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Humanistic Approaches to Teaching

A Link to "An Overview of Humanistic Education" by Bill Huitt

The Trouble with Behaviourism - How a humanist teacher keeps his students motivated

Humanism would concentrate upon the development of the child's self-concept. If the child feels good about him or herself then that is a positive start. Feeling good about oneself would involve an understanding of ones' strengths and weaknesses, and a belief in one's ability to improve. Learning is not an end in itself; It is the means to progress towards the pinnacle of self-development, which Maslow terms 'Self-actualisation'. A child learns because he or she is inwardly driven, and derives his or her reward from the sense of achievement that having learned something affords. This would differ from the behaviourist view that would expect extrinsic rewards to be more effective. Extrinsic rewards are rewards from the outside world, e.g. praise, money, gold stars, etc. Intrinsic rewards are rewards from within oneself, rather like a satisfaction of a need. This accords with the humanistic approach, where education is really about creating a need within the child, or instilling within the child self-motivation. Behaviourism is about rewards from others. Humanism is about rewarding yourself!

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Much of a humanist teacher's effort would be put into developing a child's self-esteem. It would be important for children to feel good about themselves (high self-esteem), and to feel that they can set and achieve appropriate goals (high self-efficacy). This form of education is known as child-centred, and is typified by the child taking responsibility for their education and owning their learning. The behaviourists might advocate positive reinforcement such as praise, and punishment in the form of negative criticism. Both praise and blame are rejected by the humanists. Children can become addicted to praise, and put much effort into receiving praise from their teachers. Such children will often work for the praise, and not work if their efforts go unnoticed. This is so unlike an interested adult surfing through the internet, who derives satisfaction from learning something new, even though nobody is around to witness this acquisition of knowledge. If education is preparing the child for adult life, it would seem the humanist approach is the correct one.

The humanist teacher is a facilitator, not a disseminator, of knowledge. Participatory and discovery methods would be favoured instead of traditional didacticism (i.e. learn parrot-fashion every thing the teacher says). As well as the child's academic needs the humanistic teacher is concerned with the child's affective (or emotional) needs. Feeling and thinking are very much interlinked. Feeling positive about oneself facilitates learning.

Humanistic - The self or the individual is important. Not the similarities between humans as much as the individuality of humans.

Rogerian Phenomenological theory

Important terms:

Client-centred therapy - clients define the problems, propose a solution and implement it. (opposite is ‘Directive therapy’)
‘Phenomenology’ - the world as perceived by the individual rather than as it really is.
‘Humanism’ - Literature, Philosophy, Psychology - historically - concerned with human worth, individuality, humanity, freedom for the individual to determine personal actions. Development of human potential is highly valued; the attainment of material goals is de-emphasised.
‘Self-actualisation’ - the end toward which all humans strive.

Rogers versus Skinner

Skinner - perfect society described in his novel, Walden II, 1948 - positive reinforcement, no aversion.
Trying to create a better society by openly controlling its inhabitants with positive reinforcement.
Rogers believes that Skinner assumes that social control will be in the better interests of society, but doubts that this would really happen.
Skinner - the most effective practices would survive.
Rogers - society should self-actualise.


Instructional implications of humanistic theory.

Student-centred teaching.
social personal development.
De-emphasise rigorous, performance-oriented, test-dominated approaches. Provide opportunity for success.
Discovery learning.
Respects student’s feelings and aspirations. Right to self-determination.

The humanistic approach is a broad term that encompasses three main approaches (Kirschenbaum 1975):

  1. Humanistic content curricula - Teaching topics that are directly relevant to the students' lives (e.g. drugs awareness)
  2. Humanistic process curricula - Focuses on the whole student and can include teaching assertiveness training, for example.
  3. Humanistic school and group structures - restructuring the whole timetable and school environment in order to facilitate humanistic teaching or just individual classes.  The approach includes:

Behaviour control by Rogers (Rogers & Skinner, 1956)

Humanistic Movement in Education.

Humanism - third force in Psychology

Principles of Humanistic education

Current and future welfare of students
worth and rights of the individuals
Openness, honesty, selflessness, altruism.
Traditional approach -

Can be humanistic teacher in a traditional teacher classroom.

Common Emphasis on humanistic approaches to education.



  1. Mastery of academic content
  2. good citizenship
  3. sportsmanship.

Humanistic approaches use group processes.


Students can express their feelings more openly, discover and clarify their feelings. Explore interpersonal relationships Articulate personal values. Games - including role-playing.
Problems - Novice teacher will lack specific guidelines.

3 approaches

Problems with traditional schools

Compelled to attend
Little choice in the content of a curriculum, the value of which may not be apparent.
Share teacher’s time and other resources with other students. Classmates differ from one another in ability and experience. Have to put up with an instructional tempo that is often either too fast or too slow. Set of rules - not talking, moving around, going to the toilet. [Not user-friendly!] no doubt that traditional schools favour some.

The Open Classroom

Goals - individual growth, critical thinking, self-reliance, co- operation, commitment to lifelong learning.
Most important person - student not teacher.
Not curriculum bound
Not age/grade locked.
Student-centred - intensive, but relaxed teacher/pupil contact.
Needs low teacher/pupil ratio.
de-emphasises schedules.
Almost no control or competition
Difficult to draw the line between chaos and order, rebelliousness and expression of rights.
Productive and unproductive time.
Students tend to have better self-concepts and are more creative and co- operative, but academic achievements are lacking.

The Learning Styles Approach

Allow student to use a learning style that suits them.
e.g. working on soft carpet or around a table
highly structured lessons, peer teaching, computer-assisted instruction, self-learning.
Subjects rotated, to be taught at different times of the day.


