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Humanism and Open Education

Citation: Huitt, W. (2009). Humanism and open education. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta,
GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved [date],
from http://www.edpsycinteractive.org/topics/affect/humed.html

Humanism is a school of thought that believes human beings are different from
other species and possess capacities not found in animals (Edwords, 1989).
Humanists, therefore, give primacy to the study of human needs and interests. A
central assumption is that human beings behave out of intentionality and values
(Kurtz, 2000). This is in contrast to the beliefs of operant conditioning
theorists who believe that all behavior is the result of the application of
consequences or to the beliefs of cognitive psychologists who hold that the
discovery of concepts or processing of information is a primary factor in human
learning. Humanists also believe that it is necessary to study the person as a
whole, especially as an individual grows and develops over the lifespan. The
study of the self, motivation, and goal-setting are also areas of special interest.

As with other approaches to learning and development, there are a variety of

viewpoints within this tradition. The dominant view is called modern or
naturalistic humanism and traces its lineage to Aristotle and Socrates (Gogineni,
2000). It is defined as "a naturalistic philosophy that rejects all supernaturalism
and relies primarily upon reason and science, democracy and human
compassion" (Lamont, as cited in Edwords, 1989). It is thus described as
anthropocentric or human-centered.

There are two branches within this view: secular and religious. Advocates of
a secular humanism believe that an individual human being has within him- or
herself all that is necessary to grow and develop that person’s unique
capacities. Religious humanists, on the other hand, believe that religion is an
important influence on human development and advocate a communal aspect of
their approach, albeit an atheistic one.

A small, but important, group within humanism disagrees with the atheistic
thesis. They trace their roots to Plato, St. Augustine, as well as various other
religious scholars and believe that, while humanity is a distinct species, existing
separate and apart from all animal species, God or a Supreme Being is the center
of humankind’s existence. Maritain (1936/1996, 1952) and de Chardin (1955,
1973) are two of the primary advocates of this theocentric (or God-centered)
approach. Advocates of this approach believe that a human being is both material
and spiritual, a reasoning, intellectual being endowed with free will. From this
perspective, a human being’s highest purpose is that of voluntarily obeying
God’s law. This is in stark contrast to the naturalistic humanist who believes that
an individual must be true to himself, existing as an autonomous being, capable
of self-realized development.

Perhaps it is the open advocacy of atheism by the modern or naturalistic

humanists that seems to have drawn the ire of religious leaders toward
humanism, especially fundamentalist Christians (e.g., Holgate, n.d.; Waggoner,
2001). This is in spite of the fact that modern humanists advocate a strict
separation of church and state, especially in the domain of public education. The
focus on humanism is somewhat curious as other scientific theories regarding
human learning and behavior also advocate a strictly materialistic view of human
beings. For example, Skinner’s operant conditioning theory posits no significant
differences between animals and human beings; Piaget’s cognitive development
theory states that the only difference between a human being and an animal is
that a mature human being acquires the ability to engage in abstract symbolic
thought. Similar statements can be made of the vast majority of scientific
theories. Surprisingly, the antagonistic focus on humanism exists in spite of the
fact that it is the only school of learning and development which includes a
strong, though small, advocacy group that proposes human beings are both
material and spiritual beings.

Principles and Objectives

From the perspective of Huitt's (2009) systems framework of human behavior,

the primary emphasis of humanistic education is on the regulatory system and
the affective/emotional system. The development of these systems is often
overlooked in our present education system (Am, 1995). The regulatory system
acts as a filter for connecting the environment and internal thoughts to other
thoughts or feelings as well as connecting knowledge and feelings to action. The
affective/emotional system colors, embellishes, diminishes or otherwise modifies
information acquired through the regulatory system or sent from the cognitive
system to action. In our present environment of constant change and uncertainty,
the development of the knowledge, attitudes, and skills discussed in these
systems is especially important.

As described by Gage and Berliner (1991) there are five basic objectives of the
humanistic view of education:

1. promote positive self-direction and independence (development of the

regulatory system);
2. develop the ability to take responsibility for what is learned (regulatory
and affective systems);
3. develop creativity (divergent thinking aspect of cognition);
4. curiosity (exploratory behavior, a function of imbalance or dissonance in
any of the systems); and
5. an interest in the arts (primarily to develop the affective/emotional

The SCANS report (Whetzel, 1992) as well as Naisbitt (1982), Toffler (1970,
1981, 1990) and other authors (see Huitt, 1997) point to the importance of these
objectives for success in the information age. It is important to realize that no
other model or view of education places as much emphasis on these desired
outcomes as does the humanistic approach.

