Thinking, Feeling, Willing ~ 3 Ways Children Learn
I first heard this idea of thinking, feeling, willing as a description of Waldorf education back in 1993 at a summer teacher workshop. The 5-day workshop was hosted by a Waldorf school but the focus was on using the Waldorf approach in a public school classroom.
I was trained as a public school teacher. But after teaching for a few years, I felt so discouraged that I wanted to learn more about alternative approaches. So this summer workshop was a wonderful experience for me.
I had two young kids at the time ~ two little energetic boys ~ and I was beginning to realize that mainstream education was not in our future.
I remember when the presenter at the summer workshop described the stages of human development and explained how we learn differently at different ages. And in that moment, something inside of me woke up. I remember recognizing right then that my own education had focused almost exclusively on the thinking aspects of my being. On academics, on head learning. And I suffered as a result.
So today in this episode, I want to explain this concept and then I’ll share a bit more of how these three aspects of being human have shown up in my life and in my family’s life. Thinking, feeling, and willing are three ways of learning that match up with three different stages of development.
Thinking, Feeling, & Willing
At its core, I like to describe thinking, feeling, and willing as ways we each relate to the world. And as a result, the ways we learn something or learn anything new.
Thinking, Feeling, Willing is a universal grouping that can apply to several areas of life:
- 3 stages of childhood
- 3 steps toward taking action
- 3 views of the world (thinkers, feelers, body-informed people)
It’s embedded in our development but also shows up in how we interact with the world and how we see the world.
This categorization is everywhere!
I’ve heard it in life coaching ~ that our thoughts create our feelings and then our feelings generate our action. As well as in conversations about the Enneagram describing how we each relate to the world primarily through one of these lenses.
Thinking, feeling, and willing is really an archetypal framework that gives us a window into the world of being human from three fundamental perspectives, three ways of navigating life.
And so as educators, when we want to nurture and educate the WHOLE child, this framework or perspective can be really helpful.
These three human activities all relate to the body. Thinking relates to the head, feeling to the rhythmic organs in the torso (such as the heart and lungs), and willing, or doing, relates to the limbs.
Most importantly: the order of these three activities as we engage with the world around us varies depending on our age.
This is what Rudolf Steiner called the “child’s changing consciousness.” Children are not really just little adults. They actually see and interact with the world differently than we do. And when we weave these ideas into how we teach children, we awaken their capacities in a much fuller and livelier way.
Here’s a description from one of my favorite books on Waldorf education: Understanding Waldorf Education: Teaching from the Inside Out by Jack Petrash.
“Understanding that children need to be engaged in these three distinct ways, through head, heart, and hands, forms the primary educational paradigm at a Waldorf school [or I might add, in a homeschool]. Rather than focus the education work solely around the objective of acquiring knowledge, creating a meaningful learning process itself becomes the focus. Through multi-faceted, multi-sensory learning experiences, teachers and students use a variety of intelligences to develop three distinct capacities – for thinking, for feeling, and for intentional, purposeful activity.” ~Jack Petrash
How Our Children Change & Grow
Birth to Age 7
In the early years ~ from birth to about age 7 ~ children learn primarily through their will or their limbs, and their activity. They learn by doing.
Young children often watch other children or the adults around them doing something, and then they try it themselves. Or they hear a story and then want to set up a little scene and pretend to build the house or cut down the tree.
So at this stage, the order of the three ways of engaging with the world is willing, then feeling, then thinking. Young children first do something, which generates a feeling, and then they have thoughts about the scenario. They primarily engage through their limbs – their hands and legs – by doing.
When my kiddos were this age, it took me some time and effort to embrace the idea that making mud pies and playing with our little farm animals was learning. I was trained as a classroom teacher after all.
But honestly, I remember the joy one day when I saw my boys act out the story of The Little Red Hen with their farm set – a story we had read days before. They loved taking the little wooden animals and going around asking for help and getting a “no” each time. And then eating the fresh baked bread to themselves.
They did this over and over again. And I had a lightbulb moment. I could actually see that the story “lived in them” in a very real and meaningful way. They needed to do something with what they were taking in about the world.
Ages 7 to 14
Between the ages of 7 and 14, children learn primarily through their feelings. When they encounter something new, they first have a feeling about it. The feeling often inspires action and then they have a thought about that. Or they have a feeling, then thought, and then take action. The feeling comes first.
This is why during these years we incorporate a lot of rhythm (relating to the heartbeat) and teach through the lively arts. That is, through story, drawing, painting and modeling, movement and music, speech and drama. Because the arts awaken our heart forces. They allow us to feel deeply, to relate to others, to care.
