Human learning style reverses at puberty, Ogletree revised

Before puberty our gut brain nervous system predominates.  The conscious self is weaker.  After puberty, our cerebral brain predominates; gut brain is now the weaker partner.  This change-over during puberty, is the centerpiece of human stage development.

Written by Bruce Dickson, Health Intuitive.  Initial gift session available by phone-Skype.

ogletree-child-mirror-200pxThe following is excerpted from an unpublished thesis, Composing Your Own Vision of Whole-child K-12 Education…Growing the new eyes to see age-appropriateness (2002).

This idea has its origin in Waldorf education.  The difficulty of conventional scientific proof prevents it from being more widely known.  An empirical research study is  easy to devise but requires muscle testing a thousand people and addressing cross-cultural aspects.  Few individuals have awareness or language to self-report on this topic.

We are grateful to Earl Ogletree, a former Waldorf teacher, now professor emeritus at Chicago University, for the only known article on this topic. Readers aware of better presentations than this one, are encouraged to contact this author. While Earl was actively teaching in the late 1950s and early 1960s in New York, he edited the little-known Introduction to Waldorf Education, Curriculum and Methods (1979 Washington D.C., University Press of America). This can be found at some university teacher training libraries. Inside is the following article. To our knowledge it has never seen print elsewhere.

Human physical development, seen as a whole, has two most-striking features, birth and death. After that, the third most stage-development feature, in order or magnitude, is puberty; including, sexual maturity.

Again, after birth and death, the most significant stage-development is physical puberty. This is paralleled by the most significant development towards independent thinking in our psychology, the reversal of learning style at puberty.

This healthy changeover is THE crux of child development for K-12 parents and educators.

It’s also accurate to call this change a reversal of conscious arousal.

Earl does not claim credit for this insight. He attributes it to Rudolf Steiner without mentioning where exactly Steiner sparks the topic. Our personal ramblings thru most of Steiner’s education lectures in English has turned up no source or references. Elizabeth Grunelius mentions the topic in one paragraph in her Early Childhood Education and the Waldorf School Plan (1966, 1974). Like so many of Dr. Steiner’s insights, it may have been an aside, tossed off in some unrelated context. Credit is due to Ogletree and Grunelius for salvaging this gem.

The following is Earl’s article, revised, slightly expanded, and reorganized for clarity as deemed appropriate by the present author.

geometry-6th-grade-waldorfSteiner’s psychology of learning observes adults generally react to events or learning situations in a characteristic sequential pattern. Given a new experience, adults often react:
– first with thoughts,
– then with feelings, and
– lastly with a call to action.

Example 1 ~ Salesperson

A salesman tries to engage a passerby adult on a product for sale. Salesmen will often attempt to engage adults in this manner:

1) Present the problem or situation in terms of concepts, make an appeal to thinking: “Here’s a great new idea. I’d like to tell you about it.”

2) Connect the idea with personal sympathy or concern, make an appeal to feeling, make it exciting: “Isn’t this a useful product? Wouldn’t that feel great in your home? Don’t you just love it? I love it. You’ll love it too.”

3) Appeal for an active response: “Buy now, sale ends today! Better hurry! This price is for a limited time only!”

Example 2 ~ Two farmers

1) “Hey, you know the old wooden bridge down over the stream? It has five boards rotten on top.”

2) I’m worried and scared. The next time you drive your tractor over it, it may collapse on you.”

3) “What say you and I tear down the old barn and use some of the lumber to fix the old bridge?”

Example 3 ~ Conventional high school teacher

1) “Here’s what I want to talk about with you today, the idea of co-valent bonds.”

2) “I want you to know this. This is important. Better write it down because it will be on the test” (motivation thru negative feelings).

3) You have to write a paper on this idea and it’s due this coming Wednesday.

The above example how people after puberty are aroused by new ideas, first by appeals to thinking; second by appeals to personal sympathy or concern. Finally a call to action because action, deeds and spontaneous physical responses are the most complex to arouse in persons after puberty.

