science teaching in steiner schools

There’s a Steiner education thread on the British Centre for Science Education forum. In this thread, MarkH has written a comment I think is important, and I hope he will forgive me for quoting it quite extensively.

It is, unfortunately, difficult to find out what’s actually going on in the classroom. When I asked the Hereford school for some information on lesson plans and the science curriculum, they referred me to a book by Richter & Rawson: “The Educational Tasks and Content of the Steiner Waldorf Curriculum”. This is apparently the major source on which the curriculum in most UK Steiner schools is based. The chapter on life sciences is particularly interesting. There’s no specific mention of creationism and evolution is taught, though with some reservations. Although said to be useful within certain limits, Darwinism is “rooted in reductionist thinking and Victorian ethics”. We are urged to give the fullest consideration to questions such as whether we are “a naked ape or a spiritual individuality clothed in a physical body”. Evolution is singled out as an example of the limits of science, whereby existing theories can be superseded by more powerful and useful descriptions of nature. Alternatives theories are not discussed, but we are assured that “current ideas” will be replaced during the students’ adulthood.

Other worrying aspects of the life sciences curriculum include the claim that “the circulation of the blood is not a closed system and the pump model is not sufficient to understand the circulation of the blood or the sensitivity of the heart to the emotions”. “The limitations of the germ theory of disease”, the benefits of certain childhood diseases and discussion of vaccination in the context of rejection of foreign proteins by the immune system, are all hints that Anthroposophical ideas and culture can seep into the science curriculum.

In chemistry, Richter & Rawson give homeopathy as an example of a phenomenon that cannot be explained by “atomic theory”, with its unfortunate “implicit materialism”. A couple of paragraphs later, the authors emphasise that an open-minded approach to science, “grounded in clear thinking and exact observation” should be cultivated. However, there is little evidence here that students are given the tools to think critically and to differentiate objective phenomena from illusion and personal, subjective interpretation.

Perhaps people who read this blog might have things to add to the forum thread; I’m not a member of that forum, but if you have important perspectives to add, don’t hesitate to join. It’s an important topic. Basically, all I remember is learning about the four elements: water — fire — air — earth. With illustrations copied from blackboard, I guess. Also poems and drawing nature stuff and hearing about butterflies. My science report says my drawings were poor. Wish I’d kept the lesson books. I knew barely any science at all when transferring to a mainstream school. That tells us nothing of the general quality of science teaching in Steiner schools, I guess. The document that Mark has found does that, however. It is worrying.

23 thoughts on “science teaching in steiner schools

  1. Thanks Alicia for pointing others at the BCSE thread. No problem at all with quoting most of my comment. People might want to note that if you register as a new user over there, it can take 2-3 days for the moderators to approve your account before you can add a comment.

  2. Thank you for reading that book and making sense of it… It is very important that other people than anthroposophists do it, people who understand what they’re reading. (Politicians and other people who are responsible for education ought to read it, but I bet they won’t. And parents rarely read these books that are aimed for the teachers; they read stuff adapted to parents… stuff meant to sell waldorf, not instruct about what is to be taught.)

  3. Yeah, I thought about posting some of the stuff that passes for “science” at Highland Hall, but didn’t want to bother with the registration process at the moment.

  4. I cry foul. Sune/excalibor/mycroft/Eva/WaldorfMum, or whichever of your thousands of aliases you are using today, you are howlingly wrong on this one.

    In other schools, students much younger than 12 know quite a lot of science. You are inadvertently revealing that you actually believe it is appropriate for there to be virtually no actual teaching of science to children. Waldorf is wrong on this. “Phenomenological” with regards to science teaching in Waldorf schools is a fancy-ass word meaning, they write poems and draw pictures of plants and animals (and even then, they are often expected to copy the teacher’s drawing fairly closely). That is NOT science teaching. “Phenomenological” is supposed to fool parents into thinking this is actually some sophisticated pedagogy connected to the latest cool, quantumy/neurophilosophical postmodern edu-research. It is not – it is a cover for teaching exactly what an esoteric quack fed to gullible audiences a century ago, while keeping (and allowing the teachers an excuse for remaining ignorant of) the revolutionary scientific advances of the past century from the children as long as possible – at least till high school, preferably.

