Rudolf Steiner and The Threefold Approach to Teaching in the Waldorf Classroom


Rudolf Steiner based his educational model on what he defined as the three soul forces, activities or qualities namely thinking, feeling and willing. These faculties are also referred to as head, heart and hands in Waldorf education. The sole aim of teaching is to develop these three faculties equipping the child with the necessary capacity and ability to receive, process and interact with an uncertain, changing world in a resilient, meaningful and healthy way. Although factual knowledge does play an important role in the classroom, it needs to be held according to its true nature which is changing and subject to evolution and development. There are things that are held as the truth today which in future will cease to be the truth. It might even be scorned. The changing nature of information, definitions and insights needs to be considered. It is important to realize that memorizing facts  and acquiring information is not what will guarantee success in life but rather the relationship towards knowledge and its real life application in the world.

Willing, feeling and thinking.

As I mentioned in my previous blog, Steiner said that the human being consists of four different aspects namely the physical, the etheric, the astral and the I-being. If one looks deeper, one will find that some of these bodies have different aspects which can be classified further. More about this later.

In addition to these four bodies there is also a threefold aspect to the human being. In order to investigate the concepts of thinking, feeling and willing we need to look deeper into this threefold character of the human being.

The threefold human being

To understand what is meant by ‘threefold human being’ we need to take a closer look at the physical body. If you observe the physical body and its functioning we can distinguish three separate systems, each with specific characteristics and functions. There are the nervous system, rhythmic system and the metabolic system. The nervous system consists of the nerves and the senses and is centered in the head. The rhythmic system consists of breathing, blood circulation and all the rhythmic process in the body and it resides in the trunk. The metabolic system consists of all the organs that engage with the transformation of matter and is connected to the limbs. These systems coordinate with one another and when working properly make up a healthy and functioning human being.

Each of these systems has a specific way of relating with the outside world. The head system relates to the outside world through the senses. The rhythmic or circulatory system relates to the outside world through breathing, and the “metabolic system relates to the outside world through the organs of nourishment and the organs of movement.”

Each of these systems expresses itself in one of the above mentioned soul activities. The nervous system expresses itself through thinking, the rhythmic system expresses itself through feeling and the metabolic system expresses itself through activity or willing. The manner in which thinking, feeling and willing are developed relates to their specific systems and the systems’ gateways to the outside world.

Body, soul and spirit.

In order to understand how the will works one needs to have deeper look at Steiner’s model of the human being. Previously I mentioned that according to Anthroposophy the human being consists out of four aspects namely the physical body, the etheric body, the astral body and the I-being or Ego. As I have mentioned before, this is a basic classification. In the ‘Study of Man’ Steiner broadens this classification to the following:

If you look at the human being in its totality as body, soul and spirit each of these constitutes three more bodies. So nine bodies in total. You can say the physical body consists of the grosser physical body, the etheric body and the sentient or the astral body. The soul expresses itself in the following three soul principles namely the Consciousness Soul, the Intellectual or Mind Soul and the Sentient Soul. And then Spirit is expressed by the higher principles Spirit-Man, Life-Spirit and Spirit-Self. The I-being or Ego is to be found in the Consciousness, Intellectual and Sentient Soul.

If you look at the human being according to its broad classification body, soul and spirit you can explain the workings of each as follows and I quote Steiner: “Thus the body is involved in the stream of inheritance and bears the inherited characteristics. The soul, in the main, is a principle which comes out of prenatal existence and unites itself with the body; it descends into the body. But the spiritual part of man today is only present in embryo (form) — though in future this will be different.” (If you would like to read more on the functions and characteristics of these bodies you can look at Lecture IV and V in Study of Man by Rudolf Steiner.) For our purposes this brief explanation is sufficient for now.

The nature of will and its relationship to feeling

What is instinct?

In order to understand will it will be useful to compare animals and humans to each other according to the nine principle bodies explained above. If you observe closely you will see that the physical bodies of animals are in many ways superior to that of a human being. Many kinds of animal’s physical bodies are capable of managing amazing feats which far surpass the capability of the human body and I quote Steiner: “The physical body of man is not really more perfect than that of the animal. Think of some of the higher animals, the beaver, for instance, how he builds his dams. A man could not do this unless he had learned it, unless indeed he had gone through a very complicated training for the purpose, including the study of architecture and kindred subjects. The beaver makes his dam by means of the organisation of his body. He is so related to his environment that he uses the very forces which build up his own physical body in the construction of his dam. His physical body itself is, in this respect his teacher. We can observe the wasps and bees, also the so-called lower animals, and we shall find something inherent in the form of their physical bodies which is not in the physical body of man to the same degree of intensity.” Steiner calls this ability ‘instinct’. Instinct is closely related to the form of the animal body.

