The Waldorf Approach to Science
In my last article in The Link, I wrote a general overview of Waldorf education, putting forward a few ideas on how parents wishing to work with Waldorf might adopt it – or elements from it – to their homeschools. In this article I would like to look at the Waldorf approach to science, which, like everything else in Waldorf, is a bit different from how one might ‘normally’ teach science.
Absolutely fundamental to Waldorf education is the belief that each child is a spiritual being, come to this Earth with a purpose. Equally, as nature itself is the handwork of God, one wishing to truly understand nature – and science – should cultivate a reverential, awe-filled approach to its study. The study of science, therefore, is an attempt at understanding the mysteries of life itself and, as such, the all-too-common ‘edu-tainment’ approach to science should be avoided. One wishing to reveal some of these mysteries would be well advised to stay away from the ‘awesome’, ‘cool’ and ‘fun’ boxes of tricks on the market, designed and used by those who believe that children must be lured into wanting to study science, that science itself is not interesting enough. This always amazes me, because in my experience, as a teacher, youth worker and a parent, children are always ready to explore science, whether it be examining mouse and vole remains in owl pellets, observing how different substances burn, or marveling at frost patterns on a window.
Marveling… ah – there’s the key. The Waldorf approach to science – as well as to learning in general – is to cultivate an attitude in young children of awe, an attitude which will allow them to see the marvels of science around them, instead of developing a cynical ‘so what’ nonchalance. Cultivating awe is, of course, easiest in very young children. By nature, young children are explorers, bringing their in-born sense of wonder to discovering the world around them. By encouraging our children to explore and to develop their senses, a heightened experience of the world will occur. By having plenty of time in nature, by being raised in a peaceful and nurturing environment in which there are many opportunities to explore mud, water, sand and sound, children will begin to form meaningful experiences upon which later scientific experiments and learning will be based. In contrast, an early childhood experience which is over-stimulating, full of noise, hustle and bustle, and the barrage of TV, videos and computers, dulls the senses and is antithetical to a development of qualities of awe and reverence. And, as children under seven learn mainly through imitation, our own reverential attitudes (or lack thereof) toward life – toward nature, our families and home life, our spiritual lives – are a crucial matrix from which the child learns to behold his surrounding. In Waldorf pedagogy, reverence is seen as a major prerequisite to strengthening and developing one’s intellectual powers, as the following quote from Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, explains:
It is not easy at first to believe that feelings such as those of reverence, respect and so on, have anything to do with cognition. This is because we are inclined to regard cognition as a faculty by itself, unrelated to other happenings in the soul. We forget that it is the soul which exercises the faculty of cognition; and feelings are for the soul what foodstuffs are for the body. If a body is given stones instead of bread, its activity will die away. So, too, with the soul. Veneration, respect, devotion, are nourishing foodstuffs which make the soul healthy and vigorous, especially in the activity of cognition. Disrespect, antipathy, under-estimation of what deserves recognition, exert a paralyzing, withering effect on the faculty of cognition.
In addition to qualities of awe and reverence, a ‘training of the senses’, as it is referred to in Waldorf circles, is considered vitally important to opening the way for intimate experiences of scientific phenomena. Based largely on the work of Johann von Goethe (1749 – 1832), the Waldorf – or Goethean – approach to science is a deeply experiential one, where the belief is that human beings can in fact be participatory observers of life, not merely outside observers. This latter view was popularized by the philosopher Kant, who believed that people were only capable of a kind of rational intellectualism, a view still dominant today, and one which infuses life with a most deadening kind of materialism.
By working with one’s senses, as well as with a kind of disciplined intuitive imagination which does not have us sailing off into the realms of make-believe, but rather shapes our thoughts into an understanding of possibilities, changes and metamorphosis of phenomena at any given moment, we can start to have an appreciation of the dynamic vitality of nature. We can have a glimpse of the miracle of life when, for instance, we hold a dandelion in our hand and, working with this sense-informed imagination, make real pictures in our minds of the life history of that dandelion, imagining it as seed and young plant, seeing the moment of its life we hold in our hand, then imagining forward to see it eventually produce seed, wilt and die and continue into the possibility of a new plant.
Why is this important? It is important because in our age nature and science have been stripped of all relation to God’s world and are almost always presented in the most crass materialistic ways. Take, for example, most books dealing with the human body, that most awesome (in the real use of that word) and perfect piece of handiwork. Almost always we are confronted with text and pictures that reduce our bodies to a series of pumps, circuit boards and ovens! The metaphors have become the things themselves!
From a Waldorf perspective, one tries to present to one’s children a picture of the wondrous inter-relatedness of the various systems of the human body, helping our children appreciate that we are greater than the sum of our various parts. We infuse our study of the body – and of all subjects – with an artistic approach which helps a child understand that ‘knowing’ something is not simply a case of having memorized facts, but rather that various people’s artistic experiences and interpretations of phenomena are just as important. So when we study weather, for instance, Shelly’s poem Ode to the West Wind can be just as important to help children get a sense for the weather as memorizing the Beaufort Scale.