    It is a crying shame to deny children knowledge about their world, which they are ready, willing, and eager – nay, desperate – to learn about, practically from birth.

  5. Trust me … when a 12 year old transfers to a school with rigorous academics, they need to know way more science than a 12 year old coming from Waldorf would generally know (unless he/she has been tutored/encouraged at home, ignoring the disapproval of the Waldorf teacher and school). It is not just facts they would lack, but a mindset of critical inquiry, a familiarity with the basic processes of the scientific method – data collection, objective measurements, valid comparisons, falsifiability of theories, etc. – that is not only avoided in Waldorf, it is CONDEMNED in Waldorf for children under puberty.

    This puts such students at a truly grievous disadvantage in terms of science and technical education. In Waldorf Land an interest in such a career or such an education would be viewed scornfully, of course; a sign that the child was “overintellectualized,” damaged by “abstractions,” ahrimanically influenced, spiritually retarded, perhaps even possessed by demons. A 12 year old has not even yet experienced the birth of his/her “astral body”; this means he/she should basically still be chasing butterflies and drawing pretty pictures of them.

    Parents beware: there may be a few schools that are exceptions to this rule, but Waldorf is not the place to start a search for a good science education.

  6. A recent Highland Hall HIGH SCHOOL GRAD who was having problems in college was told, upon entering his college chemistry class, that he should have learned the very basic material they were covering IN THE FIFTH GRADE!

    There is no shortage of idiots who will recommend Waldorf.

  7. Sune, I bend over backwards to help you not make a fool of yourself, but it’s hopeless.

    #1. Link to the original, not your own web sites. You can increase your credibility vastly by linking to actual sources rather than to your own “interpretations,” which sometimes come across, to put this delicately, as sort of unprofessional. There is a lot of crackpot stuff on your blog that will turn educated parents away. If you link to actual research findings, you can avoid them finding it.

    #2. Whoops – in this case you can’t do that, because even though on your blog you do give a link to the original paper, the link is dead.

    Clean up your act and you’d have a lot more credibility. Really. Consult a professional of your choosing if you don’t believe me. Dead links and layers of uninformed opining on top of original sources create a bad impression in the minds of educated parents who might otherwise consider you a source in researching Waldorf.

  8. Good thing Sune has arrived though. The other day he tweeted a link that was supposed to show that Diana and the waldorf critics are paranoid fanaticals or something like that. I saved it for the purpose of blogging about that link. Or its contents. It’s not new, but, well, why not…


    ‘In other schools, students much younger than 12 know quite a lot of science.’

    That’s what I discovered… And you’re right, copying poems and drawings was what it was about, and that was not sufficient when coming to another educational environment — not at all. That’s what I call being behind. And, yes, many children want to learn facts and science. Waldorf is selling them short, with its ‘phenomenological’ approach (though I would say… WTF? a fancy word can’t excuse a shitty approach that leaves children behind).

  9. Diana wrote: “Clean up your act and you’d have a lot more credibility.”

    That might be for people who don’t know him, but for those of us who have experienced Sune first-hand, credibility isn’t something that he’s going to suddenly (or even eventually) acquire. He’s just been too dishonest for too long, in my opinion. Cleaning the dishonest material from his website would be a task of the magnitude of cleaning all the objectionable material from Anthroposophy.

    Sune is far better off maintaining his current, dishonest posture and helping Waldorf, who pays him, to suck in families that trust what he writes. He’s responsible for a lot of the complaints of fraud that have become associated with the words “Waldorf education”.

  10. When you are around waldorf pedagogy it is always interesting to check the original sources! Guess what I found here:

    Yes it is Sune’s lost Austrian research institute. report. Which can be added to the Dahlin report and the Herefordshire failure to reach normal educational standards. Of course Sune and Waldorf organizations don’t read it that way. But ordinary high-school mathematics should be enough to reveal a pretty disappointing picture of the pedagogy.

    The results in science are above the austrian average, IF you compare with all school forms, but FAR below the two “best” school systems. I’m not so familiar with the austrian school system that I can say what would be a good comparison group. You can check out Abbildung 9.6.2 and see for yourself.