In order to understand will one needs to start with this quality defined as instinct and the way it is expressed in the animal body. Steiner explains it beautifully saying that animal bodies can be seen as a picture drawn by Nature herself to express what existence holds. I find this a very beautiful and touching way to remind ourselves why it is so imperative and important that we protect our animal kingdom. If it wasn’t for the birds we as human beings would never have learned how to fly. The animal kingdom by their very existence teaches humans about the universe and what it is capable of.

Transformation of instinct.

Instinct transforms as it moves up from the physical body more inward towards the more refined and subtle bodies of the human being. The physical body is permeated with the etheric body which forms and shape the physical body. When the etheric body gets hold of instinct, it transforms it into impulse.  When the sentient body gets hold of impulse it gets lifted up into consciousness and becomes desire. Animals also have an etheric and a sentient or astral body and also experience impulse and desire. 

What happens to impulse, instinct and desire when they move up to the sentient, intellectual and consciousness soul? Here the ego awaits them. Steiner says it is not that clear what happens when the ego takes hold of impulse, instinct and desire. There are many debates and different opinions over this but for all intents and purposes one can say it becomes motive. And it is here according to Steiner where humans differentiate themselves from animals. Animals cannot have motive and I quote Steiner: “It is only in man that desires grow into a true motive of will. It is a description of the nature of will in man today to say: in man instinct, impulse and desire from the animal world still persist, but he raises them to motive.”

So the question is now – what does the higher bodies, Spirit-Man, Life-Spirit and Spirit-Self do with motive?” When motive develops something very subtle sounds from the depths. Don’t confuse it with a mental picture or an idea. There is something that still has the nature of the will – and this is the wish. This wish should not be confused with the strong wishes that accompany impulses. This wish accompanies motive and is always present. This wish is the wish to be able to do the same thing but better next time. The longing or wish to better oneself. Steiner warns against repentance saying that regretting a deed you have done in the past is egoistic. Rather you should wish for the opportunity to correct the deed in future and to be a better person. The intention of bettering the deed is the important aspect here not the repentance. Steiner says that this wish is the first element of all that remains over after death. There is this wish that we ought to have done it better. We wish we had done it better. This wish is something which belongs to the Spirit-Self. This wish can become more concrete and then it becomes similar to an intention. A mental picture can be formed of how to do the deed better in future. However the focus stays on the accompanied will and feeling forces.

Steiner talks about the other ‘person’ that lives in our subconscious – our better selves – that always carries the undertone to every deed to do it better next time. This intention of doing something better when a similar situation arises only becomes a resolution when the soul is freed from the body. Steiner says and I quote: “The resolution has its seat in the Spirit-Man, the intention in the Life-Spirit and the pure wish in the Spirit-Self. When you then consider man as a being of Will you can find all these component parts in him: instinct, impulse, desire and motive, and then, playing in as a gentle accompaniment: wish, intention and resolution which are already living in Spirit-Self, Life-Spirit, and Spirit-Man”. Steiner stresses the importance that a teacher needs to take all these aspects of a human being into consideration when teaching.

Cultivating a healthy feeling life and the power of resolution and determination (cultivating the impulse of will).

Steiner says that we need to remember that  feeling becomes will. The whole human being lives in the will however. So one needs to remember the subconscious resolutions are present in the child as well and should be taken into consideration.

So how do we help the child to develop a healthy feeling life? It won’t help to tell the child what the right thing is to do. You need to get him/her to do a specific worthwhile something every day for instance watering the plants, feeding the animals, cleaning, saying prayers etc. Do not give the child rules of conduct but rather guide their actions into some kind of action that you think will awaken his/her feeling for what is right and repeat it constantly. You need to direct the impulse of will in the right direction in order to develop a healthy feeling life. Actions need to repeated in order to become a habit and then it needs to be repeated some more until it becomes an unconscious habit. It is this unconscious repetition that has a positive effect on the feeling life .

On the other hand with regards to cultivating the impulse of will Steiner says: “…the more conscious a child is of doing the action repeatedly, out of devotion, because it ought to be done, because it must be done, the more you are raising the deed to a real impulse of will.” In other words a more unconscious repetition cultivates feeling while fully conscious repetition cultivates the true will impulse, for it enhances the power of resolution and of determination. Steiner says and I quote: “The power of determination, which is dormant in the sub-conscious, is spurred and aroused when you lead the child to repeat things consciously. In cultivating the will, therefore, we must not expect to do what is of importance in cultivating the intellect. Where the intellect is concerned we always consider that when an idea is given to a child, the better he “grasps” it, the better it is: the single presentation of the thing is of the greatest importance: after that it has to be retained, remembered. But a thing taught once and afterwards retained has no effect on feeling or will: rather the feeling and will are affected by what is done over and over again, and by what is seen to be the right thing to do because circumstances demand it.”

