Pseudoscience – not a valid educational choice

Anyone who’s passionate about science, as I am, cannot help but be seriously concerned by the growing extent to which anti-scientific ideas, and the groups and organisations that promote them, are increasingly creeping into public life and attracting mainstream political support.

While it’s easy to ridicule the purveyors of anti-scientific ideas when they’re to be found at the lunatic fringes of mainstream politics, and one thinks immediately of Nadine Dorries’s ridiculous claim that ‘Tridents aren’t weapons of mass destruction’ and David Tredinnick’s expenses claim for astrology software, the kidding around has to stop when one finds sizeable sums of public money are being routed to anti-scientific groups and organisations as a matter of public policy.

New Labour already has a less than stellar record in this area.

By 2011, a little over £1.4 million of taxpayers’ money will have been blown, by the NHS, on setting up and bailing out the ‘Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council’ (aka OfQuack) , a supposed voluntary ‘regulator’ for practitioners of ‘Complementary and Alternative Medicine’ – one that’s already shaping up to be just about as useful as that other notable paragon of voluntary (non) regulation, the Press Complaints Commission. Whatever the CNHC might claim about its proposed role as regulator of the CAM sector, in reality its has no more authority than a bog-standard trade association and all the appearance of being yet another example of the state pandering to the increasing eccentric personal foibles and vanities of the Quacktitioner Royal.

That said, pissing £1.4 million down the drain on Chuck the Hippy’s latest vanity project pales into relative insignificance when set against the sums that anti-science organisations have managed to extract from the public purse through the government’s academies programme, where a capital bung of £20-25 million per academy plus running costs of anything from £2 million to £7 million a year seems to be about the going rate.

The most notorious examples of anti-scientific thinking gaining a foothold in state-funded education via the academies programme, to date, have been the three academies run by Peter Vardy’s Emmanuel Schools Foundation, in Middlesbrough, Gateshead and Doncaster, where significant concerns have arisen in relation to the teaching of creationism.

The Academy No one Wanted

More recently, and with relatively little publicity, proponents of pseudoscience have succeeding in opening a new front in their ongoing war on reason and rationality by securing £16 million in capital investment from the DCSF to support the creation of a publicly-funded Steiner Academy in rural Herefordshire, which opened (as a state funded school) only last year, against the wishes of local residents and Herefordshire Council.

The circumstances in which this new academy came to be afforded state investment, and revenue funding, are, to say the least, more than a little dubious.

Unlike other academies, which have been set up to replace failing state schools in, primarily, inner city areas, the precursor of the Herefordshire Steiner Academy was a fee-paying Steiner school, which was set up in 1983 in the distinctly rural Herefordshire village of Much Dewchurch, which has a population of around 250 residents and, since last year, an academy which provides 330 school places.

Objections to the academy project raised by both local residents and Herefordshire Council, which is badly strapped for cash and facing the prospect of making a raft of unpopular decisions in order to rationalise school provision in the county, appear to have been dismissed in a rather high handed fashion. According to Dr Eddie Oram, a retired former Director of Education in the County who was enlisted by local residents to help with the campaign against the academy project, he was informed by a ‘emissary’ from the DCSF’s Academies Unit that:

“though the council’s view would be listened to, disagreement would not be allowed to frustrate the government plans to meet its intentions under the diversity agenda.”

It seems that the DCSF now has a rather curious working definition of ‘diversity’ which now includes funnelling public money to an occult society that derives it ideas on childhood development from a thoroughly bastardised fusion of Edwardian occultism, quasi-Christian Gnosticism and badly re-written Hindu mysticism and its idea of what constitutes science from the otherwise long-discredited work of the author of Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the German Counter-Enlightenment.

Despite their carefully cultivated (and heavily sanitised) public image as a haven of faintly hippyish liberal arts education rooted in an absurdly over-romanticised view of childhood, Steiner Schools (also known as Steiner-Waldorf and Waldorf Schools) are, in reality, just one arm of an occult society founded in the second decade of the 20th Century by Rudolf Steiner – The Anthroposophical Society – which actively espouses and promotes a fundamentally unscientific world view.

Crap Science

I’ve already covered some of the background to both Steiner’s self-coined ‘philosophy’, which he termed ‘Anthroposophy’, over at the Ministry and some of the quite significant concerns that former Steiner School pupils (and their parents) have raised in regards to both academic and pastoral standards in Steiner Schools (usual cautions apply – it’s long, covers a lot of varied ground and could really have done with a sub-editor). It has to be said, however, that even that article is just the tip of a pretty sizeable iceberg, one in which I’ve either omitted entirely, or barely touched on, a range of notable oddities which include:

–  Anthroposophical beliefs about disabilities, which are regarded as ‘karmic choices’ made by individuals in order to learn a particular ‘karmic lesson’,

Biodynamic Agriculture, which liberally mixes conventional organic farming practices with sympathetic magic and astrology, and

Anthroposophic medicine, for which the most apt description is ‘homoeopathy with even less science’*.

