For children, as for humankind, science means different things at different ages. Students in Waldorf schools experience Science as a journey which gives them confidence in their own measures of things. It isn’t having the answers that counts, nor even having the questions, but having a sense of one’s own experience pertains to both the questions and the answers in a way that unfolds as evidence. In addition to a comprehensive emphasis on participatory observation and experimentation, the science curriculum in Waldorf schools follow two of the most basic guidelines in Waldorf education:
1) Ordering the kinds of learning most relevant for development and most suited to the kinds of questions and involvement children will be able to call their own.
In later grades, a Waldorf teacher is called to find approaches to science that answer both the developmental challenges of pre-adolescence and scientific competencies necessary for subsequent schooling. Science and mathematics teaching in Waldorf schools function as prologues to the demands made by higher education for intensely abstract learning. That capacity gains natural strength with adolescence.
Before then, many aspects of Waldorf education cultivate competency for abstraction through arts, music, movement and games. When the time comes, a Waldorf educated child will typically be able to draw a powerful sense for the abstract from elements of many of the creative skills in which they have become proficient. At the same time, responsible science education in the middle school may have to take account of where science appears to be heading, and what kind of inspirations will serve to maintain interest in science over the long run. From this perspective, what appears important is a sense of purpose of science; a quest for truth and for the improvement and protection of humanity.
Waldorf schools typically guide participation in ecologically orientated projects in order to awaken and sharpen an idealism which will consolidate the motivations fueling a career in abstract learning. The Waldorf teachers objective is that students be strongly interested in and excited by science, have the personal resources to succeed in learning what will show itself as worth learning, and have the confidence and originality to distinguish what is worth learning and what is not. The specialized languages, rapid change, and institutionalization of contemporary science in fact require that students be always able to renew their own motivations when encountering it, be more able to learn new science than contain old science, and be able to distinguish the science that extends human understanding from that which merely proliferates as an academic business.
2) Working from the Whole to the Part
Where the criteria of comprehension hinges on the ability to apply conceptual abstractions, Waldorf teachers believe that Science is best taught on the basis of encountering phenomenal wholes for which a sense for the kinds of abstractions which are most relevant emerge. One way to emphasize wholeness is to insure that engagement with the subject begins from sense and feeling as well as abstract thought. In biology, organisms and their life-cycles and the ecology in which they participate are given attention before organ systems, cells, and molecular biology; until there is a feeling for life, the instrument readings by which life’s components are analyzed invite reductionisms which are neither accurate nor pedagogically nourishing.
Likewise in physics, we find it important that warmth is felt, sound is heard and light allows us to see: should these phenomenal fundamentals be neglected, the mystery of nature – the awe which has motivated the scientists to which we owe most – becomes nothing more than moving magnitudes and magnitudes of motion. Thus the geometries of soap bubbles can become a more effective introduction to the principle of least action than an mathematical account of Newton’s apple.
In science, wholeness is found not only in the phenomena it treats, but also in its own story. Waldorf education is profoundly humanistic but this does not mean it underemphasizes science. Waldorf education finds wholeness in science by showing science’s own development, and by telling stories of its discoveries and discoverers. By the time science becomes a focal part of the Waldorf curriculum, Waldorf students are already connoisseurs of storytelling: they have experienced dramatic shifts over the years in the kinds of stories that are brought to them and are ready, when new kinds of stories are brought, to unfold new ways to approach learning.
In science they encounter stories where learning and discovery are center stage in such a way that the truths and errors belonging to individual experience come to be sharply defined, and the questions hiding behind every answer are themselves shown to make history. The individual discoveries of science are by this demonstrated to be only part of the truth of their subject. Should a Waldorf teacher, for example, choose to introduce the Linnean taxonomy or the Periodic Table of the elements, he or she might be careful to show how the sciences and times of which they were part needed to approach things by means of classifications – and how the “truth” of such an approach could also be seen as holding back and slowing down what would be the next important understandings of their subject.
Thanks to Clifford Skooog, from Waldorf Education – A Family Guide
See Science in action at The Waldorf School of Philadelphia – Combining Music and Science for Resonant Learning