(aka Class Books, Block Books...)

Science and Art at Waldorf





At many Waldorf schools, an important activity is the creation, by the students, of "lesson books." In effect, the kids create this own textbooks, usually by scrupulously following their teachers' instructions. Ordinary textbooks are often avoided, since they would not reflect the Waldorf worldview.

I was once asked if I still have any of the lesson books I created as a Waldorf student. I don’t. But the question inspired me to write the following short essay. — R.R.


As I’ve argued elsewhere, Rudolf Steiner was fundamentally an enemy of science, so Waldorf schools typically downplay science as much as they can. Here’s one small illustration. I'll tell you what I remember about my science lesson books. [1]

Physics and chemistry classes at my Waldorf school generally consisted of the teacher standing behind a table and performing some sort of “scientific” operation (pouring contents of beaker A into test tube B, then stirring, then...). Our job as students was to watch carefully and then write a report telling what he had done. We had to follow a strict format: “Objective: To create a cloud of green stink. Procedure: 1) Pour contents of test tube A into beaker B, 2) Stir, 3) Add pinch of...  Conclusion: Pouring A into B, stirring, and adding a pinch of X creates a cloud of green stink.” 

During our freshman year, the teacher would explain what he was doing as he went along. All we had to do, really, was write down his words. By our senior year, he was largely silent, expecting us to figure things out for ourselves. (Yes, he was the same — and sole — teacher handling these subjects. He taught every physics and chemistry course to each class of students throughout my eleven years at Waldorf.)

Importantly, we were required to draw the apparatus used in each “experiment.” Each day's submission was graded. The grades depended on: a) a more or less accurate description of the “experiment” the teacher performed; b) legible handwriting; and c) the drawing. The latter often seemed to have greatest importance, having a major influence on our grades. The teacher was not to be drawn; nor the results of any procedure (a cloud of green stink...). The drawings basically showed the apparatus as arranged by the teacher on his work bench.

We used soft colored pencils for the drawings. A friend and I got into a competition, drawing more and more extreme views: Apparatus seen from far above, or far below — popping off the page, or receding into the far distance. The teacher often commented on our drawings, leaving most other parts of our reports unmentioned. (He wrote extremely neat, tiny penciled comments in the margins of the reports. “Great drawing,” “Best I’ve seen,” “Good,” “See me” (uh-oh).)

At the end of the course, we would compile all our reports, in the correct order, and create a class lesson book — our reports and drawings, with perhaps a little additional commentary or transitional material tossed in. Designing the title page for each workbook was crucial. Whether the class was physics or chemistry, I always wrote the title of the course in huge, capital letters (“CHEMISTRY,” in bilious green, let's say,) and then, filling most of the page, I generally drew the orange/red/purple mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion. I don’t recall whether I knew why I chose this motif, except that it always seemed to assure a good grade. Looking back, however, I think I was suggesting my horror of science and all its works. In any event, the teacher almost always picked out my notebook, along with some others, to be put on display as examples of what he wanted. He kept these A+ lesson books lined up on a side table in the science classroom. [2]

I’d like to step far back, now, from the lovely pictures I drew of test tubes, beakers, and nuclear explosions — I want to consider why the creation of pictures of all sorts looms so large in Waldorf education. I’ll let you decide how much, if at all, I’m changing the subject.

Rudolf Steiner often spoke to Waldorf teachers about the extraordinary, almost magical importance of pictures in helping children to grasp reality. (Bear in mind that, for him, reality involved reincarnation, weird ideas about human nature and physiology, and occult conceptions of the spirit realm.) Steiner especially stressed “living pictures,” by which he meant pictures that are imbued with spiritual force, spiritual truth. [3] When children are shown living pictures, they participate in magic. When children create their own living pictures, they perform magic.

