarch responded by asking her to read out the passage because, he explained, he was illiterate. “If you cannot recognise the characters, how can you understand the meaning?” she asked, astonished at his ignorance.
“Truth is not the words. Truth is like the bright moon in the sky. A finger can point to the moon’s location, but the finger is not the moon. To find the moon you must gaze beyond the finger. Is that not so?”



Drawn to Meaning: Peter Pointer, Digby Digit & a Handful of Indications

Children make marks: some accidental, some very, very deliberate & not always in the right places - according to adults. In the days before mass schooling an illiterate man, unable to sign his name, but faced with some form of contract or legal document (for such things were then a male prerogatives) would be asked to “make his mark”. A millennium or more BCE, people of the Upper Palaeolithic period also left marks: handprints, patterns, highly focussed portraits of bison or stags with fleeting little stick men hunting them. Closer to our own time, a mere 151 years before I sat down to write this article Edward Fitzgerald translated the Farsi of the Omar Khayyám (around 1100CE) as follows:
The Moving Finger writes, & having writ
Moves on: not all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all they Tears wash a word of it

The fore-finger of the spirit writes indelibly, it seems; it is not only our footprint we need to think about!
Pointing is an action we take for granted. It seems so simple & obvious, but like trying to find a definition for the word, “That”, it is surprisingly complex. (Try it). While domestic dogs appear to “understand” the pointing gesture of their human companions to some extent, studies of chimpanzees are at best inconclusive. But in spite of headlines like “Dogs Understand Pointing as Well as Toddlers” (based on a report of research published in Animal Cognition, July 2009) the situation is less clear. In fact dogs follow the movement of the arm, or as the researchers put it, "Our results show that dogs can understand the pointing gesture if a body part protrudes from the body silhouette". In other words, even trained dogs (sheep dogs for example) fail to understand gestures such as an inclination of the head, a mere lift of a finger, a foot or elbow point, or when an arm motions one way but the finger points to one side[1]. What dogs “understand” from the action of pointing might be the subject for a different discussion: what this means for children is one of those universal keys for education & human culture.  
The research suggests is that after centuries of close contact with people, dogs seem to be able to follow the crudest of pointing gestures of their human owners. In that respect, the researchers propose, dogs do as well as children under the age of three. Readers of Kindling will probably know that the third year is a significant milestone in development. It is a period when the child’s linguistic capability typically takes an enormous leap, & as kindergarten practitioners, who recognise the importance of gesture, the connection between these things should be very much to the point.

