In teaching physics and chemistry the main thing is the experiment, whether performed by the teacher as a demonstration, or by the students, alone, in pairs or in groups. The intention is to provide the students with powerful experiences; for instance, how an object’s position, as established by touch, appears different when looked at in a mirror, or how acids and bases are produced by the process of calcium combustion. The thing is to encounter phenomena with wakeful attention, observe them exactly, arrange them in order, and finally analyse them. In Waldorf education such experiments normally constitute the point of departure for coming to an ordered understanding of physical and chemical phenomena. They are the mediators between young people and the world, between subject and object – as Goethe put it.
In engaging in such experiments and going from observing to describing physical phenomena and chemical processes, the students develop what begins as a simple act of lookinginto a concrete and ultimately systematic form of seeing. It was Wagenschein (1962) [Translation available on the Nature Institute website] who first described the stages of this process: with looking, things are permitted to speak for themselves, nature tells her story without interruption. With concrete seeing, understanding comes into play, distinguishing essential from non-essential factors. When these essential conditions are met, then certain associated phenomena always appear. In thus perceiving such a pattern of related conditions, concrete seeing then further develops into systematic seeing.
In many Waldorf schools it has become customary to approach phenomena in the manner outlined, often without initially writing anything down. Here the students are being asked to be fully present in their sensory alertness. Subsequently they make notes and assess the experiment in terms of its construction, performance and what they observed. Thus they have a sound basis upon which to formulate a clear description of it.
Up to this point the demand made upon their understanding goes more towards grasping the “how” of the phenomenon with all its special details, and less towards inquiring into the “why” or into the relationships it might have to other phenomena. Such questions are raised by the interpretation of the experiment, which usually takes place at the beginning of the lesson on the following day.
The interpretation of experiments involves weighing up different perspectives, forming hypotheses, clearly identifying those factors which may or must be in play. Having gained certain insights from such experiments, those engaged in them are faced with a fundamental choice: they can either follow up on the hypotheses that emerged directly from the observations, or they can introduce non-perceptible variables or dimensions operating in principle as causes behind the phenomena.
In terms of the latter perspective, a surface is brighter because more light rays are falling on it; a person sees herself in a mirror because light rays are being reflected from the mirror’s surface. Analysed in terms of the former perspective, however, a surface is brighter the more it is inclined towards brightness. The degree of inclination can be described by a law, according to which the significant factors are the distance and the angle of inclination of the surface with respect to other bright surfaces. In the case of the mirror this approach yields the insight that the things in the mirror appear in spatial depth, exactly opposite their counterparts in front of the mirror (and at an equal distance from the mirror’s surface).
When Waldorf physics or chemistry lessons approach phenomena in terms of observation-based hypotheses, they are pursuing the primary pedagogical aim of deriving from a series of concrete phenomena, and from nowhere else, the factors that condition them. Such an approach may be termed phenomenological. It takes the phenomena seriously – exactly as they are. It does not regard them as a special case of some dimension standing behind them, not perceptible in principle, but nonetheless instrumental in bringing them to particular manifestation. Light rays, light waves and photons are models of this kind.
The phenomenological method is often misunderstood as one which delivers fine descriptions of phenomena, but does not seek to understand them. This is often based on the assumption that the only way to a scientific understanding of phenomena is to apply a quantitative model that can account for them. The phenomenological approach is different. Its intention is that the individual phenomenon should attain its meaning through the insight gained from viewing it within the context of a whole series of phenomena, all viewed in their own terms (Sommer 2005: p. 13). This can be presented in the form of graphs, symbols or mathematics. It is not averse to theory, although it attempts to generate theoretical positions through dialogue with the observed phenomena.
There are also strong pedagogical reasons for using the phenomenological approach. The thing is to give the students an appreciation for the fact that a coherent description of nature is possible without there necessarily being any conflict between direct perceptions and theoretical models. This has been set out in a comprehensive article by Østergaard, Dahlin and Hugo (2008), and taken further by von Theilmann et al. (2013) [Maier, Brady, Edelglas, Zajonc, Amrine, Bortoft]
To represent constructs, such as light rays, in the classroom as “actual” objective reality, and any direct sense experience as merely the subjective side of the process is to proceed in a reductionist fashion (Fuchs 2008: p. 18f.) which is likely to induce estrangement from nature. In many studies conducted in recent years it has been shown that constructs also play an important role in the phenomenological approach. Here they take the form of mathematical, geometric or graphical elements that have an ordering effect: accordingly, a shadow border is not formed by the last light-ray to come through, rather an optical path as an instance of geometrical ordering is derived from the course of possible shadow borders. – In physics, for example, the studies of Erb (1994), Grebe-Ellis (2005), Schön (1994) and Sommer (2005) are worthy of mention, and in chemistry those of Buck (2006), Buck and Kranich (1995), Buck and Mackensen (2006), Schad, Scheffler and Wunderlin (2011, 2012, 2013).
