‘schools of pseudoscience’

Steiner education poses as great a threat to children’s science education as creationist schools, it is claimed in a letter to The Observer this morning:

‘However, not enough attention has been paid to two equally grave threats to science education, namely Maharishi and Steiner schools. Maharishi schools follow the educational methods of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, guru of the transcendental meditation movement, while Steiner education is based on an esoteric/occultist movement called anthroposophy, founded by Austrian mystic Rudolf Steiner (“Holistic unit will ‘tarnish’ Aberdeen University reputation“). [...] Anthroposophy is centred on beliefs in karma, reincarnation and advancing children’s connection to the spirit world.’

Perhaps this little push will at least help journalists and even the Steiner schools themselves to present Steiner more honestly. No, he wasn’t simply a scientist, philosopher and educationalist. He was indeed a mystic who founded an esoteric, spiritual movement, and the waldorf school movement came into being as a part of this anthroposophical movement and based its methods upon its founder’s anthroposophical ideas. It’s not always easy for people outside the movement to know what is actually taught as science in these schools. This post is worth reading again, too. Should someone want to explore the waldorf/steiner from waldorf/steiner proponents themselves, this little book is potentially of some use, though I fear it gives a far more reasonable picture than reality.

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32 comments

  1. The “little book” Alicia links to might be small, but it is scary!

    “Indeed, we present him [the pupil] with truth when we reveal to him something of the Mind and Will of the Creator while describing His Creation.”

    If this isn’t religious teaching, nothing is. Notice the short but dangerous word “truth”. Not all of the document is scary in that way, I find the discussion about Goethean science especially interesting. And some more of what is written in the section “Rationale behind Waldorf Science Teaching”.

  2. From my children’s school there have come quite a few good science graduates, off hand I can think of 5 in the last few years, and this from quite a small school – 1 class in each year.

    You would find a similar situation as regards Catholic schools. Going to a catholic school and indeed being a Catholic does not stop you being a good scientist.
    Where the Steiner schools have a problem is in some teacher’s queasy and unsound notions of what counts as science and what is something else.
    In a Catholic school you will be taught good science and then in the religion lesson taught that science works because God created the universe this way.
    Essentially the same belief system is at work in the Steiner schools – but they sometimes fail to separate the two conceptual categories as well as Catholics do.

  3. That’s an interesting observation, falk. I wouldn’t dispute that, perhaps against the odds, a Steiner school can produce good science graduates.

    It does worry me that all the science books, without exception, in the bibliography of Richter & Rawson, the curriculum book endorsed by the SWSF, are from Anthroposophical publishers. This book was produced “on behalf of the Pedagogical section… at the Goetheanum”. I haven’t checked, but I’d be surprised if the science curriculum at any Catholic school relied solely on books from Catholic publishers endorsed by the Vatican.

  4. Melanie · ·

    Sometimes fail? The whole point of a Steiner school IS anthroposophy.

    Falk says (rightly): ‘Where the Steiner schools have a problem is in some teacher’s queasy and unsound notions of what counts as science and what is something else.’

    Is this any surprise?

    Over to Graham Kennish, who kind of explains why there’s been so much bizarre, self-indulgent (and poorly spelt) anthro-twaddle on the comment threads after Steiner related recent articles:

    http://www.christopherushomeschool.org/learning-more/articles-on-aspects-of-waldorf-education/teaching-biology-in-a-human-context.html

    Go for public money, face public scrutiny.

  5. Falk is talking about science graduates. Are we talking about the same thing? A science degree used to mean physics, chemistry, biology, medicine. The Bristol school on the other thread are not talking about that when they mention science, they are talking about environmental science, it turns out.

  6. Falk:

    “From my children’s school there have come quite a few good science graduates, off hand I can think of 5 in the last few years, and this from quite a small school – 1 class in each year.
    You would find a similar situation as regards Catholic schools. Going to a catholic school and indeed being a Catholic does not stop you being a good scientist.”

    Indeed it is quite possible for religious schools to have good science teaching. My son attended Quaker schools and had some excellent science teachers. The comparison to Catholic (or other religious) schools fails, however, in that the Catholic schools do not pretend not to be religious schools. They are not SECRETLY imbuing a doctrine the parents don’t understand and that sometimes conflicts with the science education.

    “Where the Steiner schools have a problem is in some teacher’s queasy and unsound notions of what counts as science and what is something else.”

