What is the Humanistic Theory in Education? (2019)

Quick Definition of the Humanistic Theory in Education

Definition: The humanistic theory of teaching and learning is an educational theory that believes in teaching the ‘whole’ child. A humanist approach will have a strong focus on students’ emotional wellbeing and eternally view children as innately good ‘at the core’.

Assumptions of Humanism

humanist theory in education with maslow's hierarchy of needs

A humanist educator’s teaching strategy will have four philosophical pillars. These pillars will guide the teacher’s beliefs and, ultimately, how they teach. These four pillars are:

  • Free Will: We have free choice to do and think what we want;
  • Emotions impact Learning: We need to be in a positive emotional state to achieve our best;
  • Intrinsic Motivation: We generally have an internal desire to become our best selves;
  • Innate Goodness: Humans are good at the core.

As my regular readers know, all good essays should start with scholarly definitions. So, here are some scholarly definitions of humanism that you might want to use in your essay:

  • Duchesne & McMaugh (2016, p. 263) argue that humanist theorists “consider the broad needs of children, including not just cognitive but also social and emotional needs.”
  • Crain (2015, p. 363) points out that the focus of humanist psychology is helping people (humans!) to achieve their personal best. He argues that humanists “have proposed that people, to a much greater extent than has been realized, are free and creative beings, capable of growth and self-actualization.”
  • Veugelers (2011, p. 1) argues that humanist education “focuses on developing rationality, autonomy, empowerment, creativity, affections and a concern for humanity.”
  • Khatib, Sarem and Hamidi (2013, p. 45) argue that humanist education “emphasizes the importance of the inner world of the learner and places the individual’s thought, emotions and feelings at the forefront of all human development.”

Remember, it’s best to paraphrase definitions (e.g. put them in your own words). Then, you should reference your sources at the end of your sentence or paragraph.

Here’s my attempt at paraphrasing the above scholarly definitions:

Humanism believes that a learner is free-willed, fundamentally good, and capable of achieving their best when the ideal learning environment is produced. The ideal learning environment should caters to the social, emotional and cognitive needs of the learner (Crain, 2009; Duchesne et al., 2013; Veugelers, 2011).

Now that you’ve got your definition and scholarly sources, don’t forget to include your references at the end of your essay:

Crain, W. (2015). Theories of Development: Concepts and Applications: Concepts and Applications. London: Routledge.

Duchesne, S. & McMaugh, A. (2016). Educational Psychology for Learning and Teaching. Melbourne: Cengage Learning.

Veugelers, W. (2011). Introduction: Linking autonomy and humanity. In: Veugelers, W. (Ed.). Education and Humanism: Linking Autonomy and Humanity (pp. 1 – 7). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Khatib, M., Sarem, S. N., & Hamidi, H. (2013). Humanistic Education: Concerns, Implications and Applications. Journal of Language Teaching & Research4(1), pp. 45 – 51.

The above references for the above sources. They’re in APA format, so if you are required to use another format like MLA, Chicago or Harvard, you’ll need to convert these to the correct style.

2. Origins of Humanist Education

In the early 20th Century (early 1900s), behaviorism and psychoanalysis were the dominant educational theories. Humanists thought both these theories had very negative perceptions of learners. These theories tried to diagnose and ‘fix’ learners.

In reaction, humanistic education emerged. Humanists argued that people should stop seeing learners as ‘defunct’ or ‘in deficit’. Instead, humanists focussed on how we could help learners bring out the best in themselves.

Another thing humanism rejected was the assumption that learners were easily controlled by rewards and punishments. Humanists thought this ‘behaviorist’ approach of rewards and punishments failed to see that humans are complex thinkers. We’re driven by many different factors, and one major one is of course our emotions: how we’re feeling.

You can’t just punish someone when they do something wrong. No, no, no!

To humanists, you need to explore the factors underpinning their bad behavior. Maybe they’re cold, hungry or feeling unsafe! If we fix the underlying problem, the person will probably start behaving more appropriately.

So, humanists emerged largely as a reaction to the negativity and simplicity of behaviorist beliefs about childhood. If you want to learn more about behaviorism, check my post on behaviorism out here.

3. A Focus on Emotions

Our emotions are important to humanists. Emotions (or what we often refer to in educational psychology as ‘affect’) will shape how, what, when, and how well we will learn something.

If you’re grumpy, sad, frustrated or distressed, you’re probably not going to learn too well. When I’m worried about something, I spend all my time thinking about it – and I forget to concentrate!

