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Concourse 2

Humanism in English Language Teaching

people

This is a much written about area and it is one in which terminology is even more variable than usual.  You will sometimes see reference to terms such as holistic, the whole person, affective needs, self-actualisation and more.  The water gets very muddy indeed.
To make some initial sense, here's what's meant by some key terms:

holistic
The first use of this term according to Merriam-Webster's site is from 1926.  It means, according to that source:
relating to or concerned with wholes or with complete systems rather than with the analysis of, treatment of, or dissection into parts
holistic medicine attempts to treat both the mind and the body
holistic ecology views humans and the environment as a single system

(The term was originally employed by the South African General (later Field Marshall) Smuts.)
For our purposes, we can define this as focusing on the learner as a complete person rather than as a language-processing unit.
It can also mean treating the language as a whole rather than breaking it down into discrete areas but that is not, for the purposes of this guide, the relevant issue.
the whole person
is a related concept and refers to the need, as some see it, to take into account the learners' emotional and personal lives when teaching.
affective needs
Affect, to distinguish it from effect, when used as a noun means emotion or desire influencing behaviour.  It is derived from the verb meaning to change or alter in some way.
In lay terms, the verb means to move emotionally but also, unfortunately, to pretend or feign an attitude.
For our purposes, affect and affective needs refer to the learners' emotional responses to the classroom, the materials, their classmates, the teacher and so on as well as to their needs for reassurance, feelings of safety and an unthreatening environment.
self-actualisation
is a term derived from the work of Abraham Maslow and dates from 1943.  Maslow proposed his 'Hierarchy of Needs' and asserted that until needs at lower levels are satisfied, those at the next highest level can't be addressed.  Levels 1 to 4 are described as 'deficit needs'.  So, e.g., if you are hungry and in need of sleep, you can't focus on desires for self-esteem and so on.  The highest level is that of self-actualisation: being all that you can be.  More below on this source of humanist theory.
humanism
This term has a variety of definitions and referred initially to a revival of interest in Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy.
For our purposes, we'll take one of the Merriam-Webster definitions
a doctrine, attitude, or way of life centered on human interests or values; especially :a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual's dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason
Others have defined the concept in rather more sophisticated terms as, e.g.:
a philosophy of joyous service for the greater good of all humanity in this natural world and advocating the methods of reason, science, and democracy
Mehrgan 2102: 184

Humanistic teaching approaches draw on all these concepts to attempt to treat language teaching as more than learning a language but to extend it to helping learners develop and progress as people.


source

Sources

Maslow:

Abraham Maslow posited what he referred to as the Hierarchy of Needs.  It looks like this:
maslow pyramid

At the base of the pyramid are the simple physical needs for fresh air, water, food, sleep and so on.  The needs become more sophisticated as one moves up the pyramid through safety and freedom from fear, to a sense of belonging and mutual respect.  In particular, what are called esteem needs (level 4) are critical to this.  They include, self-respect, reputation, status, feelings of strength, independence, adequacy and importance to others.  In other words, high-level affective needs.
The implication is that feeling positive about yourself and comfortable within your group leads to enhanced levels of motivation and better learning.
Until levels 1 to 4 are met (the so-called deficit needs), level 5, becoming all that you can be, cannot be achieved.

Rogers:

Humanistic approaches draw heavily on the work done by Carl Rogers, an American psychologist concerned with a client-centred approach to counselling.
A flavour of Rogers' concerns will suffice here.  Having briefly reviewed what happens in educational establishments in the United States, Rogers avers:

... education becomes the futile attempt to learn material which has no personal meaning.
Such learning involves the mind only. It is learning which takes place from the neck up. It does not involve feelings or personal meanings; it has no relevance for the whole person.
Rogers, 1969, pp. 3-4

Rogers goes on to posit 5 characteristics of what he calls significant learning:

  1. It personally involves the learner.
  2. It comes from within: significant learning is initiated by the learner.
  3. It makes a difference to the learner – changing the person in some way.
  4. It is evaluated by the learner to know if it is important.
  5. It is meaningful to the individual.