    No, that is not the main problem. Indeed many Steiner teachers seem confused on what is science and what is “something else,” but you have still not put your finger on the problem. The REAL problem the Steiner schools face is that many are simply not honest about what they are teaching, and the purpose of the education. If you will simply explain to parents – before they enroll – what anthroposophy is, and the role anthroposophy plays in both the curriculum (it is the inspiration and theoretical foundation for the curriculum) and in the cultural life of the school, then most Steiner parents, who tend to be pretty well educated, will quickly see for themselves that they had better scrutinize the science curriculum. If the science curriculum is fundamentally inspired by anthroposophy, there’s no debate and no difficulty figuring out that it isn’t a sound science program. Let the parents see this for themselves, simply by honestly advertising your school. Don’t downplay this fundamental problem, it’s not just that a few of your teachers are a little confused; it’s built into what you’re doing.

    It’s not a question of whether SOME kids come out with a solid science background anyway, despite a weak science program. Of course some might, depending on renegade teachers, or tutoring at home, special programs, science camps, the Internet, etc., or other things many Waldorf families are doing with their kids outside of school (and which the anthrozealot teachers often disapprove of).

    “In a Catholic school you will be taught good science and then in the religion lesson taught that science works because God created the universe this way.
    Essentially the same belief system is at work in the Steiner schools – but they sometimes fail to separate the two conceptual categories as well as Catholics do.”

    Again, you misstate the basic nature of the problem. The problem is not that they don’t properly separate these two activities – religious education and scientific education. The problem is that in anthroposophy they CANNOT be separated. The teachers aren’t really confused, the teachers are just implementing their training. Steiner would not agree with you that religion and science are separate. The teachers have not been taught that “science works this way” because God made it so. They’ve been taught that the ways Steiner said things work is REALLY the way it works – remember the original meaning of the word “religion” – to “re-link”? They BELIEVE in this link, and they believe Steiner showed all these links – the spirit world behind all material reality etc. This, they pass on to the children.

    And why NOT teach this to the children if it’s true? If this is true according to the tenets of the religion, and you’re running a religious school, this is what you should WANT to pass to the children, and you should sign up parents who also believe this and also want their children to learn this. This is exactly why religious schools exist.

    This is why this is so hard to resolve, because the problem is not a wee spot of confusion about science and religion. The problem is hypocrisy and dissembling and secrecy. Teach what you BELIEVE and advertise it that way to the parents. Solves all these problems.

  7. What a great letter!

  8. Helen says, ‘A science degree used to mean physics, chemistry, biology, medicine.’ I was referring to a young man from my daughter’s class who is now a senior psychiatrist in Edinburgh, a lad from a younger class who now has a PhD from Imperial College in particle physics, a girl with a PhD from Cambridge in Biology where she now works as a respected research scientist, a young man with a PhD in Agriculture (See the ITV video on Steiner Schools on Youtube), and another young man, the son of a friend, who last year got a First in Physics from Imperial College and is starting his PhD at Oxford in September.
    No environmental stuff there. However I do know an ex-Steiner pupil who is doing good work for DEFRA in the fisheries following his degree in marine biology.

    I went to a Catholic school. It was a vile place but that is another story.
    We all knew what the belief system of the vile priests/brothers was, they tried to beat and indoctrinate it into us every day. We had to pray before the start of every lesson, attend mass and benediction every week -religious education was THE most important part of the school day. BUT it did not interfere with our ability to think for ourselves and become good scientists, doctors, business men, teachers or whatever.
    And in Catholic schools the avowed intention IS to turn the pupils into devoted catholics.

    In Steiner schools the avowed intention is to produce people who can think for themselves.
    Very few pupils become devotees of anthroposphy. Out of my two children’s classes (50 pupils) there are none. In my son’s class of 25 there were 3 anthro families and in my daughter’s class there were 3. None of those pupils have turned into Anthroposophists.

    I realise that everything above is only anecdotal evidence but lacking any objective research in this realm it seems that that is the best anyone can do.

    It is life experience that makes anthroposophists not Waldorf education.

    I agree with Melanie that Steiner schools should not be seeking state funding. Only secular schools should be funded by the state and nothing else, but parents should have the right to choose something different and pay for it if they feel that is the right thing for their child.

  9. Hello everyone, I’m here, just slightly invisible, or supersensible, not unlike ‘materialistic’ evidence for spiritual science. Just want to say hello, so: hello! I’ll be back. Lots of good comments, keep it up! Interesting day.

  10. Melanie · ·

    Well, anecdote. Falk – this is far from the reality that I’ve seen myself, amongst children who were in Steiner school with my sons. So, my experience differs.

    For example – there are children who have been for a while at a Steiner school who go on to OTHER SETTINGS in which, like my older son, they catch up.