Yet, if one approaches a child BEFORE PUBERTY this same way, …the child’s cooperation is unlikely; we might even say, doomed to failure.

Why is this?

The capacity to apply intellectual and abstract thinking independently comes only after years of encountering concrete situations with both things and people. Abstract solutions are the “mature fruit” of concrete physical and sensory experiences, a little unintentional Piaget here I think.

Because healthy abstractions come as the capstone of much larger volumes of physical and sensory experience, Steiner, Dewey, Glasser and others prize hands-on and experiential lessons for children prior to puberty. Hopefully this was the case in your youth as well!

Adults have millions of experiences from which they construct ideas and abstractions from. …The young child lacks not only physical and mental growth, but also lacks a sufficient diversity of experiences to provide a basis for forming-developing abstractions. This is not to say children cannot think, are inferior to adults, or that children do not have meaningful experiences. It is only to say the nature of their thinking prior to puberty is not conceptual and suggests why this is so.

How the child is aroused, birth to pre-puberty

According to Steiner’s theory of learning, not only does a qualitative difference exist in thinking pre- and post adolescence, a pre-adolescent child’s learning process proceeds in the opposite direction from adult learning process. The stages of learning and engagement for the young child are generally:

1) Active participation and expression, psychomotor activity. The larger the activity, the more the larger leg muscles are involved, the greater the appeal,

2) personal identification and affect, appeals to feeling, emotion or imagination,

3) aiming to understand, to reason, analyze and form concepts, appeals to thinking.

Readers unversed in Waldorf age-appropriate whole-child education will find the rest of Earl’s book an introduction to what K-12 curriculum looks like when motivation is flipped over to the learning style of pre-adolescence. Since Earl’s book is out of print, we recommend Marjorie Spock’s Teaching as a Lively Art (Anthroposophic 1985) as the best introductory book.

Another familiar situation serves as an example. Children younger than four are not curious about strange adults. The novelty of a strange adult does not attract the very young child unless they are doing something interesting like putting out a fire or driving earth-moving equipment. Clearly children younger than four are uncomfortable with strangers and this feeling determines their reaction. Should a stranger, usually a woman, approach a child four or younger with smiles, baby talk and positive extraverted feeling, often this gives the child a positive feeling which then enables the young child to then take interest in the stranger.

We can conclude general learning style of post-adolescents reverses, inverts or flips over from what exists in pre-adolescence. Whether this is healthy or optimal is not debated here. The supposition is this is perhaps the MAIN but not the only healthy stage-development pattern.

Many readers who are parents will readily intuit this explains much of the psychological significance of changes at puberty. The old style of learning is jettisoned. A new, unfamiliar reversed style becomes the norm. A period of discombobulation is common if not optimal.

The Three Selves adds the insight that in physiology our nervous system flips over. Instead of attending to our gut brain predominantly, as we used to, we now are invited-encouraged to respond primarily to our cerebral nervous system. Viewing only the nervous system, this is the only sense in which this changeover is mechanical or physiological.

Young children learn through doing

Arousing the interest of a child can involve interrelated and overlapping steps. Depending on the age of the child, an appeal to feeling might precede an appeal to physical activity, as above. The most significant point here is that intellectual concepts per se are quite difficult to press upon the child before adolescence. We can even say as Waldorf experts do: logical and analytical thought must not be pressed upon them.

For the young kindergarten child, curriculum content must especially be pre-chewed, pre-digested by the teacher, boiled down into what the children CAN DO, into an active presentation ideally with song, music and gestures. Content must be removed from the realm of concepts and intellect and brought into the realm of will, feeling and movement. Content must be removed from the realm of concepts and intellect and brought into the realm of will, feeling and movement. If you wish the elementary child’s full attention and participation, concepts must be transformed and translated into the realm of feeling, emotion and imaginative appeal.

These insights into how the evolving nature of children’s interest–depending on which side of puberty they are on–leads to a non-intellectual approach to educating pre-adolescent children.