Pointing is a co-operative gesture, &, among people, to see the point is to follow an intention, to read signs that take us beyond single-minded selfhood, which also implies the achievement of degree of selfhood in the first place. Lifting a finger, making your mark is a first indicator of our capacity to imbue those marks with personality & thus meaning & purpose. Little wonder then that Michelangelo, who knew more than most about images & meaning, depicted God instilling the vital human spirit into Adam with a dynamic index finger. Little wonder the illiterate sage in our story compares words to a finger pointing at the moon. For a gesture is an indication of something not immediately “to hand” & while Wittgenstein proposed that ultimately the only things that can be spoken about are those we can point to, he seems to have presumed too much about the gesture involved. If I raise my hands & place them gently over my heart it is probably not to demonstrate anatomy. A complex gesture can mean many things. Even with simple pointing there are worlds of difference between pointing with index, or Jupiter, finger (which might be an impertinence), pointing the whole hand (an invitation to speak, or a strong emphasis, depending on the inclination of the palm), or pointing index & middle (Saturn) fingers together (bang!). Significantly, gestures are quite specific to certain cultures of societies. Curling your index finger towards someone may seem reminiscent of a seductive temptress in a Holywood film, but try it in the Philippines, where it is considered a gesture for dogs, & you might be arrested.   
Making pictures follows from pointing. The toddler’s first marks & scribbles, those big loops & twirling circles of concentrated effort, are part imitation & part pure organic vivacity. Once complete the “picture” can be discarded because these are the ash of a firry activity: the child is drawing herself into the doing-ness of the world. As in kindergarten, so in the home, the “Steinerised” mother does her child no particular service by providing only colouring blocks. The crayon is an extension of the index finger & in the absence of paper, or if not, mud, condensation on a window or the breakfast yoghurt will do as well.
Drawing starts as exercise of the bodily self, but gradually, at around the age of three it begins to gain an extra dimension. Michaela Strauss’s book, Understanding Children’s Drawing[2] remains a fascinating guide to all this. Strauss carefully catalogues the primary gestures that appear in children’s drawing beginning as a literal imprint of children’s growth & development. Once the appearance houses & people emerge from random scribble, one starts to see composition & colour playing a part & gradually the young artist becomes a story-teller in pictures. Long before a child can read, she becomes literate in images: “Here’s me, & mummy & daddy’s in the garden & it’s raining & I’ve got my hood on &...” You might say, this phase starts with the circle (house, person, universe...) & with that comes kindergarten.
Except where a child has fairly serious additional needs, or (which comes to the same thing) (s)he has been deprived in some way of the essentials for healthy development, children who enter the kindergarten are already sophisticated image makers. As the organic phase ebbs, an iconic phase rises. Pictures take on a totemic quality. They include the child’s hope, fears, anxieties, longings, but most of all they depict how the child experiences her world. Once a child enters this phase, colour becomes more important to enhance & emphasise the qualities of that world. The opportunity to splash around in potentials of colour, through painting, now has its entry point & the adult has the privilege of being given snap-shots of an emerging soul. If that is so, when it comes to crayons, do we do the right thing for the children if we restrict the range of colours available? Audrey McAllen, & others, have made the case for not excluding the black crayon from the kindergarten, suggesting that children need access to black crayons so that they can to express their experience of the skeleton. We should be similarly cautious, I believe, about the idea that young children should only be given block crayons.
Like many things in the Waldorf cannon, block crayons were not available to the first teachers. When they came on the scene it was for pedagogical reasons for a particular group of children – aged 11-12 – not even for Class One. It sometimes seems as though these waxy bricks have become a defining feature of Waldorf for the younger children. And they are extremely good to work with; a powerful pedagogical tool. Essentially, they are a “solid-painting” medium, ideal for blending & teaching children to build a vocabulary of illustrative gestures & forms, which is part of the aesthetics curriculum. Used in this way, however, they call for certain amount of conscious technique: that is the nub of the problem too. Aesthetics in the kindergarten is embedded in the environment: in rhythm & orderliness, in the nature table & the way food is set at snack-time. In other words the “authority” with which the class teacher works is withheld in the kindergarten; working inwardly for the practitioner so that it informs the whole way the kindergarten is conducted. Because of this withheld authority, the kindergarten leader can work with the capacity the young child can developmentally respond to & most needs: imitation.
In consciously creating a child-appropriate environment in the kindergarten drawing materials will certainly feature. Just as Rudolf Steiner did not suggest that all the paper used in early years should be trimmed to have rounded corners (& might well have objected to the idea), he did not propose the use of block crayons. In fact the stick is nearest to the finger. If you look again at Michelangelo’s God giving Adam vital spirit in the Sistine Chapel, you might notice how the fingers of Adam’s limply extended left hand are shaped as if he were holding a large pencil. One of the things that young children might learn by imitation in in the kindergarten - & something that Class Teachers should always teach - is the correct way to hold a writing implement. If children only use block crayons in kindergarten, I believe an opportunity (& a reality) is missed. Although I have been unable to locate any reference to substantiate the claim, I have heard it said that Rudolf Steiner suggested that pre-school children could be led via imitation to simple form drawing including the forms of letters although without overt teaching of phonics. That is an idea that certainly deserves consideration, especially as part of any sessions held for the six year old group. The indication may be anecdotal; the best things often are!
The young child is modelling him or herself through the environment & out of that modelling comes the powerful impulse to create in all sorts of unsophisticated ways. Once in school, the unity of growth & development begins to find there are distinct currents & flows: singing, playing music, movement, poetry, story-telling, painting, form drawing & modelling... At the same time the icon maker becomes progressively a maker & user of symbols. Each art, & each stage of life, possesses distinct properties & language. A richly enlivened culture depends upon an ability to bring the colours of one to bear on the formalities of others. It has been reported that at the end of his life Steiner spoke to the effect that if he were starting the Waldorf School again, he would “turn everything 180̊ in the direction of the artistic”. Perhaps in some sense, though not fully, or comprehensively, that has been happening during the century since an education founded on Anthroposophy was first proposed.
 In The Riddle of Humanity[3], Steiner pointed towards a reawakening of cultural/artistic life:
The real aesthetic conduct of man consists of the fact that the sense organs become enlivened & the life processes become ensouled   
That may seem a long way from the day-to-day life of a kindergarten, where life processes are so very much in evidence & senses are at their most acute. It may also seem not to have much connection with the development of literacy. In fact, it could be seen as a cornerstone for what Waldorf education strives to do. Reaching this in our present time involves preparing our material, having icons, or pictures to whisper to us, symbols we can read, until we discover them all transformed & transcended in the reality of “the moon”, sun, & stars. Indications are needed for the journey; but they are not the destination.
Meanwhile, if you’ve been worrying about how Digby Digit got to be in the title of this article: sorry, but that’s only for the Upper School! 
          



[1] Gun dogs, such as the aptly-named, Pointer, of course, do not truly “point”. They are trained to hold a pose preparatory to hunting which enables the human huntsman to locate the position of the target 
[2] Strauss, M, Understanding Children’s Drawings, Rudolf Steiner Press, 1978
[3] Steiner, R, Riddle of Man (first published under this title 1916), Mercury Press, 1990

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