* A couple of years ago, Prof Edzard Ernst (co-author of ‘Trick or Treatment’ with Simon Singh) attempted to carry out a systematic review of all randomised clinical trials of Anthroposophical medicine as either a sole or adjunctive treatment for any illness or condition, but failed to find a single study that met the inclusion criteria after running seven separate literature searches.

But what really concerns me, so far as this article goes, is what one discovers on digging into the nature of so-called ‘Goethean science’ as it’s practiced within Steiner Schools.

Goethean Science is somewhat difficult to describe in simple terms, largely because answers to the question ‘what is Goethean science?‘ are almost invariably wrapped up in copious layers of cod philosophy and psychobabble, but it is possible to get something of a flavour of how it differs from real science from this statement.

The idea is that the Goethean does not need to superimpose a rationalistic or reductionistic explanatory mechanism over top of the observed phenomenon, but rather simply takes the intuitive imaginative experience at face value.

A philosopher would call that a phenomenological approach. A scientist would call it ‘making shit up’ – and that’s pretty much the size of it. So-called Goethean ‘scientists’ simply disregard all the proven tools provided by the scientific method, i.e. logic, reason and evidence, in favour treating their own imaginings and subjective impressions as an alternative form of ‘scientific truth’.

One can easily see the kind of nonsense that this form of spurious reasoning generates in that passage from a paper entitled ‘Doing Goethean Science‘ by Craig Holdrege:

In a college botany course I learned why plants that grow in shady places have broader and larger leaves than plants that grow in full sunlight. The reason given is that plants growing in shade don’t receive as much light to do photosynthesis. Therefore they grow larger surfaces with which they can capture more light and produce more organic matter via photo­synthesis. Plants have developed this strategy to survive and reproduce in shady habitats. This is a typical functional explanation that makes perfect sense-until you think the matter through a bit further. The larger the surface area a plant creates, the more substance it needs to build up and sustain its larger body. Wouldn’t it be just as effective for the plant to stay very small with narrow leaves? In this way it wouldn’t have to do so much photosynthesis since it could stay small. Both explanations make sense. I have yet to find a functional explanation of a phenomenon for which one couldn’t find equally plausible alternatives.

Holdrege glibly dismisses what is a standard evolutionary explanation for the predominance of broad leaved plants in shady conditions on the basis that he imagines that bonsai pine trees might prove to be just as effective as solution to the challenge of plant survival in such conditions and that’s all the ‘evidence’ he needs to conclude that the Darwinian account of plant evolution is in error. The fact that the shadier corners of a typical deciduous forest simply aren’t heaving with bonsai pine trees and, therefore, provide no evidence to support his imaginings is completely irrelevant.

As you might well expect, whenever you find an attempt to fashion an alleged gap in Darwinian evolutionary theory, the idea that life is product of some kind of supernatural special creation won’t be following too far behind and, as the noted science education Eugenie C Scott notes in her 1994 article ‘Waldorf Schools Teach Odd Science, Odd Evolution‘ this is certainly true of the account of evolution taught in Steiner schools.

The [Steiner] Waldorf version of evolution is especially concerned with the relationship of humans to animals, but this relationship is quite different from that of mainline evolutionists. “It becomes apparent that man is a compendium of the animal kingdom; alternatively expressed, that the animal kingdom is the human being spread out.” The human “essence” passed through a number of “spiritual states” on the way to becoming human, which was a relatively recent event. “Dr. Steiner considers animals to be the by-products of human development. Man has been involved from the beginning but not in a physical form. Man existed spiritually and the animal forms represent physically incarnated soul forces which the human being had to dispense with in order to mature sufficiently to receive the ego. … As in life … we are trying to overcome the lower passions to evolve to something higher, so throughout evolution, the passions were separated out from man and these were incorporated as animals.”

For our final example of the kind of rubbish that passes for ‘science’ in Steiner education we’ll leave the biological sciences and turn to a delightful account of a middle school physics lesson as related by Christian Smits in a paper entitled “A study of the element ‘Water’“.

Yes, even before we look at of the content of the paper, there’s a pretty obvious problem to be addressed.

From chemistry we know that there are 92 naturally occurring chemical elements plus something of the order of another 25 or Transuranic elements that scientists have managed to create, artificially, within nuclear reactors, none of which are actually water…

… or air, fire and earth, all of which Steinerians consider to be elements as well. Aristotelian dogma is, sad to say, alive and well and still being taught as ‘science’ in Steiner schools.

That said, the subject at hand is physics and what Smits’ paper provides is an account of the teaching of some of the physical properties of water to a class of 12 year olds in a Steiner school which includes this absurdly florid attempt to account for the spherical shape of water droplets…

In beautiful water drops that shine while falling, we see the globular tendency. Yet we also see the potential for water to collect in a round globe in the huge formations of the oceans of the world. Also solid materials do as water-they join in the globular form. All erosion and disintegration tend to create globes. The fact that materials pack together from every direction and build a globe appears as primeval phenomena in the shape of a water drop. These observations result in what we normally call gravitation. Phenomenally all of the parts of physical materials trying to collect in a common globular form…

…A water level is also a globe, or more correctly defined as part of a globe. If you build a house anywhere on the surface of the earth, the level will follow the surface of the earth, Gravity causes this effect. It collects everything into a middle point. But fluids have the ability to pull back into themselves. Because of gravity they can form globe within and of themselves.