In the teaching of physics and chemistry, then, the mode of analysis normally employed takes the form of a dialogue between the experience of the experiment and the thinking it invokes. Proceeding phenomenologically entails engendering in the students a predisposition towards this judgment by dialogue. Waldorf education thus follows Varela (2008: p. 120) in viewing phenomenology as a method which consists in “exploring one’s own experiences and perceptions without presuppositions or hasty judgments, while including one’s own presence as a scientist in the process of reflection, in order to avoid a disembodied, purely abstract analysis.”
Waldorf education’s phenomenological stance is most clearly apparent when it comes to dealing with atomic and molecular interactions in physics and chemistry. Atoms do not figure in introductory lessons as ultimate explanatory structures. Rather they are represented to the students as a way of looking at things, which makes it logically possible to create explanatory models, but does not say anything fundamental about the nature of reality. The intention is to avoid giving the students the idea that in getting their minds around a coherent explanatory model they have grasped something of the essential being of the world. In keeping with other pedagogical approaches (Bader 2000), Waldorf education is concerned to avoid ontological interpretations of purely epistemological models. This is why atomic models do not figure on the curriculum until the students are old enough to develop an awareness about their own contribution in the formation of concepts (i.e. the participatory aspect of intentionality). Most teachers reckon with this ability (“meta-conceptual competence”) only from class 11 onwards.
In summary it may be said that in physics and chemistry in grades 6 to 10 the teaching method is purely phenomenological. Any accumulation of knowledge is gained from experiments that the students have experienced together. On this basis the teachers will be working with mixed ability groups. In classes 11 and 12 the relative merits of the phenomenological and explanatory model approaches are discussed.
Bader, F. (2000): Quantenmechanik macht Schule. Physikalische Blätter 10/2006, S. 65–67
Buck, P. (2006): Warum, vielleicht, Chemie schwer zu verstehen ist.Erziehungskunst 1/2006, S. 3–13
Buck, P./Kranich, E.-M. (Hrsg.) (1995): Auf der Suche nach dem erlebbaren Zusammenhang. Weinheim und Basel
Buck, P./Mackensen, M. v. (2006): Naturphänomene erlebend verstehen. Köln Erb, R. (1994): Optik mit Lichtwegen. Bochum, Magdeburg
Fuchs, T. (2008): Das Gehirn – ein Beziehungsorgan. Eine phänomenologisch- ökologische Konzeption. Stuttgart
Grebe-Ellis, J. (2005): Grundzüge einer Phänomenologie der Polarisation. Berlin
Goethe, J. W. v. (1966): Der Versuch als Vermittler von Objekt und Subjekt. In: Goethes Werke. Hamburger Ausgabe, Bd. 13, S. 10–20. Hamburg
Ostergaard, E./Dahlin, B./Hugo, A. (2008): Doing phenomenology in science education: a research review. Studies in Science Education, 44/2, S. 93–121
Schad, W./Scheffler, A./Wunderlin, U. (2004). Chemie an Waldorfschulen. Stuttgart
Schön, L.-H. (1994): Ein Blick in den Spiegel –Von der Wahrnehmung zur Physik. In: Physik in der Schule 32, 1, S. 2–5
Sommer, W. (2005): Zur phänomenologischen Beschreibung der Beugung im Konzept optischer Wege. Berlin
Theilmann, F./Buck, P./Murmann, L./Ostergaard, E./Hugo, A./Dahlin,B./Aeschlimann, U./Rittersbacher, Ch. (2013): Phänomenologische Naturwissenschaftsdidaktik. Erkenntnis- und wissenschaftstheoretische Positionierung und erziehungswissenschaftliche Folgerungen. Zeitschrift fur Didaktik derNaturwissenschaften, 19, S. 397–416
Varela, F. (2008): ≪Wahr ist, was funktioniert≫. In: Porksen, B.: Die Gewissheit der Ungewissheit. Gespräche zum Konstruktivismus. Heidelberg
Wagenschein, M. (1962): Die pädagogische Dimension der Physik. Braunschweig
Wunderlin, U. (2011): Lehrbuch der phänomenologischen Chemie. Band 1. Chemieprojekte der 7., 8. und 9. Klasse. Stuttgart
Wunderlin, U. (2012): Lehrbuch der phänomenologischen Chemie. Band 2. Chemieprojekte der 10., 11. und 12. Klasse. Stuttgart
Wunderlin, U. (2013): Lehrbuch der phänomenologischen Chemie. Band 3. Stuttgart
“There now follows a short summary of the essential features a chemistry curriculum should contain:
This can be done using the phenomenological method. Its concepts are not axiomatically defined, but are worked out step by step in the course of classroom discussions based on whatever observations have been made. The lesson content is thus not fixed independently of the classroom situation or formulated in advance by the teacher, but makes firm use of the students’ own first-hand experience (open curriculum). The teacher must also approach this concrete experience anew, ever ready to work with it creatively and innovatively. The actual activity of observing and discussing the phenomena is at least as important as any ultimate result (freely adapted from Mackensen 1989, p. 2-4).
