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Humanistic Theory

About the only area in which humanists and behaviorists agree about human development is how to spell it.

First, a few brief facts about the assertions of humanistic theory:


1. Humanists believe that human beings are unique in their development of personal goals and having a unique sense of self and, often, extraordinary potential. B.F. Skinner invented a "Skinner box" which could be used for studying learning in rats, pigeons and even babies. There is a bar or switch inside the box which, when pushed, provides a reinforcer - a food pellet for animals, and usually something interesting for babies, such as making a mobile go on for  a few minutes. The box can be set up so the reinforcement is only received after every third press of the bar, or just sometimes when the bar is pressed and not others. Behaviorists find this useful in studying the effects of different types of reinforcement. Carl Rogers, a humanistic psychologist, commented, "I like to think that I am more like Skinner inventing the box than the pigeon in the box." Skinner would have disagreed, asserting that we are all, rats, pigeons and humans, subject to the same universal rules of learning. (A friend of mine had a Skinner box as a crib when she was a baby. Her father was a psychologist. She is in her thirties now and, from all appearances, a perfectly normal, nice person. This is a totally irrelevant point, but I thought it was interesting, and I am willing to concede that if you are a behaviorist, your children, students or clients don't necessarily grow up to be axe murderers.)


2  The goal of human development is self-actualization, that is, realizing one's own full, unique potential. By definition, self-actualized people are independent, set their own goals, accept themselves. This is really contradictory to the behavior modification ideas that YOU (the teacher, counselor, parent) set goals, decide behavior that needs to be changed about this person (sometimes referred to in the plans as "the target" or "the subject") and then you arrange the environment with the appropriate rewards or punishments.

3 There is a hierarchy of needs, with each need requiring fulfillment before the next need becomes relevant. As Frederic Bastiat said, "A man can neither be a very good lover, nor soldier nor poet unless he has comparatively recently had something to eat." (No, Bastiat was not a psychologist, he was a French philosopher.) The hierarchy of needs is one possible explanation for why children in low-income schools often have lower achievement (if you are worried about getting shot or stabbed in school - safety needs - then you are not likely to be concentrating on such psychological needs as achievement). I am not saying that it is the only explanation, by any means. This hierarchy also explains why women (or men) would stay with a partner who regularly puts her down in front of her friends, tells her she's ugly, etc. According to Maslow, needs for love and belonging come before esteem needs. This is not limited to a single age period. Any junior high school will have examples of students who are willing to put up with being teased and humiliated by a group just to feel that they belong. Sad, isn't it? It has been said that humanistic educators do not care if children learn anything, as long as they feel good about themselves. That is not accurate. It is true that most humanistic educators believe that children will learn much better if their esteem needs have been met.


Personally, I think humanistic theory has some very practical applications. For example:

Strive to see that your students lower level needs are met. More than that, try to see the child as a whole person. An argument in favor of school breakfast, lunch and snack programs is that students who are not worrying about eating are more likely to focus their attention and energy on learning. I used to work at  a school that had a strict behavior modification philosophy. One day, I commented to the director that I was concerned about one of the students in my class who had severe behavior problems. I had noticed how thin he was and that he seldom brought his lunch nor did he buy one at school. After talking to him, I was convinced that he often did not have more than one or two meals from the time he left school Friday until he returned Monday morning. The director told me, "AnnMaria, that's not your problem. Your job is to see that his behavior improves."

    Apple It was very hard for me to see how we could just say that  a hungry child sitting right in front of us was not our problem. So, maybe I have just blown my claim to being a 'tough-minded' psychologist. I agree with Carl Rogers, if I have to give up being a person to be a psychologist, then I want to be something else when I grow up. In case you are wondering how this story turned out, I ignored the director and started bringing the boy lunch every day. His behavior improved, but I think that was the result of a lot of different factors, it was a therapeutic school, after all. The school eventually changed its philosophy, because behaviorism was not working. (They did not change to humanism, by the way. More of this story is on the next web page.)

    Make your classroom (and home) a safe place. You might guess that I am not a strict disciplinarian. However, the one rule that I had when I was teaching was "No one touches anyone else in my classroom - ever."  Even pushing and shoving can be threatening to a child, and can easily escalate into something more. All of the young people I worked with had experienced at least some abuse, in some cases very severe. For six hours a day, they knew that no one would hurt them.

    Consider effects on student self-esteem as well as achievement. If students learn in school that no one of their gender or race ever did anything worth studying, they may eventually decide they don't want to learn any more history or science or even come to your school any more. If they have to sacrifice their self-esteem for achievement in your schools, maybe it's just not worth it to them. Ask yourself, really, why should they have to make that trade-off? Was everything ever done worth learning about REALLY done by dead, white men? If a student continually fails, he or she may conclude that it is better not to try. Yes, the child won't achieve, but he/she's not achieving anyway, and why try and just let people think you are stupid? I would recommend that every classroom should have a mix of experiences so that every child experiences SOME successes. Every child is good at something. There will be failures, too, and that is okay. Overcoming your failures, and achieving something you weren't always able to do gives a sense of achievement and also boost self-esteem. People need a mix of success and failure experiences. (Starting to sound like Erikson, isn't it?) 

There is much more that I could say about humanistic theory (as well as every other theory in the book), but it is time to move on to the next theory.

Click here to go on to cognitive learning theory

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