The following quotation comes from a lecture Steiner delivered to Waldorf teachers. (If parts of the quotation seem incomprehensible, don’t worry: It isn’t you, it’s Steiner):

“If you bring children as many living pictures as possible, if you educate them by speaking in pictures, then you sow the seed for a continuous retention of oxygen, for continuous development, because you direct the children toward the future, toward life after death. When we teach, in a certain sense we again take up the activities we experienced before birth. We must see that thinking is a pictorial activity which is based on what we experienced before birth. Spiritual forces acted upon us so that a pictorial activity was sown in us which continues after birth. When we present pictures to children in teaching, we begin to take up this cosmic activity again ... [E]ducation is a continuation of supersensible activity before birth....” [4]

What is this all about? Forget the wackiness about oxygen and its how it helps prepare for life after death. (Breathing is a good idea, of course — but life after death is a more dubious proposition. Bear in mind, Steiner wasn’t talking about going to heaven. He was talking about an extremely long series of future lives, alternating between the physical universe and the spirit realm: reincarnation.)

Steiner tells Waldorf teachers that they and their students carry within themselves pictorial information gleaned from their lives before birth. This information comes to them due to the activities they performed during their lives before birth. “Spiritual forces acted upon us so that a pictorial activity was sown in us which continues after birth.”

The word “activity” is important. Steiner taught that humans gather information best by performing actions — physical actions and spiritual “actions.” The pictorial activity sown in us by the gods begins before birth and continues throughout our lives on the physical plane. Waldorf teachers were active in their spiritual lives before their most recent physical births, and this pre-birth activity enabled them to internalize pictures of the spirit realm. Now, here on Earth, they can continue the same activity, producing the pictures they carry within. The same goes for students. Teachers can summon up their internalized spiritual knowledge through the creation of living pictures. The same goes for students. The pretty pictures created by Waldorf students are not primarily works of art: They are intended to be mechanisms for the manifestation of occult “truth.” (The children who attend Waldorf schools are usually not told this. Neither are their parents, usually. For some of Steiner’s own words on the subject, see the book ART AS SPIRITUAL ACTIVITY [5].)

Thinking is, according to Steiner, a pictorial activity. What he means is that by using the imagination, one can summon up pictures infused with what one experienced in life before birth (life in the spirit realm). Steiner often called these pictures "imaginations." He devalued rational thought [6] as well as the rational investigation of phenomena. [7] True thinking, for him, is clairvoyance. Children in Waldorf schools are led toward developing clairvoyance (a generally distant goal) by being trained to use their imaginations to “understand” reality. (Most of this occurs covertly; the teachers usually do not explain what they are doing. The children are simply guided into various activities that are meant to have occult value. Questions are discouraged. Explanations are generally not given. Steiner's directive to Waldorf teachers: "[T]each the children respect. The children should not raise their hands so much." [8])

“Education is a continuation of supersensible activity before birth....” That’s Steiner’s intention, boiled down to its basics. “Supersensible” stuff is invisible, inaudible, untouchable... It is stuff that we cannot confirm using our real senses — it can be apprehended only through clairvoyance. Waldorf education is geared toward such stuff, stuff that almost certainly doesn’t exist, at least not in the weird forms Steiner imagined. And the profoundly antiscientific nature of Waldorf schooling is revealed here. Science deals with things that can be seen, heard, touched — or at least measured, and examined, and subjected to objective tests. In other words, science deals with reality, which is what the founder of Waldorf education generally disdained.

Steiner's system depends on clairvoyance rather than ordinary sight and logical reasoning. (Modern humans generally have lost humanity's ancient, inborn clairvoyant powers. But Steiner taught his followers that they can gain a new, higher form of clairvoyance by following his instructions. Waldorf students are led toward the path that, if they take it, will lead them to Steiner and, eventually, clairvoyance.) But there is a problem. Clairvoyance doesn’t exist. [9] Which means that — to put this mildly — Steiner’s educational program has limited value. [10]

Still, there is such a thing as being seduced by vague imaginings of a misty, pastel-colored spirit realm. Children led in that direction may become sadly lost. By the same token, time spent preparing for nonexistent future lives is time lost — potentially, it is lives wasted.

