Experience-Based Science Education:
The Work of Martin Wagenschein
Stephen L. Talbott
Martin Wagenschein (1896-1988) was a physicist and educator. He was a secondary school teacher for over thirty years and later became a professor of education at the University of Tübingen for 22 years. He is well-known in German-speaking education circles for his impassioned and clear call to transform science and math teaching. His goal was to reconnect science teaching with both the developing child and nature. He saw the detrimental effects of theory-based instruction and rote learning that inform so much of science education today. He developed an experience-based approach to science education. For him science classes should be first and foremost an exploration of concrete phenomena — students thereby learn science as a process of inquiry rather than as a body of set facts and theories.
Wagenschein should be a “must-read” for anyone who teaches science, since he forcefully characterizes the need for experience-based learning and shows how one can best lead students to their own insights in a living process of discovery. Moreover, Wagenschein’s essays contain some of the most lucid justifications of phenomena-based science that exist, ideal for parents and others who want to understand the reasons behind this “different” approach to teaching science.
Unfortunately, Wagenschein is virtually unknown in the English-speaking world. Only a couple of his essays have previously been translated*. Having discovered Wagenschein as a kindred spirit, we desired to make his work more widely accessible. To this end, we undertook a project to translate and make available selections from his work. Here are links to the essays we have translated:
“Light and Objects.” This little gem may seem simple, but harbors Wagenschein’s years of concern about human faithfulness (and lack thereof) to the phenomenal world — to how things actually appear to us. Wagenschein always selected his words very carefully, and his choice of words and phrasing is highly original and pictorial. We have done our best to capture some of this spirit in the following translation.
“Two Moons?” This essay describes the moon physicists speak about and the moon of our everyday human experience that poets also bring to expression. Wagenschein argues that the narrow scientific view, as accurate as it may be, should not be taught to the exclusion of the moon as it speaks to the fullness of human experience.
“Save The Phenomena: The Primacy of Unmediated Experience.” From Brownian motion to the gracefully ponderous motion of a massive pendulum to the mysteries hidden in still water, sound, and radioactivity, Wagenschein offers a master teacher's insights into experienced-based learning that engages the student in a lively way.
“Teaching to Understand: On the Concept of the Exemplary in Teaching.” How do both teaching and learning become living experiences for the participants? Wagenschein shows that covering large amounts of material is not the way to help students learn. Real learning occurs through careful consideration of exemplary cases in which the whole of the subject matter can be experienced through a concrete instance.
“The Flaming Candle: Experiential Learning in the Fourth Grade,” by Ueli Aeschlimann. Aeschlimann is a teacher and professor of education who researches Martin Wagenschein's approach to science education in the elementary school. Here he describes an example of teaching in the spirit of Wagenschein.
For a bibliography of Wagenschein’s publications in German, please see the Martin Wagenschein Archive.
* Two essays by Wagenschein have been published in Teaching as a Reflective Process, edited by I. Westbury et al. (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., 2000): a condensed version of “Teaching to Understand: On the Concept of the Exemplary in Teaching” (pp. 161-75), and “The Law of Free Fall as an ‘Exemplary Theme’ for the Mathematicizability of Certain Natural Processes” (pp. 285-93).