“Brain research confirms Waldorf education” – does it really?

By Thomas Marti, January 2012

Reader’s letter on the book review “Teachers play a key role in learning” in Erziehungskunst, October 2011.

We often hear or read that brain research confirms the educational practice of Waldorf schools. People like to quote public comments from well-known brain researchers about issues connected with school, education or upbringing, as has occurred most recently in the review of the new book by Gerhard Roth Education needs personality. How learning succeeds.

Nothing against brain research as such and its scientific findings! But not everything that brain researchers say and write necessarily originates from brain research. The latter is a scientific discipline. Brain research is undertaken on people in the laboratory and often also on animals. In order to interpret the findings, the brain researcher is dependent on observing people who behave in a specific way and with whom he can communicate in experiments. This requires people who are receptive to instructions and can describe what is happening to them internally (mentally).

This all happens at a different level from the findings regarding the nervous system. The latter at best give some insight into the situation that certain psychological activities (for example listening to music or looking at a picture) trigger certain physical processes which are in turn registered by the brain researcher.

To draw conclusions from or, indeed, give advice about the education and upbringing of young people on the basis of processes in the nervous system represents pseudoscientific shadow-boxing.

The “way the teacher is”, his “charisma”, his “self-development potential” or his “communicative skills” are assuredly not concepts from neurology but from psychology, education or, frequently, simply day-to-day experience. Presenting assumptions based on such concepts as conclusions of brain research is no more accurate than the claim that new imaging processes (functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), for example) have enabled modern brain research to observe people’s thinking (see, for example, “Bilder des lebendigen Geistes” (Images of the living spirit) on www.youtube.com). That is pseudo science with which Waldorf education does not need to adorn itself.

To repeat: I have nothing against scientific research in education! If we want to obtain an even better understanding of Waldorf education as based on the anthroposophical understanding of the human being in order to develop it further, medical or scientific research is indeed indicated in order to gain insight into, for example, the effect of lessons on the physical development of the child or adolescent. But that should not be used in evidence or, indeed, as justification along the lines of “we are better than or at least as good as the others”. Rather, it should throw up new perspectives or questions regarding educational practice. Undertaking research means obtaining new findings – and not proving or confirming what we already know.

Given the obstacles which anthroposophically motivated research using scientific methods often has to overcome in order to gain access to Waldorf schools, the standing which popularised brain research often enjoys in Waldorf circles is astonishing. Could that be because there is a lack of confidence in anthroposophically oriented research into questions related to the anthroposophical understanding of the human being?