The pictures students create for science classes are, presumably, the farthest removed from spiritualistic truth, since science is so wrongheaded. But you might ask yourself whether any pictures could actually fulfill the purpose Steiner assigns to them. If you believe in reincarnation and magic, you might want to send your children to a Waldorf school. If you are a bit skeptical, you might want to hold back.

— Roger Rawlings

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Footnotes for the Foregoing

[1] Waldorf schools generally continue to shun textbooks, having their students create lesson books instead. The following is from a newspaper account published in February, 2009. I will withhold the name of the school and administrator in question:

“At [X] Waldorf School, all forms of the arts are completely integrated with every aspect of the curriculum, in line with Waldorf methodology, which emphasizes arts and the ‘inner life.’

“Art, music, handwork and woodwork are all part of a child's daily school experience at Waldorf.

“For example, students create their own main lesson books in all the academic subjects.

“If the topic is chemistry, they study the subject in a broad way that includes history, literature and biographies of chemists in addition to the laboratory science itself.

“‘Out of that, they create their main lesson book. They hand write and illustrate it, and that is one way that visual arts is worked into chemistry,’ says [Y], school administrator.” [Calgary Herald, Feb. 12, 2009.]

There can be advantages to this approach, but there may also be clear disadvantages. The Waldorf school in question, here, may be excellent — I don’t know anything specific about the school beyond what the newspaper describes. But there are elements in the report that may cause concern. For Rudolf Steiner, the “inner life” is subjective spiritualism, based on clairvoyance. Steiner emphasized art for occult, not aesthetic, reasons. And he de-emphasized science. Consider how much hard science a student may learn if s/he spends “science” study time reading “history, literature and biographies” and then creating a hand-lettered report, complete with time-consuming illustrations. How much time is spent actually studying science or working in a science lab?

[2] Students taking science classes at a Waldorf school may be diverted in many ways from acquiring real scientific knowledge. At my school, we students spent an inordinate amount of time illustrating procedures performed by the teacher. We never designed our own experiments nor sought to apply the scientific method in pursuit of independent science projects.

Students at other Waldorfs may perform construction projects instead of experiments. For example, physics students may recreate obsolete electrical contraptions. Here’s an excerpt from a recent news story. I will omit the name of the Waldorf school involved: 

“High school students at [X] Waldorf School took real pleasure in completing physics projects, designing a Wimhurst machine, DC motors and Van de Graaff generators.” [phoenixvillenews.com, Jan. 23, 2009.] 

Wimhurst machines are generators invented during the 1880s; Van de Graaff generators date from the 1930s. Building such devices may give students some appreciation of electricity, but it would not convey twenty-first century scientific information.

According to a spokesperson, 

“‘At [X] Waldorf School, students are provided experiences that strengthen and reinforce their own inclination to experiment, explore and question. Students often communicate how science is perceived as fun.’” [Ibid.] 

Recreating old-fashioned gizmos may well be fun, but it would hardly produce the creativity needed for real science, which is the exploration of the unknown. It is in no way a form of experimentation or scientific research. It is a diversion.

[3] "Living pictures" are, ultimately, images of "living thoughts." [See "Thinking".]

[4] Rudolf Steiner, THE FOUNDATIONS OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE, Foundations of Waldorf Education (Anthroposophic Press, 1996), p. 62.

[5] Rudolf Steiner, ART AS SPIRITUAL ACTIVITY (Anthroposophic Press, 1998).

[6] See, e.g., “Thinking Cap”.

[7] See, e.g., “Steiner’s ‘Science’”.

[8] Rudolf Steiner, FACULTY MEETINGS WITH RUDOLF STEINER (Anthroposophic Press, 1998), p. 65.

[9] See "Clairvoyance".

[10] See, e.g., "Foundations".

