Nature Table

The Physics of Connection

January 15, 2020 in Inside SWS

“There is an optical illusion about every person we meet.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

In preschool, a child might see a crystal sparkling on a nature table alongside the curl of a shell, the cool smoothness of a rock, or the woody petals of a pine cone. Perhaps she will pick it up, drawn to its color or the way the light glints from its facets as she turns it in her small hand. This simple interaction is an entry point to Physics.

Fast forward to the senior year at Seattle Waldorf High School, where Optical Physics is offered as a lab course based on the human visual experience. In this block, taught by Jay Freundlich last December, students explored illumination, color, reflection, refraction, lenses, and atmospheric phenomena. In a more mature version of playing with crystals, students deconstructed rainbows through prisms and observed the interplay between objects and reflection with mirrors.

Naturally, there is an in-between. In Waldorf schools, Physics is formally introduced in middle school. In grade 6, students learn objective scientific observation as they study sound, light, heat, and electricity. Most learning is through the observation of phenomena, which are presented and discussed, and then summarized and illustrated in main lesson books. Grade 7 Physics delves into the principles of acoustics, optics, magnetism, and mechanics. By grade 8, students are studying hydraulics and aerodynamics, and their discussions include climatology, the barometer, and meteorology.

Colorful reflection


Often, the “aha” moments that arise as students engage directly with the material are the ideas that “stick.” And another way to really learn something is to teach it to someone. As part of their final work for the Optical Physics block, seniors presented their findings to the visiting grade 6 class taught by Brian Ruel — and they reflected that teaching their younger peers required them to be more observant because they were asked to focus on the phenomena. For example, a senior who was setting up mirror demonstrations repeatedly discovered new things that had gone unnoticed before, such as the interaction of shadows.

As teaching and learning give rise to the unexpected, teachable moments accompany. An unlikely social connection formed between two classes on either end of the spectrum of a Physics block. As seniors wrapped up their presentations, the grade 6 students reflected that they were generally impressed and learned something new, but one student wanted to know more. A lively lesson and further demonstration ensued as teachers watched. Once both classes were satisfied, the younger students spontaneously invited their older peers to their class play. Which the seniors plan to attend. In this moment a connection was created that was entirely unanticipated.

Said Jay Freundlich, “As seniors, students are connecting the advanced topics they are studying now with their previous Waldorf experiences. Such connections were evident as we compared the different experimentation process for Issac Newton and Johann Wolfgang Geothe. Thus, students are generating their own unique end to their high school educational journey.”

Students who are active participants in their learning forge their own paths toward new ideas as they connect subjects that on the surface might seem disparate. And in collaborating over what they are learning, deeper social connections are forged. This is Waldorf education at its best.

Pam Collier, SWS Communications Manager