Human life is filled with rhythms. They play an essential role in all life processes and in processes of cognition as well. Every rhythmical exchange is at the same time a process of transformation. The air we breathe out is quite different from that which we breathe in. We can discover such moments of transformation in the child´s learning. When writing, we no longer think of the struggles we had to learn the individual letterss. All this has been forgotten and becomes the ability to write. This rhythm of remembering and forgetting can be used consciously by teachers to support the child´s learning. Waldorf education strives to support these processes not only through rhythm in movement, but also through teaching methods which take the rhythmical nature of learning into account.
In the course of the last decades, the significance of rhythm for the existence of the human being has been re-discovered. We can see that all life is rhythm and that the interplay of vital processes is a harmony of rhythms. Taking a closer look at the human being we can discover a variety of rhythms. Research into chronobiology has revealed the rhythmic character of metabolic processes and their medical significance. As conscious beings, we are related to our environments by numerous rhythms. This is quite obvious in two fields which we are rarely aware of; the rhythms of breathing in and out and those of sleeping and waking. Although these two rhythmic processes are physiological, we also experience them as changing conditions of the soul. Our breath feels totally different when we are approaching the end of an exciting adventure story and when we listen to a symphony and, half dreaming, immerse ourselves in its world. Anyone trying to work after a sleepless night knows what there is to know about the relation between a good night's sleep and the ability to concentrate during the following day.
These two rhythms accompany us throughout our lives. However, they undergo changes in the course of life. This becomes obvious when we compare the sleep rhythms of new-born babies with those of full-grown adults. A new-born child daily spends about twenty hours asleep. The waking periods gradually extend. Towards the end of the first year of life, children are already awake for more than half the 24-hour day. When school begins, the noontime nap often comes to an end. Not until the end of puberty does the length and the structure of the sleeping period approach that of the adult.
There is a significant connection between directed interest in a particular thing and the lengthening periods of wakefulness in the growing child. The longer the periods of being awake, the greater attention is devoted to the world around the child. There is a parallelism between physiological and psychological awakening. This can be very significant for an understanding of children's learning processes and for the way lessons are built up from such an understanding.
Sleep does not only play a passive part in the soul life of the human being. When we can't cope with a problem, we are often advised "to sleep on it". Trying to come to what we feel to be an important decision in our lives, we may toss from side to side one evening before finally dropping off to sleep, and then find a definite direction upon waking up. Experiences of this kind point to the fact that sleep is far from being a period of inactivity for the soul itself.
The alternation between consciousness and loss of consciousness, between waking and sleeping, is a central aspect of all processes that are connected with learning. Once we know how to write, we have forgotten the step-by-step process of learning how it is done, of drawing one letter after the other. Whatever we have learnt, can fall into forgetfulness, i.e., it can vanish from wakeful observation and consciousness. For the faculty of thought, forgetting is the same thing as sleep is for waking. What has been learnt is now transformed into a faculty. The conscious use of the rhythms of remembering and forgetting is essential to the formation of abilities and faculties.
The practise of working with certain subjects every day for three to four weeks – block teaching – is based on this principle. It has been employed in every-day teaching in Waldorf Schools from their inception. Many other schools have introduced it in various forms.
Teachers strive to give a rhythmic structure to individual lessons as well; practising, reflecting on a subject that has been brought to the children's notice is followed by the presentation of a new element. Whatever has been taken in on one day is remembered and reflected on during the following morning. Waldorf teaching works with the rhythmical qualities of the diurnal cycle of day and night in strengthening memory and creative recall. In this way "forgetting" is very much part of learning.