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What Is Humanistic Learning Theory in Education?

Jul 21, 2020

Good teachers are always looking for ways to improve their methods to help students thrive in their classroom. Different learning theories and techniques help teachers connect with different students based on their learning style and abilities. Teaching strategies that are student-centered often have great success in helping students learn and grow better. Learner-centered approaches place the student as the authority in the educational setting, helping ensure that they are the focus of education and are in control of their learning to an extent. 

The idea of student-centered learning is an example of the humanistic learning theory in action. It’s valuable for current and aspiring educators alike to learn about student-centered education and other humanistic approaches to use in their classroom. These approaches can be vital in helping students truly learn and succeed in their education. Learn more about the humanistic learning theory and discover how it can be implemented in the classroom.   

The humanistic theory in education.

In history humanistic psychology is an outlook or system of thought that focuses on human beings rather than supernatural or divine insight. This system stresses that human beings are inherently good, and that basic needs are vital to human behaviors. Humanistic psychology also focuses on finding rational ways to solve these human problems. At its root, the psychology of humanism focuses on human virtue. It has been an important movement throughout history, from Greek and Latin roots to Renaissance and now modern revivals. 

This theory and approach in education takes root in humanistic psychology, with the key concepts focusing on the idea that children are good at the core and that education should focus on rational ways to teach the “whole” child. This theory states that the student is the authority on how they learn, and that all of their needs should be met in order for them to learn well. For example, a student who is hungry won’t have as much attention to give to learning. So schools offer meals to students so that need is met, and they can focus on education. The humanistic theory approach engages social skills, feelings, intellect, artistic skills, practical skills, and more as part of their education. Self-esteem, goals, and full autonomy are key learning elements in the humanistic learning theory. 

The humanistic learning theory was developed by Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and James F. T. Bugental in the early 1900’s. Humanism was a response to the common educational theories at the time, which were behaviorism and psychoanalysis. Abraham Maslow is considered the father of the movement, with Carl Rogers and James F.T. Bugental adding to the psychology later down the line.

Maslow and the humanists believed that behaviorism and other psychology theories had a negative perception of learners—for example operant conditioning in behaviorism psychology suggested that students only acted in a good or bad manner because of the reward or punishment and could be trained based on that desire for a reward. Maslow and humanistic psychology suggests that students are inherently good and will make good decisions when all their needs are met. Humanistic psychology focuses on the idea that learners bring out the best in themselves, and that humans are driven by their feelings more than rewards and punishments. Maslow believed this and wrote many articles to try and demonstrate it.

This belief that humans are driven by feelings causes educators who understand humanistic psychology to focus on the underlying human, emotional issues when they see bad behavior, not to just punish the bad behavior. The humanistic learning theory developed further and harnesses the idea that if students are upset, sad, or distressed, they’re less likely to be able to focus on learning. This encourages teachers to create a classroom environment that helps students feel comfortable and safe so they can focus on their learning. Emotions are at the center of humanism psychology. 

The principles of humanistic learning theory.

There are several important principles involved in the humanistic learning theory that all lead to self-actualization. Self-actualization is when all your needs are met, you’ve become the best you’ve can, and you are fulfilled. While Maslow and the humanists don’t believe that most people reach self-actualization, their belief is that we are always in search of it, and the closer we are, the more we can learn. 

  • Student choice. Choice is central to the humanistic learning theory and humanistic psychology. Humanistic learning is student-centered, so students are encouraged to take control over their education. They make choices that can range from daily activities to future goals. Students are encouraged to focus on a specific subject area of interest for a reasonable amount of time that they choose. Teachers who utilize humanistic learning believe that it’s crucial for students to find motivation and engagement in their learning, and that is more likely to happen when students are choosing to learn about something that they really want to know. 

  • Fostering engagement to inspire students to become self-motivated to learn. The effectiveness of this psychology approach is based on learners feeling engaged and self-motivated so they want to learn. So humanistic learning relies on educators working to engage students, encouraging them to find things they are passionate about so they are excited about learning. 

  • The importance of self-evaluation. For most humanistic teachers, grades don’t really matter. Self-evaluation is the most meaningful way to evaluate how learning is going. Grading students encourages students to work for the grade, instead of doing things based on their own satisfaction and excitement of learning. Routine testing and rote memorization don’t lead to meaningful learning in this theory, and thus aren’t encouraged by humanistic teachers. Humanistic educators help students perform self-evaluations so they can see how students feel about their progress.

  • Feelings and knowledge are both important to the learning process and should not be separated according to humanistic psychology. Humanistic teachers believe that knowledge and feelings go hand-in-hand in the learning process. Cognitive and affective learning are both important to humanistic learning. Lessons and activities should focus on the whole student and their intellect and feelings, not one or the other.

  • A safe learning environment. Because humanistic learning focuses on the entire student, humanistic educators understand that they need to create a safe environment so students can have as many as their needs met as possible. They need to feel safe physically, mentally, and emotionally in order to be able to focus on learning. So humanistic educators are passionate about the idea of helping students meet as many of their needs as possible.

The role of teacher and student in humanistic learning theory.

In the humanistic learning theory, teachers and students have specific roles for success. The overall role of a teacher is to be a facilitator and role model, not necessarily to be the one doing the teacher. The role of the teacher includes:

  • Teach learning skills. Good teachers in humanistic learning theory focus on helping students develop learning skills. Students are responsible for learning choices, so helping them understand the best ways to learn is key to their success.

  • Provide motivation for classroom tasks. Humanistic learning focuses on engagement, so teachers need to provide motivation and exciting activities to help students feel engaged about learning. 

  • Provide choices to students in task/subject selection. Choice is central to humanistic learning, so teachers have a role in helping work with students to make choices about what to learn. They may offer options, help students evaluate what they’re excited about, and more. 

  • Create opportunities for group work with peers. As a facilitator in the classroom, teachers create group opportunities to help students explore, observe, and self evaluate. They can do this better as they interact with other students who are learning at the same time that they are.

Humanistic approach examples in education.

Some examples of humanistic education in action include:

  • Teachers can help students set learning goals at the beginning of the year, and then help design pathways for students to reach their goals. Students are in charge of their learning, and teachers can help steer them in the right direction.

  • Teachers can create exciting and engaging learning opportunities. For example, teachers trying to help students understand government can allow students to create their own government in the classroom. Students will be excited about learning, as well as be in-charge of how everything runs.

  • Teachers can create a safe learning environment for students by having snacks, encouraging students to use the bathroom and get water, and creating good relationships with students so they will trust speaking to their teacher if there is an issue. 

  • Teachers can utilize journaling to help students focus on self-evaluation and their feelings as part of learning. Using prompt questions can help students better understand their feelings and progress in learning. 

Best practices from humanistic theory to bring to your classroom.

A teaching degree is a crucial step for those who want to be teachers. A degree can help them learn about current practices and trends in teaching, learning theories, and how to apply them to the classroom. Established teachers can also greatly benefit from continuing education and continuously expanding their techniques. 

When considering their own teaching practices, teachers can work to incorporate humanistic theory into their classroom by:

  • Making time to collaborate with other educators

  • Co-planning lessons with other teachers

  • Evaluating student needs and wants regularly

  • Connecting with parents to help meet specific student needs

  • Preparing to try new things with students regularly

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