Residents Demand Answers at Council Meeting on Police Killing of Sayed Faisal


Bob Odenkirk Named Hasty Pudding Man of the Year


Harvard Kennedy School Dean Reverses Course, Will Name Ken Roth Fellow


Ex-Provost, Harvard Corporation Member Will Investigate Stanford President’s Scientific Misconduct Allegations


Harvard Medical School Drops Out of U.S. News Rankings

New York's Walden School Tests New Science Teaching Methods

By Adam Clymer

The proper teaching of science is probably the greatest problem before American secondary education. Yet the schools must not only teach more physics and chemistry, but should also face the issue of the isolation of science--make science and scientists seem relevant to the citizen, and indeed make citizenship seem relevant to the scientist and bring him into the community.

It is too easy to think only of the first problem, and resolve to build more laboratories and pay teachers higher salaries (though action lags far behind resolve). But a more imaginative approach will be required for the second problem.

One might argue that the question of the isolation of science is too much for secondary education, and that only the college can handle it. Not many colleges are interested or capable, of course, but even those that try do not succeed very well. They have to contend with two sorts of prejudices built up in high schools--the idea that math and science are either much too difficult or much too boring for the ordinary, healthy student, or the other snobbery that regards any history course at all as an imposition on the time of the budding engineer. The best General Education program imaginable could not overcome these handicaps.

But perhaps they may be overcome in a small private school in New York City. Walden was one of the schools which nearly a half-century ago pioneered John Dewey's ideas of progressive education, a movement which has swept through practically all American high schools. The general success of their earlier ventures left the question of the future purpose of these schools.

Some became increasingly college directed; they were little more than informal prep schools. Others specialized in problem children, usually of rich parents. But neither of these functions has the urgency of which the schools had been born, though they were still important.

At Walden, a radically new curriculum has been developed, a plan so exciting within the school that there is again the idea of doing something revolutionary in education.

Eighth grade students learn enough chemistry to determine simple compounds of some twenty-odd elements, enough astronomy to calculate roughly the winter solstice with hand-made tools or to ask why the orbit of the moon is not a true ellipse, and enough geometry and trigonometry to construct very accurate maps on conic and other projections.

Ninth Grade

Ninth grade students go into more complicated chemical compounds, working on into basic geology and biochemistry, ideas of biological evolution, and of physical and cultural anthropology.

None of this material is presented in the "science is good for us" style of the typical ninth grade general science course, quite possibly the worst offering of American high schools. Instead the Walden students really participate in their education, as they seek to understand how the earth was formed and how life developed on it.

Astronomy receives the most attention in the eighth grade. Basic scientific concepts of space and time are presented, and the student's idea of time as something on a wristwatch is shaken when the teacher forces him to examine what he actually means by a "year." He begins to think how the ancients measured, with only rough instruments, the recurrence of the solstice, and how they had to repeat this many times to average and fix the duration of the year. By December the students are able to measure the solstice within a few days, and they understand their instruments well enough to know why they cannot figure it exactly.

Phases of the Moon

Meanwhile, they are also studying the phases of the moon, learning how it travels about the earth and why its orbit takes an elliptical shape. This leads to a study of Kepler's Law and its application to the orbits of artificial satellites. From here on it is only a few steps to the concepts of gravity, mass, and specific gravity.

From maps of the sky, with sky coordinates, the students proceed as the ancients did to mapping the earth, and they learn how a spherical surface is translated onto a flat piece of oak tag. Large wall maps are one tangible result of this project, maps accurate to a degree that would please even Frederick Merk.

By this time the Walden students have grasped much of what is involved in the shape of the earth, and in the late winter they begin learning about what it is composed of. Ideas about the different states of matter are presented, and they begin to examine about twenty key elements. The concept of atomic structures is introduced, and these elements, their properties, and the ways they combine are considered. When a few more are added, the beginnings of the periodic table may be understood. Then another twenty-odd elements are studied because of their importance to man, elements like gold or uranium, chromium or arsenic.

Charts, maps, and reports play a large part in all of this work, as the familiar progressive school formula of learning by doing is constantly applied. But the students are not merely following rote plans; they are actually recreating, in many cases, the actual processes of discovery, especially in astronomy and geography.