Conclusion: globular tendency = gravity.

We can say that solid bodies are individualized in their ability to pull together-they individualize gravity-while liquids collect in a unified gravitational form. In other words, liquids, when they are as small as a drop, can break free from the power of gravity and create their own world.

Talk about filling kids’ heads with rubbish!

Water droplets take on a spherical form due to surface tension which arises from intermolecular forces, not gravity – gravitational forces between atoms/molecules are simply too weak in a small water drop to cause it to coalesce in such a fashion and are overridden by the stronger intermolecular forces, and as for solids ‘individualizing’ gravity, that’s just complete and utter bollocks as is the suggestion that liquids ‘break free from the power of gravity and create their own world’ when in droplet form.

Little wonder then that, only last year, Stockholm University chose to discontinue its teacher training course in Steiner education on the grounds that Steiner science literature contains ‘too much myth and too little fact’.

The DCSF’s ‘Diversity Agenda’ in action

Now you may well wonder, having read all that, just how the hell the DCSF managed to overlook all this in arriving at the decision to foist an unwanted Steiner Academy on the residents of Much Dewchurch?

First, the DCSF commissioned a research study into Steiner Education in England from a small group of academics who are active proponents of so-called ‘alternative education’. Phillip and Glenys Woods, co-authors of the report along with Martin Ashley, are also the authors of a book entitled ‘Alternative Education for the 21st Century‘, the publisher’s promotional blurb for which states:

This is a unique collection of leading examples of education grounded in alternative philosophies and cultures – from initiatives to create more democratic schools, through Quaker, Buddhist, Islamic, Montessori and Steiner/Waldorf schools, to Maori and First Nations education in Canada and Palestinian Jewish schools in Israel. Aimed at educational practitioners, leaders, and policy-makers in all types of educational settings, as well as academics and researchers, the book is a resource to help educators think creatively about education at a time when the need to find new ways to nurture spiritual and holistic growth and democratic citizenship has never been greater.

Fostering democratic citizenship is, of course, no bad thing in itself but the assertion that there is any kind of need to find ‘new ways to nurture spiritual and holistic growth’ is an altogether more questionable matter, not least in the sense that none of the so-called ‘alternative philosophies’ cited above are actually new and only one of them, the Montessori method, has any solid foundations in science and rationalism. At this point, its also worth noting that Glenys Woods, who appears to have been the principle investigator on the DCSF commissioned study, not only gives her ‘foundational interest’ as an educational researcher as ‘spiritual awareness’ but also has an interesting sideline as an ‘angelic reiki healer’ that she omits from her academic profile.

Once one realises that the authors of the ‘Woods Report’ are anything but impartial in their opinions of so-called ‘alternative education’ it comes as no great surprise to find that what should otherwise have been treated as serious and well-founded concerns about the nature and character of science ‘education’ in Steiner Schools are, in fact, glibly dismissed in a matter of two paragraphs:

A more fundamental challenge for Steiner education is also posed by Jelinek and Sun, who identify as problematic Goethe’s scientific world view. They suggest that, whilst Steiner schools’ science education in many ways is shown to be better than that in mainstream schools, [Steiner education] “should disregard Rudolf Steiner and anthroposophy as the source of accurate scientific concepts”. They also draw attention to what they see as the unwillingness of some Steiner educators to countenance correction of the curriculum in the light of advances in scientific knowledge, or clarification of basic errors.

However, it is important to note that Steiner educators would emphasise that much of the science teaching in Steiner schools is based on training the pupils to observe and come to their own conclusions rather than proving someone else’s theory. To the extent that they are successful in this, pupils brought up on Steiner principles would be encouraged to critically question all theories, including those of Rudolf Steiner himself.

That may have satisfied policy wonks at the DCSF, but it’s nowhere near enough for me, so I took the time to dig out Jelinek and Sun’s full paper to see exactly what they had to say and whether it differs, to any significant extent, to the interpretation of its findings given in the Woods Report.

And..?

Well, the good news for Steiner educators is that Jelinek and Sun did find some evidence that the heavy emphasis on observation and subjective interpretation in Steiner Schools does give rise to some measureable benefits in terms of a more rapid development of non-verbal inferential reasoning skills in children educated in Steiner School as against those in mainstream education. However, as the authors note, their findings are tentative given the small size of the study and the lack of a control group:

The overall effect of all 3 tasks (non-verbal logical reasoning, verbal logical reasoning, and magnets) leads to a tentative conclusion that Waldorf students’ scientific reasoning and problem solving skills appear to be at or slightly above those of their counterparts in mainstream educational settings. A more extensive investigation, with large numbers and a control group, is encouraged.

