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Research Paper Humanistic Learning

Humanist philosophies, under different names, have developed in many cultures worldwide over thousands of years. This article discusses the history and basic tenets of humanism as an educational movement. The philosophies of prominent humanists, including Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, and John Dewey, are discussed. Instructional strategies based upon humanistic principles are described. Counter philosophies are briefly outlined.



Educational Psychology > Humanism


Humanism is "a philosophy of life inspired by humanity and guided by reason" (Institute for Humanist Studies, n.d.). Humanism "provides the basis for a fulfilling and ethical life without religion." Humanist philosophies, under different names, have developed in many cultures worldwide over thousands of years.

Humanism as a paradigm, philosophy, or pedagogical approach developed in the 1960s in reaction to the psychoanalysis and behaviorism that dominated psychological thought in the first half of the twentieth century. Humanism soon became known as the third force in psychology, leading to the birth of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology in 1961, the formation of the Association of Humanistic Psychology in 1963, and recognition of humanistic psychology as a field by the American Psychological Association in 1971. There are two primary branches of humanism: secular and religious (Huitt, 2000). Secular humanists believe that individuals have everything they need to grow and develop to their fullest potential. In contrast, religious humanists believe that religion plays an important role in human development.

In the educational realm, humanism gained popularity as an alternative to the overly mechanistic approaches to learning and teaching that dominated schools at the time, as well as many cognitive theories of learning and motivation that failed to recognize the importance of student affect in learning (McInerney, 2005). Most learning theories focus on what learning is and how it takes place, focusing on limited aspects of learning such as acquisition, management, and formation of knowledge (Zhou, 2007). These theories neglect the "relevance of learning to the learner as a holistic experience of personal growth" (Zhou, 2007, p. 131). Humanism, in contrast, "is the only learning theory that emphasizes the reciprocal relationship between learning and the learner and the reciprocal relationship between individual actualization and social transformation that make learning a unique human experience" (p. 131).

Humanism views education as a method of fulfilling human potential based upon individuals' needs and interests ("Humanism," 2007). The humanistic approach emphasizes human freedom, dignity, and potential. It is based on the belief that "human beings are capable of making significant personal choices within the constraints imposed by heredity, personal history, and environment" (Elias & Merriam, 1980, p. 118). Humanist principles are grounded in the following major assumptions:

* Human nature is inherently good;

* Individuals are free and autonomous, thus they are capable of making major personal choices;

* Human potential for growth and development is virtually unlimited;

* Self-concept plays an important role in growth and development;

* Individuals have an urge toward self-actualization;

* Reality is defined by each person; and

* Individuals have responsibility to both themselves and to others (Elias & Merriam, 1980, p. 118).


These principles provided the foundation for major developments in psychology and education (Hiemstra & Brockett, 1994). The most well known psychologists contributing to this new paradigm were Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. Maslow (1970) believed "the process of education should lead to the discovery of identity and understanding of self as a whole person." He developed a motivation theory based on human needs, and his five-level Hierarchy of Human Needs includes physiological/ biological needs, safety, belonging and love, need for esteem, and self-actualization. Only when lower, more basic order needs are satisfied are individuals capable of attending to higher order needs. Conversely, if the things that satisfy lower order needs disappear, individuals are no longer concerned with higher order needs. For example, children who have witnessed a violent act such as a school shooting and consequently fear for their safety are incapable of learning until they are assured they are safe.

Carl Rogers (1961) developed the concept of "client-centered therapy" designed to help clients develop greater-self-direction. Humanistic education is based on similar ideas. Patterson (1973) believed "the purpose of education is to develop self-actualizing persons" (p. 22). Valett (1977) defined the purpose of humanistic education as the development of "individuals who will be able to live joyous, humane, and meaningful lives" (p. 12).

Humanistic Education

Humanistic education seeks to provide a foundation for personal growth and development that allows individuals to learn throughout their lives in a self-directed way (DeCarvalho, 1991). In humanism, learning is student-centered and personalized (Ediger, 2006). Education of the whole child is emphasized, and learning is considered a "personal growth experience" (Lamm, 1972). Testing may measure specific learning but humanists believe there are many other ways to evaluate learning (Ediger, 2006). Multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1991) are recognized and celebrated. Because of their diverse skills, talents, abilities, all students should not be held accountable to the same standards.