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These drawings (above and below) are not work I did as a student — they are reconstructions. Above you see what I remember as a typical cover page I would have concocted for a chemistry lesson book in high school. The image is supposed to be an above-ground nuclear blast. Presumably I associated the horrors of nuclear weapons with the demonic forces of all modern sciences, including chemistry. In reality, nuclear power had been unleashed by physics, not chemistry — but the difference between chemistry and physics was never made clear to me as a Waldorf student. Indeed, very little about any sort of science was made clear to me as a Waldorf student.

I'm confident this image is an accurate reconstruction. I remember the design well — I drew similar covers, complete with bomb blasts, several times, for both chemistry courses and physics courses. Perhaps my work would have been neater than what you see here, but the overall effect would have been much the same. Everything would have been freehand, of course. This was a rule at Waldorf. The shadowed lettering was my own innovation, though — and it wowed everyone.

Below you see a reconstruction of the sort of picture I drew for daily reports submitted in science classes. If our science teacher performed some sort of operation involving a Bunsen burner and a flask, we were supposed to write up a description of what he had done, and we were required to add our own illustrations. For variety, I created drawings showing the scenes from various odd angles rather than straight-on from the side. Such drawings more or less assured me good grades whether or not I learned much science. (I didn't learn much science.)

[R.R. drawings, 2009.]






I don't have any of my old lesson books. But below you will find samples of drawings created by young Waldorf students as part of their class work.

Here is a scene in nature. Note the roots — the lesson may have been botany:

And here is a Waldorf's student's exposition of how we arrive on Earth:

Here we see the archangel Michael supervising the killing of a dragon:

[Drawings courtesy of 

People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools.]



From the Deccan Chronicle

 Janurary 19, 2011

"They Write Their Own Textbooks"

(article about a Waldorf school)

There are no textbooks in this class; each student writes and illustrates his or her textbook. Music is played during class hours and lessons are taught through movements and expressions. To learn measurement, the class is taken bushwalking through mountains, and to learn the gist of religions, every possible festival is celebrated traditionally. Learning is radically different at schools that follow the ‘Waldorf’ education system, which is an application of ‘anthroposophy’.”  

[1-19-2011  http://www.deccanchronicle.com/chennai/they-write-their-own-textbooks-499]

Waldorf Watch Response:

Waldorf schools generally use few conventional textbooks. Such books do not conform to the Waldorf approach or worldview. Indeed, they contain information about the real world that Waldorf faculties often reject, information attained through conventional/scientific modes of thought that true-believing, Anthroposophical Waldorf faculties consider unreliable (i.e., no clairvoyance was employed). 

“I have nothing against using a textbook, but all of them are bad.” — Rudolf Steiner, FACULTY MEETINGS WITH RUDOLF STEINER (Anthroposophic Press, 1998), p. 284. 

Despite professing openness, Steiner condemned all  textbooks, and he created a system in which students usually have to do without.

The lesson books “created” by Waldorf students usually consist of messages and pictures produced by Waldorf teachers and copied by the students. In some cases, the copies are almost slavishly literal; in other cases, students can — within limits — create their own variant drawings and choose their own slightly original words. Older students are given more leeway in these matters —  they may even do some outside research — but at all grade levels the teachers direct the ideas that are expressed in the books prepared by the students. 

Waldorf teachers have extraordinary influence over their students, and this is one example. During school hours, Waldorf students rarely hear anything except the views of their Waldorf teachers. Few outside voices or views are considered, a situation made possible in part because so few non-Waldorf textbooks are used.


Former Waldorf student and teacher 

Grégoire Perra has become a whistle-blower,

revealing many secrets of the 

inner workings of Waldorf education,

including the efforts to indoctrinate 

students, parents, and even teachers.

[See "He Went to Waldorf", 

"My Life Among the Anthroposophists"

and "Mistreating Kids Lovingly".]

