Teenagers: Part II June 28 2016

Teenagers: Part II

Science as it is taught in Waldorf schools offers a fine example of the social, emotional, and moral elements hidden throughout the curriculum. Waldorf schools are often criticized for their science teaching because it differs so dramatically from more mainstream teaching of the sciences. 

All the sciences through the grades are taught experientially. Every topic of science leads with direct experiences of nature and of natural phenomena. There is a strict and deliberate discipline and rhythm to science teaching.

Day one involves an experiment or an experience. An example might be the demonstration in grade seven of pulleys. One teacher took seventh grade students to a nearby barn where a couple of large pulleys used by the farmers for lifting hay and heavy equipment were hanging. There was a small wooden slat fixed at the bottom of the ropes wound around the pulleys. Each student had a turn pulling him/herself high up in the barn using these pulleys.  During the experience the teacher was quiet, allowing the students the fun and the phenomenon of lifting their own weight so high and so relatively effortlessly—letting this experience live in the children directly. At the end of the lesson the students returned to the classroom and the teacher explained back to the students what they did in the barn by simply describing what they did.

The students then went home to “sleep on this.” 

Whenever we experience something new, we usually feel a kind of loneliness, we feel sort of awkward and stupid and we wonder if others know what’s going on when we do not. The seventh grader is especially vulnerable to feelings like this at age thirteen or fourteen.

Day two then begins with the teacher asking the students to speak about what happened on the previous day. A long silence might be entirely possible. But finally a student will state, “Well, we pulled ourselves up to the top of the barn with pulleys.” Then others join in and remark. “Yeah, it was so easy with those things. How does that work?” Someone else might exclaim, “I am so heavy and still I could pull myself up! Even my Dad can’t pick me up anymore.”  A flood of comments is likely then to ensue. No one feels stupid anymore, as the experience becomes a shared experience. The loneliness turns into bonding through a common sharing of an experience.

This spends itself after the seventh graders all share their delight and confusion about the wonder of the pulleys and their own levity because of them. What follows are likely to be questions. Why was it so easy? How do those pulleys work? What kind of machines are they? The teacher might then ask what has been learned so far about levers and weight and machines that assist human work. The class then assembles their collective knowledge with the help of leading questions from the teacher. A feeling comes over the class then of commitment or re-commitment. The loneliness in them that might say, “I am stupid, so never mind. I’ll stay alone and lonely,” can then turn into sharing and a feeling of curiosity out of the safety of realizing that they all felt unknowing in light of a new and mysterious experience.

The students might be asked to begin writing down what has been discovered about pulleys.

New experiments designed by the teacher may follow this discussion and the next cycle of not knowing—loneliness, sleep, and sharing and re-commitment will follow.

Days 3 then brings continued careful writing about exactly what was done  and what was discovered from the experiment. The teacher can decide if there is time to take up these experiments or they might explain how the students could try their ideas at home with a parent.

One can see from this that there is an experience the students have of a scientific phenomenon of machines helping humans with work. In addition, the students learn that loneliness in the confusion of new experiences is a part of life, and that all people experience this. They learn that sharing their experiences builds a community feeling of understanding and commitment. They learn that in a collaborative sharing and exploring out of an experience, they can deduce fundamental principles and new ideas for additional experimentation for additional learning. 

This provides a spiritual-moral basis for getting along in the world, building community, and understanding the purpose of loneliness in figuring things out for oneself. The students learn that loneliness is actually an instructive thing in a cycle of experiences and learning, and that it does not last when shared.

In this lives some of the real genius of the Waldorf curriculum for lifelong capacities for understanding not only science in a direct, experiential way but also human experience and commitment. To teach our young people the art of living, the art of life, not only “facts,” not only what has already been learned before us but what remains to still be discovered—this is what Waldorf teachers strive for.

Read Teenagers: Emerging Adults Part I