Published: Sep 26 2020

Psychologists Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow are generally thought to be the founders of modern humanistic learning theory (DeCarvalho, 1991). Humanistic learning theory is not easily defined. There are many views; however, all views seem to share two overriding tenets: First, humans are by their very nature evolving, self-developing creatures. As such, we have a natural inclination to learn and develop fully. Learning is enhanced when educational experiences align with these natural desires. Second, the goal of education should be to enable each person to develop his or her full potential.


Humanistic learning theory is the theory upon which humanistic education is based. These terms are used interchangeably in this chapter.

Dehumanizing Education

Humanistic education is a reaction to an educational system that is seen as de-humanizing. These dehumanizing elements include the following:

1. Students are often asked to be passive learners and to learn in ways that are not natural for them. As well, the things given to them to learn are often meaningless or have no connection to their lives and experiences.

2. Manipulation is used to get students to learn and to behave in acceptable ways. Instead of building on their natural inclinations, students are manipulated by external rewards and punishment to "learn" school-related things and to be compliant. What is rarely considered are the reasons why students may not want to learn or why their behaviors may be disruptive or non-compliant.

3. One-dimensionality is perpetuated. Only the cognitive dimension of students' humanity is recognized. Ignored in classrooms and curriculum are the many aspects that make us human: our creativity, imagination, transcendence, curiosity, social natures, and our emotional dimensions.

4. Humans and human learning are too often described in terms of numbers. Experiences, traits, endeavors, and achievement that cannot be quantified and compared, are thought not to exist or to be of little value. This quantification of the educational experience is often used to compare students to a mythical norm. Such quantification creates winners and losers as students find themselves above or below a mythical "average".

5. Only traditional ways of knowing and being in the world are seen to be of worth. Views that do not align with traditional perspectives are seen to be of lesser importance. Norms and values that do not reflect the dominant culture are diminished or ignored. Only the history that tells the story of advantaged groups is seen as being worth repeating.

Humanistic Education

Humanistic education views learning in terms of personal growth and the development of each person’s full potential. Growth and development occur here, not just on an intellectual level, but also on an emotional, psychological, creative, social, and physical level (DeCarvalho, 1991; Maslow, 1971; Morris, 1978; Rogers & Freiberg, 1994; Patterson, 1973). Within this context, five goals are identified:

1. Facilitate the development of fully functioning, self-actualized human beings who have the capacity to nurture themselves, others, and their environment.

2. Instill a joy of learning and a desire to be life-long learners.

3. Promote the discovery of each student’s passions, special talents, and abilities.

4. Teach the knowledge and skills necessary for students to be good decision makers and effective problem solvers.

5. Enable students to be responsible world citizens who are able to contribute to democratic societies.