In summary, Rogers avers that:

a person learns significantly only those things which he perceives as being involved in the maintenance of or the enhancement of his own self
(op cit. p. 158)

What this means for teachers is also set out by Rogers.  In summary, he believes that a teacher (Rogers prefers the term 'facilitator' or 'leader'):

  1. sets the tone for the group or class by trusting and being open.
  2. helps the learners to understand and articulate their own purposes as well as the purposes of the group as a whole.
  3. relies upon the learners attend to what has meaning for them as the motivation for significant learning.
  4. makes available the widest possible range of resources for learning.
  5. regards him / herself as a flexible resource to be used by the learners rather than an instructor.
  6. accepts both the content and the emotionalized attitudes of what is expressed by the learners.
  7. is able to be a participant in the learning process.
  8. shares feelings and thoughts personally in a non-authoritative manner.
  9. remains alert to the learners' feelings.
  10. recognizes and accepts personal limitations.

Stevick

Earl Stevick is another very influential voice in the campaign to humanise language instruction.  He summarises the issue neatly into five overlapping emphases (1990):

  1. Feelings.
    both personal emotion an aesthetic appreciation of the world.  There is an explicit rejection of a focus on whatever makes people feel bad or interferes with aesthetic responses to reality.
  2. Social relations.
    Friendship and cooperation lie at the heart of the approach and it opposes whatever tends to hinder them.
  3. Responsibility.
    The acceptance of the need for scrutiny, criticism, and correction.
  4. Intellect.
    Knowledge, reasoning, and understanding are key aspects of all people.  The approach opposes whatever interferes with the free exercise of the mind.
  5. Self-actualization.
    The approach encourages the full realization of one's own deepest true qualities.

practice

From theory to practice

One of the first authors to set out a handbook for teachers to apply the principles of humanistic approaches to foreign language learning was Gertrude Moskowitz.
In 1978, Moskowitz published Caring and Sharing in the Foreign Language Classroom a severely practical book containing a range of activities all intended to help learners feel positive about themselves and others in the group.  Her fundamental reasoning was that

in both the humanistic psychological approach and the communicative approach, learners are seen not so much as full-time linguistic objects at whom language teaching is aimed, but rather as human individuals whose personal dignity and integrity, and the complexity of whose ideas, thoughts, needs, and sentiments, should be respected. Foreign language teachers must contribute to the self-actualizing process
(1978: p.109)

Here are some examples of the kinds of activities that she proposes, taken from a later (1982) paper but based on her 1978 book.  She prefaces this with the following admonition:

People will share or self-disclose only if they feel safe and not threatened by so doing. Therefore, a positive and accepting climate is essential where others listen attentively, non-judgementally, empathetically, and with good will. In keeping with these notions, there are two important guidelines that I strongly recommend when humanistic communication activities are used: focus on the positive aspects and use low-risk activities. The first refers to such things as sharing pleasant memories, identifying one's strengths and those of others, and focusing on the positive occurrences that happen to us each day. Conversely, conversations would not deal with unpleasant memories, pointing out what one considers to be one's own faults or those of others, or dwelling on the negative events that happen to us.
(1982: pp25/26)

Childhood favourites

  • Humanistic purposes:
    • to recall pleasant childhood memories,
    • to exchange these memories with others.
  • Linguistic purposes:
    • to practise nouns and possessive adjectives,
    • to practise asking and answering questions,
    • to practise the past tense(s).
  • Levels: all levels.
  • Size of groups: two.
  • Materials needed: dittos with questions to be asked and answered.
  • Procedures:
    • begin the activity by talking about childhood memories:
      'We all have a number of childhood memories that made us happy in some way. As we get older, we tend not to think about them very much. Yet to do so helps us relive the good feelings we had at the time. 'Today we're going to recall some of our favourite things from childhood.
      You will each have a handout listing some
      categories and a partner to work with, someone you do not know very well yet.
      The first person will ask the second person a question, such as 'when you were a child, what was your favourite candy?'
      After the second person answers, that person asks the first person the same question.
      Do the same with each question, rotating who answers the questions first.
      Always start each question with the question 'when you were a child, what (who) was your favourite ..?"
      'In some cases, your answers will be brief. For other questions, they will be longer. You can ask each other additional questions or make comments, if you wish.
      As your partner answers, you will find other memories will come back to you.
      When you finish all the questions on the handout, add some of your own categories to the list and take turns answering them.'
    • Pass out the ditto. If the students can handle it in the target language, tell them to add 'why?' after each question is asked.
    • Here are some possible categories that can be used:
      WHEN YOU WERE A CHILD, WHAT (OR WHO) WAS YOUR FAVOURITE:
      Toy? Why?
      Candy?
      Holiday?
      Play activity?
      Book or story?
      Place to go?
      Song?
      Outfit?
      Comic strip?
      Friend? Why?
      Grown-up (other than family)?
      Teacher?
      Relative (not a parent or guardian)?
      Memory of snow?
      Memory at a beach or pool?
      Thing to do that was scary?
      Birthday?
      TV or radio programme?
    • When the exercise is completed, ask the students what their reactions this experience were and what they learned from it.  They will often say that it was fun and made them feel good.
    • Ask what other categories the groups thought of.  The groups may wish to have a few more rounds based on the categories their classmates thought of.
    • This seemingly simple activity creates a very pleasant atmosphere and smiles on students' faces as they recall happy times they have not consciously thought of for some time.

