By True North Learning Director and Senior Facilitator Craig Wallace

Carl Rogers was an influential American psychologist and among the founders of the humanistic approach to psychology. Rogers is widely considered to be one of the founding fathers of psychotherapy research. The person-centered approach, his own unique approach to understanding personality and human relationships, found wide application in various domains such as psychotherapy and counseling (client-centered therapy), education (student-centered learning), organisations, and other group settings.  The following summary of his Learner Centred Teaching (or student centred teaching approach) underlies many of the basic philosophies of Experiential Learning and can be applied to any adult learning context.

Learner-centered teaching

The application to education has a large robust research tradition similar to that of therapy with studies having begun in the late 1930s and continuing today (Cornelius-White, 2007). Rogers described the approach to education in Client-Centered Therapy and wrote ‘Freedom to Learn’ devoted exclusively to the subject in 1969.  The new Learner-Centered Model is similar in many regards to this classical person-centered approach to education. Rogers had the following five hypotheses regarding learner-centered education:

  1. “A person cannot teach another person directly; a person can only facilitate another’s learning” (Rogers, 1951). This is a result of his personality theory, which states that everyone exists in a constantly changing world of experience in which he or she is the center. Each person reacts and responds based on perception and experience. The belief is that what the student does is more important than what the teacher does. The focus is on the student (Rogers, 1951). Therefore, the background and experiences of the learner are essential to how and what is learned. Each student will process what he or she learns differently depending on what he or she brings to the classroom.
  2. “A person learns significantly only those things that are perceived as being involved in the maintenance of or enhancement of the structure of self” (Rogers, 1951). Therefore, relevancy to the student is essential for learning. The students’ experiences become the core of the course.
  3. “Experience which, if assimilated, would involve a change in the organization of self, tends to be resisted through denial or distortion of symbolism” (Rogers, 1951). If the content or presentation of a course is inconsistent with preconceived information, the student will learn if he or she is open to varying concepts. Being open to consider concepts that vary from one’s own is vital to learning. Therefore, gently encouraging open-mindedness is helpful in engaging the student in learning. Also, it is important, for this reason, that new information be relevant and related to existing experience.
  4. “The structure and organization of self appears to become more rigid under threats and to relax its boundaries when completely free from threat” (Rogers, 1951). If students believe that concepts are being forced upon them, they might become uncomfortable and fearful. A barrier is created by a tone of threat in the classroom. Therefore, an open, friendly environment in which trust is developed is essential in the classroom. Fear of retribution for not agreeing with a concept should be eliminated. A classroom tone of support helps to alleviate fears and encourages students to have the courage to explore concepts and beliefs that vary from those they bring to the classroom. Also, new information might threaten the student’s concept of him- or herself; therefore, the less vulnerable the student feels, the more likely he or she will be able to open up to the learning process.
  5. “The educational situation which most effectively promotes significant learning is one in which (a) threat to the self of the learner is reduced to a minimum and (b) differentiated perception of the field is facilitated” (Rogers, 1951). The instructor should be open to learning from the students and also working to connect the students to the subject matter. Frequent interaction with the students will help achieve this goal. The instructor’s acceptance of being a mentor who guides rather than the expert who tells is instrumental to student-centered, nonthreatening, and unforced learning.


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