Dunn and Griggs (1988) - 10 learning styles-driven schools visited, learners performed well on a variety of measures of academic performance.
Many passed subjects, previously failed. Most loved school.
Difficult to measure (Snow and Swanson, 1992) - current list of learning styles and instruments used to measure them are unorganised, lengthy, include a large range of habits, personality characteristics and abilities.

Co-operative Learning

Students are often in competition with each other or have to work individually towards achieving their personal goals.
Co-operative Learning not only combines cognitive and affective aspects of learning, as well as emphasising participation and active engagement, But also stresses academic achievement and clearly defined curricular goals.

Reasons for co-operative learning


  • 1 Requires face to face interaction - usually 4 to 6 students.
  • 2 relationship between group members is one of positive interdependence (co-operate in allocating resources, assigning roles and dividing labour in order to achieve goals)
  • 3 Assigns individual responsibility for sharing, co-operating and learning.
  • 4 Goals and rewards are contingent on the performance and contribution of all group members.
  • 5 Interpersonal skills necessary e.g. taking turns, facilitating, collaborating, etc.
  • Johnson et al (1984) outlines 4 components of co-operative learning:

    1. Positive interdependence - students work towards a common goal and share materials.
    2. Individual accountability - every student must contribute to the final outcome
    3. Interpersonal and small-group skill development - The goal has an inbuilt social skill component.
    4. Face to face interactions - an essential part of this leaning strategy.
  • Circles of Knowledge or Circles of Learning

    1 learning together

    4 to 6 students have a worksheet they must learn or complete together.
    encouraged to help each other.
    Praise for co-operating and finishing the assignment.
    No competition among groups.

    2 Student Teams - Achievement Division (STAD)

    As above, except:
    Each team has high and low ability students,
    different ethnic backgrounds, children of both sexes.
    New material presented in class in traditional manner. Following this groups given material to study and worksheets to complete.
    can work individually or together
    Encouraged to help each other. At end of that week's material, students answer quizzes individually.
    Team scores are calculated.
    team that has improved the most is given the most recognition.
    Slavin (1983) 'Students see learning activities as social instead of isolated, fun instead of boring, under their own control instead of the teacher's'
    Help each other more, do not make fun of those with learning difficulties.

    Teams-games-Tournaments (TGT)

    Same as above, but tournaments at end.
    Regrouped into individual competitors, from different groups of a similar ability. In threes, they take turns to draw cards, and ask the question printed upon it. Can challenge the answers. They keep the card if correct. At end, points are added up and credited to the pupil's original (learning) group.


    Each member gets separate parts of the whole. Must teach what they have learned to other members of the group.

    Group Investigation

    Students select topic - then divided into sub-topics, based on student's interests. Groups are formed to investigate each sub-topic.
    Each group formulates a plan and assigns responsibilities. members can work individually or with others. At end group members meet to share information. They then decide how to present this information to the rest of the class.
    Teachers help with academic and social skills.

    Reciprocal Teaching

    Students taught specific procedures in questioning, clarifying, summarising and predicting. They then have to teach some of the material to their teacher. (Palinsar and Brown, 1984)

    Advantages of co-operative learning

    1 Unlike 'Learning styles' approach, requires no major restructuring of the school day.
    2 Fosters co-operation among students of different abilities, ethnic backgrounds, ages and sexes.

    How much?

    Used in conjunction with traditional lessons for 60 to 90 minutes a day. Others recommend 70% of class time to be used in this way. 20% individualistic. 10% competitive. (Johnson and Johnson, 1975).


    Careful preparation of materials, worksheets, questions, resource materials, etc.


    Johnson et al (1981) 122 studies analysed.
    1 Better achievement at all grades and for all subjects, because group discussion and co-operation promote discovery.
    Develop higher-quality cognitive strategies.
    Increases motivation, comprehension (by having the student teach) enrich learning by having students of different abilities and experiences. Promotes highly positive relationships among group members.
    Israeli and Arab students not only performed better academically, but also displayed fewer signs of ethnic tension in their language (Sharan & Shachar, 1988).
    Bossert (1988) agrees but says the effect could be because lessons are more highly structured and systematic, rather than effect due to peer interaction.


    Some students waste time talking about irrelevant matters. Some members dominate and others are ignored.

    Why it works

    1 Incentive to co-operate
    2 Individual accountability
    Vygotsky (1978) theory says learning is highly dependent on
    1 Social interaction
    2 Language.


  • 1 Bossert(1988) low achieving students are sometimes embarrassed by their performances and ashamed of lowering the groups score. Motivation and self-concepts deteriorate. To counteract this make sure you reward the group that has shown the most improvement.
  • 2 Bossert (1988) - One reason why the technique works is because it is a change from normal classroom teaching. If teacher goes over to 100% co-operative learning, this advantage is lost.
  • 3 Bossert (1988) - Also important for student to learn competitive and individualistic skills.
  • Some reactions to humanistic education.

    Humanistic teachers aim for good things, but these are not clearly defined. Also not easily measured.
    Humanistic approaches are highly dependent upon the capabilities of the teacher.
    Overall, ‘Open schools do not deliver academic performance, but non- graded schools (no age/grade placement and no graded report cards), have positive effects on achievement (Gutierrez & Slavin, 1992).
    Present structured curriculum in ungraded, no fail environment.
    Criticisms can not be directed at learning styles-oriented schools and co-operative learning. many learning styles schools use group methods which involve co-operative learning.
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