The bad news, which the Woods Report massively underplays, is perhaps best illustrated by unwinding the reports brief exercise in quote mining and placing the reference to dropping Steiner’s works as a source of accurate scientific concepts in its full context and as it appears in a discussion of what would need to be done to enable Steiner schools to offer a viable science education.

As a first step Waldorf should disregard Rudolf Steiner and Anthroposophy as the source of accurate scientific concepts. The basis for this recommendation is that Steiner’s teachings do not pass the tests of empiricism (a,b,c and d)*, are not testable by anyone (e), have not changed much, if any, since Steiner introduced them (f), and rely on paranormal statements that cannot be verified (g). Accepting many of Rudolf Steiner’s scientific indications in light of the absence of empirical evidence violates the core premises of the scientific paradigm. The anthroposophical argument is that Rudolf Steiner applied empirical investigations in the spiritual world where he garnered higher spiritual truths, but even if this turns out to be accurate it must be discarded as scientifically valid because it cannot be replicated by anyone. If and when the scientific paradigm can ever be overturned with an anthroposophical paradigm because a preponderance of empirical evidence demands it, anthroposophists will have reason to celebrate; but there is little in the current paradigm to suggest this is likely.

*Lettered references refer to an outline of the scientific paradigm which immediately precedes these conclusions in Jelinek and Sun’s paper.

In short, what Jelinek and Sun actually concluded was that the apparent benefits of Steiner Education’s methodological approach to science education are routinely and systematically squandered on the teaching of pseudoscientific nonsense, a view emphasised in a subsequent section of the paper which addresses the question of what else Steiner Schools need to do to develop a viable approach to science education after dumping Steiner’s ideas from the curriculum in their entirety:

Waldorf needs to come to terms with the five defining theories of modern scientific thought (Wynn & Wiggins, 1997) — the five “Big Ideas” of Physics, Chemistry, Astronomy, Geology, and Biology. A “Big Idea”, according to Wiggins (2001), has: lasting value; can transfer to other inquiries; serves as a “key concept for making important facts, skills, and actions more connected”; summarizes “key findings/expert insights in a subject or discipline”; and requires “uncoverage” (i.e., It has many layers and nuances that are not obvious to the naïve or inexperienced person and is often misunderstood and prone to disagreement. Therefore one must dig well beyond the surface to grasp it, and in so doing begin to gain a “depth and breadth of insights into the subject”).

The Big Ideas that Steiner Education can’t handle.

So what are these five ‘big ideas’ that Steiner Education has yet to come to terms with?

Well, in physics the big idea is the atom, which Steiner education disregards on the grounds that it is not directly observable and that atoms are “…merely models (imaginations) that constitute an intermediate virtual concept that is constructed mentally in order to ‘explain’…”.

In chemistry the big idea is the Periodic Law and the chemical properties of atoms, which Steiner Education, at best, relegates to a matter of minor interest due to its dislike of ‘reductionism’, not to mention its penchant for Aristotelian dogma.

In the realm of Astronomy, as you may have already guessed, its Big Bang Theory that appears to get short-shrift despite Jelinek and Sun noting that Steiner education’s preference for observational/inferential teaching is actually quite well suited to this field of study where conventional approaches may too readily dive in abstract theory without building an observational foundations – astronomy is, after all, founded on observation. The problem that the report identifies here is, however, a familiar one…

If “penetrating the realities” includes “penetrating the Big Bang Theory” then Waldorf’s approach to astronomy is really quite educationally sound; in fact, it is a step above many mainstream approaches that de-emphasize direct observational experience and prematurely delve into abstract theories. On the other hand, if Waldorf chooses to avoid this theory in lieu of alternative explanations then it ignores a theory that, since Hubble’s discovery in 1923 of another galaxy outside of our own, has substantiated existence of billions of expanding galaxies which, if mathematically calculated in reverse, would theoretically meet at “zero-time”, the “Big Bang”, some 15 billion years ago.

No prizes for guessing what ‘alternative explanations’ means in this context.

In Geology, the big idea is plate tectonics which labours both under Steiner education’s over-reliance on outdated ideas and failure to keep up with recent scientific development and it preoccupation with mythology. Jelinek and Sun did find one account of theory of continental drift in a Steiner booklet on Geology…

Kolisko (1945,1978) discusses Wegener’s theory of Continental Drift in the Waldorf booklet Geology, but he does so in the context of arguing for the existence of the ancient continent of Atlantis, which split, then sank down into the “flood”. “If we imagine also that a continent splits in the middle, and moves, it is no longer astonishing that the coast lines fit into each other. The continent splits, the flood breaks in, and because the continents are movable, displacements happen. Wegener’s theory of the Continental Drift, brought into connection with all the facts mentioned before, leads immediately to the conception that there must have been an Atlantic Continent (p. 32)”

…which turns out to be about as much use as a chocolate teapot.

Finally, the big idea in biology that Steiner education cannot deal with adequately is, of course, Darwinian evolution, of which little can said that hasn’t already been well aired in disputes with other devout believers in supernaturalism.