This is a very simplified introduction to Waldorf education and in no sense is intended as the total picture of Steiner’s theory of learning (Ogletree 247-248 revised, expanded and reorganized).

This ends Earl’s article.

From this point on we refer to either the reversal of learning style or the reversal of arousal at puberty.

Chart in the form of a mirror:

POST-adolescent learning style

Thinking, concepts and new ideas

Appeals to feeling, emotion, imagination

Movement, especially
rhythmic, lyrical, spontaneous activity


Movement, especially
rhythmic, lyrical, spontaneous activity

Appeals to feeling, emotion, imagination

Thinking, concepts and new ideas

PRE-adolescent learning style

The arousal patterns of pre-adolescents and post-adolescents face each other as in a mirror, one the reversed image of the other.

How does the one become the other? The above suggests this reversal is an inversion or flipping over of the arousal and learning process. While a lemniscate transformation (a lazy eight) has been suggested to visualize this change, the Inner Family Inner Court suggests something more complex and comprehensive in the difference between how the four members are arranged in the gut brain and their quite different arrangement in the cerebral brain.

The above is the distinguishing insight of age-appropriate, whole-child Waldorf-methods curricula:

This then is the insight that when acted upon, distinguishes Waldorf theory and method.

Waldorf methods education is fundamentally not a philosophy or any abstract theory. It is a best attempt, an ongoing, evolving attempt, to address the evolution observed in children on all levels PACMES on their way to thinking for themselves independently.

From the viewpoint of physiology, content for each school year is scaled to the yearly progress children make in their transition from one dominant nervous system to another.

Significance of reversed arousal pattern

1) For those who find the above credible, it may dawn how frustration follows teachers who measure curriculum success exclusively in terms of academic/intellectual performance for children four, five and six– really any age prior to puberty. Attempting to engage children as you would adults violates the observation of reversal of learning style.

William Glasser says somewhere in The Quality School that asking young children to do work that is boring is like asking someone with shorts on to sit on top of a hot stove. Teachers expecting to “get thru” to young children the way they “get thru” to adults, are bound to be disappointed.

2. Pride stops us from working with the insight of how learning style reverses at puberty. The capacities we are proudest of as adults, “know-how,” “withitness,” and thinking in general, are immature in students before puberty. Their higher faculties are literally undeveloped, dormant. There is little in the cognitive domain of a child an adult can relate to. So we pretend they are like us. that’s easier for us, for adults.

In the young child, the blooms that will become adult fruit have yet to form, let alone open for nourishing content. Imitative and imaginative play is the work of childhood before puberty. Imitative and imaginative play forms the bud, unfolds the blossom. Then the adult, the gardener, comes and fertilizes the bloom with appropriate activity. This is how adults and young children differ.

The primary job of childhood through puberty is unfolding new capacities. Children explore. Can I climb this tree? Can I ride this bicycle? Can I read this sentence? Can I use a paint brush? Their inner mandate is growth.

3. We forget we were taught wrongly when we were in grade school (unless we attended a quality Waldorf school or something comparable). Under stress, all teachers revert to learned behavior, whether the original teaching was good, bad or indifferent. We will teach as we were taught–unless we make conscious effort to teach according to the rule,

Do unto children as they would be done by.

PS: For dog lovers

What engages a dog most? Telling your dog you will take her outside and throw the ball for her–means nothing to your dog. Only taking the dog outside and throwing the ball for her–action–means anything to your dog. Only actions speak to plants, animals and young children. This is how it is with the growth forces, which children are most identified with.

Only later, after puberty, when the teenager begins to dissociate from only being identified with growth forces does the promise of playing a game with them later have some meaning.

Next topics along these lines

– The next biggest thing whole to part, is seven year stage development model. See either Steiner or Gesell.

– School-start age in the history of education supports starting intellectual development later, not earlier. Which nations have the highest literacy and what are their best educational practices?

– The astonishing “fall” of college level content down into kindergarten curriculum in some conventional public schools.

If you get stuck, please give me a call.

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