Waldorf education places a high importance on various art forms as a way to teach and story telling, drama, drawing, painting, puppetry and music etc are incorporated in everyday lessons. The reason for doing it is the following. Doing any art has a very positive joyful effect on the soul. When actual lesson content in the class is presented to the child in an art activity the child gets a chance to actively engage in the lesson content. For instance when children has to perform a play of a historical event in a specific time element, they first have to practice saying the lines and the actions repeatedly which develops will. As the repetition progresses and becomes subconscious they will develop a feeling for the actual events and how it was in those days. Steiner says the following: “Why then has the artistic element such a special effect, as I have said already, on the development of the will? Because, in the first place, practice depends upon repetition; but secondly because what a child acquires artistically gives him fresh joy each time. The artistic is enjoyed every time, not only on the first occasion. Art has something in its nature which does not only stir a man once but gives him fresh joy repeatedly. Hence it is that what we have to do in education is intimately bound up with the artistic element.”

The relationship between thinking and willing

The one thing that we must remember is that the faculties of willing, feeling and thinking don’t operate separately from each other. They are all intertwined and interdependent. If you think about it – each activity of will is accompanied by a mental picture. Your actions are permeated by mental activity and pictures. Just as thought is present in all activity so is will also present in all mental activity. In all thinking there is always an undercurrent of will present. Steiner says: “Thus actually we can only say that will activity is chiefly will activity and has an undercurrent of thought within it; and thought activity is chiefly thought activity and has an undercurrent of will. Thus, in considering the separate faculties of soul, it is impossible to place them side-by-side in a pedantic way, because one flows into the other.”

This intermingling of the soul activities can also be witnessed in the body. Steiner uses the example of the eye which contains both nerves and and blood vessels and says: “…the nerves enables the activity of thought and cognition to stream into the eye of the human being; and the presence of the blood vessels enables the will activity to stream in.”  In other words the blood vessels carry the will activity and the nerves enable thinking.

Lets look a little bit closer at thinking and cognition. Thinking and cognition has a special quality in that in the mental picture lives what Steiner calls antipathy. Steiner says that every thought and mental image is permeated with antipathy. For instance if you had to look at a picture and only your nerves were active, the object that you were looking at would fill you with disgust. However, the will present in the blood vessels, is permeated with sympathy and balances the antipathy in order to create neutrality.

If one looks at animals you will see that an animal has much more blood activity in the eye than the human being resulting in animals living in a much more instinctive sympathetic state with nature. This is true for the other senses as well. Steiner says: “The animal has much more sympathy with his environment, and has therefore grown together with it much more, and hence he is much more dependent on climate, seasons, etc., than the human being is.” The fact that humans has more antipathy than animals has an important function. It causes a separation between the person and its environment. Steiner says: “It is because man has much more antipathy to his environment than the animal has that he is a personality. We have our separate consciousness of personality because the antipathy which lies below the threshold of consciousness enables us to separate ourselves from our environment.”

Now there is an important aspect to consider here regarding the interplay of willing and thinking forces. When one wills to do something there is always an amount of sympathy that arises towards the action. In order to execute the action a certain amount of antipathy is needed in order to separate oneself as a personality from the deed and the environment. If one didn’t do this there will only be an instinctive willing and it would get no further.

How to develop thinking.

In our early childhood years, all we do originate from a place of pure sympathy. When children play they do so out of sympathy with the various actions. Steiner relates sympathy with love and strong willing. However love and strong willing need something else to establish itself meaningfully in the world. It needs thought, ideas – it has to be illumined by the conscious mental picture. The reason for this is that if the impulses present in the little child remained sympathetic, he/she would develop like an animal under the influences of its instincts.  It is important that these impulses must become antipathetic to us in order to develop thinking. The way to do this is to introduce ideas and moral ideals to our mere instincts. Our instincts are antipathetic towards moral ideals. So by immersing the child with ideas and moral ideals we introduce an antipathetic element to their being. This is why moral development always has an ascetic element. However, one needs to understand asceticism correctly. It is always an exercise in the combating of the animal element.