Against this weight of evidence that Steiner schools actively teach nonsensical pseudoscience Woods offer only the spurious counter argument that the Goethean methodology should operate as a self-correcting mechanism by encouraging children to question these ideas, an argument for which she offers no supporting evidence whatsoever. If anything, the mere fact that such idiotic notions continue to be taught in Steiner schools tells us that the opposite is likely to be the case as, were there any merit to this argument, the schools would have long since rejected the teaching of Goethean/Steinerian pseudoscience of their own volition…

…but as that clearly hasn’t happened, then I think we can take it as read that the claim that teaching a Goethean methodology might serve as a self correcting mechanism or encourage pupils to question Steiner’s pseudoscientific ideas is no more than a tendentious attempt to blow off Jelinek and Sun’s criticisms without raising suspicions that might prompt detailed scrutiny of Steiner ‘science’ education.

Once you’ve suckered the policy makers by commissioning a report that does everything possible to avoid exposing science education in Steiner schools to detailed scrutiny, everything else is breeze. You simply strong-arm the local education authority into accepting a Steiner academy on their patch and waive any requirements that might place educational standards at the school under external scrutiny.

No SATS at age seven – not that this would help as Steiner schools don’t bother with reading at this age.

No Ofsted report prior to conversion – in fact no evidence that the school has ever been inspected by Ofsted other than in terms of its nursery/kindergarten provision.

Oh, and don’t ask too may questions as to where the money the Steiner Fellowship has to put up came from, because they’re not saying – all that has been reported is that two unnamed donors put up the £1.5 million float that the school needed to convert.

It’s also worth noting that the Hereford Steiner Academy is tied into a research network operating out of Plymouth University, which offers the UK’s only degree course (a BA) in Steiner education. The network’s homepage throws up a couple of interesting names and connections. Christopher Clouder, one of main contacts for this research group, is also the CEO of the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship and the Director of the European Council for Steiner Waldorf Education in addition to moonlighting as the founder and international director of the Alliance for Childhood, which seems to have a consider number of links to the Steiner movement, while Graham Kennish is, amongst other things, the science advisor to the University’s Steiner Education course. Both are, naturally enough, heavily involved in the Anthroposophical Society, Kennish as member of its science group.

Digging around the membership of this science group turned up another rather interesting name – Nicholas Kollerstrom – who appears to be yet another anthroposophist, not to mention – since last year – one of the UK’s better known holocaust deniers and conspiraloons, which rather serves to emphasise the point that if you believe the kind of crap that the Steiner movement peddles as ‘science’ then you’ll believe anything, even to the extent of claiming that Auschwitz was a Nazi version of Butlins.

Enter the Tories

New Labour’s overweening obsession with ‘choice’ and ‘diversity’ in education is bad enough – £16 million pissed away on state-funded Steiner Academy without any hint of adequate scrutiny of the manifestly obvious shortcomings of the Steiner movement’s approach of science education, or rather, pseudoscience education as it should more accurately be called. However, if a recent statement by Shadow Education Minister, Michael Gove, is anything to go by, things are set to get even worse if, as many expect, the Conservatives win the next general election.

Under the Tory proposals, new schools entering the state system would be free from the constraints of the statutory national curriculum.

Mr Gove believes many parents think the particular teaching styles “and atmosphere of the environment” at Montessori and Steiner schools would suit them and their children.

“They are educational movements that explicitly want to do things differently,” he said. “They engage the passions of teachers and parents. They tend to have the results in the end, both in character and ability, that parents would want to see in their children.

“If we are about enabling choice and diversity it is only right to allow both movements to become essentially state-funded schools.”

But, if you’re also about education and improving standards, particularly in the sciences, then the very last thing any politician should be considering in bringing Steiner education into the state system.

Montessori schools are, for the most part, a very different matter. There’s a solid body of research evidence to support the claimed benefits of the Montessori method and only difficulty parents are likely to encounter is a touch of caveat emptor – the Montessori name is not a trademark and, in some instances, the extent to which schools operating under the Montessori name can be rather variable with an attended loss of academic and social benefits in those schools that fail to adhere closely to the Montessori method.

Steiner schools, as we’ve seen, teach the most abject pseudoscientific crap as science and, as such, no amount of appeals to ‘parental choice’ and ‘diversity’ can reasonably justify pissing taxpayers’ money down the drain on funding schools that teach utter rubbish in place of established scientific fact.

Only last week, Gove stood up in the House of Commons to criticise the standard of science teaching in mainstream education in pretty strident terms:

I also congratulate the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), on being appointed Minister for schools and learners. He is a member of the NUT, and I am delighted that his union endorsed our proposals yesterday, calling them “imaginative” and in the interests of pupils. It is good to have his support, and I look forward to more of it. The Minister is also a member of the Socialist Education Association, which is committed to equality. Like me, he will be disturbed by the fact that barely 2 per cent. of pupils eligible for free school meals sit physics or chemistry GCSE, with under 4 per cent. sitting biology. Such pupils are 25 times less likely to sit any of those subjects than their wealthier peers.