Figure 1: Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow, 1970)

The major goals of humanistic education are to:

* Accept the learner's needs and purposes and create educational experiences and programs for the development of the learner's unique potential.

* Facilitate the learner's self-actualization and feelings of personal adequacy.

* Foster the acquisition of basic skills and competencies (e.g., academic, personal, interpersonal, communicative, and economic) for living in a multicultural society.

* Personalize educational decisions and practices.

* Recognize the importance of human feelings, values, and perceptions in the educational process.

* Develop a learning climate that is challenging, understanding, supportive, exciting, and free from threat.

* Develop in learners a genuine concern and respect for the worth of others and skill in resolving conflicts (Tomei, 2004).

Gage and Berliner (1991) define five basic objectives of the humanistic view of education:

* Promote positive self-direction and independence;

* Develop the ability to take responsibility for what is learned;

* Develop creativity;

* Curiosity; and

* An interest in the arts.

These objectives were developed based upon the following principles (Gage & Berliner, 1991):

* Students will learn best what they want and need to know.

* Knowing how to learn is more important than acquiring a lot of knowledge.

* Self-evaluation is the only meaningful evaluation of a student's work.

* Feelings are as important as facts.

* Students learn best in a non-threatening environment.

From a humanistic perspective, teachers strive to make learning more responsive to students' affective (emotions, feelings, values, and attitudes) needs. The focus of teaching is on meeting both the affective and cognitive needs of students to promote their self-actualization in a cooperative, supportive environment ("Humanism," 2007). Thus, teaching is more than presenting subject matter in an organized way; it also involves helping students "derive personal meaning from the information" so they are motivated to learn (Tomei, 2004). An integrated curriculum, with a strong emphasis on the arts, is generally advocated by humanists (Ediger, 2006).

There are a variety of ways teachers can implement a humanist approach in their teaching (Huitt, 2001). Some of these include:

* Allow students to have a choice in the selection of tasks and activities whenever possible.

* Help students learn to set realistic goals.

* Allow students to participate in group work, especially cooperative learning, in order to develop social and affective skills.

* Act as a facilitator for group discussions when appropriate.

* Act a role model for the attitudes, beliefs, and habits you wish to foster in your students, always striving to become a better individual.

Although humanism has met with varying degrees of acceptance, Combs' (1978) rationale for the need for humanistic education has continued to hold relevance:

* Problems facing humans...

Introduction to the Humanistic Approach

Carl Rogers

Abraham Maslow

Existential Psychology

Extending the Humanistic Approach

Applying the Concepts: Maslow's Hierarchy in the Workplace

Publications Related to the Humanistic Approach

The Humanistic Approach began in response to concerns by therapists against perceived limitations of Psychodynamic theories, especially psychoanalysis. Individuals like Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow felt existing (psychodynamic) theories failed to adequately address issues like the meaning of behavior, and the nature of healthy growth. However, the result was not simply new variations on psychodynamic theory, but rather a fundamentally new approach.

There are several factors which distinguish the Humanistic Approach from other approaches within psychology, including the emphasis on subjective meaning, a rejection of determinism, and a concern for positive growth rather than pathology. While one might argue that some psychodynamic theories provide a vision of healthy growth (including Jung's concept of individuation), the other characteristics distinguish the Humanistic Approach from every other approach within psychology (and sometimes lead theorists from other approaches to say the Humanistic Approach is not a science at all). Most psychologists believe that behavior can only be understood objectively (by an impartial observer), but the humanists argue that this results in concluding that an individual is incapable of understanding their own behavior--a view which they see as both paradoxical and dangerous to well-being. Instead, humanists like Rogers argue that the meaning of behavior is essentially personal and subjective; they further argue that accepting this idea is not unscientific, because ultimately all individuals are subjective: what makes science reliable is not that scientists are purely objective, but that the nature of observed events can be agreed upon by different observers (a process Rogers calls intersubjective verification).

The issues underlying the Humanistic Approach, and its differences from other approaches, are discussed more fully in the text, but the sources below provide useful supplementary information. One point worth noting: if you want to fully grasp the nature of the Humanistic Approach, you cannot consider it in abstract terms. Instead, you must consider if and how the ideas connect to your own experience--for that is how the meaning of behavior is derived!