The human activity of feeling is placed between cognition or thinking and willing. You can picture it in the following way: On the one hand their exist in the human being all that originates as willing and the accompanying sympathy and on the other you find all that is thinking and the accompanying antipathy. One needs to remember that the sympathy of willing acts on thinking and the antipathy of thinking also acts on the willing part of the human being. So between these two lies feeling. In other words feeling is related to thinking on the one hand and willing on the other hand. Steiner says: “In the soul as a whole you cannot keep thought and will strictly apart, and still less can you keep the thought and will elements apart in feeling. In feeling, the will and thought elements are very strongly intermingled.”

When you engage in an activity with enthusiasm and love, the willing aspect of your being is permeated with feeling. On the other hand if you engage in a sense activity either pleasant or unpleasant for instance smelling something pleasant or disgusting you will also experience a feeling accompanying the nerve action.

Steiner says the following: “When you thus trace the element of feeling on the one hand in cognition, in mental picturing, and on the other hand in willing, then you will say: feeling stands as a soul activity midway between cognition and willing, and radiates its nature out in both directions. Feeling is cognition which has not yet come fully into being, and it is also will which has not yet fully come into being; it is cognition in reserve, and will in reserve. Hence feeling also, is composed of sympathy and antipathy, which — as you have seen — are only present in a hidden form both in thinking and in willing. Both sympathy and antipathy are present in cognition and in will, in the working together of nerves and blood in the body, but they are present in a hidden form. In feeling they become manifest.”

Thinking, feeling and willing from a spiritual point of view

The above explanation deals mainly with thinking, feeling and willing from a soul point of view since this is the closest to the human being’s living conditions. To conclude this article let’s have a brief look now at thinking, feeling and willing from a spiritual point of view.

Although thinking, feeling and willing are interdependent and merge and work into each other there are distinct differences between these soul qualities from a spiritual point of view:

Lets look at ‘thinking’ first. What is important to understand during cognition and thinking is that the ‘I’ or the ego is present and part of the process. You are fully conscious in the activity and you “know”. It feels as if you have a light switched on. You are fully present and you know whatever it is you know. As Steiner says: “…you live in a fully conscious activity…”

Willing is completely different. You are not at all conscious of the actual processes happening in the body when you make even the simplest of movements. Take for instance walking. The only thing that you can have is a mental picture of walking in your head. You are completely unaware of the processes happening in your body enabling you to walk. You do not know how much food is used by the metabolic process in order to produce enough energy for movement. Neither do you have the faintest idea of the path followed by the blood to the cells in order to facilitate the metabolic process. Steiner says: “When we “will” there is always something deeply unconsciously present in the activity.”

Feeling lies in the middle between thinking and willing. It is partly conscious as is thinking but there is also a part that shares in the unconscious character of willing.

In order to better understand the different characteristics of thinking, feeling and willing, Steiner compare it to our sleeping and waking states. When we wake up from our sleep at night we call ourselves awake. However in Steiner’s definition we are only really awake when we are engaged in the process of cognitive thinking. With regards to our willing we are asleep even when we are awake. Our willing always resides in the realm of unconsciousness and we always have a deeply sleeping human being with us in regard to our will. Feeling as we know stands midway between thinking and willing. We experience feelings the same as dreams. Although feelings  you experience directly and ‘dreams’ you remember – there is a dreamlike quality to feelings. Part of your feelings is conscious and the other part resides in the unconscious.

Steiner says: ” Whilst you are awake you are not only a waking man in that you think and know, and a sleeping man in that you will: you are also a “dreamer” in that you feel. Thus we are really immersed in three conditions of consciousness during our waking life: the waking condition in its real sense in thinking and knowing, the dreaming condition in feeling, and the sleeping condition in willing.”


There is much more to be said on this topic and if you would like to do some independent  reading I would recommend The Study of Man by Rudolf Steiner. The practical application of this knowledge is a topic on its own and at some point I will dedicate a blog to this. However, as we go along and start exploring lesson plans based on the development of thinking, feeling and willing, it should become more transparent. It is very inspiring as the application lead to a healthy comprehension of children’s abilities, behavior and actions in the classroom and provides a model to facilitate the optimum development for each child.


Steiner, R, 1975. The Study of Man. 2nd ed. London: Rudolf Steiner Press.


4 thoughts on “Rudolf Steiner and The Threefold Approach to Teaching in the Waldorf Classroom

  1. Elizabeth Swanepoel February 3, 2017 — 2:31 am

    A wonderful piece of writing Lydia! It is so clearly set out. I hope lots of parents and teachers read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much Elizabeth. I put a lot of effort into trying to do just that – making Steiner’s work more accessible. I’m glad you liked it!


  2. I look forward to your follow-up on this! Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you do Sarah. My next blog will be published shortly.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close