While the numbers of poor children getting competitive qualifications are declining, so are standards. This will be of interest to the Secretary of State: in the latest GCSE biology paper, students are asked if we sweat through our kidneys, liver, lungs or skin. Was not the Royal Society of Chemistry right to suggest that Government changes to the science curriculum had been “a catastrophe”? Is it not true that the poorest pupils are being hit hardest?

While, in an op-ed piece in the Yorkshire Post (June 2008) Gove advanced this argument in favour of raising standards in science education:

Universities say that A-levels are no longer preparing children properly for university degrees in maths and science. Physics departments and chemistry labs are closing.

Employers say that our education system is not delivering the skills we need.

What makes it worse is that there is a growing gap between standards for richer families and the rest.

Just six per cent of pupils in state schools took a combination of biology, chemistry and physics GCSE, compared with 26 per cent of pupils in independent schools. In some parts of Britain, not a single state school pupil sat biology, chemistry or physics GCSE in 2005-6.

There are whole boroughs where no state school children can get the qualifications which will enable them to compete properly for jobs in medicine, science or technology.

And the divide between the richest and the rest is set to become deeper. Independent schools, worried that the current GCSE isn’t rigorous enough, are moving to a different exam, the international GCSE, which is tougher and a better preparation for further study.

For the same reason, many independent schools are also moving away from the A-level to a new exam called the pre-U. The Government does not let state schools count results on these exams in league tables, so state schools, worried about their league table status, do not offer these rigorous qualifications.

There is a real danger now that our society will become less equal and less open to talent as privileged children in private schools sit the rigorous exams which universities and employers really value, while the majority of our children sit exams that don’t command the confidence they should.

If that’s what Gove genuinely believes, and by all accounts he’s a strong advocate of a liberal, knowledge-based education, then why the hell would he even consider promising state funding to schools that teaches children that ‘Lemurian’ and ‘Atlantean’ are valid geological ages, that earth, air, fire and water are elements or that water droplets ‘break free’ from the power of gravity?

For once that’s not a rhetorical question – I really would like an answer!

(With any luck – i.e. if the length of this piece doesn’t freak Sunny out, this should also appear at Lib Con tomorrow morning).

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  • http://zooey.wordpress.com zooey

    Great article. It’s true that Stockholm University dumped waldorf teacher training. However, our government has recently proposed new school legislation. It’s supposed to lead to better education overall. Anyway, what they managed to do is suggest that waldorf schools will be allowed to continue to operate without hiring qualified teachers, because–and this was the reason (not one word said about the uni’s dumping last year)–they have their own teacher training. Yes, indeed, where they learn the kind of science we read about here.

    When I finished 6th grade in waldorf I knew no science at all. We had read some poems, painted flowers and done some fluff about butterflies (they’re special to anthroposophy). Also, the fire–water–stuff, the four elements.

    I was way behind my peers when I transfered to another school.

    This wasn’t only my teachers’ fault, I think it was anthroposophy–she had to teach according to anthroposophy. She was actually a teacher qualified for mainstream education, where she had taught before she came to waldorf. (Apparently she went back to teach in a mainstream school later.)

    -z

  • Marie

    Great research. This article now on latest news @ butterfliesandwheels.com

  • Alisdair Cameron

    Bravo. Diversity meaning diverting away from evidence and fact and into the realms of fantasy, bullshit and nonsense. Let’s have diversity in people’s backgrounds, their opinions, but where there are facts and established evidence,promoting alternatives based on superstition and whimsy isn’t inclusive but destructive.

  • http://waldorfanswers.org Thebee

    For some comments on the elements and the light issue with regard to Steiner Waldorf education, see http://waldorfanswers.org/WNonscienceMyth.htm

  • http://zooey.wordpress.com zooey

    Thebee forgot to link to his own website where he details the intriguing relationship between science (or some screwed up version thereof) and anthroposophy. I think perhaps the Ministry of Truth would enjoy sneaking a peak:
    http://www.thebee.se/indexeng.htm
    Particularly this: http://www.thebee.se/SCIENCE/Science.htm

    Thebee also wrote the waldorfanswer’s website but I suggest that potential waldorf/steiner parents also need to look at the (even) wackier, but less seductive, version. Thebee is like an inofficial spokesperson for the waldorf/steiner movement. You need to see the real reasoning (or lack thereof) rather than the parent-customer adapted versions.

  • The Polecat

    About time……..All hail the arrival of thebee thedrone…… Captain Control Freak of anthroposphy.

    Thedrone, Sune Nordwall, is a bizarre bloody smorgasbord indeed, with one of the GREAT and unique websites.
    It starts with the proud exhortation that he has spent

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  • Marie

    Yes indeed Thebee does get about a bit: http://minerscanary.blogspot.com/2009/03/responding-to-waldorf-supporter.html

    He sometimes posts as ‘Eva’ I believe. Which he says is the name of his anima.

  • Whodunit

    The only possible explanation for this minister’s support of the schools seems to be his statement that he actually went to visit a Steiner school for first-hand experience. If he had relied on internet commentary, no doubt the result would have been different.

