Fear, ambition and love in the classroom

By Martin Carle, January 2020

When I was studying Waldorf education, I was smitten with an advertising poster that was hanging in the seminar building. It showed a picture of the young Rudolf Steiner which had the words above it in large letters: “There are only three educational tools: fear, ambition and love. We dispense with the first two …”

Photo: fotoline / photocase.de

I quickly learnt that the implementation of this ideal is not so simple. The great variety of dynamics and problems in my class provoked not a few relapses into the “poisonous” pedagogy I so despised. 

I might try ever so hard in the evening to think positively and affectionately about a child and think up an apt moral story  which I told to the class the next day.  But if that child then once again hit another one in break, or in a rage resisted trotting in a circle like a horse or scampering back to their seat quietly like a mouse in the middle of a lesson, the only solution I could come up with was to make them stand outside the door or ask to see the parents. 

Things only improved when I discovered that the child could be quietened relatively easily by setting them maths exercises which lay far above the general level of the class. As soon as I rustled my exercise sheets a certain reaction pattern clearly set in which made them sit at their desk doing calculations like a lamb. 

Once this child had been successfully “conditioned”, I turned to the other “building sites” in my class and my world-transforming educational impulse was reduced relatively quickly to the endeavour in the first instance to establish calm, discipline and attentiveness in the classroom. To this end I was willing to use almost all the means of classical and operant conditioning (see explanations 1 and 2). 

I also tried to copy possible promising actions from my colleagues. Here two options stood out: managing a class by means of “rules, rhythms and rituals” or managing a class by means of “creativity, chaos and charisma”. 

By rigorously authoritarian enforcement of the three Rs, a firm grip was taken of the class; school performance and the polite behaviour of the children was initially impressive. The children always waited quietly in front of the still closed classroom door, nicely holding hands two-by-two in a row. Unfortunately, they frequently turned out to be ungrateful clients in middle school in that they attempted by all means possible to get rid of their class teacher before time. 

In contrast, the use of the three Cs had a more spectacular effect externally. Here the fascinating personality of the teacher produced many mini individualists who frequently were unimpressed by spelling rules or other conventions. The queue waiting in front of the classroom door was, however, difficult to manage and by the end of the class teacher period they too frequently tended to be fed up with this oppressive strategy intended to overwhelm them. 

Sadly I was forced to draw the conclusion that these two variants, despite the undoubtedly high level of affection which was there, nevertheless consisted in large part of the first two educational tools mentioned at the beginning, forcing me to find my own way. 

Bringing out the best?

So in the following years I tried to use the best parts of both observed options through situationally adapted reinforcement consisting of a mixture of positive and negative conditioning. If necessary, I would now impose punishment (sorry, consequences) and I used praise as a performance enhancing stimulant – even where it was actually inappropriate. 

Together with the portion of affection is was able to muster, I thus increasingly succeeded in persuading the class to adopt a certain level of good and learning behaviour. The initially wild and turbulent bunch of rascals eventually turned into a quite well-behaved school class which even in its early phase of puberty at age thirteen and fourteen appeared to have learned its lesson for life and overall produced a “good to very good performance”. 

But despite this “success”, the memory of what had been my educational ideal had not left me completely and so I resolved to be a little stricter with myself – instead of with the children – in the next class I took and to consider once more the foundations of Waldorf education in its understanding of the human being. 

From like to dislike

In the first seven-year period, be it at home or in nursery or kindergarten, educational success is crucially dependent on the children being able to imitate warm-hearted and diverse role models. In the third seven-year period, after puberty, the educational goal is to allow the young people to become as free as possible from external influences and learn to manage themselves through their own insight and judgement. They should also be able to argue why they do or don’t do something. 

In the period between those two, in the second septennium during the class teacher period, the growing young people are in a kind of transitional stage between the two developmental processes above (see explanation 3). On the one hand, the powers of imitation weaken; on the other hand, their own power of judgement does not yet exist to any great extent. The success of the educational process is increasingly dependent on the forces of like and dislike of the pupils towards the adult teacher and the content of the lessons. The nature of our relationship with them increasingly decides the degree to which they continue to be motivated to keep learning. 

As a class teacher, it was therefore my job to initiate and shape in many different ways the transition from waning imitation to growing power of own judgement via the forces of like and dislike. 