So, humanists think we should pay attention to emotions and make sure our learners are feeling positive, relaxed and comfortable. These are emotions that will make us ready to learn.

In fact, humanists think other theorists like behaviorists, cognitivists and sociocultural theorists don’t pay enough attention to emotions. While other theories pay attention to things like social and cognitive (mental processes) learning, they seem to overlook that our emotions have a really important impact on how well we learn.

Humanists want to solve that problem. Below, you’ll read all about different ways in which they do this.

4. Humans are Fundamentally Good

We are all fundamentally good people, humanists argue. We’re not born evil or start out with evil intentions. And we all seem to want the best for ourselves and our tribe.

So why do people end up being bad, even evil?

Well, according to humanist theorists, people do bad things because they have not been nurtured the right ways.

When our fundamental needs as humans are not fulfilled, we might act out. When a young person is treated inhumanely in childhood, they may go on to act inhumanely as a response. When someone is hungry, they may get grumpy and act out. But, if we treat young people well and ensure their needs are cared for, they’ll be able to focus on being good, well-rounded and fulfilled human beings.

So, something really nice about humanism is that humanist teachers tend to see the good in their students. Even when a student is playing up, the teacher doesn’t hand out punishments to try to ‘fix’ the student. Instead, the teacher says “what needs aren’t being fulfilled here?”

5. Abraham Maslow: Key Humanist Theorist

You need to know about Abraham Maslow. If you write an essay on humanist education and don’t mention him, expect to lose marks.

So here are some basics about Maslow to get you off on the right foot:

  • Born in 1908 in New York City.
  • Was an unhappy, unfulfilled child (did this impact his beliefs, do you think?)
  • Was once a Behaviorist theorist who studied under the famous Edward Thorndike, but decided behaviorism didn’t say enough about the complex nature of human beings.
  • Was a professor at Brooklyn College.
  • Developed the famous Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
  • Died in 1970

I got the above information from this scholarly book:

Duchesne, S. & McMaugh, A. (2016). Educational Psychology for Learning and Teaching. Melbourne: Cengage Learning.

6. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a famous pyramid that shows the fundamental things that people need in order to be fulfilled in their lives.

Background to the Hierarchy: Maslow created the Hierarchy of Needs after examining the lives of a group of highly successful people including Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln and Elanor Roosevelt. According to Maslow, each of these successful people had each of these needs fulfilled, which let them climb to the top of the pyramid and reach ‘self-actualisation’ (a sense of fulfilment). Maslow thought only about 1% of all people reached self-actualisation.

The hierarchy has two types of needs:

  • Basic Needs: At the bottom of the pyramid are basic needs or what we sometimes call deficit needs or deprivation needs. When we don’t have these needs, we’re motivated to fulfil them by any means necessary.
  • Growth Needs: Once we have our basic needs satisfied, we work on growth needs or what we sometimes call being needs or esteem needs. These are the needs that have to be met to reach self-actualization.

Maslow thinks all of us strive to meet the needs on his pyramid every day of our life, but only few of us make it all the way to the top. Supposedly, we can’t meet higher-up needs until we’ve successfully met the lower needs on the pyramid.

Here’s the hierarchy:

maslow's hierarchy of needs in education infographic

  1. Physiological Needs (a basic need): Not to be confused with ‘psychological’, physiological needs are the things that we physically need to survive. These include: water, clothing, shelter, and food.
  2. Safety, Protection and Security Needs (a basic need): We all need to be safe from harm in order to thrive in life. If we’re always looking over our shoulder to see if we’re going to get whacked, we’re less likely to concentrate on learning anything new!
  3. Belongingness and Love (a basic need): Once we have successfully met our physical and safety needs, we can start working on developing relationships. All humans need positive relationships to be fulfilled. This might include having a sense that you’re included and belong in a classroom, that you’ve got a loving family to go home to, and that you have a group of friends to lean on in times of trouble.
  4. Esteem (a growth need): ‘Esteem’ means to be thought well of. You need to think well of yourself (self-esteem) but also have others think well of you. If you have low opinions of yourself, you’ll set low standards for yourself and never be able to climb higher up the pyramid.
  5. Self-actualization (a growth need): The need for self-actualization is the feeling that you want to become the best you can be, now that all your needs have been met. You can go on to pursue creative endeavours and succeed to the best of your abilities because you’re not busy fighting to have all your other needs fulfilled.

