Loving a Great Question: The Waldorf Approach to High School Science

Driving in the car recently, the topic of conversation somehow steered to the question of why eggs are shaped like eggs. We all argued for a few minutes, each of us yelling over the other, about whether the shape has an evolutionary purpose.
It only took a few minutes for someone to bring up Wikipedia on their phone and quickly dispel the mystery. The answer was read aloud to a hushed backseat.

While we all learned something new, as soon as the answer was read, the discussion quickly quieted down. We all gave nods of agreement and the conversation moved on. However, the fun, the period of wonder and funny guesses, the great discourse was lost as soon as the 4G network kicked
-David Macaulay
Every child comes into the world naturally inquisitive. “Why is the sky blue?” “Why is the grass green?” Why do ice cubes float?”

The high school sciences in a Waldorf School aim to foster this natural inquisitiveness, to help it grow and send students off into the world with this love of questions.

We love questions in our classrooms. A good question -a really, really good question- is gold. We strive to create an atmosphere in which our classes are question-rich.

Good questions often have answers. But what is wonderful about a really good question is not the answer,
but the joyful process of solving it.

How fast do objects fall to earth?  I could just give my students the answer to a question like this and they could plug it in to the correct spot in an equation. Or my students could set up an apparatus that allows us to explore the answer.

They could set up a ramp with a very minor incline to slow down the object’s fall to earth. The students could closely observe and study an object slowly falling to earth as it rolls down the inclined plane. They could observe that the object accelerates as it falls to earth. Students could time the object rolling down the ramp, maybe even use their pulse as a stopwatch as Galileo did. Eventually, they could use a stopwatch and trigonometry and find the acceleration of an object’s
fall to earth.

While the answer is important, the process of figuring out how to find an answer is the critical skill that can be applied to any question. Waldorf high school sciences do this process over and over again in Chemistry, Physics, Life Sciences and Earth Sciences.

In a world where answers are just a few keystrokes away, students should become unhappy with just finding answers to their questions. They should want more than the answer. Students should demand the joyful process of discovering answers for themselves. They should develop the capacity to tackle unanswered questions, and to form and seek to answer their own questions that we can’t yet imagine.

“We can classify education into two main categories: passive education relying primarily on memory, and active education relying on intelligent understanding and discovery.  Our real problem is what is the goal of education? Are we forming children who are only capable of learning what is already known? Or should we try to develop creative and innovative minds capable of discovery from the preschool age on through life?”
– Jean Piaget