In connection with key chemical processes such as combustion and fermentation the students should gain an understanding of some central natural processes and also of the way human beings have transformed certain natural substances and put them to technological uses. This proceeds on a phenomenological basis through the exact observation and writing up of experiments, sometimes carried out by the students on their own. These are then interpreted in terms of their larger practical and theoretical context. The students learn to understand the laws of chemical reactions and how they find expression in chemical equations. Here the normal distinction between inorganic and organic chemistry matters less than the reversible pathways followed by certain fundamental chemical processes in various kingdoms of nature. Ample opportunity needs to be given to practise the forming of hypotheses and their experimental testing and to discuss the possibilities and limitations of models. Knowledge of the fact that chemistry is essentially inseparable from biology, especially in the realm of biochemical processes, and that it has close ties with other sciences (geology, geography etc.) is something that should also be clearly conveyed. Its considerable global effects upon nature and civilisation should also be a constant theme in every school year, taught from a wide variety of perspectives, and including the relevant historical background.
In Waldorf schools chemistry is taught from class 7 up to class 12, mostly in the form of main lessons with whole classes, which provides the opportunity to engage intensively with central representative themes. It is also done, however, in the form of laboratory practicals, in which the students perform experiments. This gives them an opportunity to deepen their experience of experimental practice. In the upper high school there are also chemistry running lessons. These are geared towards increasing the students’ store of knowledge, particularly in relation to the syllabus for their final (state) examinations. In quite a number of Waldorf schools chemistry is a subject offered for the higher state examinations, and as such is a firm feature of the class 13 year.
*This summary was formulated by Frits Julius in 1978
The teaching of chemistry begins with awakening the students’ interest in chemical processes, and thus acquainting them with the forces that bring about chemical transformations. They should be experienced qualitatively so that the students are led into a broadened relationship to the world, in that their attention will have been shifted from what is fixed and static to the dynamics of change. A highly significant, chemically effective process is that of fire. As one of the key processes it brings within its ambit practically all the substances of the non-living, mineral world. Having control of it has been of paramount significance in human cultural development.
Investigations begin by looking at what typically happens when a range of different substances burn, e.g. wood. The idea is not primarily to provoke questions out of “wide-eyed astonishment” at a sensational experiment, but to have them arise from the “mundane” manifestations of fire. This can also involve consideration of the ways human beings have used and modified natural processes. The overlap with home economics (for instance, the suitability of different sources of heat in the preparation of food) can be explored, and so on. Respiration as an organic oxidation process can also be included.
In teaching chemistry the various substances are never considered in isolation. Investigation begins with phenomena in the external world, and these are then further explored in laboratory experiments. At every stage of the process the teacher should take every opportunity to encourage the personal engagement of each young person. They are taking their first steps in objective scientific method, but their own experience should be taken just as seriously and be equally worthy of inclusion in the lessons.
Possible lesson content
The theme of grade 8 chemistry dovetails very well with the subjects of gardening, nutrition and, possibly also, domestic science, since it shares with them a concern with the human being’s relationship to food. Food is one of the necessities of life, and providing an adequate supply entails preparing and processing it. In this activity human beings are always directly involved with nature, which creates food ultimately by harnessing the power of light. From nature’s store they seek out particular life-forms, interrupt their processes of growth and reproduction, divide them off, process, purify and refine them. Nevertheless, the parts of nature thus separated out still reflect their origins in many respects. It is thus possible to observe the workings of the forces of nature in the substances of which they are composed – albeit in a covert form. The task in the lessons is to uncover these, for only then can the characteristic properties of these substances be known. Here it is not so much a question of making an analytical inventory as of deciphering the active principles at work. Accordingly, what is needed is to kindle the students’ curiosity about the origin of foodstuffs, and to get them thinking about, and possibly doing experiments that might answer their questions on this.