7. Examples of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in the Classroom

Most teachers expect you to use examples in your essays. So, let’s take a look at some examples of each of Maslow’s needs in education:

a) Examples of Maslow’s Physiological Needs in the Classroom

  • Food – If a child comes to class hungry, they may not be in a fit state to study. To address this, teachers can implement Crunch n Sip time, start a Breakfast Club, or develop a partnership with a local food bank.
  • Water – Teachers can encourage students to drink water before entering the classroom or encourage students to have a clear water bottle sitting on their desk.
  • Clothing – I once had a student who started coming to class wearing a hoodie in the middle of the summer. Why? Because her mother had recently left the family and the father wasn’t coping. He hadn’t done the washing in weeks and my poor student didn’t have any shirts to wear. The solution? Our school parents’ committee had a clothing collection that the student could ruffle through to find a shirt she liked, while I contacted the appropriate liaison officer to get the dad some support.

b) Examples of Maslow’s Safety Needs in the Classroom

  • Safe from Guns – As an Australian-Canadian, I was shocked when an American Grade 1 teacher relayed how worried she was about gunmen entering her school. I knew it was a worry in an abstract sense for teachers in the US. But I’d never put myself in the shoes of a worried teacher who felt that it might happened to her students any day. I feel for the poor students who have to have this thought go through their minds while trying to study.
  • Safe from Strangers – Most schools these days required all visitors to school grounds to head to the front office to get a nametag and sign-in. This is to ensure students feel safe and don’t have strangers walking in and out of their classrooms for no reason.
  • Safe from Harm – Classrooms need to keep sharp or dangerous materials a safe distance from students. Cords that could trip students up and tables with splinters need to be replaced so students can concentrate on learning rather than being exposed to harm.

c) Examples of Maslow’s Belongingness Needs in the Classroom

  • Memberships – Inclusion of students in table groups in class, afterschool clubs and class research groups can help give them a sense of ownership over the classroom.
  • Democratic Class Rules – Students who create their own classroom rules may feel a greater sense of belonging and ownership in the classroom.
  • Display Walls – Having exemplary artworks or photos of students on the walls of the classroom can make students feel as if the classroom is a place where they are included and belong.
  • Diversity in class books – Students who are of minority backgrounds may feel as if their identities are underrepresented in the classroom. Diverse protagonists in books and diverse representation in imagery around the classroom can help students feel as if their identity is included and respected.

d) Examples of Maslow’s Esteem Needs in the Classroom

  • Celebration of Successes – When a student succeeds, feel free to publicly promote that success. When students see their peers spoken about positively, your example may rub-off. Be the leader in having high regard (‘esteem’) for your own students.
  • Promotion of Self-Belief – Encourage students to believe in their own abilities to succeed. Teach students about growth mindsets which emphasize that success comes from effort. When students internalize this attitude, they will begin to see themselves as powerful and capable learners.
  • High Expectations – Set high expectations for students and praise them only when something is praiseworthy. If you overdo praise, students will not respond well – so give praise genuinely!

8. Strengths and Limitations of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Here are the pros of Maslow’s Hierarchy:

  • A focus on emotions – There are not many educational theories that take into account students’ emotional (‘affective’) states. Maslow’s hierarchy helps to address this flaw.
  • Clear and understandable – I can see several flaws in Maslow’s hierarchy (see next point) but it’s a good starting point for stimulating discussion about the importance of emotions in learning.
  • A positive outlook – the hierarchy sees students as all having positive potential and able to climb to the top.

Here are the cons of Maslow’s Hierarchy:

  • Linear – It is evident that people can succeed and learn in very troubling, difficult situations. Students can succeed through poverty, war and hardship to rise to become doctors and artists. Maslow’s hierarchy doesn’t take into account the fact that some people can learn despite some of their basic needs not being fully met.
  • Methodologically Limited – Maslow developed the hierarchy by looking at a small subset of successful people. The hierarchy is not statistically relevant and lacks a clear evidence base.

(Note: later in this article there is also a list of general strengths and limitations of humanist theory overall, which you can jump to by clicking here.)

9. Carl Rogers: The other Humanist Theorist

Carl Rogers was another highly influential humanist theorist. If you’re writing an essay about humanism in education, I strongly recommend you also write about Rogers’ ideas.