    If there was any evidence that Steiner schools do even as well as other private schools with a similar cohort (middle class, affluent, educated, involved parents) it would be everywhere! It just isn’t true – and a few exceptions won’t make it true. I have every sympathy for the youngsters whose education is ruined while their parents wait for a miracle to happen. It’s the many, not the few exceptions, we should worry about.

    I don’t know how accurate your figures are, but I’d be surprised if you really knew that much about your children’s ex-classmates.

  11. “Very few pupils become devotees of anthroposphy. Out of my two children’s classes (50 pupils) there are none. In my son’s class of 25 there were 3 anthro families and in my daughter’s class there were 3. None of those pupils have turned into Anthroposophists.”

    They’re not recruiting the pupils – they’re recruiting the parents. The pupils are there and may or may not come away with Anthroposophy, but the *parents* are the ones who are being introduced and indoctrinated into Anthroposophy – and Waldorf schools have regular Anthroposophy classes for parents (AFTER they have enrolled their kids – not before). Of the 50 pupils you mention, were there parents who became involved with the school, maybe some who went on to take Waldorf teacher training, or moved to open their own Waldorf school?

    I’ve been producing a new blog of parent reviews… and MANY, despite having horrible experiences, blame the *individual* school for not “doing Waldorf” properly. Their expectations never having been met, they assume the failure was the fault of the individual school. These parents have been sucked into Waldorf… and continue to push it without any practical experience to support that it’s anything but dishonest.

  12. It’s important to realize that the intention is not to produce anthroposophists IN THIS LIFETIME necessarily. Waldorf is working on your kids for the long term – the cosmic long term, over many lives, many eons of human evolution. This is karma. Karma never gets worked out in one lifetime (that’s almost the definition of karma).

    I would also quite doubt that Falk’s figures are accurate, regarding Waldorf grads in their current lifetimes … Some Steiner grads “come to” anthroposophy later in life, and that is part of the plan. I think Steiner grads are particularly vulnerable at certain points in their lives, usually in periods of uncertainty or big change, such as losing a job, or for others, becoming parents.

    Also, it is not always either the student OR the parent whom they are “recruiting.” Again, karma works in mysterious ways. Sometimes it is a sibling; sometimes it is the children of the children, sometimes it is the parents, or a grandparent, or the teacher! Remember, in Waldorf, the teacher’s “spiritual journey” is sometimes even more important than the children’s.

    In short, they are about karma, not about “recruiting” particular people on actual intake to the school. That would be so materialistic …

    Finally, always remember that they need money. Some children have absolutely no karmic role to play; they are fee payers. The schools could not run if they recruited only anthroposophists’ children, and quite plainly could not continue to operate if parents en masse got the notion that their children are being recruited to anthroposophy. They would simply close.

    So no – it’s accurate to say that they aren’t expecting all or most of the students to become anthroposophists. But putting it that way isn’t exactly telling the whole truth, is it, Falk?

  13. ‘The problem is hypocrisy and dissembling and secrecy.’

    ‘But putting it that way isn’t exactly telling the whole truth, is it, Falk?’

    One of the things that draws me to Alicia’s blog is her own genuine interest in truth and justice and she draws many commentators whose world outlook is very different to mine.

    Diana doesn’t seem able to accept that someone can genuinely see and understand things differently to the way she does without lying about it or attempting to deceive in some way.

    Pete says, ‘They’re not recruiting the pupils – they’re recruiting the parents.’ The parents I spoke of were already anthroposophists which is why they chose a Steiner school.

    Melanie says, ‘but I’d be surprised if you really knew that much about your children’s ex-classmates.’ When you are together in a project with a group of people for 9 years in my son’s case and 13 in my daughter’s you can get to know them fairly well. My son is in contact with many of his class and so is my daughter. We, the parents, are interested in each others children. Remember I was and am an educationist – I am very interested in outcomes, I still have good contacts in the school.

  14. Melanie · ·

    Falk – this letter, which was signed by several prominent scientists, was submitted by the British Humanist Association and was not thrown together on a whim. Believe me.

    Much as you would like to single-handedly protect the reputation of Steiner education, the evidence is very much against you.

    I take exception to your comment about Diana. She too has a ‘genuine interest in truth and justice’.

    And Pete is right – they are recruiting the parents. They tried to recruit us, at the beginning. We don’t feel any anger about this, but perhaps you don’t credit my experience? I saw parents slip toward anthroposophy and change over a period of time – did I imagine that? Some trained as teachers. Most of us who moved away tried other Steiner schools, and recoiled. Several different Steiner schools. Am I not interested in truth and justice? I’ve talked to children so traumatised by their experience of Steiner education that they cannot bear even to drive near their old school. These anecdotes are no less real than your anecdotes about how well you know the inner lives of your children’s ex-classmates.