Suggested lesson content
- from grain to flour: different grain types, grinding techniques (from the water- or wind-powered grindstone to the rolling mill), types of flour
- other ways of producing starch
- producing sugar from sugar-beet
- dietary sugar as a problem of civilisation: tooth decay, diabetes
- leather and the tanning process
- making cheese
Here we turn to organic chemistry, which forms the transition to those substances involved in animal and human metabolism. The emphasis is on the inherent capability of individual substances to turn into others, thus forming metamorphic sequences by which metabolic cycles can be demonstrated: if an ester such as beeswax burns, plants produce sugar out of the products of combustion; the sugar in turn can be fermented with the help of yeast to yield alcohol, out of which then acetic acid can arise, alcohols and acids subsequently producing another ester. Polarities appear, for instance between dark/solid and transparent/volatile; between foul- and sweet-smelling; between water- and fat-soluble substances. Within the tension of these contrasts the students have two main experiences (which appear in a variety of guises in other subjects throughout the year): that all things are very closely related to each other, while each at the same time being clearly distinguishable; and, that there are chemical agents which, in the course of metabolism, produce new qualities in neutral substances. The laws that emerge here are clearly encapsulated in verbal equations. Similarly, without the help of chemical symbols, it must also be made clear what an alcohol, a carbonic acid, or an ester is and why there are so many different alcohols, carbonic acids and esters. In addition, there is the topic of how organic substances remain in the realm of living processes, and under what circumstances they end up outside it, for instance, in the formation of oil-fields.
Suggested lesson content
The theme of this school year – and this applies to other subjects as well – could be summed up under the heading “polarity and intensification”: opposites react with each other producing something new on another level. Accordingly, the focus is on acid-base reactions and their products, salts and water. Initially attention is confined to the inorganic, but eventually their connection to the organic is also pursued. The laws at work here have a crystalline clarity and precision that are readily grasped, and thus the students learn to have confidence in their own thinking as a way of coming to terms with the world. Thinking has the task of finding the way to the structure of the whole within the context of a multiplicity of individual phenomena. In keeping with this, the main lesson needs to be very clearly thought out, with a structure that brings conceptual order to the abundance of the phenomena. This leads to the point of laws that can be condensed into formulae. All the way through, due attention is paid to the every-day practical and technological applications of the processes concerned. It would be worthwhile to organise visits to chemical factories.
Suggested lesson content
Going beyond the distinction between organic and inorganic, the focus is now upon the smallest chemically relevant entity, namely, the individual element, and subsequently also upon its various associated facets – molecules, ions, protons and neutrons. This corresponds to the individualising tendency that strongly makes its presence felt in young people of this age. These topics lead away from chemistry in two opposing directions: the one towards the physics of elementary particles, the other towards the macromolecules of biochemistry. This being the case, it is very important to have detailed consultations with the colleagues who teach physics and biology, since, in teaching electricity/radioactivity/ atomic structure or the composition and physiology of cells, they address many of the essential facts of chemistry. The periodic table, its history and variable modes of presentation, offers the possibility of effecting the transition from concentration on the analytical details to a more synthetic view of inter-relationships. Rather than turning into a lifeless exercise in pedantic pigeon-holing, this should be conceived as a brilliant opportunity to forge all the details into a grand, unified, wonder-inducing panorama.
Suggested lesson content
Waldorf schooling is supposed to last a full twelve years. In the final year the intention in all subject areas is to create an overall picture of everything that has been learnt so far and, building on this, to look at further aspects of the subject, especially with regard to social and environmental implications. On coming to the end of their time in school the students should have the feeling that they are in command of a rich store of knowledge and skills, sufficiently grounded in thought and experience to enable them to take up new and exciting challenges in keeping with their own personal disposition and life-choices. In addition to all this, for this year Steiner gave chemistry teachers the interesting and difficult task of teasing out the various aspects of the concept of substance (hitherto used in a general sense). This entails distinguishing among mineral, living, sensitive and human substance (Stockmeyer 1988). What is required here is to go into the reactive and transformative potential of selected substances characteristic of each area. Protein chemistry, in particular, is now so far advanced that it offers many key perspectives in connection with this complex task, and the insights thus gained can be adapted and developed for pedagogical purposes.
Suggested lesson content
The procedures described for classes 11 and 12 could be designated as the “classical model”. It must be pointed out, however, that the content of these two school years has proved just as effective when done the other way round. Steiner’s suggestions in this regard are also perfectly compatible with both ways of proceeding. A proposed approach to this can be found in Wunderlin (2015).
Julius, F. H. (1978): Stoffeswelt und Menschenbildung. Stuttgart
Mackensen, M. v. (1989): Feuer, Kalk, Metalle – Stärke, Eiweiß, Zucker, Fett. Kassel
Stockmeyer, E. A. K. (1988): Angaben Rudolf Steiners für den Waldorfschulunterricht, Stuttgart
Wunderlin, U. (2015): Lehrbuch der phänomenologischen Chemie. Band 2, Stuttgart