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Criticism on Wagenschein, from Kroebel until today.

Lecture by Klaus Kohl at the Zug Wagenschein convention February 19, 2005

This lecture was launched actually by a paper "Genetic learning between wishful thinking and reality" (Genetisches Lernen zwischen Wunschdenken und Wirklichkeit) by Alexander Engelbrecht which had appeared at the end of 2003 in the "MNU" periodical (Der mathematische und naturwissenschaftliche Unterricht). Somebody of you will remember I rang the alarm bell, launched an answer and put it together with copies of that paper to a dozen of people. Of course my answer was sent immediately to the editors of MNU and was published there among others in issue No. 4 of 2004.
What is the topic of Engelbrecht’s paper? It is so to speak an excerpt from his thesis "Kritik der Pädagogik Martin Wagenscheins", published by LIT editors. Engelbrecht wants to put hits on the hats of Wagenschein’s admiring disciples, keeping the flag flying, the flag of HIM, who by many nice words had made assertions which in pedagogic reality are nothing but a popping firework.

In his article the proof is an example of a lesson of his own. In a third primary school class a "juice machine" is used to introduce atmospheric pressure. This juice machine is a modern non-alcoholic variety of Heron’s "wine-distributor".
If you pour into the funnel any liquid e.g. water, another liquid (e.g. wine/hard cider/apple juice) will leave the outlet tube. Here I have drawn the situation just before pouring out. Now put the whole thing into a hiding box only the funnel and the outlet are to be seen and the juice machine is ready - according to Wagenschein!

I really have no idea, which pedagogician constructed this reference, but it is in the world now. Indeed that funny apparatus has nothing to do neither with Wagenschein nor with atmospheric pressure. Its principle is: even air needs space and water has a weight - communicating pipes! The water pushes the juice by the air (it could be any other medium (not too heavy) out the bottle. It could then work on the moon as well.
And Wagenschein? An introducing phenomenon should be amazing - that was really his demand, but not by hiding the process! In contrary - it must be inspected and experimented "how it works".
Now Engelbrecht's lesson turned out as a fiasco, was analyzed by him scrupulously and the guilty one is - Wagenschein!. That this became an accepted thesis - that is really an amazing phenomenon!

By now Engelbrecht is scientific employee at Institute of school pedagogic of Rostock University. He made the studies to his thesis at Hanover university with Prof. Ulf Muehlhausen who distributes the die ‘Hannoveraner Unterrichtsbilder’ (prepared and reported lessons on CD). There you can find:
CD No. 33 = 560 MB Video by the format WMV8 "Phenomena of air and water" according to Martin Wagenschein (3rd class primary school), The CD ROM shows a double lesson which is adapted to the ideas of Martin Wagenschein: Pupils of a third class are confronted to different phenomena by the theme water and atmospheric pressure. By the introducing example the teacher presents a ‘machine’ that can make apple juice of water. As the inner parts of the machine cannot be seen then by sitting in a circle the guess about its working and discuss it. Afterward the children are occupied with a selected one of three experiments: Opening of a milk can (according to Copei), 2. Suckling of water with a syringe or a pipette 3. with a submerged experiment in an aquarium. Without an order to work the children only by the utensils should be led to experiments and thinking about them. Planned was a lesson with the demand to make possible the "genetic - socratic - exemplary learning" according to Wagenschein (v. the menu "Theoretical Context"). Was there a success to ful-fill this demand i.e. prompt children to experiment independently, speculate about the experienced phenomena and discuss them together and slowly approach with their own language the physical facts? How far is it possible to the teacher to observe the rules of teaching as they are formulated by Wagenschein?
(With the appropriate codec WMV8 can be played with the Windows Media Player.)
Postscript 2006: Last year appeared the book of Ulf Muehlhausen (ed.) "Unterrichten lernen mit Gespuer" (Learning to teach with feeling) By Schneider editors, Hohengehren ISBN 3-89676-897-2 (with DVD-ROM) containing the paper of Alexander Engelbrecht as chapter 7.

Now reactions came promptly. MNU could not publish all of them, I gathered them and they can be read (sorry, no translation yet!)
I was really itching to talk with Engelbrecht furthermore - I think I was the only one to accept his invitation to continue the discussion. About a dozen of e-mails were exchanged, but the development confirmed my first impression. This man is not willing to investigate properly. I would characterize it that way: By reading a source a first time such a scribe has his text marker ready to underline all passages he is accepting by glancing over it. By the second run he is gathering the marked spots. By June 24 he wrote: "The Wagenschein disciples are crying horrified. Even you, whose constructive manner I am well estimating are not afraid to testify me as "superficial researching.... But - I am no archivist and not interested in a scrupulous investigation of all available sources I want to develop a stringent argumentation, building a road without examining each little stone as that would be counterproductive, a senseless Sisyphus work. In my opinion these are minor details you are faulting..." I replied (September 24): "Who plans to construct a road by a difficult terrain must not only keep sight of its goal but has to look whether the ground is capable to bear it. Referred to scientific work: I must not make claims which are objectively false as seen by an expert. If that happens by understandable ignorance, I must accept the correction. A road interrupted at only one place would not reach its goal."
Continuing the correspondence became more and more senseless and after half a year I stopped it. Even at this he blamed me as "unworthily throwing the towel" though the suggestion primarily was made by him -
(Addendum: In the meantime we met twice at Wagenschein conventions near Basel and by personal contact all things went much better!)