According to Gage and Berliner (1991) some basic principles of the humanistic
approach that were used to develop the objectives are:

1. Students will learn best what they want and need to know. That is, when
they have developed the skills of analyzing what is important to them and
why as well as the skills of directing their behavior towards those wants
and needs, they will learn more easily and quickly. Most educators and
learning theorists would agree with this statement, although they might
disagree on exactly what contributes to student motivation.
2. Knowing how to learn is more important than acquiring a lot of
knowledge. In our present society where knowledge is changing rapidly,
this view is shared by many educators, especially those from a cognitive
3. Self-evaluation is the only meaningful evaluation of a student's work. The
emphasis here is on internal development and self-regulation. While most
educators would likely agree that this is important, they would also
advocate a need to develop a student's ability to meet external
expectations. This meeting of external expectations runs counter to most
humanistic theories.
4. Feelings are as important as facts. Much work from the humanistic view
seems to validate this point and is one area where humanistically-oriented
educators are making significant contributions to our knowledge base.
5. Students learn best in a non-threatening environment. This is one area
where humanistic educators have had an impact on current educational
practice. The orientation espoused today is that the environment should by
psychologically and emotionally, as well as physically, non-threatening.
However, there is some research that suggests that a neutral or even
slightly cool environment is best for older, highly motivated students.

Open Education
There are a variety of ways teachers can implement the humanist view towards
education. Some of these include:

1. Allow the student to have a choice in the selection of tasks and activities
whenever possible.
2. Help students learn to set realistic goals.
3. Have students participate in group work, especially cooperative learning,
in order to develop social and affective skills.
4. Act as a facilitator for group discussions when appropriate.
5. Be a role model for the attitudes, beliefs and habits you wish to foster.
Constantly work on becoming a better person and then share yourself with
your students.

A meta-analysis completed by Giaconia and Hedges (1982) of approximately 150

studies of open education suggest that this approach is associated with

1. improved cooperativeness, creativity, and independence (moderate);

2. increased positive attitudes toward teacher and school, creativity,
adjustment, and general mental ability (slight);
3. lower language achievement (negligible) and achievement motivation
4. no consistent effect on math, reading, or other types of academic
achievement; and
5. no consistent effect on anxiety, locus of control or self-concept.

It would seem, then, that open education, broadly defined in the terms used by
Giaconia and Hedges, has not met the objectives and principles normally used to
define humanistic education. While it has not been detrimental to basic skills
achievement, per se, it has not had the impact on self-concept and locus of
control as expected by its originators. In addition, the decline in achievement
motivation is especially troublesome in light of the SCANS report (Whetzel,
1992) that highlighted the importance of striving for excellence in order to be
successful in a world economy.

Carl Roger's View (Facilitative Teaching)

One of the models included in the overall review of open education was
facilitative teaching developed by Carl Rogers. Aspy and Roebuck (1975)
studied teachers in terms of their ability to offer facilitative conditions (including
empathy, congruence, and positive regard) as defined by Rogers (1969) and
Rogers and Freiberg (1994). Teachers who were more highly facilitative tended
to provide more:
1. response to student feeling;
2. use of student ideas in ongoing instructional interactions;
3. discussion with students (dialogue);
4. praise of students;
5. congruent teacher talk (less ritualistic);
6. tailoring of contents to the individual student's frame of reference
(explanations created to fit the immediate needs of the learners); and
7. smiling with students.

Notice that all of these actions are congruent with a direct instruction model of

In a subsequent study involving 600 teachers from kindergarten though 12th

grade, Aspy and Roebuck (1977) found that students in classrooms of high
facilitative teachers:

1. missed four fewer days of school (5 as compared to 9 for low facilitative

2. increased scores on self-concept measures;
3. greater gains on academic achievement measures, including both math and
reading scores;
4. presented fewer disciplinary problems and commited fewer acts of
vandalism to school property; and
5. were more spontaneous and used higher levels of thinking (knowledge
versus comprehension through evaluation).


