Effective learning theories are often a debated area in the educational sector. Humanistic theories offer an approach that both embraces and acknowledges the emotional aspects of the individual learning process. This essay argues that the relevance of humanism towards to the school system is significant, particularly when students begin to show signs of emotional behavioural disorders (EBD). Education from a humanistic perspective looks to implement methods to address the underlying causes that motivate students to act in ways that are both unhelpful to themselves and others in their immediate environment. This can be done through a variety of pedagogical strategies, borrowing on the theories of traditional humanists, such as Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, to more modern approaches such as Non-Violent Communication. An outline of some of the pertinent theories and techniques in the humanist approach will be given, alongside their applicability in a New Zealand school context with students who show signs of EBD. Incorporating a culturally-aware approach will also be demonstrated to hold significant value, with relevance to those of both Maori and European heritage. It is concluded that empathetic educational practices provide students and teachers with opportunities to grow and learn together in a symbiotic environment.
Introduction to Humanism
Humanism began as a reaction during the 1950s towards the more mechanical and deterministic aspects of behaviourism and psychodynamic theory, with both approaches being criticised as dehumanising (Weiten, 2011). Whist there are many facets of humanism, its general intention is to emphasis the individual and their potential for human growth. Importance is placed on the individual’s subjective experience of reality, alongside their ability to consciously choose how reality is perceived and changed (Entwistle, 2012). In addition, while humanism takes some of its theoretical origins from existentialist theory, in regards to the idea that individuals are free and responsible to decide meaning for their own lives, it focuses on the more positive aspects of the theory, such as curiosity, spontaneity, and the disposition towards self-actualising full potential (Wong, 2006). These facets mean that humanism takes an optimistic view towards human nature. In relation to education, humanistic principles focus on the self-directed learning, autonomy, and nurturing self-development and personal growth (Leonard, 2002).
Key theories and concepts
One of the key figures in humanism is Abraham Maslow, who set out the hierarchy of needs (Gordon & Browne, 2012). This theory proposes that humans have an intrinsic drive towards personal development. Maslow described this as a “systematic arrangement of needs, according to priority, in which basic needs must be met before less basic needs are aroused” (Weiten, 2011, p. 394). Basic needs include physiological needs, safety and security, esteem needs, belongingness and love needs, through to higher ones, such as cognitive needs, aesthetic needs, and self-actualisation (Braungart & Braungart, 2006). The process towards fulfilling each need before moving onto the next is one of dynamic movement, and in the educational environment, reflects process of individual growth and development.
Another major figure in the humanistic approach is Carl Rogers, whose ‘person-centred’ theory emphasises self-actualisation through personal growth training (Finger & Asun, 2001). Attention is placed on ‘the self’, a construct that encompassed a “collection of beliefs about one’s own nature, unique qualities, and typical behaviour (Weiten, 2011, p. 392). When an individual’s perception of self differs too much from actual experience, psychological imbalances occur. In a school context, one way of creating incongruence between self and experience is when the teacher uses positive conditional regard. An example of this is when a student who follows and excels in school protocol is rewarded, such as through praise, social recognition or grades. Rogers (1977) argues that this inhibits personal emotional growth through students being made dependent on the positive affirmation of others. Kohn (1999) elaborates on this further, stating that people lose intrinsic motivation when they are rewarded or punished. This occurs through the reward or punishment taking over as the primary stimulus, which is to be either gained or avoided. As an alternative, Rogers asserts that unconditional regard plays an important role in fostering self-development (Rogers, 1977). Applying this concept to education, unconditional regard towards students will help to bring about congruence between their self-image and the environment around them. This encourages the creation of a caring and empathic school setting that facilitates student growth, particularly for those with EBD, since this approach addresses their primary unmet needs and does not decrease intrinsic motivation.