Reference Work Entry

Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning

pp 1471-1474

Humanistic Theory of Learning: Maslow

  • Susan R. MadsenAffiliated withWoodbury School of Business, Utah Valley University Email author 
  • , Ian K. WilsonAffiliated withWoodbury School of Business, Utah Valley University


Hierarchy of needs; Humanism; Humanistic psychology


Two definitions are central to this entry: humanism and learning. Humanism focuses on human beings being free to act and control their own destinies. It centers on human values, interests, capacities, needs, worth, and dignity. It is a belief that people have an unlimited potential for growth and development and that they are inherently good. Individuals have the ability to determine for themselves truth and falsehood through rational and empirical thought. Learning refers to the acquisition of new knowledge, behaviors, skills, and values through a process of study, practice, and/or experience. It is a “process by which behavior is changed, shaped, or controlled” (Knowles et al. 1998, p. 13).

Theoretical Background

Abraham H. Maslow, who is considered the father of humanistic psychology, has had a significant impact on the development of learning theory. He was arguably one of the most influential psychologists of modern times. Early in his career, he came into contact with and was influenced by Alfred Adler, Erik Fromm, and Karen Horney, as well as Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka, and other Gestalt and Freudian psychologists. In 1935, Maslow went to Columbia University to work with Edward L. Thorndike, a behaviorist who had a significant impact on him and on learning theory in general.

Even though Maslow was attracted to psychology because of behaviorism, he quickly moved away from this approach. In a 1968 journal entry, Maslow wrote:

Behaviorism has done a lot. It was the beautiful program of Watson that brought me into psychology. But its fatal flaw is that it’s good for the lab and in the lab, but you put it on and take it off like a lab coat. It’s useless at home with your kids and wife and friends. It does not generate an adequate image of man, a philosophy of life, a conception of human nature. It’s not an adequate guide to living, to values, to choice. … If you try to treat your children at home in the same way you treat your animals in the lab, your wife will scratch your eyes out. (Lowry 1973, p. 5)

Maslow found that most behavioral scientists attempted to “isolate independent drives, urges, and instincts and study them separately” (Knowles et al. 1998, p. 46). Maslow found it more effective to use the holistic approach – considering the whole as more than the sum of the parts.

In the 1940s Maslow met Kurt Goldstein, who introduced him to the idea of self-actualization, which became critical to Maslow’s future work. Goldstein was of German-Jewish decent and trained as a physician and psychiatrist. During World War I Goldstein became director of the German Military Hospital for Brain-Injured Soldiers. This work gave him the opportunity to study the behavioral effect of brain injuries. During this time, he and his colleagues developed broader principles about human mental functioning, which provided support for many of the basic ideas in Gestalt psychology. With the rise of Hitler, Goldstein left Germany for Holland and published his most famous work, The Organism. Goldstein took a holistic approach to the human organism and to healing – mind and body are one and need to be treated as such. It was in this seminal work that he used the term “self-actualization.” Self-actualization can be viewed as an individual’s desire or drive to become all that he or she is capable of becoming, which emerges from an intrinsic motivation to learn and develop. This concept deeply influenced Maslow as he continued his work.

In 1943, Maslow was asked to make a presentation at the Society for Research in Psychoanalysis and Psychosomatics in New York. This invitation led to the publishing of a paper titled “A Theory of Human Motivation.” In this paper, Maslow outlined the beginnings of his need theory of motivation. This is where he introduced Goldstein’s concept of self-actualization.

Maslow refused to believe that behavior was predetermined by the environment or subconscious, but he believed it was the consequence of human choices. He believed that people are inherently good, are free to act, and possess unlimited potential for learning, growth, and development. Individuals have the freedom and responsibility to become what they are capable of becoming and are, therefore, responsible for learning. People act to fulfill needs.