In summary, the purpose of humanistic education is to provide a foundation for

personal growth and development so that learning will continue throughout life
in a self-directed manner (DeCarvalho, 1991). A lack of cohesiveness with
respect to defining the critical components of the humanistic approach has
hampered its development. However, the results of Aspy and Roebuck's (1977)
study of facilitative teaching in comparison with the Giaconia and Hedges (1982)
meta-analysis of open education suggest that Rogers' (1969; Rogers & Freiberg,
1994) approach may be more descriptive of the critical conditions for achieving
academic success as well as important affective and volitional outcomes. This is
especially important in terms of the multiple dimensions of the components for
success as described by the SCANS report (Whetzel, 1992) and Huitt's (1997)
summary of the requirements for success in the information age. In many ways,
the positive psychology movement has its roots in humanistic psychology
(Robbins, 2008), adding a more empirical, quantitative approach to humanism's
more philosophical, qualitative methodology (Seligman, 2002.


 Am, O. (1995). The evolutionary structure of the school system.

Stavanger, Norway: Author.
 Aspy, D, & Roebuck, F. (1975, Spring). The relationship of teacher-
offered conditions of meaning to behaviors described by Flanders'
interaction analysis. Education 95, 216-222.
 Aspy, D, & Roebuck, F. (1977). Kid's don't learn from people they don't
like. Amherst, MA: Human Resources Development Press.
 DeCarvalho, R. (1991). The humanistic paradigm in education. The
Humanistic Psychologist, 19(1), 88-104.
 de Chardin, T. (B. Wall, trans.). (1955, 1975). The phenomenon of man.
New York: Harper & Row.
 Edwords, F. (1989). What is humanism? Amherst, NY: American
Humanist Association. Retrieved December 2001,
from http://www.jcn.com/humanism.html
 Gage, N., & Berliner, D. (1991). Educational psychology (5th ed.).
Boston: Houghton, Mifflin.
 Gianconia, R., & Hedges, L. (1982). Identifying features of effective open
education. Review of Educational Research, 52(4), 579-602.
 Gogineni, B. (2000). Humanism in the twenty-first century. The Humanist,
60(6), 27-31.
 Holgate, K. (n.d.). The progressive assault on the Christian education
system. Palm Desert, CA: Parents National Network. Retrieved December
2001, from http://www.capitolresource.org/STW-
 Huitt, W. (1997). The SCANS report revisited. Paper delivered at the Fifth
Annual Gulf South Business and Vocational Education Conference,
Valdosta State University, Valdosta, GA, April 18. Retrieved December
2001, from http://www.edpsycinteractive.org/papers/scanspap.html
 Huitt, W. (1995). An overview of a systems approach to the study of
human behavior. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved
October 2009,
from http://www.edpsycinteractive.org/materials/sysmdlo.html
 Kurtz, P. (2000). Humanist manifesto 2000: A call for a new planetary
humanism. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books.
 Maritain, J. (1936/1996). Integral humanism: Temporal and spiritual
problems of a new Christendom. Chicago: University of Notre Dame
Press. [excerpt]
 Maritain, J. (1952). The range of reason. NY: Charles Scribner's Sons.
Retrieved December 2001,
from http://www.nd.edu/Departments/Maritain/etext/range.htm
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 Robins, B. (2008). What is the good life? Positive psychology and the
renaissance of humanistic psychology. The Humanistic Psychologist,
36(2), 96-112. Retrieved October 2009,
from http://mythosandlogos.com/Goodlife.pdf
 Rogers, C. (1969). Freedom to learn (1st ed.). New York:
 Rogers, C., & Freiberg, H. J. (1994). Freedom to learn (3rd ed.). New
York: Macmillan/Merrill.
 Seligman, M. (2002). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive
psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York:
Simon & Schuster. (see questionnaires
at http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/Default.aspx)
 Toffler, A. (1970). Future shock. New York: Bantam Books.
 Toffler, A. (1981). The third wave. New York: Bantam Books.
 Toffler, A. (1990). Powershift. New York: Bantam Books.
 Waggoner, R. (2001). Worldviews in conflict. Selma, AL: Author.
Retrieved December 2001, from http://www.biblical-
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Achieving Necessary Skills. ERIC Digest. (ERIC NO.: ED 339749).
Retrieved December 2001,
from http://www.edpsycinteractive.org/files/scansrpt.html
Humanistic language teaching

'Humanism' is one of those constructs that

people argue about passionately. Instead of
attempting to define it, perhaps it makes more
sense to focus on some commonly agreed
characteristics of humanism.

These are: problem-solving, reasoning, free will, self-development, and co-


Humanism and learning theory

Perhaps the most well-known applications of humanism in ELT are those of Curran
(1976) and Gattegno (1972).

 The former advocated the use of 'Counselling-Learning'. In this practice, teachers

sit outside a circle of learners and help them to talk about their personal and
linguistic problems. The students decide the 'curriculum', while the teacher is more
of a facilitator, who fosters an emotionally secure environment.