Art and science are never divorced in Waldorf education. And it is not that one merely takes an artsy approach to teaching science, but that one takes an artistic approach. Being artistic is about being open-ended, flexible and creative in one’s search for a living way to teach one’s children. It means, for instance, not just reading text books about plants, labeling a few diagrams and perhaps pressing a few leaves for a scrapbook. It means squatting down with a clipboard and colored pencils in a wet spring wood, drawing skunk cabbages, smelling their smell and really feeling – sensing – the surrounding of that plant, understanding something of its role in nature. It means bringing that sense of awe to all one’s science studies and thereby getting a glimpse of the order and purpose of life.
One way of enhancing this sense of order and purpose in science is to ensure that the child’s formal science studies are based firmly on her earlier experiences. For example, a study of acoustics (usually undertaken at around age twelve in the Waldorf curriculum) would be based on the child’s earlier experiences of playing recorder. Interval, pitch, tone and vibration all make much more sense to someone familiar with a musical instrument.
Furthermore, when working with Waldorf one always ensures that phenomena are experienced first and only after they have been left for a bit – preferably after a night’s sleep – are they first recalled, then artistically experienced, and then, finally, enlarged upon and intellectually examined. So if one is, for instance, working with a chemistry experiment, one would simply demonstrate the experiment the first day (or let the student perform the experiment) and then clean up and put everything away. The following day the parent and student would discuss what had happened, using memory and recall. How much of the substance was used? How was it heated? What happened – exactly? Then what? A disciplined approach is used – exact recall and observation are crucial to a successful scientific experiment. The student then draws a beautiful picture of the experiment – not a fanciful representation but a precise drawing, accurate and colorful. After this the parent and student discuss the experiment, extrapolating what was learned, hypothesizing about future experiments.
The open-minded, essentially artistic approach which Waldorf emphasizes is extremely useful in discouraging premature opinion-forming. It is considered far better to live with a question for a period of time, remaining open to insight and experience, than to quickly jump to conclusions. Like the qualities of reverence and awe, such flexibility and fluidity in thinking not only allow for great depth of intellectual experience, but are in themselves characteristics worthy of encouraging in any human being.
Science permeates the Waldorf curriculum, although the pen-and-clipboard crew might not recognize some of it as such. As I explained in my previous article, no formal teaching occurs in Waldorf kindergartens or in Waldorf homeschools before age seven. But the children are certainly ‘doing science’ all the time: outdoor play in nature; careful, meditative painting with primary watercolors; singing and hearing music; baking and cooking… Observing and experiencing the weather and nature are obvious next steps but experience and imagination are emphasized over dry intellectual content through most of the elementary school years. In Fourth Grade the children study zoology, which is usually referred to as Man and Animal because in Waldorf pedagogy it is felt that it is important to always relate the world of nature to the human being. In Fifth Grade the children study botany; in Sixth Grade, physics, geology and sometimes human biology. Astronomy, more physics and chemistry come in Seventh Grade and Eighth Grade culminates with more chemistry and human biology and usually more physics. The high school curriculum is similar to that of any prep school, but the approach continues to be vastly different.
Homeschoolers can take a flexible approach to the curriculum, but if one wants to penetrate the hows and whys of Waldorf education, one would do well to look into exactly why physics or chemistry or any other subjects are studied when they are. For the Waldorf curriculum is not arbitrary: it is based on profound knowledge of child development and the curriculum’s purpose is to speak to the developmental needs of each child. Furthermore, the grace and harmony of the curriculum can be seen in how it is inter-related. A good example of this can be taken from the Seventh Grade curriculum: seventh graders, thirteen years old, are on the threshold of adolescence: looking forward to being a teenager and an adult, looking backward to earlier days of childhood. In Waldorf schools, seventh graders study Renaissance history. This was the time of the great explorers, men who were looking forward to a new age and with an enthusiasm and boldness reminiscent of young teens, they set off with only the rudest of astronomical tools. These tools and the stars themselves are studied in Seventh Grade. And, as the Renaissance progresses and scientists arise who question the status quo (like teens) huge progress is made (more independence is gained). Seventh Graders study Galileo, Tycho Brahe, Isaac Newton and the scientific advances which radically changed our world.
For Waldorf homeschoolers, this means working to understand what lies behind the Waldorf curriculum, not, in my opinion, merely following it “because that’s how they do it in Waldorf schools”. I advocate an approach to Waldorf that has a big dash of unschooling in it. Whilst this combination is unfathomable to many Waldorfers as well as to many Unschoolers, I believe that it is eminently do-able.
I have recently written a book called From Nature Stories to Natural Science: A Holistic Approach to Science for Families. In it I look at the Waldorf science curriculum K–12 and what is behind it in some depth, giving lots of practical ideas on how one could work with the curriculum at home. I review hundreds of Waldorf and non-Waldorf books and resources and also give some ideas on how one could use one’s yard and garden as the basis for much of one’s family science explorations.