At the relationship level this meant that the children in class 1 should approach me as much as possible with uninhibited liking and that, on the other hand, it was not a disaster if at the end of class 8 they felt a certain dislike towards me and were able to distance themselves from me in my function (as a teacher) and as a person (with all my idiosyncrasies). I had to learn to love serving for some pupils as a provocative “sharp point” which they could knock up against. 

At a subject level, it meant that the children first of all had to find the new subject matter in the lessons interesting and appealing so that they could unite emotionally with it. But immediately afterwards it also became increasingly important that they approach it in a conscious and distanced way, being able to look at it, describe it and understand it as if from outside. Here it was helpful for me to study once more the three methodological steps described by Steiner (see explanation 4) more intensively and this time to apply them with a great deal more imagination and artistry than I had learned at the teacher training seminar and put into practice the first time round as a class teacher.

On a methodological and teaching theory level, this came to expression in the lessons through a meaningful and varied mixture of frontal teaching and so-called open forms of teaching or – put another way – through the alternation between teacher and pupil-centred lessons. 

In this way the young people already alternated just outwardly between the two poles of breathing in and breathing out or repose and movement. Inwardly, too, they performed the change between head and limb activity, between tensing and relaxing. 

Conditioning and free spaces are not mutually exclusive

In practice, I tried to restrict the necessary “conditioning” of the growing young people above all to learning in what social forms and with what methods they could learn well and efficiently. It was satisfying for everyone involved when I introduced the new subject material in the front of the class at the blackboard or also sitting in a circle by means of a story or an experiment during which time they could listen or watch attentively. They did this with all the greater motivation and concentration when they knew that this never lasted for very long and that afterwards they would again have the free space to acquire the new material for themselves in as playful a manner as possible in open and interactive forms of lesson. 

At the end of the lesson or the day, we then all gathered together again and showed one another the products of our work and discussed what had been learnt, enjoying the new knowledge. The result was also that the pupils increasingly used the free space created in this way to express and put into practice their own ideas or thoughts, for example in pursuing their own ways of calculation, in preparing individual or group presentations or in rehearsing theatre projects. 

Ideally lessons are thus pervaded by a steady alternation between elements of conditioning and freedom. Quoting Schiller, we might also say that it is the task of the teacher to keep enabling the inherent material and formal drive in the young people so that the harmonising urge to play continues to develop “in freedom” (see explanation 5). 

It would undoubtedly be to deceive myself a great deal to claim that I had banished fear and ambition completely from my classroom with these small changes. I keep catching myself in embarrassing relapses and notice how difficult it continues to be even today to come close to Steiner’s ideal. 


(1) Classical conditioning is described as the pairing of different stimuli. Thus a sound, for example, can be paired with a specific feeling. The ringing of the break-time bell in school can be associated with pleasure or with fear and anxiety. It depends on the experience associated with it. 

(2) Operant conditioning is described as a change of behaviour by reinforcement or punishment. We also talk about positive or negative reinforcement. If behaviour is rewarded, it occurs more frequently. If behaviour is punished, it occurs less frequently. If a pupil is praised for punctuality, they will arrive punctually more often. If they are punished for being late, the same may happen. In practice it has shown itself to be the case that positive reinforcement works better and achieves its goal more quickly. 

(3) Thus far the classical approach of the anthroposophical understanding of the human being. But it can frequently be observed today that the power of imitation abates in many children before the start of the second seven-year period and, equally, that the (purely intellectual) power of judgement sets in earlier. How to handle this and the resulting educational consequences for teaching in Waldorf schools today is a separate issue. 

(4) The three methodological steps are described by Steiner in the ninth lecture of The Foundations of Human Experience. See also Der Methodische Dreischritt in der Unterrichtspraxis der Waldorfpädagogik by M. Carle at www.lernenistbewegung.weebly.com. 

(5) For Schiller, the urge to play is the expression of the free intermediation between the material drive (life, body, nature) and the formal drive (reason, spirit, laws) which both come into their own in play and can develop in accordance with their specific character. 

About the author: Martin Carle has worked for many years as a class and upper school teacher as well as the educational principal and a member of governors at German and Swiss Waldorf schools. He gives advanced training courses, including for class teachers, on “learning in movement” and the “three methodological steps”. He is currently teaching in a primary school in the canton of Bern, Switzerland.