  • Dunc

    “However, it is important to note that Steiner educators would emphasise that much of the science teaching in Steiner schools is based on training the pupils to observe and come to their own conclusions rather than proving someone else

  • http://zooey.wordpress.com zooey

    Dunc,
    Exactly. And imagine using that approach with kids who are already behind because they learnt to read and write much later than what is usual. With kids who have learnt hardly any maths at all before 7th grade! It’s a totally silly notion to have them observe and “come to their own conclusions”–they don’t have a decent foundation to stand on.

    Also, I’m sceptical towards the claim (I assume it was thebee’s) in general. As I said, science in waldorf/steiner was painting flowers and reading verses. Then I left after 6th grade, luckily. What I want to say though is that experimentation and observation is part of the science education in all schools (except, actually, in waldorf, where contemplating a flower counts as observing)–it’s just that the theoretical foundation is there too. In my non-waldorf school we did experiments in physics and chemistry practically every week. But yse, there was a someone else’s theory in the background all the time. Otherwise it would’ve all been a waste of time. We were kids, after all. Experimentation was probably as much about making us interested in science as it was about “proving” anything, and even less “proving someone else’s theory”.

    But anyone who claims that observation and experimentation aren’t part of the science curriculum in mainstream schools is plainly wrong–he does not know what happens in other schools. (In my opinion, he probably cares only about his guru.)

    There is, in waldorf/steiner, this myth that their education is superiour–that they do all these good things other schools don’t do. But often they’ve misunderstood what other schools in fact do, or they’ve misunderstood what is meaningful do be doing in a school in the first place.

    -z

  • Mercuryrules

    @The Polecat

    Polecat, you’ve chosen an appropriate screen-name for yourself- a cowardly, treacherous weasel! Well-done, at least in this you have acheived some kind of honesty.

    Don’t hold your breath waiting for the decline of Anthroposophy or Waldorf. The fact is, the movement is full of people, most every-one of them, possessing greater good-will, healthier feelings, and genuine intelligence in greater measure than you possess.

    They create stuff, they do good things, and the unfortunate side-effect, seemingly, is to make small people like you feel even smaller.

    Deal with it pal, just be a Man.

  • http://yorksranter.wordpress.com/ Alex

    the heavy emphasis on observation and subjective interpretation in Steiner Schools does give rise to some measureable benefits in terms of a more rapid development of non-verbal inferential reasoning skills in children educated in Steiner School as against those in mainstream education.

    Like quite a few “alternatives” in medicine, this is a case of it seeming to work in the same way “being nice in general” does and for the same reasons. With a tidy bit of “recruit nice middle-class kids in the first place” and “charge whopping fees so you can afford more staff” chucked in.

  • http://zooey.wordpress.com zooey

    Mercuryrules wrote about “unfortunate side-effects”. Quite right to bring that to mind, even if it was unintentional. Waldorf/Steiner schools produce “unfortunate side-effects” and unfortunately it’s up to us, the children who were subjected to your kind of lunacy, to deal with these side-effects.

    Mercuryrules’s attitude is very typical–he epitomizes the superiority and know-it-all culture that is vivid within anthroposophical/waldorf/steiner circles.

    They are the ones creating, doing good, being great people, being healthy, genuinely intelligent.

    Where do you suppose that leaves us, we who are the roadkill of anthroposophy? We who got an inferior education and were abused in waldorf/steiner schools? Oh, yes, I know, our karma sent us there, right!?

    You know, Mercuryrules, your attitude stinks. You live in an anthroposophical fantasy world. Because of this fantasy, you seem to be unwilling to accept that waldorf is very bad for many children.

    There are lots of good, genuinely intelligent, healthy, creative people out there in the world–but I didn’t even know that before I left waldorf. In waldorf, people were more like Mercuryweasel.

    Deal with it pal, just be a Man, as you said to polecat. Oh, but you may prefer to be a full-of-himself Fairytale Man.

  • Mercuryrules

    @zooey
    You should stop whining zooey. Lots of people have difficult lives growing up, I certainly did, School not Ideal, Parents, Friends, etc etc.

    Blaming other people constantly doesn’t help.

  • http://zooey.wordpress.com zooey

    Excuse me, Mercuryrules, do you have any idea what I “constantly” do and whether I “blame” other people or not? I assume not. Don’t tell me what I “should” or “shouldn’t” do–I don’t take advice from assholes who make ridiculous claims.

    I have every right in the world to say waldorf education sucked and that I was abused in waldorf (that does not have anything to do with the difficulties of others!). It is my right, because it is true. How come you consider what I say to be “whining”–where does that leave your comments? Whining *and* patronizing? Sounds like a correct description, doesn’t it?

    Those of us who went through that in waldorf, and were subjected to outright anthroposophical doctrines, such as that of karma, we have to talk about this. People have a right to know what can happen so that they are aware of it, if their children at risk in waldorf/steiner. And we have to find out about Steiner and anthroposophy for ourselves–we need to know.