    The point is not the proportion of individuals who become anthroposophists, what is at issue is the content of teacher training courses, the curriculum used within the schools and the fact that the proponents of Steiner education are not honest about what informs their pedagogy.

    Which is anthroposophy.

  15. Sorry to be so absent, but I just want to agree. Parents who aren’t already anthroposophists, often seem to be seekers. Some, I’ve seen it myself, became waldorf teachers or got more and more involved. As for the children — even waldorf, at lucid points in time, hint at what it’s about. Not producing ‘believers’ then and there but to ‘help’ the child in the long run, even the very long time. Preparing humans for another time of higher consciousness.

    In my personal experience, science education sucked. It was either entirely absent or sub-standard.

  16. Melanie · ·

    Letter now on the BHA site: http://www.humanism.org.uk/news/view/1035

  17. Falk:
    “Diana doesn’t seem able to accept that someone can genuinely see and understand things differently to the way she does without lying about it or attempting to deceive in some way.”

    I have a lot of discussions with people who see things differently from me, whom I don’t think are lying. The Steiner schools, I think are lying about the role of anthroposophy in the schools.

    For what it’s worth, however, those comments aren’t meant to accuse YOU of lying. They are general, about the common apologias for Steiner education. You do parrot some of them, but so do many Waldorf supporters, without deliberate intent to deceive. The deception comes from the top (Dornach).

    Still, I can’t help noticing you don’t have a substantive reply to what I pointed out. You resorted to ad hominem, implying I am not interested in truth and justice.

    Instead, how about explaining what our disagreement is, if there is one? You stated that the schools don’t aim to recruit the students to anthroposophy, and I pointed out several rather important qualifiers to that statement. Which of my qualifiers was inaccurate?

    The fact that “coming to anthroposophy” can take more than one lifetime? The fact that some students in Steiner schools aren’t thought to have karma there, but the school still needs their tuition? The fact that karma might work in unapparent ways, like the karma with the school might be on the part of a parent, teacher, even grandparent, rather than the student? (If I’m recalling correctly you actually made a similar point to me recently, so I don’t think any of these are brand new thoughts to you.)

  18. Btw, I got SWSF’s reply in my google reader, but there’s no link to it, so unfortunately I don’t know where they’ve published this thing.

    Here it is, in full text. (Sorry.)

    ****
    Science Teaching in Steiner Schools
    from SWSF News by noreply@blogger.com (Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship)

    Dear Sirs,

    The letter invoking fear of `pseudoscience` in proposed Free Schools (Observer Sunday 13 May) suggests that Steiner education poses a `grave threat to science education`, whilst offering no evidence to support the statement. Is an evidence-based approach not central to all good science? In Steiner schools it certainly is. In Steiner schools all science teaching begins with the close observation and direct experience of physical phenomena in order to gather evidence, rather than with a description of prevailing theories and models. An open mind as to causes and first principles is encouraged. Conclusions and concepts are then derived from the observations and finally the theories that explain the whole are introduced. This approach reflects the way that science has developed historically. It is an approach that resulted in the 2006 PISA study into Austrian Steiner schools concluding that state schools could learn from Steiner methods `especially concerning science teaching`, an approach which led to the same recommendation from a National Academies report in the USA, an approach that has produced scientific alumni such as John Fitzallen Moore, Prof. Dr. Wolf-Christian Dullo and Kristen Nygaard. It is an approach favoured by the parents who want their children to receive a scientific education that empowers them to question, enthuses them to explore, and equips
    them with a context in which to consider the ethical and moral issues that surround science. The `grave threat` our youngsters face is one posed by science-as-orthodoxy, not by an educational approach that is rigorous, open-minded and questioning.
    Alan Swindell SWSF

    ****

  19. The Austrian PISA study indicates that waldorf pupils have more FUN while doing science, but LEARN LESS. Results in mathematics are declining. I’m sure some parents would be even more angry about this kind of misleading information than about not being informed about the spiritual agenda.

  20. “Pete says, ‘They’re not recruiting the pupils – they’re recruiting the parents.’ The parents I spoke of were already anthroposophists which is why they chose a Steiner school.”

    So, the entire school was made up of Anthroposophist parents? I’d love to see this school… it must run smooth as a Swiss watch.

    I think they can afford to let a lot of potential *recruits* slip through their fingers. If they’re recruiting 5% of the individuals who pass through Waldorf, they’re doing better than most religions (if not all).