Below are a few excerpts 

from a recent posting of Perra's: 

[Perra writes primarily of Waldorf schools in his native France; however his statements apply to Waldorf schools in most other parts the world as well. I have added captions to the illustrations. Any errors in captions or in the translation are entirely my responsibility. — R.R.]

Often, parents of students enrolled in a Waldorf school do not give sufficient critical attention to the notebooks brought home by their children. Instead, they are delighted to see colorful drawings and transcribed texts that can seem so poetic. Parents may easily overlook the way the books are filled with religious references and with strange esoteric language that will only become clear if you study Anthroposophical doctrines.

However, if you have several children, and can compare a notebook created by one child during one period with a notebook prepared by another child, under another teacher, several years apart, then you will see that the texts often are very close, and the drawings are either very similar or even identical. Upon reflection, we would then realize that Waldorf class work is systematically organized to convey certain ideas to the unconsciousness of the students. Having completed a study of Waldorf student notebooks from 1st to 8th grade, I propose to describe the various processes that I discovered. This work reinforces a report I made previously about the indoctrination of Waldorf students. [See "He Went to Waldorf".]

Before starting, we should recognize the particular difficultly in analyzing notebooks created by Waldorf students before the third grade. These notebooks will contain very little writing; they will consist almost wholly of drawings. It is therefore necessary to decipher the students' drawings, if you want to try to reconstruct what the class teacher has told the students. Each drawing, which in fact takes about two hours to create, summarizes symbolically what the teacher has taught. The student, looking at these drawings later, may well remember the teacher’s words. But outsiders, such as parents or inspectors, who are not familiar with Waldorf pedagogy or the esoteric content of Anthroposophy, will probably only see drawings created by apparently exceptional students. In reality, nothing is left to chance in these drawings, which correspond to specific content [and are often slavishly copied from drawings done by the teachers]....

[The drawings often depict myths and legends chosen for their spiritual meaning.] The students are not taught real history but a pseudo-legendary history through stories that reinforce childish beliefs and superstitions, along with promoting devotion to personalities that are revered for their supposed magical powers.

For instance, we find belief in "elemental beings" conveyed to the students even in math and botany classes. [“Elemental beings” are discarnate entities that, according to Steiner, pervade the natural world: gnomes, elves, sylphs, and the like.] A parent who opens a child’s math workbook will be intrigued by the drawings of elves everywhere, on pages having to do with mathematical operations and explanations. Sometimes these elves (recognizable by their hats), dominate an entire page, as indicated in the example below:

Drawing by a Waldorf student. S/he was evidently taught the number 2 by being shown, and copying, an image of two sets of two elves. (The same image can be used to teach the number 4 — there are four elves — or to teach addition — two elves plus two elves  equal four elves.) - R.R.

The other part of the same lesson: the number 2 (aka, the number II). A child taught arithmetic the Waldorf way will learn numbers. S/he may also, at least subconsciously, remember all the elves that trooped through class. - R.R.

The parent will likely be reminded of whimsical doodles s/he created in textbook margins as a student in a public school. The parent may be pleased that Waldorf schools allow students to exercise imagination during math class. But in reality these drawings are illustrations of stories told by the classroom teacher about elves [who are considered real]. This is a systematic, intentional process. An Anthroposophical belief is subtly relayed. Rudolf Steiner associated the thinking process with the activities of elemental beings. He did this explicitly, especially in a conference of 16 December 1922:

"In fact, we are everywhere surrounded by all kinds of spiritual beings, only with ordinary consciousness we cannot see them. They are there, however, to help us in our human activities, including helping us to have thoughts ... For us to have earthly thoughts, there must be beings in the world that create our thoughts ... When we observe the actions of a person who is particularly intelligent and wise, we perceive around her an incorporeal escort. Wherever that person goes, she is never alone, but is accompanied by an escort of fugitive elementary beings...." — Rudolf Steiner, THE REAL AND THE UNREAL IN HUMAN LIFE, AND CREATION FOR THE ORIGIN, Ed Triads-Poche, p. 46-47.

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