How a Waldorf Approach to Science Prepares Students for the Future
by Jennifer Chace (Previous MPCS Faculty Member)
When I was in middle school, our teacher stood in the front of the cold, gray room, his white lab coat perfectly clean and buttoned, and he lectured and lectured and lectured on something to do with balancing equations and perhaps converting Celsius to Fahrenheit. While he was lecturing, I was busy – alternately praying for an early dismissal due to snow and glancing at the clock to see how many more minutes separated me from the hallway and my friends.
Is middle school science designed simply to be a test of students’ patience and ability to appear alert while simultaneously being bored to no end?
Not at a Waldorf school it isn’t.
I had the privilege of teaching Physics, Chemistry, and Physiology to middle school students. And I loved every minute. One of the reasons it was so deeply satisfying was because I could create a four-week block for each subject in which the lecture-style course would be replaced by direct experience, personal connection and reflection, and independent thinking. I could create the class I wish I’d been able to take as a middle schooler and then take it myself by teaching it!
We are at our best as teachers when we are modeling active learning and exploration, and there is perhaps no better subject for offering this to students than science.
Preparation for Middle and High School Science
Science is interwoven throughout the curriculum, starting in ECE. The students’ ability to wonder, observe, imagine, inquire, reason, deduce, and think critically are carefully developed in multi-dimensional ways in preparation for middle, and then high school science.
The preparation for the work of middle school science begins in the Early Childhood class. The children who experience wonder, delight, and sensory stimulation in their physical interactions with the natural world are creating connections and deep impressions that will later serve their work in science.
In the early grades, the children who are led to notice that the oak stands stiff and tall while the birch bends and sways in the wind, and those who wonder how it is that the hare survives the harsh winters that drive us inside, are cultivating skills of observation and imagination, both essential in scientific study, whether or not the deductions are correct. As well, when our young students retell a complex story in clear, sequential detail, they are developing the capacity to put events in order, a prerequisite to understanding cause and effect.
In the middle grades, the child who learns to draw a piece of sedimentary rock precisely and to ask questions that lead to more questions, as opposed to assimilating pre-digested answers, is learning the skills of separating one’s feelings of like and dislike from observation of phenomena, as well as the joy of independent scientific inquiry. What supports ongoing scientific study is “I wonder what would happen if,” not “I know.”
Middle School Science
Rudolf Steiner often told his students that they should not take his word for anything; he exhorted them to do their own research, find their own connections, and come to their own understanding. In a Waldorf school, we ask the same of our students.
The main blocks of middle school science are Physics (3), Chemistry (2), Anatomy and Physiology (2), Geology (1), and Astronomy (1). Meteorology, Botany (first taught in fifth grade), and more Astronomy are often woven into other blocks as well.
Wonder, Observation, and Direct Experience
One year, my class built a fire on the first day of the chemistry block. Students gathered to sit, watch, and draw. The drawing was meant to evolve through the process of igniting, burning, and smoldering. Precision and fluidity were both absolutely necessary. There was no time for “I know.” There was only time for what was.
The lab table sat in front of the room for the next few weeks. The students witnessed bright solids turn to gray ash, bunny fur transform into acrid smelling goo, and invisible forces suddenly extinguish ardent flames. Each of these experiences cultivated interest in the students who were able to wonder and be stimulated by seeing something new happen to something familiar. Following demonstrations or experiments, the class recapitulated what they had observed, without drawing any conclusions.
Concepts out of Insight
Then, the next day, after further clarification of our observations, we discussed what insights might be drawn. I was able to share concepts built on the students’ direct experience and personal insights. The concepts were readily assimilated because each student had connected to the phenomena through her senses and feelings, actively wondered, questioned, deduced silently and aloud in discussions, and finally, decided how to represent the observed process correctly and artistically in order to best illustrate the processes we had witnessed.
Main Lesson Book: Knowledge in Action
Each experiment in a science block is written up and illustrated as a main lesson book page. How would you illustrate on paper carbon dioxide halting the process of oxidation so that one unfamiliar with the topic would understand it? Waldorf students learn that just “knowing” is not really the point. Doing something with knowledge through actively sharing and using the knowledge as a springboard for further inquiry – that is the work of the true scientist, and that is what our middle schoolers at Mountain Phoenix do too.
Our middle school recently had the pleasure of hosting Michael D’Aleo, a renowned Waldorf science teacher, teacher educator, and former engineer. Michael visited classes, gave feedback on lesson plans, and demonstrated experiments. But much more importantly, he reminded us, not through lecture format or didactic methods, but by leading us to experience specific phenomena for ourselves, that middle school science is most essentially about bringing students to think in an entirely new way.
This new way of thinking requires that we set aside assumptions we have lived with since our own earliest science lessons, assumptions of which we are mostly unconscious. It requires that we see for ourselves the patterns the world has placed in front of us. It requires that we think for ourselves, based on our own experience.
The world does not need adults who simply accept the conclusions of others. The world needs adults who have the imagination and the clarity of thought to conceive of creative solutions to problems that don’t yet exist. What could be more exciting and satisfying than leading your children to be those adults?