    From Swindell’s letter”

    “In Steiner schools all science teaching begins with the close observation and direct experience of physical phenomena in order to gather evidence, rather than with a description of prevailing theories and models.”

    Oh, I’m sure Waldorf teachers have closely observed people of different races and could conclusively proclaim that “the blood of Europeans is more evolved than the blood of Africans and Asians.” Or is that something Swindell suggests they ask the children observe this for themselves?

  21. Melanie · ·

    Who can forget this classic post from last year, in which the SWSF ‘threatens to sue critics if they GO TOO FAR':

    http://zooey.wordpress.com/2011/03/22/swsf-threatens-to-sue-critics-if-they-go-too-far/

    with masterly analysis by Alicia, who follows Alan Swindell down the rabbit hole and gives his furry ears a good tug.

  22. Yes, in the past few days, I’ve been a conducting an experiment to see how far is “too far” – so far… nothing from SWSF. I’ll keep pushing on… and who knows… maybe at some point I’ll have gone “too far”… I think there must be a REAL place on the internet called “Too Far.” But Swindell’s reputation precedes him, and until there is some *new* evidence suggesting that Swindell has stopped lying, I’ll have to assume he’s lying about this too… especially since I’ve gone nowhere near TooFar.net.

  23. Wherever too far is, I would like to go there too.

    If State scholols are to learn from Steiner methods in teaching science, as suggested, I suppose at least we would all be good at pottery.

  24. Which is not so bad. The day we need pots more than literacy!

    (Well, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to teach pottery or any other crafts. Not at the cost of literacy and numeracy though! I think there’s room for both.)

  25. I can throw a pot! But I learned in the evenings at my own expense, not in science lessons at school, as they do here.

  26. Well, no, it’s probably not adequate as science lesson!

    But in principal, pottery is no different than arts or other crafts, activities which schools offer. In the waldorf school I went to, there was pottery, book-binding, metal crafts… the only problem is that doing *all* these things might push the academic subjects aside. In waldorf, with all the painting, singing, flute-playing, eurythmy, knitting, wood crafts, et c, they are pushed aside already. That’s the problem, not pottery itself.

  27. Would that be “bam pottery”?

  28. Well I am thinking of the College of science and art where there is no science except through pottery (sorry to repeat).
    I think crafts are fine. It should be called a college of Art and craft. Which is what it is.
    Or maybe a college of pseudoscience and art. That may go down well, come to think of it.

  29. Nobody disputes that some former waldorf students go on to have careers even in science. The question is why — is it because of the school, despite the school, or wholly irrelevant of the school? Considering the segment of families and children waldorf attracts — is waldorf doing better or worse than we’d expect? As Diana put it:

    ‘It’s not a question of whether SOME kids come out with a solid science background anyway, despite a weak science program. Of course some might, depending on renegade teachers, or tutoring at home, special programs, science camps, the Internet, etc., or other things many Waldorf families are doing with their kids outside of school (and which the anthrozealot teachers often disapprove of).’

    In Sweden you’d need to take extra courses anyway — a degree from waldorf high school does not give you access to most scientific courses and programs at a university. It is free of charge, as far as I know, but it would require the student who wants to go into science to go back to school for a year at least.

    Ulf:

    ‘The “little book” Alicia links to might be small, but it is scary!
    “Indeed, we present him [the pupil] with truth when we reveal to him something of the Mind and Will of the Creator while describing His Creation.”
    If this isn’t religious teaching, nothing is. Notice the short but dangerous word “truth”.’

    Yes, small and scary! That, which you quoted, is more religious than anthroposophy. Which says a lot.

    Falk:

    ‘Essentially the same belief system is at work in the Steiner schools – but they sometimes fail to separate the two conceptual categories as well as Catholics do.’

    Essentially, they always fail to do that, because failing to do that is inherent in the waldorf idea. Science should be ‘spiritualized’. If they at least left the facts untainted. But as Diana wrote, in anthroposophy, science is not separate from the spiritual. It can’t be.

    ‘In Steiner schools the avowed intention is to produce people who can think for themselves.’

    That, hopefully, is the intention of all education. The question is — which kind of education succeeds best?

    Pete:

    ‘I think there must be a REAL place on the internet called “Too Far.”’

    Perhaps a blog. toofar.blogspot.com. Publishing all things that might be going ‘too far’ for mr Swindell ;-) Thanks for remindning us about that old post, Melanie!

  30. A blog too far …

  31. I’ve got a couple working titles for my next blog… “I on Waldorf” and “Why Waldorf?”

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