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How We Teach Science In Waldorf Education

This year’s PTO events focus on neuroscience and the philosophies and learning principles in Waldorf education. This past January, High School Biology, Geology & Life Sciences teacher, Michael Holdrege, presented a talk with parents

As part of our year-long lecture series being hosted by the Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) CWS faculty members present on a variety of topics that launch discussions within our parent community. This year’s PTO events focus on neuroscience and the philosophies and learning principles in Waldorf education. This past January, High School Biology, Geology & Life Sciences teacher, Michael Holdrege, presented a talk with parents entitled: 

How We Teach Science In Waldorf Education & at CWS

Here is a synopsis of his talk reviewed by PTO co-chair, Judy Shaver-Chungbin:

Michael Holdrege first discovered the work of Rudolf Steiner while living in Colorado. He studied Steiner’s work at Emerson College in England and did his Waldorf teacher training in Germany. From there he went on to teach in Austria. Once back in the United States, he settled in Chicago where he was asked in 1994 to help start the Chicago Waldorf High School.

He began the discussion of How We Teach Science with a brief overview of human development. Early Childhood students have wonderful imitative capacities and are very open to the world and nature. In grade school, they begin their “inner separation” as the classroom teacher leads them into aspects of this world they do not yet fully understand. Science studies at this young age are more “nature studies,” like the exploration of animals and plants in the early grades which then transition to the “hard” sciences during middle school.

In high school, one of the main intentions is to help students develop “sound independent judgement.” The science curriculum supports this by having students study phenomena first, thereby taking in what they have observed and describing it. This builds their capacity to ‘see.’  The students then learn to ‘analyze’ and ‘synthesize’ as they compare and contrast those observations with prior experiments as they “build a network of conceptual insight.”  When something is broken apart, it is important for them to have the capacity to re-integrate it and be able to “see the connections between things that have been separated and understand how they relate.”  Often in science experiments, one notices a phenomenon but cannot see all that has occurred. So in the Waldorf approach to science…

…students must use their imagination as they do in real life when “thinking their way into the future based on concrete evidence.”  


Michael mentioned two books, The Power of Mindful Learning by Harvard Psychology Professor, Ellen Langer and Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow by Nobel Prize in Economics laureate Daniel Kahneman. Ellen Langer talks about how it is important for educators to inspire students to want to know, as opposed to spoon feeding them all the information. Daniel Kahneman coined the WYSIATI principle, “what you see is all there is.” Often the initial impression “is it.” So it’s important for students to be able to integrate more phenomena and feelings in their judgments and questions because ‘life is multi-dimensional.’

Enlightenment Block Book

Seeing With Multiple Lenses

He then went on to describe how when he teaches biology, students often have narrow preconceived ideas. They may state a basic concept like “the heart pumps blood.” As opposed to being just a pump, it is actually a “seven layered spiral muscle that opens up and contracts,….receives and expels in a twisting motion that goes on for 70 or 80 years.” The circulating blood plasma leaves the capillaries and returns again some 60 times per day (microcirculation and flow-back). He expands the discussion to also relate to emotional states such as fear (exemplified in the pounding heart of stage fright) or love (as embodied in the expression “heartfelt).”

Life is Multi-dimensional

Michael leads them in developing an inner picture reflecting on the physical like the ‘littleness’ of capillaries and how the estimated 60,000 miles of blood vessels in each of our bodies could go around the world two and one half times. Envisioning and other aspects of scale, function and symbolism are considered in relation to the heart and circulation in this science block. In the end, the students have expanded their understanding of the heart’s physical characteristics to a more ‘complex and differentiated concept’ of this central aspect of the human organism.

Through observation, analysis, questioning and inner visualization, the students learn important scientific concepts as well as school their capacities for making thorough and multifaceted judgments.

This synopsis of Michael’s presentation at the last PTO meeting is provided by Judy Shaver-Chungbin, PTO co-chair. The illustrations are taken from block books created by High School students for the science & humanities curriculum.