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How Humanistic are You? Implementing Humanistic Activities into Your Teaching
Danielle Barbosa Lins de Almeida

Everyone has heard something about the humanistic approach. If not, the name itself says a lot, so one might deduce that humanism and humanistic principles deal with the concepts of affective education. When I say ‘affective’, I mean that humanism aims at bringing out the best in our students – their positive side. In practical terms, the primary aims of humanistic activities are to help students to be themselves, to accept themselves and to be proud of themselves.
We all know that whenever we are learning a foreign language, we are faced with feelings of uncertainty, insecurity and even fear, so humanistic activities are used in this respect to foster a sense of ‘caring and sharing’ (Moskowitz, 1978) in the foreign language classroom. Humanistic activities are used to promote growth not only in the target language but in other areas of personal development and human relations, in, for example, giving students the chance to talk about themselves in personally relevant ways. Some of the most influential names of humanistic education are Gertrude Moskowitz (1978), Abraham Maslow (1970), Carl Rogers (1975) and Stevick (1990).

I’ve recently defended my MA Thesis on the effects that humanistic principles applied by the EFL teacher have on the motivation of EFL learners and one of my main conclusions was that affective education can be regarded as more effective if coupled with adequate mastering of classroom management skills by the EFL teacher.

A common misunderstanding regarding humanistic education is that it goes beyond the point of asking students questions about themselves, such as: ’How many brothers and sisters do you have?’ or ‘What colour furniture is in your bedroom?’. In fact, these questions are impersonal; they share factual, superficial data about students. Instead, affective questions dealing with these same themes could be: How does it feel to be the oldest child? What advantages and disadvantages are there? What special object do you display in your room that gives you pleasant memories? What does it mean to you? What do you think of when you look at it? In this case, personal questions like these share impressions and feelings, involving statements about who the person really is (Moskowitz, p. 15, 1978). Having said that, some of the key assumptions of humanistic education can be summarised as follows:


• involving the whole person;
• making the subject relevant to the learner;
• encouraging knowledge of the self;
• encouraging self-esteem;
• involving feelings and emotions;
• encouraging creativity;
• minimising criticism;
• encouraging self-initiation;
• creating a sense of belonging;
• developing personal identity;
• developing a knowledge of the process of learning;
• allowing for choice;
• encouraging self-evaluation.

Often, humanistic tasks ask for individual expression and risk-taking – such as acting something out or using mime – and they might contain unencountered – and therefore anxiety-creating – forms of behaviour, such as closing one’s eyes, touching each other and crowding together. Moskowitz (1978) makes the distinction between high and low-risk activities by recommending the use of the latter, since the themes in low-risk activities are usually “safer rather than threatening or overly personal” (Moskowitz 1978, p.27). She reinforces this belief by stating that in the use of “activities which stress the positive side of things and that are low-risk, the fears that teachers may have that something too deep or too personal will come up and they will not be able to handle it properly can be put aside” (Moskowitz 1978, p.27).
However, whenever teachers work with humanistic tasks which activate experience and stimulate self-discovery, i.e., the awareness of one’s own abilities and weaknesses, they have to expect resistance as a justifiable form of behaviour from the learner. Legutke and Thoman (1991) propose that one reliable way of finding out whether resistance is likely to occur in a given activity may be for teachers to check for themselves whether they are prepared to do what they are asking from their learners. Choosing whether to become involved, without being persuaded or manipulated to do so, in activities where the outcome is uncertain requires learners to be clear as to how these learning procedures will unfold. Only when learners are, can they be expected to place their trust in the teacher whenever s/he introduces guided tasks for self-disclosure through talking about one’s dreams, hopes, fantasies or feelings. This involves two basic premises underlying the philosophy of humanism: the ones of clarity and trust. Moskowitz (1978) suggests that the purpose of the humanistic task should always be explained to learners, so that they know why it was suggested by the teacher. Through this clarity, the teacher contributes effectively to the evaluation process which occurs in a post-activity phase in the classroom. By means of reflection, both teachers and students will be able to foster a sense of security as arising from the positive social-affective climate that was created from collective negotiation.


Humanistic practice involves a great deal of body work, as in the humanistic classroom students surely bring their bodies to class, leaving their chairs, standing, moving, crowding together, going around and writing on the board. From a teaching point of view, it is important the knowledge of a system – a sensorial one – taken in NLP (Neurolinguistic Programming) as VAK, which considers the presence of three basic senses in any learning situation: the Visual, the Auditory and the Kinaesthetic. Transferring this knowledge to the teaching of foreign languages, it is necessary that we cater for all learning styles and try to present new language in a variety of ways for greater effectiveness. For a better understanding of the importance of body language for communication, we can mention the research conducted by psychologist Albert Mehrabian which showed that 55% of our message is communicated bodily, while 38% is communicated through our tone of voice and only 7% through the words we use. Of course, through this research we can notice that there is a discrepancy between what we say and how we say it. This mismatch is known as incongruency and we can transfer this knowledge to our foreign language classroom drawing attention, for example, to the following aspects:

Learners need to practise both verbal and non-verbal interaction and be aware that they can use resources other than linguistic to get their messages across.

Teachers need to think carefully about their body language and gestures, attitudes and appearance to communicate the message they are trying to convey. Focus particularly on your voice as a teacher. How do you describe it? Do you think your students like to listen to it? Do you?

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