When I was in 4th grade, we were assigned an animal to learn about and write a report. (So interesting that this is often done in 4th grade in the Waldorf curriculum, yet I went to a public school.)
I chose to write about the black bear. And my favorite part of the project was drawing a picture for the cover of the report of a family of black bears. I distinctly remember really wondering, feeling into, what it would be like to be that bear cub in a family of bears ~ to hibernate, to live on a mountain, to eat berries.
Ages 14 and Up
As children get older ~ over the age of 14 and into the adult years ~ they learn primarily through their thinking. These are the years when the head is the predominant force. Teenagers and adults like to read and discuss and consider.
So the order of these fundamental perspectives during this phase of life is thinking, feeling, and then willing. We think about something or learn something new, then we have a feeling, and then we take action.
What I’ve observed in my own children through comparing their homeschooling to my own high school years, is that this phase of thinking is much more alive and curious and awakened AFTER allowing children to first learn through their willing or doing in the early years, and then their heart forces or feeling in the elementary years.
During these years, homeschooling looks much more like what most of us associate with school ~ our lessons revolve more around book learning about history, the sciences, literature, and mathematics. Our children often read a variety of books on a subject and then summarize or consolidate the learning by forming their own opinions about the topic. We still bring hands-on learning and the arts but children are ready for a more academic approach.
Balancing Thinking, Feeling, & Willing
When we design our homeschools to meet children where they are developmentally, this 3-part framework can really help. This is how we can awaken the WHOLE child so that thinking, feeling, and willing are balanced in their adult lives.
One fascinating note here is that other prominent educators and educational psychologists are in alignment with Steiner’s ideas on child development.
Educational psychologist Jean Piaget (who was born in 1896 about 35 years after Rudolf Steiner) described four stages of development that are very similar to Steiner’s. Piaget describes two stages prior to age seven as being sensorimotor intelligence and preoperational thinking. Then there’s the concrete operational stage from ages 7-11. And finally, formal operational learning from ages 11 through adulthood. Piaget described the teacher’s role as providing appropriate learning experiences and materials to awaken students and lay a foundation for the thinking stage as teenagers.
Another educational psychologist, Lev Vygotsky (also born in 1896), in his social development theory asserts that a child’s cognitive development and learning ability are influenced by their social interactions. This is very much in keeping with the Waldorf approach that willing and feeling lay the groundwork for cognitive development. His idea is that children learn gradually through interactions with peers, parents, and teachers.
Here are some wonderful things that Steiner, Piaget, and Vygotsky all agree on and ways they have influenced education:
- Children often learn best by doing things rather than hearing about them. When children discover something for themselves, they often remember that experience in a deeper, more meaningful way.
- The process of learning is as important or even more so than the end result or product of the learning. Process over product.
- Children can’t learn something they aren’t ready to learn. The stages of child development matter when we consider teaching and learning.
Here’s one last thought I want to share for homeschoolers in particular about finding balance through the stages of child development using thinking, feeling, and willing.
Like me, you may be teaching kiddos of varying ages and stages. And it can be hard when you have children in different stages of development. My team member, Sarah, described a friend of hers commenting on this. They were having a playdate with their little ones, maybe doing a craft or playing a game, when her high school son came home. Sarah switched her conversational tone without even thinking about it, to talk with him. Her friend was amazed at how she moved from one child to the other. It seemed effortless and natural to Sarah to do this without distraction or frustration. But that’s not the case for all of us.
When I had a young one, I would sometimes limit my interaction with my older kiddos while I was with my daughter just so I could stay “in the little people world.” It was hard for me to switch back and forth. But after I read stories and played with my youngest for a bit in the mornings, I could switch gears and do lessons with the older two. Then throughout the day, this flowed more naturally.
To wrap up here, I just want to mention that in the end, our goal is balance. And for me ~ someone who was educated in a mainstream setting that focused mostly on the academics and head learning ~ bringing this balance and heeding the developmental stages of childhood was not always easy or intuitive. It took me some time to get this.
But over and over again, I saw how intellectual work too soon is exhausting for children. By inviting children to start in the early years with willing, then feeling in the middle years, and finally thinking in the teen years, this approach allows a child to develop all of these aspects of their being so that their head, heart, and hands are all awakened.
Our goal is really to harmonize these three ways of interacting with the world: thinking, feeling, and willing.
I want to leave you with a beautiful verse from Rudolf Steiner
After all, this is what we really want for our children and for ourselves, isn’t it? For goodness, love, and truth to be at the core of our homeschooling. And even our experiences of the world along with our children’s experiences of the world.
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