This article originally appeared at
– not a valid educational choice
22 July, 2009 @ 3:33 pm
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:
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.
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:
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.
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…
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:
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:
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.
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 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.
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:
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…
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…
…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.
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:
While, in an op-ed piece in the Yorkshire Post (June 2008) Gove advanced this argument in favour of raising standards in science education:
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).
[R.R., ~ 1968.]