Humanistic orientations to learning

Picture: "Lifelong Learning", 2 Franklin Town Blvd.(the Fountains at Logan Square, 18th and Callowhill St.). Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence. by Michael Leone

Humanistic orientations to learning. In this framework the basic concern is for human growth. We look to the work of Maslow and Rogers as expressions of this approach.

A great deal of the theoretical writing about adult education in the 1970s and 1980s drew on humanistic psychology. In this orientation the basic concern is for the human potential for growth. As Mark Tennant notes, the concern with ‘self’ is ‘a hallmark of humanistic psychology’ (1997: 12). There was a reaction against ‘scientific’ reductionism – people being treated as objects and rationalism. Instead the affective and subjective world was to be reaffirmed. Personal freedom, choice, motivations and feelings had to have their place.

Perhaps the best known example is Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of motivation. At the lowest level are physiological needs, at the highest self actualization. Only when the lower needs are met is it possible to fully move on to the next level. A motive at the lower level is always stronger than those at higher levels. Tennant (1997) summarizes these as follows:

Level one: Physiological needs such as hunger, thirst, sex, sleep, relaxation and bodily integrity must be satisfied before the next level comes into play.

Level two: Safety needs call for a predictable and orderly world. If these are not satisfied people will look to organize their worlds to provide for the greatest degree of safety and security. If satisfied, people will come under the force of level three.

Level three: Love and belonginess needs cause people to seek warm and friendly relationships.

Level four: Self-esteem needs involve the desire for strength, achievement, adequacy, mastery and competence. They also involve confidence, independence, reputation and prestige.

Level five: Self-actualization is the full use and expression of talents, capacities and potentialities.

Self actualizers are able to submit to social regulation without losing their own integrity or personal independence; that is they may follow a social norm without their horizons being bounded in the sense that they fail to see or consider other possibilities. They may on occasion transcend the socially prescribed ways of acting. Achieving this level may mean developing to the full stature of which they are capable. (Tennant 1997: 13)

Learning can, thus, be seen as a form of self-actualization, it contributes to psychological health (Sahakian 1984 in Merriam and Caffarella 1991: 133). Yet while self actualization may seen as the primary goal, other goals (linked to the other stages) are also around. These include a sense of accomplishment and the controlling of impulses (Maslow 1970: 439)

Much criticism has been levelled at this model. For example,

  • Do lower needs really have to be satisfied before higher ones come into play? People may well put physiological needs on one side to satisfy the need for love, for example.
  • Are we all propelled to the sorts of qualities that Maslow identifies with ‘self actualization’? To what extent are these qualities culturally-specific?

The idea of a hierarchy of needs, the identifying of different needs, and the notion of self-actualization did, however, exert a powerful hold over adult education writers like Malcolm Knowles. Humanistic psychology’s positive view of people and their ability to control their own destiny, and the seemingly unlimited possibilities for individual development provided some hope for educators.

Perhaps the most persuasive exploration of a humanistic orientation to learning came  from Carl Rogers. His passion for education that engaged with the whole person and with their experiences; for learning that combines the logical and intuitive, the intellect and feelings; found a ready audience. ‘When we learn in that way’, he said, ‘we are whole, utilizing all our masculine and feminine capacities’ (1983 20). He saw the following elements as being involved in significant or experiential learning.

  • It has a quality of personal involvement—the whole person in both feeling and cognitive aspects being in the learning event.
  • It is self-initiated. Even when the impetus or stimulus comes from the outside, the sense of discovers of reaching out, of grasping and comprehending, comes from within.
  • It is pervasive. It makes a difference in the behaviour, the attitudes, perhaps even the personality of the learner.
  • It is evaluated by the learner. She knows whether it is meeting her need, whether it leads toward what she wants to know, whether it illuminates the dark area of ignorance she is experiencing. The locus of evaluation, we might say, resides definitely in the learner.
  • Its essence is meaning. When such learning takes place, the element of meaning to the learner is built into the whole experience. (Rogers (1983: 20)

See, also: learning · the behaviourist orientation to learning · the cognitive orientation to learning · the humanistic orientation to learning · the social/situational orientation to learning


Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice Hall.

Maslow, A. (1968) Towards a Psychology of Being 2e, New York: Van Nostrand. See, also, A . Maslow (1970) Motivation and Personality 2e, New York: Harper and Row.

Merriam, S. and Caffarella (1991, 1998) Learning in Adulthood. A comprehensive guide, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Rogers, C. and Freiberg, H. J. (1993) Freedom to Learn (3rd edn.), New York: Merrill. . See, also, H. Kirschenbaum and V. L. Henderson (eds.) (1990) The Carl Rogers Reader, London: Constable.

Tennant, M. (1988, 1997) Psychology and Adult Learning, London: Routledge.

Acknowledgement: Picture: “Lifelong Learning”, 2 Franklin Town Blvd.(the Fountains at Logan Square, 18th and Callowhill St.). Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)  licence.

How to cite this article: Smith, M. K. (1999) ‘The humanistic to learning’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. Retrieved: insert date].

© Mark K. Smith