Historic Review of Humanistic Psychology--Introductory discussion of history and nature of the humanistic approach, by the Association for Humanistic Psychology

Humanistic View and Methods--Overview of humanistic methodology, from the Association. for Humanistic Psychology.

A Guide to Humanistic Psychology--Extensive introduction, broken into chapters by topic, by therapist John Rowan; chapters include bibliographies for further reading.

Carl Rogers was not only one of the founders of the Humanistic Approach, but also arguably the most influential therapist in the 20th century: a number of surveys, including several done after his death, found that more therapists cited Rogers as a major influence on their thinking and clinical practice than any other person in psychology (including Freud). To understand this, one must know something about Rogers as a person, as well as his theoretical ideas.

I never met him, but have seen several videos of him, and have read a number of accounts, both biographical and anecdotal, by individuals who know him well. Consistently, what comes across is a person who was caring and respectful of others, a man who found value in all people, yet was humble about his own achievements--in many ways, he represented the fully functioning person which his theory describes!

In terms of his theory, there are two fundamental ideas which are particularly worth noting. (For a more complete discussion, see the text.) First, Rogers talked about healthy development in terms of how the individual perceived their own being. A healthy individual will tend to see congruence between their sense of who they are (self) and who they feel they should be (ideal self). While no one tends to experience perfect congruence at all times, the relative degree of congruence is an indicator of health. Some researchers have tried to measure congruence by using a self-assessment technique called a Q-Sort. (If you are interested in exploring this, click here for a version of a Q-sort I've created.)

The second fundamental idea is Rogers's concept of the conditions for healthy growth, and the role of a therapist in fostering healthy growth. Through a process Rogers called person-centered therapy, the therapist seeks to provide empathy, openness, and unconditional positive regard. These conditions for growth are discussed further in the text; for information on person-centered therapy, see the links below. (One note about person-centered therapy: originally, Rogers called his technique non-directive therapy, based on the concept that the therapist is simply a "mirror" who reflects the individual's thoughts and feelings. As his own research showed, no therapist is truly non-directive--and if they were, it would likely be poor therapy, as the following joke illustrates!)


Carl Rogers--Biography and other material, on site maintained by his daughter, Natalie Rogers (who is also trained as a therapist).

Carl Rogers and Education--Site providing biographical information as well as examination of Rogers's ideas about education.

Center for Studies of the Person--Website for organization supporting Rogerian orientation; includes extensive archive of online articles, including many classic articles by Rogers.

Introduction to Person-Centred Counselling--A clear overview by Dr. Greg Mulhauser, on

Like Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow is widely regarded as one of the founders of the Humanistic Approach. While less influential among therapists than Rogers, Maslow  may actually be better known to the general public, because of his interest in applying psychological principles to areas like behavior in business settings. In this regard, his hierarchy of needs has been a basic concept in human resources and organizational behavior for several decades.

Maslow coined the term "the Third Force" to describe the Humanistic Approach, to emphasize how it differed from the Psychodynamic and Behaviorist Approaches, which dominated psychology (at least in North America) in the 1950's. His theory emphasizes motivation as the key to understanding human behavior (an emphasis which is somewhat reminiscent of Freud's theory, though the two models focus on very different types of motives). Nonetheless, it becomes the basis of a theory of personality (as discussed in the text, talking about motives implies a person who experiences those motives!), and ends up describing the characteristics of healthy growth in ways that are very similar to Rogers's "fully functioning person".

One difference between Maslow and Rogers is the emphasis that Maslow gave to peak experiences. Peak experiences are moments in life which take us beyond our ordinary perceptions, thoughts, and feelings. Typically, the individual feels energized, more "alive". In some ways, peak experiences are similar to the Zen concept of satori (literally "enlightenment"), which, like a peak experience, comes unexpectedly, and transforms the individual's understanding of themselves and the world. Because of the "mystical" nature of peak experiences, some psychologists are less comfortable with Maslow's theory than with Rogers's, which uses concepts more easily related to "mainstream" psychology. Possibly, this accounts for Maslow being viewed as less influential among therapists. In any case, there is no doubt that Maslow's ideas about motivation have become widely known and used, as the links below help to illustrate.