Here’s an overview of Rogers’ key concepts:

  • Actualizing Tendency: According to Rogers, we all have a tendency to strive toward personal growth. We all have ambitions to be better. Rogers called this an ‘actualizing tendency’, and used this concept to underpin his ideas about education.
  • Freedom to learn: Rogers write the book Freedom to Learn which outlines how it is important for students to be freed from the constraints of a school curriculum in order that they can be free to explore things they are interested in. If we are freed to learn what we choose to learn (emphasis on free choice here!), we will learn things that our actualizing tendency (desire for self-improvement) lead us towards. This may mean we end up learning more, and learning things that are more important to us personally
  • Unconditional positive regard: We have already seen from Maslow that humanists believe students need to have strong self-esteem (positive regard for themselves). Rogers believes that we can help students achieve stronger self-esteem by unconditionally seeing students in a positive light. Much like a parent who loves their child unconditionally, teachers have to see that their students are fundamentally good, even when they’re at their worst.
  • Facilitation: Because humanists don’t believe there should be a set curriculum or learning outcomes, teachers become facilitators rather than authority figures. Teachers encourage students to seek new knowledge and provide the materials and support needed. This approach is very similar to the approach used in constructivist and sociocultural education.
  • Intrinsic motivation: Rogers believes schools have historically repressed intrinsic motivation that we all had before we went to school. Here’s a great quote from Rogers:

“I become very irritated with the notion that students must be “motivated.” The young human being is intrinsically motivated to a high degree. Many elements of his environment constitute challenges for him. He is curious, eager to discover, eager to know, eager to solve problems. A sad part of most education is that by the time the child has spent a number of years in school this intrinsic motivation is pretty well dampened.” (Rogers, as cited in Schunk, 2012, p. 355).

Related Post: Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation in the Classroom.

10. Examples of Carl Rogers’ Humanistic Theory in the Classroom

If we are to follow Rogers’ humanistic teaching approach, we would do some of the following things:

  • Not use a Curriculum: Throw out the learning outcomes and help students learn things that are motivating and inspiring in their own lives.
  • Encourage Choice: Ask the students not only how they want to learn but what they want to learn.
  • Encourage Inquiry Learning: When students have chosen a topic to learn about, give them rich resources and an inquiry-based learning environment so students can explore their interests without having them stifled by nasty worksheet printouts!
  • Act as a Facilitator: Don’t stand out the front of the class and teach in a teacher-centered manner that you might find from behaviourist theory. Instead, facilitate learning by creating the right learning environment for students to explore.
  • Express Unconditional Positive Regard: Even when students are playing up, we need to have positive regard for our students by being empathetic, positive and supportive as educators. Our language should show students we have high regard for them: “This is not like you, I know you as a lovely person usually!”, “Let’s start tomorrow fresh and believe in ourselves that tomorrow will be a better day where you go back to being your well-behaved self.”

11. Strengths and Weaknesses of the Humanist Theory of Education

Strengths of humanism in education include:

  • Unlike many theories that attempt to diagnose weaknesses, humanism sees the best in everyone and works hard to promote it;
  • It is an empowering philosophy that sees young people as powerful and capable;
  • It considers emotional states and how they impact learning, unlike many other theories;
  • It is holistic, meaning it sees the ‘whole child’. It will look at cognitive, social and emotional aspects meaning it has many pedagogical overlaps with cognitive and social constructivist theories, but also adds the ‘emotional’ elements;

Weaknesses of humanism in education include:

  • It does not follow a set curriculum. This aspect of humanism may be incompatible with contemporary schools which usually have a standardized curriculum that students need to learn from;
  • If it were implemented in schools, every student would leave school having different knowledge. Sometimes students need to learn things like mathematics even if they don’t have intrinsic desire to learn about it!
  • Some students require structure and routine to learn effectively. With its emphasis on choice-based learning, aspects of humanism may not work well for such students.

12. Cite these Sources in your Essay

Don’t forget that you need to cite scholarly sources in your essays!

Here’s the APA style citations for some sources I used when writing this article:

Bates, B. (2019). Learning Theories Simplified: …and how to apply them to teaching. London: Sage.

Crain, W. (2015). Theories of Development: Concepts and Applications: Concepts and Applications. London: Routledge.

Duchesne, S. & McMaugh, A. (2016). Educational Psychology for Learning and Teaching. Melbourne: Cengage Learning.

Khatib, M., Sarem, S. N., & Hamidi, H. (2013). Humanistic Education: Concerns, Implications and Applications. Journal of Language Teaching & Research4(1), pp. 45 – 51.

Schunk, D. H. (2012). Learning Theories: An Educational Perspective. Boston: Pearson Education.

Veugelers, W. (2011). Introduction: Linking autonomy and humanity. In: Veugelers, W. (Ed.). Education and Humanism: Linking Autonomy and Humanity (pp. 1 – 7). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

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Chris Drew, PhD (aka The Helpful Professor)

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