Teaching Physics In A Waldorf School - Dr. Paolo Carini

I was attracted to Waldorf education when I discovered that the process of teaching science in Waldorf schools was much closer to the process of doing research than to the way science had been taught to me in high school.

When one faces new territory in science it is important to keep an open mind to what nature is trying to tell you. New concepts are created out of a process of observation of phenomena in order to discover and formulate the so-called physical laws. Concepts need to remain flexible. That is why at SFWHS we like to characterize rather than to define. Definitions can be rather rigid. Let me give you an example. In 1934 one of my aunts was at a party in Rome, when it was reported that Enrico Fermi had succeeded in splitting the atom. My aunt did not know anything about physics and did not question this new discovery. However, when she went home and reported the news to my uncle, he immediately replied, “That is impossible, atom means indivisible!” You see, my uncle was so stuck into the “definition” of  “atom” that he could not conceive that nature could go beyond such definition. 

All high school physics can be taught through phenomena. Phenomena can be presented in a coherent way to lead the students to understand the physical world with the same intellectual rigor experienced in a field like mathematics. It is important that students are given enough time to explore the details of a phenomenon. In this way we foster a true appreciation for the beauty of nature. An immediate explanation of a phenomenon has the effect of deflating the experience. Once we are given an explanation, we easily lose interest for the phenomenon itself, and our mind wants to move somewhere else. As a teacher, I have experienced this when I felt pressured to provide such explanations, due to lack of time. The students' sense of wonder for what they had just observed simply disappeared. On the other hand, when given enough time, the same explanation can lead to a sense of enlightenment! In Waldorf, the students are given a night to “digest” what they have observed in class before guiding them to a theoretical understanding. Much research in neuroscience shows more and more evidence of the importance of sleep in our learning process, including the consolidation of mental pictures and memory in general. Steiner understood this ahead of his time in his research of the inner world of the human being rather than the outer world. Starting from direct observations, giving time for these images to live into the students, and finally using a Socratic method, the students find a natural path to new concepts and understanding. 

Students also tend to lose contact with reality. There is an anecdote about Richard Feynman asking a student, who was a theorist at Caltech, what the wavelength of light was. The student said he didn't know. So Feynman asked him to guess. The student held his fingers maybe a quarter of an inch apart and said, uh, maybe about this big? So Feynman leaned closer and asked: Do I look fuzzy? Indeed the world would appear quite fuzzy if light had such large wavelength! That is an example of losing contact with reality. In physics we like to reduce the infinite variety of phenomena to a few general laws. That is all great and fascinating, but if a student has not developed a real familiarity and appreciation for the actual phenomenon, and instead is immediately led to such laws, he or she will easily lose contact with reality. Especially if such laws are handed down and not arrived at by the students themselves. Every good physics teacher knows this. At San Francisco Waldorf High School we offer a way to improve on this issue and help keep alive the students' sense of wonder for the natural world, which is particularly important in our times as we are required ever more strongly to care for our own planet. 

I have also experienced that the longer the students remain in touch with real phenomena the stronger their scientific intuitions develop. In general, we tend to give too much importance to the “results” and too little to the “process” of discovery. But appreciation for science grows out of that process. Results are now available on the internet for everyone to read, but the process of discovery is dynamic, non linear, complex, and quite creative. It is part scientific and part artistic, and it needs to be experienced first hand. Direct observations are preferred to mediated ones. Today one can find all sorts of electronic devices that are used to gather data and send them to a computer, which then produces nice graphs. All of this removes the students from the actual experience of the natural world, in an attempt to arrive as fast as possible to some conclusion. I don't see any advantage to this approach. I have the same problem with computer simulations of phenomena that can easily be observed in real life. A computer simulation is never a good replacement for a real life experience, unless such direct experience is not available.

Finally, everyone knows that students learn better when they find a meaningful connection to the subject. Such connection can be discovered if one understands better the inner life of teenagers, and Waldorf education is based on such understanding. For example, 9th graders are notoriously insecure about themselves and the new social scene that they are entering. They can be quite moody, having to deal with an intense emotional life that is just starting to enfold. One moment life is awesome; the next, life is miserable. They live in such a polarity much of the time, but polarity exists also in the physical world! All sorts of thermal engines produce movement out of the polarity between hot and cold. The similarity is not purely metaphorical, as the young students really experience turning hot or cold when they blush or become emotionally detached. In physics we describe that when all differences in temperature in the universe vanish, what we call a state of maximum entropy, everything will die. So, as a physics teacher, and a father of three, I learn to appreciate the moodiness of teenagers as a sign of being alive, and at the same time I help them to navigate through these stormy waters while teaching them some good Physics!

- Dr. Paolo Carini