    But (like in the Dahlin case) the main problem is that the waldorf students comes from homes with a higher socio-economic status. So how come reading and maths is only on the same level as all austrian schools? And maths results have even deteriorated since 2006!

    And just like in the Herefordshire case, a lot is at stake here for waldorf pedagogy. This is a highly visible, high-status project with even some PISA-credibility. So I guess a lot of energy has been invested for many years in teaching science to the 150 pupils who have been tested. And still such disappointing results …

  11. So now we have three examples of the poor performance of waldorf pedagogy! The fact that they are done in three different countries, and with somewhat different methods adds support to the conclusion that there is something fundamentally wrong with waldorf practices. I really wonder what school authorities would make of this?

    I also guess the Dahlin and the BIFIE reports will be the last time academics successfully knocked on the doors of waldorf schools. They must have expected another outcome, and are now living in denial. For example the ECSWE newsletters doesn’t report the latest PISA performance scores. Instead they just repeat the findings that waldorf pupils seems to enjoy science classes somewhat more. Well if you don’t have to worry about learning outcomes, that shouldn’t be a problem to achieve …

    However, I suspect that the Austrian waldorf schools won’t be able to escape the PISA studies, it is supposed to go on until 2015. And I find it very strange that the reports from 2009 have been communicated to the waldorf schools, but are impossible to find on the BIFIE website.

  12. ‘I really wonder what school authorities would make of this?’

    Good question.

    What is a bit stunning — even if not surprising — is how waldorf proponents continue to use these results as positive results for waldorf. It seems to me that they’re deluding everyone — perhaps even themselves in some instances — that waldorf is better than it is… thus hindering progression rather than furthering it. From a rational viewpoint it would make more sense to say: so, we didn’t do as well as we hoped we were, what can we do to improve? That seems far more productive than to continue to favour an illusion.

  13. Thank you, Ulf. I guess after all this time I just assume that new studies touting Waldorf’s supposed superiority will turn out to be flawed, usually in such obvious ways that it isn’t worth dissecting every time. There is a long, long history of this. Either the comparison is not useful (except for Waldorf PR purposes) – comparing Waldorf with “all schools,” i.e., failing to take socioeconomic background into account, is the most common. Failing to run appropriate statistical analyses is also standard. Finally, having Waldorf insiders judge Waldorf results is standard, and Waldorf researchers don’t even understand why it invalidates their studies, even after it’s been explained to them many times. I don’t even bother looking at these results. When it’s Waldorf touting results of actual objective testing by outsiders, it’s worth looking, but it’s very likely to be something like this – considered invalid results in the non-Waldorf educational research world.

    There is also a long, sad history of Sune Nordwall touting such results, then retreating into silence and/or removing the link from his web site, but continuing to tout the misleading results elsewhere, where folks won’t (yet) have tried to look at the link. (Often posted under headlines like “Diana Winters lies again” etc.) – Don’t worry, I know he tweets such stuff with my name attached, it’s been going on for a decade.

  14. Or, in some cases — the results themselves may be reliable, but not anthroposophists reporting on them…

    (Oh, yes. But he’s lost speed lately. The link he tweeted the other day was about anthroposophy and waldorf — for that reason interesting. Even though I think it’s been picked apart before.)

  15. Anyway, thanks Sune for giving me the energy I needed to investigate the report. I know it is a dirty work, but someone has to do it ;-) Would you like to comment on my interpretation of the results?

  16. BTDT with Sune about a bejllion times. The odds that he will reply addressing what you have said are low.

    Yet, in a few weeks or months, he will tweet/post the same study on some other forum or web site, as if the discussion here never happened.

  17. You have to wonder if Sune believes in karma. I wonder what his karma might be like? Someone who has indirectly caused thousands of children to be harmed by his own actions. Someone who falsifies information for his personal financial gain and for the financial gain of the institution he represents. Someone who intentionally misleads people – often to the harm of their children.

    Of course, Sune is not alone is his actions. Lots of people in Waldorf are as bad as Sune (but not as easily recognized).

    It’s for people like these, I wish there really WAS karma.

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