Other Courses

They do not spend all their time on this program, of course. In the eighth grade it takes twelve fifty minute periods per week. Meanwhile the Walden students are taking a general language course which brings them the basic ideas of languages, speech, formation, cognate patterns, etc., a basic American history course including a study of current events, and an English course. Furthermore, within the science course, attention is drawn to the implications of science for society. For example, in the study of the development of the ancient idea of the year, it is shown that a stable society was required to keep the records needed to fix a year's duration. Again, some idea of the growing complexity of human thought is shown in the study of the increasingly sophisticated calendars of the various ancient societies and their alteration into the modern one.

In the ninth grade, the first topic considered is the formation of the earth, and various concepts, like those of LaPlace and Jeans, are dealt with. While the subject is not exhausted, the general idea is left of a mass of gas contracting to form the solar system.

Chemistry Developed

The previous year's chemistry is developed still further and simple three-element compounds are learned, like silicates, carbonates, acids, bases, and salts, and thus they are able to examine what happened as the earth cooled and the rocks were formed.

Different kinds of rocks and different geologic processes up to continent formation follow, and after them comes an examination of how key biochemical compounds, like carbohydrates, hydrocarbons, amino acids, and proteins are formed.

The next unity is biology--a brief study of evolution from the single cell up to the mammal. Geology is brought in again to tie things together, as the various geologic eras provide a frame for locating different developments in evolution. And geology furnishes a good transition to studies of skeletons and dermal structure, for the evidence of these is founds in rocks. The ten main phyla are studied, with special emphasis on the chordates, and particular attention to the mammals. A study of the reproductive process in mammals provides an effective sex education.

About halfway through the ninth grade the Walden students are ready to study man, but they do so first not as historians but as physical anthropologists, noting those details in his physical development, like prehensile grasp, stereoptican view, speech, and erect posture, which distinguish him from other primates.

Primitive Cultures

They then consider the development of primitive cultures, not only in the general terms of the technology and social organization of paleolithic and neolithic cultures, but also by examining a few specific societies, like the Aranda of Australia, the Hopi, the Kazakhs of Central Asia, the Haida Indians off the West Coast of Canada, the Ganda of Uganda and finally the Inca. They consider in a fairly sophisticated manner just what makes a civilization, and how the primitive forms developed.

The last period in the ninth grade is spent in a consideration of ancient history--from the Sumerians through the kingdoms of Egypt, Assyria and Babylonia, the Hebrews, the Minoans of Crete, the Persian Empire, and the Greek city states down to the victory of Philip of Macedon in 338 B.C.

Continuity Maintained

This essentially, is the end of the program as it now stands. But subsequent grades do not ignore the groundwork that has been laid. Mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology courses all pick up where the students have left off before. History courses go on through the sixteenth century in the tenth grade, and through the Puritan Revolution, the development of constitutions, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution in the eleventh grade. With this background, the twelfth grade in the first term again goes over U. S. history from 1789 to 1917, and in the second studies the U. S. and the world from 1917 to the present.

At Walden the program has had the benefit of some exceptional, versatile teachers, and that is obviously a large part of the battle in any educational program. But Augustus Pigman, one of the teachers who has helped to develop it, argues that only good, interested teachers are necessary to make the program succeed, and he hopes that other institutions will copy the Walden program.

Time will be necessary to assess this curriculum's long-run effects, for it has been in complete operation in the eighth and ninth grades for only three years and is only just now being expanded into the tenth grade. It has had seven years of experiment in the eighth grade and as an idea its history is much older than that.

But even now it is clear that all the students are quite excited about science and are going out and buying telescopes or constructing homemade instruments of one sort or another. And the kids interested in science do not scorn history, nor are they likely to concentrate on only one kind of science, for they see the importance of a wide range of understanding. The early returns, including a Walden junior who has just been admitted to the class of 1962 here, are most encouraging for this new program.Here Walden eighth graders examine, with a teacher, a map of the United States. They have drawn it themselves, applying the basic ideas of mapping that they learned earlier with reference to the sky. A remarkably accurate series of maps of different parts of the world cover the walls of the eighth grade classroom.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.