Experiential science

Although I struggle with some aspects of the science curriculum in Waldorf Education, I strongly support an important aspect: the importance of careful, unbiased observation. Having attended middle school lessons at our school, and reviewed several students’ Lesson Books, I am impressed by the focus on cultivating powers of observation and perception as a basis for comprehending scientific principles. Conversations with Michael D’Aleo—who developed the Teaching Sensible Science teachers’ program—have deepened my appreciation for this approach to teaching science at lower grades.

I was reminded of this phenomenological approach to science education while reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Introduction to the volume he recently edited (The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013). Mukherjee writes about visiting the monastery in which Gregor Mendel’s worked and developed his seminal observations on genetics:

Mendel was, first and foremost, a gardener; his science began with tending. His genius was certainly not fueled by deep knowledge of the conventions of biology (thankfully, he failed that exam). Rather, it was his instinctual knowledge of the garden, coupled with an incisive power of observation, that brought him to question the nature of inheritance and thereby discover genes. The act of tending — the laborious cross-pollination of seedlings, the meticulous tabulation of the colors of cotyledons and the markings of wrinkles on seeds — soon led him to findings that could not be explained by the traditional understanding of inheritance. Heredity, Mendel realized, could be explained only by the passage of discrete pieces of information from parents to offspring. There had to be atoms of information — particles of inheritance — moving from one generation to the next. Tending generated tension — until the old fulcrum of biology was snapped in two.