Spotlight on Science in Waldorf Education

Posted by: Chris Nelson   -   Posted in: News- Oct 23, 2017 Comments Off on Spotlight on Science in Waldorf Education

Science & Art

Walking down the halls of Bright Water or any other Waldorf school, you could be forgiven for thinking that the Waldorf pedagogy is more focused on art than anything else. But first impressions can be misleading…

Not only is a Waldorf education comprehensive and rigorous, modern research supports its emphasis on art as vital for a deeper appreciation and comprehension of science and math. Art does indeed infuse most aspects of the curriculum. But along with the sense of beauty it reflects and inspires for its own sake, art is also used as a medium to support learning.

As Grace Hwang Lynch writes in “The Importance of Art in Child Development,”

“Studies show that there is a correlation between art and other achievement. A report by Americans for the Arts states that young people who participate regularly in the arts (three hours a day on three days each week through one full year) are four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement, to participate in a math and science fair or to win an award for writing an essay or poem than children who do not participate.”

What is it about the arts that informs an individual’s acumen in mathematics and the sciences? Why should drawing, painting, reading literature or playing an instrument be helpful in fields that at first glance seem so separate? 

 An article in the Los Angeles Times offers several theories, which we can summarize as follows:

  • Scientists and artists are trained to pay attention “both to detail and to the broader context. Scientists, like artists, are people who notice things.”
  • The hand and the brain are connected in such a fashion that “the hand’s knowledge about the world . . . actually teaches the brain new tricks,” and “people who use their hands are privy to a way of knowing about the world inaccessible to those not schooled in manual arts.”
  • “Logic alone is sometimes inefficient to solve really complex problems.” What this means, in essence, is that there are other factors at work in the mind. The greatest scientists have always known this. Intuitive leaps, the ability to visualize problems or to “sleep on” complex issues and awaken to new connections that were not readily visible to the logical mind—these are vital elements in the discovery of new knowledge.

The arts, then, support and enhance scientific and mathematical thinking. They are, in fact, essential elements in an individual’s backpack for exploring and understanding the world.  

The Waldorf Approach to Science

Although Waldorf schools have been around since 1919, they have been operating with an intuitive understanding of the relationship between art and abstract thinking since their inception.

According to the Waldorf pedagogy, the individual goes through a series of developmental stages. Up to the age of around seven the child is like a sponge, absorbing experience subjectively. There is time later for abstract concepts after the critical foundation of observation and experience are laid. Science education in the early grades reflects this understanding. Experience and observation are the teachers here. The child is an explorer. Much time is spent outside. Discussions might focus on the visual and tactile qualities of certain types of rock or animal fur, for example, but abstractions are generally left out of the picture so that the child can simply be with their experiences and observations.

In third grade there is an emphasis on farming, which serves as a springboard for discussions about the seasons, weights and measures, seeds and growth, and so on. Learning is infused with practical experience; many classes go on their first farm visit during third grade.

In fourth grade, students continue their exploration of the natural world through a study of zoology. Among other work, students typically choose and study in depth an animal and its habitat. Their final projects in this area incorporate writing, painting, and models of their chosen animals, as well as presentations to their class.

Fifth grade turns to botany. Here again, artistic studies of plants by students inform more detailed understandings of the scientific names and component parts of plants, and of their relationship to their particular environments.

In the  sixth, seventh and eighth grades, physics, physiology, chemistry, minerology, meteorology, astronomy and more are introduced. In these later grades there is significant emphasis on precision, on measurement, and on more abstract and theoretical concepts. This approach continues to be refined as Waldorf students progress through high school, growing ever more disciplined and rigorous in their thinking and approach to science.

The Continuing Importance of Art

The arts continue to play a role throughout this process, for precisely the reasons discussed above. They play an integral role in deepening students’ relationship with and understanding of the world. In practice, for example, the visual arts, have the capacity to connect a child with the subject matter at hand more readily than simply looking at a picture in a textbook. Drawing and labeling the bones in a human skeleton engages the hand and the eye, as well as the mind and an individual’s unique sense of artistry. This makes absorption of knowledge a more holistic process—one that resonates within the individual for some time to come. Drawing a diagram of a lever, or the structure of a protein or a map of weather systems does the same thing.  

So the arts are never abandoned. They support the holistic development of an individual who is eminently capable of creative and critical thinking, and this is one of the primary goals of a Waldorf education.

*Artwork by current and former BWWS students.

Further Reading

Cole, K. C. (1998, August 13). Why the Arts Are Important to Science – latimes. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/1998/aug/13/local/me-12745

Lynch, G. H. (2012, May 16). The Importance of Art in Child Development . Music & Arts . Education | PBS Parents. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/parents/education/music-arts/the-importance-of-art-in-child-development/

Mitchell, David. The Wonders of Waldorf Chemistry. AWSNA:Fair Oaks, CA. 2001.

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