    If you–anthroposophists and Steiner followers–want to manage schools and if you want to take responsibility for children’s education, you can’t be exempted from criticism. If you wish people didn’t “whine”, don’t do things that cause people to have a reason to “whine”. If you choose to be in education, you have no choice but accept that people will have opinions and express these opinions. And it isn’t right or fair to belittle and patronize people for doing so.

    (I suggest everybody look at Mercuryrules and know that this is how anthroposophists define good will, health, genuine intelligence, and no doubt morality and social skills, and so forth. That’s the attitude you’ll meet when you choose to leave a waldorf/steiner school.)

  • Frances

    I recognize this kind, considerate Mercuryrules (rules?) as the kind of sweet-natured Steiner supporter who bullied and patronised ex-Steiner mother’s on a UK parents’ forum earlier this year.
    When these particular pro-Steiner ed posters didn’t get their own way (when the women stood up to them) their tactics became more and more bizarre, including starting new threads where they posted screeds of Steiner’s writing, attempting to divert attention by creating crazed conspiracy theories about children in dungeons under the Goetheanum (apparently that’s an old one) high-handedly summoning posters from previous threads to account for themselves (very Witch-finder General) and finally attacking the site itself.
    Then there’s the reported behaviour of staff in Steiner schools when anyone complains, plus a refusal to see the transparent facts obvious to a 7 year old: Steiner was (a) not clairvoyant because nobody is (b) he believed in a spiritual hierarchy of races (c) had ideas unacceptable re. today’s disability legislation. Up till now few people, even parents have looked beyond Steiner Waldorf’s wooly PR or actually read any Rudolf Steiner, who could blame them? That’s all they need to do. It’s all there. Turgid, lengthy and mad.
    The anthroposophists behave like any other denialists in the face of these uncomfortable facts. They are certainly no kinder, no more enlightened or creative or better with children than anyone else by virtue of following their particular cult. It’s humility they most lack, along with common sense and in my view, amongst the worst of them, human decency.
    So it’s great that Unity has researched so thoroughly. And that it’s read and it spreads and others have a chance to comment.

  • http://www.thebadconscience.com Paul S

    Unity, this is a really, really good piece. I agree with it entirely.

    I’m just worried that you’ve not covered your back carefully enough. Simon Singh – despite writing something entirely true – got in seriously hot water with the chiropractors because of his Grauniad article…are you 100% sure that the Steiner lot can’t do the same to you?

    These quacks do tend to go for the legal jugular, after all, and a libel writ is no cheap thing…

  • asiaseen

    What happens to people after being subjected to a Steiner education? How do they cope with the real world and earn a living?

  • Mercuryrules

    @zooey

    Zooey, you spend too much time on the computer. It’s not good for you, you know.

  • Andreas Lichte

    @ Mercuryrules

    thanks for your comments – maybe I will use them in the German discussion on Waldorf-schools. You’re a fine example of anthroposophical dullness, attacking people in an obscene way and at the same time claiming to be doing good, quote Mercuryrules:

    “The fact is, the [Waldorf] movement is full of people, most every-one of them, possessing greater good-will, healthier feelings, and genuine intelligence in greater measure than you possess.”

    In case you read German, this is what I wrote about people like you:

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  • Sarah

    Unity, thank you for such an excellent and thorough piece. The fact that an angelic reiki healer wrote the report for the government about Steiner schools should have set at least a faint alarm bell ringing. Philip and Glenys Woods aren’t without their criticisms though; in an article called In Harmony with the Child, they point out “Many teachers, in our view, are too dependent on following the guidance and ideas of Steiner as if they were

  • http://zooey.wordpress.com zooey

    Sarah, well said.

    I believe that the Woods couple probably would insert faint criticisms–the obvious kinds of criticism, at that–whether or not they believe these criticisms hold true. They’re there to make them–and their work–seem more credible and objective.

    This is the case with the Swedish study on waldorf school–it is touted as independent and objective. It is very bad, and was ordered by an anthroposophical trust and written by an anthroposophist.You can find examples of criticisms in it, often trivial or already too apparent, and I gather these criticisms serves a purpose–lending credance to the study as a whole. There’s no reasoning, they don’t deal honestly with these aspects.

    For example, they say one downside of waldorf would be that the schools are lacking in cultural or racial diversity. But then they say, unjustified in my view, that this isn’t a problem after all–because waldorf/anthroposophy is so lovely and contains such good values and the waldorf children are so moral anyway… say what?

    Of course, this makes sense when you know who financed the study and influenced (dictated) what was going to look like. And then they had a member of the anthroposophical society do the study.

    Sad to say, the university where this anthro member works printed the study–and officially it is a study issued by the university. Undeserved credibility.

    -z

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  • chunderhead

    It’s worth noting that councils all over the UK spend hundreds of thousands (millions?) sending disabled children and adults to residential Steiner-Waldorf programmes. I don’t object to every aspect of these–some of the Camphill communities are genuinely nice places to live–but if you know what their behind-the-scenes attitude is towards people with disabilities it is somewhat worrying.

  • Will

    Chunderhead, I wonder if the word may be getting out?
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2009/aug/25/learning-disabilities-college-lsc

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