Humanistic Learning Theory

Humanistic Orientation in education has its roots in Humanistic psychology. Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers both published authors and psychologists contributed intellectual material that lead to the Humanistic Psychological in the late 1950’s. The science of the brain is very young albeit 60+years old. There are component of Freud’s psychoanalytic approaches to human behaviour that can also be noticed in the Humanistic Orientation. The American Association of Humanistic Psychology was first established in 1961 well after Maslow first wrote about his Hierarchy of Needs theory. Interestingly enough the 14th Dali Lama says there are two ways to achieve what Tibetan Buddhists’ want most, that is happiness. The first way is externally, with better housing, clothing, shelter and friends. The second is through mental development. I am stuck by the similarities between Buddhist tradition and Maslow’s theory. “Humanist theories consider learning from the perspective of the human potential for growth.” (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, (2007) p.281). Humanistic learners/teachers strive for personal growth and development through learning. It is part of what makes them happy and motivated learners/teachers.

Maslow’s Needs theory is used in medicine. It is taught in basic nursing practices from Health Care Aide to the Registered Nurse and beyond. Perhaps the similarities’ between this and nursing process are reasons why I am so attuned to the teaching of Knowles, Rogers, Maslow and the learning process of Jarvis. Malcolm Knowles was an American who authored The Adult Learner: A Neglected Spies (1973) and The Modern Practice of Adult Education (1970) is one of several people to use the term andragogy and is best known for bringing that concept from Europe in 1968.
The term ‘andragogy’ has been used in different times and countries with various connotations. Nowadays there exist mainly three understandings:
1. In many countries there is a growing conception of ‘andragogy’ as the scholarly approach to the learning of adults. In this connotation andragogy is the science of understanding (= theory) and supporting (= practice) lifelong and lifewide education of adults.
2. Especially in the USA, ‘andragogy’ in the tradition of Malcolm Knowles, labels a specific theoretical and practical approach, based on a humanistic conception of self-directed and autonomous learners and teachers as facilitators of learning.
3. Widely, an unclear use of andragogy can be found, with its meaning changing (even in the same publication) from ‘adult education practice’ or ‘desirable values’ or ‘specific teaching methods,’ to ‘reflections’ or ‘academic discipline’ and/or ‘opposite to childish pedagogy’, claiming to be ‘something better’ than just ‘Adult Education’.
Terms make sense in relation to the object they name. Relating the development of the term to the historical context may explain the differences.”

Carl Rogers helped developed the Humanistic Theory of education with Maslow.

Role of the Instructor:

The role of instructors is one of facilitation and well demonstrated flexibility. I also believe it is important for the instructor to identify each learner’s style as quickly as possible in order for the instructor to attempt to reach the learner with their own learning style. This challenges instructors to use multi-facetted modalities when delivering educational information. Instructor should know and understand all five orientations detailed in our text. Each learner has their own orientation therefore, it’s a natural assumption to think that reaching each learner is easiest done through their own orientation. Having a clear understanding of our own learning style makes being an Adult Educator/Facilitator clearer yet presents a more complex picture.

Below is an excerpt from “Learning in Adulthood A Comprehensive Guide” the five common theories are detailed. (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, (2007) p.295/6)

Learning Theories

Maslow, Rogers

View of Learning process

A personal act to fulfill development

Locus of Learning

Affective and developmental needs

Purpose of Learning

To become self-actualized, mature   autonomous

Instructor’s role

Facilitate development of whole person


Manifestation in adult learning

  •   Andragogy
  •   Self-directed   learning
  •   Cognitive   development
  •   Transformational   learning

Role of the Learner:

The learner in this orientation in my opinion is a person who needs to feel in their heart what is being taught and have fun doing it. They need to ‘buy-in’ to concepts and ideals being taught. If this is lacking the humanist learner can becomes a truth seeker. This person could go out of their way to learn more on a subject that confusing or unclear in whatever way. Curiosity is that key characteristic for a humanistic learner. I believe curiosity fosters a spirit in the learner of higher achievement as they are always actively involved in finding answers. In the clinical area of instruction it is my experience that I see this learners practicing more often, trying to achieve a higher level of performance and understanding the small details. I see diligence with task practice.

Classroom examples

In a recent class I taught we were discussing a concept that was unfamiliar to all the students. There was a student who was like-minded who all of a sudden got the message of the concept. In her excitement of learning she blurted out what had just happened in her mind. It was a delightful experience for me as the instructor as I really knew she got it. Some of the other students in the class were less enthusiastic. In the clinical area, when learning a new skill this same person was inclined to seek more direction and worked very hard at doing the skill exactly as demonstrated. Humanistic learners’ body language’ can be very telling. With observation I can determine if they are totally engrossed in the topic or totally distracted.


A great step forward in human evolution took place between the 50’s-70’s. So many different aspects of our development were affected, like education, general psychology, medicine, etc. It’s no wonder we have moved into the technological age. We as the custodians’/educators of the coming generation(s), have an obligation to try point the way for the younger folks to follow. The Humanistic learners/facilitator’s more forward with the ideals of many. Sensitivity needs to be demonstrated for those at all levels of learning. I believe enlightenment comes with happiness/self-actualization. Don’t we all ultimately want to be happy?

Merriam, S. B., Caffarella R. S., Baumgartner L. M., (2007). Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide, (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA. pages 86, 295/6,

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