To the critics of Wagenschein praised by Alexander Engelbrecht belongs Lutz Fuehrer. We made his acquaintance at the Frankfort event week by Wagenschein’s 100th birthday. He then was 40 years old and was remarkable by his critical statement. Here too we pinned him down to a spot where he made statements about the surrounding field of Wagenschein when he worked out the prime number rule in Goldern:
6. All that happens 1948 in rich Switzerland of still even richer emigrants!
Wagenschein keeps out of it (once more).
In Berlin of that time the airlift was announcing itself, I was three years old,felt the anxiety of my mother and the neighbors and was hungry...
...Wagenschein’s obviously most important recollection to the "Third Reich": He was teacher at a secondary school and did not like the parades: "I cannot say that it was school where I felt unhappy the first years of dictatorship. The evil was outside, my subjects gave no frictions to the ruling ideology. Nearly nobody bothered on my teaching. I made unobtrusively what I wanted as far as I could and this was after all enough." (Erinnerungen für morgen (Memories for tomorrow, p. 48)
Elnis - wasn’t he an Israeli? A great pedagogue?

It was the first statement which made us protesting, as its obvious incorrectness could be proved without any doubt. The situation of the Ecole d'Humanité in its Goldern establishing years was of course a little bit more comfortable than in Germany after war and specially in Berlin to whose benefit every Western German inhabitant had to stick an extra 2-pennies "Notopfer"-stamp to each letter. But "rich Switzerland of still even richer emigrants" this he could withdraw. He did not and by that his matter was not supported- The second part of his statement is more spiteful and might arise questions about frankness and honesty of autobiographers and archivists in common.
The remaining parts of his lecture was with no exception considerable, also by his criticism to the published Wagenschein. And as I know the other work of Lutz Fuehrer (by Internet only) I think he is a very good pedagogue. Recently that was confirmed by a student: "He is always open to good ideas, but if you declare that they are inspired by Wagenschein, he gets wild!" (Addendum to this: When I told him this some time ago, he answered "not at all!").

It is time now to speak about the most prominent critic on Wagenschein: It is Werner Kroebel, born 1904, from 1946 to 1974 professor and director of the Institute of Applied Physics at Kiel University. He died 2001, aged 97 years.
He is the only one in this group of Wagenschein-critics to whom Wagenschein personally could defend himself. Kroebel wrote by MNU a detailed review of Wagenschein’s book "Urspruengliches Verstehen und exaktes Denken" (Original Understanding and exact Considering) the most important collection of Wagenschein’s papers from 1930 to 1946. This review was a revenge to all the pedagogic of Wagenschein concerning physics.
He was backed up by an article in the same MNU issue of H. Settler about "Sinn und Widersinn des Physikunterrichts" (Sense and Nonsense of Physics Instruction) About H. Settler I could not get informations until now, he was living in Kroebel’s (also geographic) neighborhood. I think they both will have matched their articles. Wagenschein by his detailed answer did not respond to Settler’s arguments. The quarrel in MNU extended until 1969. Here are only fixed the releasing papers and Wagenschein’s answer. Editor of MNU at this time was Erich Toepfer, rather critical about Wagenschein’s ideas - not very astonishable for those who know that he was working at "Phywe" - one of the most important producers of physical equipment for schools. This hard, but normally rather objective discussion had the topics: Wagenschein felt very offended by the critics from this side to which in those times adhered the "Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft" DPG (German Physical Society) and many other well-know persons and institutions. He felt threatened, attacked - and challenged. His detailed polished response shows many of the criticism’s items arose by the way the critic saw his existant opinion confirmed by speedy glancing over the text and noting the remarks. A common problem with the reception of texts and general impressions. If you are a little bit self-critical - look into your mirror!

Now at last a critic from another corner of this camp: Micha Brumlik is professor of education in Frankfurt by this way a colleague of Lutz Fuehrer. Besides he is director of the Fritz Bauer Institut, Studien- und Informationszentrum zur Geschichte und Wirkung des Holocaust (Fritz Bauer Institute for Research and Information of History and Effects of the Holocaust). His criticism on Wagenschein is part a publication of this institute "Ein ruhiges Anschauen des Grauens? - Zur Unzulaenglichkeit des reformpaedagogischen Erfahrungsbegriffs" (Calmly regarding the horror? - the inadequacy of the reform-pedagogic conception of experience). He obviously sees reform-pedagogic as the -perhaps unintentional- precursor of the Third Reich and shows the conception of experience to be unable to get over Auschwitz. He criticizes reform-pedagogic of today as only commonly criticizing science and confirms this with quotations of Horst Rumpf, in which verifying stays a little diffused. Thus after a quotation of the introduction (by Horst Rumpf) to "Erinnerungen fuer Morgen" comes the statement (I first give the German original, as my attempt of translation might fail):
Die Aeusserung legt in durchaus unklarer Weise einen internen Zusammenhang zwischen misslingenden Formen unterrichtlicher Vermittlung und der »zweiten Katastrophe« - sprich des Nationalsozialismus, des Zweiten Weltkriegs, der Massenvernichtung der europäischen Juden und der verheerenden Niederlage des Deutschen Reiches nahe, ohne diese These jemals zu entfalten.
(The statement lays -by a quite unclear way- an internal connection between unsuccessful forms of educational conveyance and the »second catastrophe« i.e. the Nazism, the mass elimination of the european jews and the distastrous defeat of the German Reich, without spreading this theory at any time) (Did I get it? - Have you got it?)