 Meanwhile, Gattegno advocated the Silent Way approach. In this, he presented

challenges for learners. These challenges developed the students' awareness and
encouraged their independence.

It's my view that it's possible to apply the characteristics of humanism to ELT in a
less radical way than described in the practices above. In a way that might be
more appealing for students, more practicable for teachers, and more plausible for
education inspectors.

The humanistic teacher

The humanistic teacher should have a good grasp of language learning theories.
They will realise the importance of change, which is implicit in all learning.

 They will be aware of the individual learners' 'developmental readiness' (Piaget,

1970), which will determine when and how to teach each student something.
 They will offer their students problems to solve, as, according to cognitivists, this
is precisely how we learn things.

 Above all, the successful humanistic teacher will probably be a pragmatist -

allowing a combination of language learning theories and their own experience to
interact with each other to produce effective language lessons.

The humanistic teacher also needs to be aware of what motivates their students.
Some will probably want to learn English because they have to (e.g. for their job),
while others want to simply for the sake of it. The former is called 'extrinsic
motivation', while the latter is called 'intrinsic motivation'.

 Those students who are more extrinsically motivated will be more goal-oriented
and might want, for example, a lot of tests and exams.

 Students who are intrinsically motivated will derive a lot of satisfaction from
solving language problems - the solution will be a reward in itself.

In reality, of course, students can be both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated.

They may be learning English for a specific purpose (e.g. to be accepted into a
speech community or to get promotion), but they might also really enjoy the
process of learning.

 Teachers need to be aware of this mix and need to use this information to
determine issues like:
o How much testing to do
o How much fun can be had
o Should the target language be representative of one particular speech community
or not?

Humanism in practice

Teaching 'language items'

In an attempt to be a humanistic language teacher myself, I introduce every new
language item at the optimum time of readiness for my class.

 I firstly elicit the target language. This fosters a sense of co-operation between the
students and me.

 Then I try to make the meaning of the language items as clear as possible by
using a number of techniques (e.g. pictures, mime, or a mini-explanation). Such
work on the concept of the target language needs to be repeated later in a way
that is appropriate to the abilities and progress of the group.
 At the appropriate time, students also need to practise speech production by
saying or writing the target language.

 After enough practice, through both teacher-centred and student-centred phases,

the student should gradually learn the target language. The student will have
fundamentally changed.

Teaching skills
As I want my classes to be able to understand the 'gist' of a spoken interaction, I
make sure that they are mentally prepared for it. This means that:

 The 'text' is not dauntingly hard for them

 I create the right conditions for understanding the text by, for example, arousing
interest and pre-teaching lexis

 Then, by setting an appropriate task I am setting a problem for the students to

solve. If I can steer my students towards focusing on the main points of the text
then I am enabling learners to become more successful listeners.

 After this, students can be encouraged to carry out their own, related, role plays,
with the result that students' ability to carry out certain situation-specific
interactions will be enhanced. It's worth noting that these principles relate to
reading texts too!

The teacher's status

It cannot be denied that the teacher plays a different role from that of his/her
students. We each have a particular job. This does not mean, though, that we
have higher status. We are certainly not in the classroom to order people around. I
try to provide students with learning opportunities, which the students are free to
take or not.

 However, if a student chooses not to take up an opportunity, and then goes on to

become a malign influence in class, I then ask the rest of the class if their learning
is being affected and whether they want the offending student to stay in class or
not. I then have the authority to ask the student to leave.
Without flexibility, a teacher cannot teach humanistically, because students will
never learn completely in step with any designated syllabus. This is why I always
make a point of observing my students very carefully so that I know when to
introduce certain tasks, according to the progress they're making.

 The same applies to lesson plans. I know that if I plough on through my plan
regardless of how my students are responding, some students will be lost forever
and lose confidence both in me and their own ability to learn English.

The thrust of humanism seems, to me, to be the ability to advance as a species
through understanding and co-operation. This means that humanistic language
teachers need to have a thorough grasp of both how people learn and what
motivates them to learn. They need to shed the old image of the teacher being the
fount of wisdom and replace it with the teacher as facilitator.

Further reading
Counseling-Learning in Second Languages by Curran C. Apple River
Teaching Foreign Languages in Schools: The Silent Way by Gattegno C.
Educational Solutions
Structuralism by Piaget J. Basic Books
'Class, Status, and Party' in Essays from Max Weber by Weber M. Routledge and
Kegan Paul
Humanising Language Teaching. An online journal for language teachers.

Written by Paul Bress