How does a human being become awakened to what is going on in the world? How can human activity become harmonious with what is around us?
These are central questions that guide many aspects of academic and social life at High Mowing School. For the science program, these questions are at the heart of the phenomena-based approach that defines science teaching at a Waldorf high school.
At High Mowing, the science curriculum focuses on developing the ability to perceive what is happening in the world through direct sensory experience. Instead of starting with pre-ordained concepts, students build scientific theories from their own perceptions of natural phenomena. The ability to perceive is the starting point for insight to think differently about the world.
Last year, the High Mowing science department began a review of its curriculum with the goal of refining and expanding our phenomena-based program to meet the diverse needs of our students. Michael D’Aleo, a master Waldorf teacher and consultant, is guiding the process. Two science teachers, Casey Attebery and Kim McCormick, joined educators from other Waldorf high schools last August, for a week at D’Aleo’s cabin in the Adirondacks. In this meditative setting, the group focused intensely on science block classes, examining how the blocks meet students’ developmental needs at each grade level. The insight that Casey and Kim brought back from the Adirondack workshop is key to the department’s curriculum review this year.
Moving forward, the science curriculum will focus on teaching specific thinking skills at each grade level. In grade nine, students often arrive at high school thinking they know quite a lot. Through the lenses of geology, anatomy and physiology, thermodynamics, and plant chemistry, they are asked to look again — to pay attention to what is going on in front of them — because things are not always as they seem. From observing natural phenomena, freshmen build concepts such as metamorphosis, lever, heat, and photosynthesis.
Sophomores are ready to link concepts together and build logical relationships between them. What is really going on here? Is there evidence of cause and effect? Does the reaction exhibit lawful behavior? Tenth graders ponder these questions as they study stoichiometry, motion (kinematics), embryology, and hydrology.
How do we imagine things we cannot see, but can perceive? In eleventh grade, students develop grounded concepts for things that cannot be seen, such as electricity, magnetism, and the atom. Students are asked to dissolve the material world and reimagine it.
High Mowing seniors learn to engage multiple perspectives and live in the space between apparent contradictory views. By investigating different viewpoints on the same topic, seniors develop flexibility in their thinking. In astronomy and visual physics, seniors explore questions such as, “What are the phases of Earth as seen from the moon?” and “What color is a specific point on a mirror as seen by two different observers?” In zoology and evolution, students classify animals into groups and study them in isolation. Yet, they learn to recognize that organisms are inseparable from the environment that shaped them and are utterly dependent upon one another.
In addition to required block classes, High Mowing offers science electives that appeal to a wide variety of student interests. For those planning to pursue science beyond high school, there are elective Biology, Chemistry, and Physics classes that introduce them to modern topics and theory, as well as provide additional laboratory skills. For students looking for a different experience of science, the Horticulture and Naturalist programs immerse students in the day-to-day work of farming and surviving in the natural world.
At High Mowing, students awaken to what is going on in the world through careful observation and contemplation of natural phenomena. When students study science in this framework, they gain confidence in their own thinking, remain open to new ideas, and begin to recognize the countless connections we have to everything around us.
Written by Kim McCormick, Science Teacher
This article was originally published in High Notes, Winter 2013.