Now the reader should/would be eager to get a detailed proposition of Wagenschein’s activities during the Third Reich - is Brumlik’s idea. As sources are rare he searches meticulously for humid brown spots and wrings them out:
The passage mentioned already by Fuehrer (Erinnerungen für morgen - Memories for tomorrow, p. 48) is to Brumlik proof enough to confirm Wagenschein’s well-feeling during the Third Reich. Concentration camps - he did use them to humoristic passages in his work (would it be possible, that Brumlik - born 1947 - really has such a little knowledge of his field of work to set the re-education centers of the Nazis on the same stage with concentration camps? I am nearly unable to believe that...) Wagenschein’s first book "Zusammenhaenge der Naturkraefte" is set by him into the neighborhood of the fierce anti-Semitic Philipp Lenard, allegedly very often quoted by Wagenschein. In opposition to this he puts his rehabilitation by the denazification board. He outlines this biography to the statement that reform-pedagogic is unable to handle the Auschwitz horror, as badly with the by Wagenschein used "conception of experience". And he offers as "theoretical sources to this program orientated to experience" Philipp Lenard and Johann Peter Hebel - read by Martin Heidegger (mentioning the source!) and the peak of criticism is the alleged critic of Wagenschein to the Copernican system: "Even within physics it has as human construction the great advance of simplicity and not of a deep truth" (Erinnerungen fuer morgen - Memories for tomorrow, p. 164, near the quotation of Hebel). By this quotation Brumlik might have hoped to present Wagenschein as stubborn obsolete not noticing a comprehending sight of the world. Then he leaves Wagenschein: (As before I offer the German Text - I feel unable to translate it):
An dieser Stelle ist jetzt nicht zu vertiefen, in welchem Ausmass bei Wagenschein hier ein an Goethe gewonnenes Naturverstaendnis rehabilitiert wird, es ist auch nicht weiter zu eroertern, ob eine derartige Didaktik bezueglich des Lehrens physikalischer Phaenomene der Mesoebene sinnvoll ist oder nicht. Es ist lediglich zu fragen, ob das Prinzip eines blossen Anschauens, das den Blick aufs Massvolle lenkt, angesichts dessen, worum es bei einer die nationalsozialistischen Verfolgungen und Vernichtungslager thematisierenden, zeitgeschichtlichen Didaktik gehen kann, angemessen ist. Sind jene Erfahrun­gen, um deren Vermittlung es gehen soll, im Modus »blossen Anschauens« mit dem Ziel einer Gewinnung des Massvollen ueberhaupt zugaenglich - etwa jener: (follows a quotation of Primo Levi)
And the second part of the paper does not give any hint how and whether at all this theme of elimination of humans can be handled properly by any teacher. Where is the useful of the criticism on Wagenschein? He at least never had claimed to have ideas to that. Who is it Brumlik wants to hit? A letter from me he did not answer since three months. Obviously he had no time even to read it by a busy production of more than 200 papers during 1976 to 2001.

And now the question is: What now?
I quoted Settler’s paper as it represents even today the opinion of many enthusiastic physics theachers mainly young with a fresh knowledge of university physics in their brains (with me I want to make no exception!) "We bring the New Age!" But must only a "teacher of primary school" be able to explain the "law of falling bodies in his mother tongue"? I proceed much farther with my argument: "Who is unable to explain anything by his mother tongue has not yet understood it at all!"
Must a teacher explain all by his mother tongue? Not at all - but a teacher must be able to do it... (No - a teacher should be able, as having understood all? - that’s impossible).
Let us resume:
maybe Wagenschein is assumed to be right too, at least we are believing it.

In this dilemma only tolerance seems able to help us farther. But tolerance deserves its name only by existence on both sides!

An example: Brumlik refers in his - let us call it polemic - to our publication of Wagenschein's curriculum vitae. By other occasions too we heard from younger people: "How - what - Wagenschein was in the 'party'? Was he a nazi?" Already a prejudiced condemnation is established. Should we -too- have done better by concealing it? We are convinced to have gone the right way by saying it and, if necessary, clear up that for a teacher in these times no other way was suitable the early adherence to NSV and NSLB had only a cover-up function. Who has studied the mood and moral of the "Roaring Twenties" in Germany without judging at first could perhaps excuse some things...