Humanistic learning theory is based upon five supporting principles.
1. Students’ learning should be as self-directed as possible. In other words, students should be given choices about what they learn, how they learn, and how they demonstrate their learning, to the greatest degree possible. Choice here does not mean total choice all the time. Instead, it means as much choice as is appropriate for the situation. Choice exists on a continuum. For example, you can offer:
(a) no choice. “We’re studying the Civil War this month. This is the book we’re going to read. This is the topic you’ll be doing reports on.”
(b) a choice within a set. “I’ve put out five books for you, you can choose the one you wish to read.”
(c) a choice within a category. “We’re studying the Civil War this month, you can read any book or investigate any topic related to the Civil War.”
(d) total choice. “Find a topic that interests and inspires you for your research project. These are the criteria. This is the due date. Find a book that you love for our reading class.”
Some situations require more choice, some less choice. The goal would be to provide the minimum amount of control necessary to create a positive learning experience.
2. The subject matter to be learned should be relevant to the lives or personal interests of the students. It should be connected to the students’ lives or interests whenever possible and to the greatest extent possible. For example, when learning number facts in the primary grades, students would be asked to use them to figure out problems in real life situations. Humanistic educators find creative ways for mandated subject matter to reflect or connect with students’ lives. At the same time, space is provided within a curriculum for students to explore topics of interest to them. For example, knowing what is of interest to adolescents, humanistic educators would seek to incorporate themes related to social experiences, relationships, and defining roles and values into traditional subject areas.
3. The full spectrum of the human experience should be included in the educational experience. Emotions, relationships, creativity, imagination, intuition, and real-life problems are all part of the human experience. Including them in the educational experience enhances learning as well as the development of humans. Humanistic educators create the conditions where human beings can learn to use all these human dimensions to solve problems, make decisions, and come to know the world. As well, traditional curriculums are studied in a multidimensional context. Art, drama, music, poetry, creative writing, and other arts are used as tools along with traditional methods to explore or respond to information and ideas.
4. Schools should produce students who want to learn and know how to learn. Humanistic educators build on students’ natural desire to learn by asking them to learn about things that are relevant to their lives and by helping them to make the connections. Curriculum is designed around students' natural ways of learning and includes things about which students want to learn. As well, students are taught how to learn. That is, how to get the necessary information they need, how to critically analyze and evaluate that information, and how to use and apply this information.
5. Students learn best in a non-threatening environment. Threats come in the form of physical threats, but also social threats, emotional threats, or things that endanger one’s self esteem or phenomenological self (Combs, 1999). This occurs when schools focus more on measuring learning than they do on enhancing learning.