Abraham full listing of his publications, and links to other Maslow-related sites.

People and Discoveries: Abraham Maslow--Brief biography from A Science Odyssey, PBS series on famous discoverers.

Abraham Maslow--Chapter from Dr. George Boeree's on-line personality textbook.

Maslow Revisited--Discussion of relevance of Maslow's ideas for business management and leadership, by O'Connor & Yballe; preprint of article from Journal of Management Education (2007).

As in many areas of psychology, there are close linkages between the Humanistic Approach and philosophy. For example, Rogers's concept of the phenomenal field as the basis of defining the self can be linked to the ideas of phenomenological philosophers like Edmund Husserl. Similarly, the existentialist tradition began with European philosophers like Soren Kierkegaard and Jean-Paul Sartre. While its roots extend back to the turn of the 20th century (and some would say even earlier), it really gained momentum as a result of World War II, whose devastation and destruction gave a sense of immediacy to questions about the purpose of living. (For example, Albert Camus, a leading existentialist writer, was a member of the French Resistance.) Existentialists start from the premise that there is no absolute meaning to life, and hence that life in a purely rational sense is without purpose. Interestingly, however, from this bleak beginning, many arrive at interpretations that nonetheless affirm a value to life.

Asking about what life means to an individual provides an overlapping area of concern between existentialism and humanistic psychology, since the humanists seek to identify a positive model for human growth. As a result, while some psychologists prefer one term over the other, the theories often share a focus on similar kinds of issues, especially the questions of what an individual finds meaningful in life, and how individuals deal with the prospect of death. Among the psychologists who have developed theories related to existential ideas are Rollo May, Ernest Becker, and Viktor Frankl. Of these, Frankl is arguably the best known to the general public; his best-known book, Man's Search for Meaning, went through multiple editions and reprintings, and was translated into dozens of languages. Frankl, who began as a doctor and therapist in Vienna, was a prisoner in various Nazi concentration camps during the war, and it was partly his exposure to the horrors of the camps that contributed to his existentialist orientation. To learn more about him and other existential psychologists, and how their ideas relate to humanistic theories more generally, see the text or the following links.


Meaningful Therapy--Basic introduction to existential forms of therapy, with links to material on particular therapists/theorists, including Frankl; part of International Network on Personal Meaning site, in Vancouver, Canada.

Viktor Frankl Institute--Official website for Institute founded by Frankl; contains biography, videos, and other material on Frankl and his work.

Viktor Frankl--Biography, discussion of Frankl's ideas, and large set of links to other sites on Frankl and existentialism; by Boston psychotherapist Tracy Marks.

The Existential Primer--Provides a variety of material related to existentialism, especially its philosophical origins, by a non-psychologist, Christopher Scott Wyatt.

Extending the Humanistic Approach

In recent years, a number of initiatives have appeared which, while influenced significantly by humanistic ideas and theories, have in new directions. Perhaps the most significant is positive psychology, a term coined by Dr. Martin Seligman when he was President of the American Psychological Association in 2000. Positive psychology, like the humanistic approach, focusses on enhancing human potential--but embraces research methods (e.g., surveys, group data) which humanists have traditionally avoided. Another area influenced by the humanistic approach has been coaching psychology. While the term originated in "personal coaching" in sports, it more generally refers to a focus on enhancing individual potential, and the field has gradually become a specific area within many psychology associations.

Positive Psychology Center--Website for Seligman's research group at the University of Pennsylvania; provides a variety of information and resources.

Authentic Happiness--An offshoot of Seligman's work (the title comes from one of his books), but more focussed on providing resources for individuals (including a variety of self-test questionnaires).

VIA Character Survey--An on-line self test derived from positive psychology, intended to help individual identify their character strengths.

Canadian Positive Psychology Association--Association of researchers and practitioners engaged in positive psychology.

What Is Coaching Psychology?--Introduction to coaching psychology, from a website for coaching psychologists.

International Society for Coaching Psychology--Site for professional organization devoted to coaching psychology; includes a variety of videos on coaching and related areas of psychology.