If you are intrigued by exercises like this and want more, the full text, along with some interesting other papers, is available at:
https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/sites/teacheng/files/Y299%20ELT-08-screen_0-Humanistic-Approaches.pdf


influence

Influences

It is difficult to overestimate how influential humanist ideas have been over the past 40 or so years.  All the following approaches (which are covered in a separate guide (link below)) have claimed to be humanistic:

  1. Community Language Learning: an approach explicitly based on counselling techniques.
  2. Suggestopaedia: an approach which explicitly attempts to lower affective barriers.
  3. The Silent Way: an approach which depends for much of its effect on learners' production rather than teacher intervention.
  4. Total Physical Response: which allows a pre-speaking phase in which learners are unthreatened by pressure to produce language.
  5. Dogme: an approach which explicitly targets the language produced by and needed by the learners and in which they initiate the teaching-learning cycle.

Whether all these alternative methodologies actually are operating in accordance with Stevick's five fundamental principles is, naturally, not uncontroversial.

There are other less obvious influences, too.  It is arguable that all the following have, to some extent at least, been influenced by humanist theories.

  1. The concern, especially within Communicative Language Learning, to ensure that the language students use is personalised and meaningful to them.
  2. The explicit focus on most training courses on making lessons learner centred and reducing the dominance of the teacher.
  3. Krashen's and Terrell's focus in one of the former's five hypotheses regarding the need to reduce the learners' affective filters and create stress-free learning environments.
  4. The focus on negotiated syllabuses in which the learners play a central role in deciding what is to be learned.
  5. The focus on developing autonomy and self-directed learning programmes.
  6. Genre approaches with their emphasis on empowering learners socially.
  7. Approaches to reading skills development which focus on the learners' affective response to the content of texts as well as their linguistic content.
  8. The focus on project work in which the learners set their own goals.
  9. The increasing focus on how cultural aspects affect what is done in the classroom and underlie learners' reactions to certain methodologies and approaches.
  10. The focus on exploiting both the physical environment for context as well as the learners' internal, experiential environment.

You may have thought of others.

One overarching influence is that it is nowadays rare to find a teacher who does not profess to the desire to establish a good rapport with her learners (i.e. empathise) or one who see his learners' feelings, desires aesthetic responses and emotions as irrelevant to the learning process.



Related guides
motivation for a little more on Maslow and some alternative theories of motivation
alternative methodologies for more on the five sets of ideas touched on above
Krashen and the Natural Approach for more on affective filter theory
first- and second-language acquisition theories for more on how language(s) may be learned
methodology the link to other guides in the methodology index
background the link to the guides in the background section


References:
Mehrgan, K., 2012, Humanistic Language Teaching: A Critical Look, Masjed Soleiman, Iran: Islamic Azad University
Merriam-Webster online dictionary: https://www.merriam-webster.com
Moskowitz, G., 1978, Caring and Sharing in the Foreign Language Classroom, Rowley, MA: Newbury House
Moskowitz, G, 1982, Self-confidence through Self-disclosure: the pursuit of meaningful communication, in ELT Documents 113 Humanistic approaches: an empirical view, London: The British Council
Rogers, C.,1983, Freedom to learn for the 80's, Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Co.
Stevick, E. W., 1990, Humanism in Language Teaching: A critical perspective, Oxford: Oxford University Press