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Humanism, when applied to psychology and learning, is a perspective that
emphasizes the study of the whole person (instead of only taking into account observable
behavior, as behaviorism does). The argument has been made that humanistic psychology
is less scientific, because it views human behavior not only through the eyes of the
observer, but from the perspective of the person doing the behaving (i.e., subjectively).
Obviously, subjective experiences are difficult, and sometimes impossible, to measure.
In terms of learning, this can mean that clear-cut results are harder to come by. But
humanistic psychologists believe that a holistic approach to psychology and learning is
the only way to reach complete and meaningful conclusions. (Humanistic Psychology
Overview, 2001)
Humanistic psychologists believe that we are not just a product of our
environment, as behaviorists claimed. In fact, humanistic psychologists see behaviorism
as biological reductionism, in which human beings are reduced to only their physical
parts. They also differ from psychoanalysis in that they do not believe that humans are
controlled by their unconscious. According to the Association for Humanistic
Psychology, neither of these psychological movements acknowledged that it was possible
(and important) to study intentions, values, and meaning as important factors in our
conscious existence. This is what Humanistic Psychology attempts to do.
The humanistic view of learning puts the focus on the individual child, with the
emphasis on the child’s concept of him or herself. The belief is that the child must be
actively open to learning for learning to occur. This means that the environment must be
stimulating and the child must have positive self-esteem. In a larger sense, the humanistic
view of human behavior is described by the Association for Humanistic Psychology as “a
value orientation that holds a hopeful, constructive view of human beings and of their
substantial capacity to be self-determining” and believes that “intentionality and ethical
values are strong psychological forces, among the basic determinants of human behavior”
(Humanistic Psychology Overview, 2001). Choice, creativity, and the interaction of the
body, mind and spirit are all emphasized in humanistic psychology.
One of the major contributors to the humanistic theory of learning was Abraham
Maslow. Maslow was a psychologist born in 1908, and is considered the father of
Humanistic psychology. Maslow's theory claimed that experience should be the main
focus when studying human learning and behavior. He was one of the first to argue that
meaningfulness and subjectivity are more important than objectivity. Maslow emphasized
the development of human potential, dignity and worth. Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” is
now famous, and provides an explanation for all of human motivation. In this hierarchy,
the lowest level is physiological—for example, everything related to survival, such as
hunger and thirst. But other, higher levels address needs such as belonging, love, selfesteem, and self-actualization. Maslow believed that our desire to learn is innate (in other
words, we are born with it). Therefore, purpose of learning is to achieve selfactualization, and teachers should be aware of this goal.
Within a classroom, teachers can definitely use the humanistic theory of learning
to their advantage. A classroom that emphasizes a positive environment, individual
attention, and achieving productive levels of self-esteem will naturally be a place where
students are happier and feel more inspired to learn. A child with low self-esteem, who
has been made to believe he or she is stupid, will not feel like there is any point in putting
forth the necessary effort to learn. He or she might even actively rebel against an
environment that feels hostile, pointless, or doomed to failure. We see this in cases of
students who are failing in school skipping or dropping. But in a school in which every
child is focused upon and encouraged to see his or her own strengths, the chances are
much greater than learning will seem like a worthwhile and achievable goal. Also, I
believe that the assumption that children want to learn can act as a sort of self-fulfilling
prophecy. A teacher that is excited about the material he or she is teaching and expects
students to be as well is usually greeted with much more enthusiasm than a teacher who
treats learning as unpleasant work (ie, assigning extra math problems as a punishment for
There are a few possible drawbacks to a classroom that relies heavily on the
humanistic model. One might be that a student is “coddled” in an attempt to protect that
child’s self-esteem. If he or she does poorly on a project, the teacher might put too much
emphasis on the positive (for example, telling the student “It looks like you had a really
good idea here!” instead of “I know you can do better on this, it looks like you rushed.”),
therefore leading the student to not push him or herself far enough. Some might also
argue that the lack of emphasis on concrete results makes it impossible to know if real
learning is taking place.
However, I believe benefits of a humanistic approach to learning outweigh the
drawbacks. For example, the emphasis on creativity can be very beneficial in the
classroom. If students engage in creative projects, they become more invested in the
learning process, and often learning takes place without the student even being fully
aware of it. For example, a teacher could use humanistic learning techniques in a lesson
about history. The teacher could have students chose an event in history, and get into
groups and act out the event. In figuring out how to best act out the event, the children
learn about the historical event in a way that feels relevant and exciting. This activity
encourages creativity because there are so many different ways to approach the
assignment, and it feels more meaningful (an important element of humanistic learning)
because the students are actively (both physically and mentally) engaged in the project,
and not just told to memorize dry facts.
In conclusion, the humanistic theory of development can be one of the most
useful approaches in the classroom. It can help teachers create a positive environment
where children are excited about knowledge, and this, in turn, leads students to success in
Association for Humanistic Psychology. 2001. Humanistic Psychology Overview.
Retrieved from:
Ormrod, J. E. (2008). Educational psychology: Developing learners (6th ed.). Upper
Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.