Several researchers in the 1950s recognized the practical importance of Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs to the working world. It was not difficult to establish that for nonmanagement workers, jobs mainly fulfilled the basic physical and security needs of the individual: if the work is done, the worker is paid and more-or-less assured of being paid for subsequent work. Higher order needs, such as social, esteem and self-actualization needs were not considered. Lyman Porter (1961) at the University of California at Berkeley, suggested that higher needs might be of more concern on the management level of an organization. He saw that people in most organizations received promotions from one job to another based on their technical qualifications, but nothing else. That is, it was assumed that because an individual could do the job, that job was the best one for him or her. There was no indication that anyone regarded the psychological satisfaction with a job as being an important factor. Consequently, people might sometimes be promoted out of jobs that gave them satisfaction into jobs that were less satisfying for them, potentially rendering them less effective in their work. Porter realized that for individual satisfaction and for organizational efficiency, it was necessary to discover how people perceived their jobs in terms of need satisfaction, as Maslow had outlined. Knowing this might allow organizations to match people to jobs that they were not only qualified for, but which would give them the most satisfaction as well.

In order to study this, Porter sent a fixed alternative survey to 228 people in three companies. These people worked at different managerial levels, from bottom level supervisors or foremen up to middle level management who were just below vice presidency or major department head. The survey studied 15 characteristics or qualities that Porter thought were connected with management positions and were relevant to Maslow's need hierarchy. For example, to determine whether esteem needs were being met by the job, Porter asked about the prestige of a managerial position; to determine whether social needs were being met by the job, he asked about the opportunities to develop friendships on the job; to determine whether self-actualization needs were being met by the job, he asked about feelings of self-fulfillment derived from the individual's working position. The respondents to the survey were asked to indicate on a 7-point scale (with 1 indicating the lowest amount and 7 indicating the highest amount) first, how much of that quality was connected with the individual's management position; second, how much of that quality should be connected with the individual's management position; and third, how important that quality was to the respondent. So questions on the survey might look like this:

       The feeling of self-esteem a person gets from being in my management position:

       a) How much is there now? (min) 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 (max)

       b) How much should there be? (min) 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 (max)

       c) How important is this to me? (min) 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 (max)

Of the 228 people who were given the survey, 139 (61%) filled it out. While Porter attempted to give the surveys to a representative sample of low to middle management personnel, it cannot be claimed that the individuals who actually returned the survey constitute such a sample, so the results of this study must be interpreted with caution. Porter found that among these respondents, there was no difference in the amount of fulfillment of social needs, and that esteem needs are more often satisfied in middle management than in low management levels, not surprisingly. But in both low and middle management, the respondents indicated that self-actualization needs are of great importance to them, but there were few opportunities for these needs to be fulfilled at work. It seems, then, that among the people who answered this survey, at least, their work did not offer them a sense of self-fulfillment, or an opportunity for personal growth and development or a feeling of worthwhile accomplishment. It would be expected that in higher management, the level at which policy decisions are made, there may be a greater chance to find areas of self- actualization.

What are the implications of this study? While we must be careful in making conclusions since a survey cannot demonstrate a causal relationship and since we have no way of knowing whether the sample was indeed representative of the population, we may still make some tentative conclusions. Most of us spend almost 30% of our lives at work, and yet this work may not give us the opportunity to pursue what we find important: self-actualization. Our deficiency needs may be met to a greater or lesser extent, but our growth needs may not. What if our work gave us opportunity to fulfill growth needs, though? What if the organization we work for allowed us to help make the policy decisions that would affect the well-being of ourselves and others, for example? Orpen (1998) has found that among the respondents to his survey, job satisfaction is indeed greater when there is more opportunity for such decision-making. Did his respondents feel greater satisfaction because this gave them a chance to pursue self-actualization? We don't know, but maybe.

Orpen, C. (1998). The effects of organizational centrality on employee success and satisfaction. Social Behavior and Personality, 26. 85-88.

Porter, L. (1961). A study of perceived need satisfactions in bottom and middle management jobs. Journal of Applied Psychology, 45. 1-10.

Journal of Humanistic Psychology--Published by the Association for Humanistic Psychology; has monthly contents, and searchable archive of contents, but no open access to articles.

The Humanistic Psychologist--Journal of APA Division on Humanistic Psychology; contains article titles listed by author, but no online archive.

Association. for Humanistic Psychology--research portal with on-line articles.