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.