Maslow’s theory explained that every person is born with a set of basic needs: (1) physiological, (2) safety (3) belongingness or love, (4) self-esteem, and (5) self-actualization. He theorized that higher needs emerge as the lower-level needs are met. In other words, as lower-level needs are satisfied, the motivation to meet the higher-level needs becomes active. Each level directs behavior toward the need level that is not being adequately met.

Maslow was on the forefront of establishing the legitimate study of humanistic psychology, “the third force,” as he called it. In 1962, the Association of Humanistic Psychology was established and the humanistic movement began to influence psychology, education, and the workplace. According to Boeree (1998), “Maslow was one of the pioneers in the movement to bring the human being back into psychology, and the person back into personality!” (p. 6).

Humanistic psychology takes a different look at education and learning. Building on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, an encouraging learning environment is the result of promoting the learner’s needs more than the content of the materials, and by meeting diverse needs and expectations. Initiative and self-directed learning are also promoted. Self-actualization should be the goal of learning, and education should focus on self-development. Learners need to develop their own goals as they strive for personal self-fulfillment.

Learning differs from motivation. Learning is the process by which a relatively permanent change in behavior occurs as a result of experience. Motivation theory, and particularly Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, can help explain why individuals are inclined to put forth the effort to change their behavior and learn new things. The urge for self-actualization can be the driving force motivating the human need for learning and growth. Motivation is one of several keys to effective learning.

Maslow’s views influenced numerous learning methods and theories including andragogy, transformational learning, and self-directed learning. First, Malcolm Knowles attributed Maslow’s humanism as an influence on his principle or theory of andragogy. Andragogy has been defined as the art and science of helping adults learn and is founded on the principles of humanistic psychology. Second, transformational learning theory explains how adults interpret their life experiences, and how they make meaning. Some of the key transformational concepts (e.g., experience, critical reflection, and development) are humanistic in nature. Maslow’s work (1970) discussed a great deal about peak experiences. He explained that these experiences are extremely positive in nature and often cause an individual to change the direction of his or her future behavior. As theorized in transformational learning, as behavior is redirected, change can occur and learning takes place. Finally, even though individuals throughout history have always used self-direction to learn concepts and skills, obtain information, and enhance their overall knowledge base – self-directed learning was first conceptualized in 1967. Self-directed learning is a process of learning in which people take the primary initiative for their own learning experiences (Merriam and Caffarella 1999). The current utilization of these theories demonstrates Maslow’s continued influence in today’s education.

Maslow’s humanistic theory of learning encourages innovation and creativity while purporting that everyone is responsible for his or her own learning as well as the learning of those around them. This theory encourages learners to be in supportive and safe environments so they are comfortable asking questions and exploring new concepts and possibilities. Overall, Maslow (1959) stated that humanism is a holistic look at human psychology and learning. He emphasized that the best learning occurs when the whole person (cognitive, affective, psychomotor) is engaged, taking into account the totality of human experience and “the total human situation with its transcendence, consciousness, self-awareness, and freedom” (p. 200).

Important Scientific Research and Open Questions

For decades Maslow has been criticized for building theory (Hierarchy of Needs) on clinical observations and observations of “self-actualized” friends and famous people. His theory is said not to be based on rigorous, scientific experiences, which he did not dispute. However, even with these limitations, his theory still remains popular as it is easy to describe and communicate. Yet, there remains more open questions than important scientific research around Maslow’s work.

Studying Maslow’s contributions to learning theory can serve to create dialogue and future research around learning as it relates to change, motivation, fulfilling needs, natural growth and development, shaping adult learners, development of competencies, fulfillment of potential, personal engagement and involvement in learning environments, self-directed learning, learning domains, and the process of learning.


Adult Learning/​Andragogy

Adult Learning Theory

Behaviorism and Behaviorist Learning Theories

Conditions of Learning

Design of Learning Environments

Humanistic Approaches to Learning

Learning Environments

Motivation and Learning:​ Modern Theories

Psychology of Learning

Transformational​ Learning

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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012
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