The proposed shift from content-centered learning to human-centered learning is not a new concept. It is informed and developed by multiple learning theories and and key educational leaders from a diverse range of perspectives.

The Content Serves the Process

One of the first places, I discovered Human-Centered Learning was a biography of Maria Montessori, who decided to try a different approach to having students learn their numbers and letters. Rather than telling them what they needed to know, she created an environment for discovery. In this way, she said, “the individual [student] would become the focus, the center of education; and the teacher, a director, who unobtrusively guided the child’s own self-learning” (Montessori, 2004, p. 3). Instead of placing the focus on the content, the focus was placed on developing the individual in skills like self-direction, confidence, interpersonal relationships, curiosity, and perseverance. The resulting content mastery of her students relative to the others who were enrolled in ‘better’ schools proved the value of this human-centered approach.

The shift of significance from the data set to the process by which students encounter it received further support in my mind as I began to look at the implications of technology for education. George Siemens (2004) had developed the theory of Connectivism to explain the need for students to build collections and connections rather than internalize mass amounts of information. It is no longer the information, but the connection between information and the students’ ability to do something with it that is important. This meta-narrative of the education experience, in which the focus shifts from the information to the student’s ability to do something with it, reflected the upper end of the pyramid of learning objectives defined in Bloom’s taxonomy (1956) and so it received instant credibility in my mind.

The Teacher Serves the Student

Howard Gardner first introduced the possibility that measuring how students perform should not be done in the same way. Rather, every individual has a unique potential or intelligence that can be cultivated and developed – or else stifled by an apparent inability to succeed in an academic environment. This made the constructivist model more appealing to me because I knew it gave students freedom to explore and design the learning experience around their needs and interests.

The social constructivist environment builds on this concept allowing the individual as well as the community to discover together the information that formerly would have been forced on all of them. It is not necessary for a teacher to be present for this kind of learning environment to take place. Rather, as Montessori discovered, the tools that exist in the environment can themselves become the teacher. Sugata Mitra studied this process when he placed a computer in the slums of India and watched as the children taught themselves not only how to use the tool, but also how to use the English language to communicate with it.

These examples seem to indicate that there is a natural process of learning to which the teacher can provide a support without enforcing a particular dogma. All of life is a learning experience, but not all learning experiences lead to positive outcomes (Dewey, 1938). A student may learn that something is too hard for them or that it is impossible to communicate with other students. In order to prevent this from happening, they need a sort of scaffolding provided by the teacher through facilitation (1938), the context (Montessori, 2004), or the group relationships (Mitra, 2007). Such supports allow the student to engage with the content at a higher level of personal development (Piaget, 1964) than they could have reached on their own (Vygotsky, 1978). The important thing to recognize is that these supports do not necessarily have to be provided by the teacher.

Research by Albert Bandura (2001) into the concept of self-efficacy provides an effective support for the idea of moving students beyond reliance upon a web of external support for learning toward the kind of internal learning self-concept they can use to continue learning on their own. Barry Zimmerman pushed this idea further with his research into self-regulation “to discover the cognitive, motivational, and behavioral sources of personal mastery during learning…” (2011).

The Art of Learning

It is possible to use the tools of information to help students develop their fluency and self-efficacy in learning.  If the focus of education is on developing the individual’s ability to learn, this skill is transferable to any number of situations. Every individual has a natural ability to learn (first languages, the art of walking without falling over, how to eat, etc…). This process can be supported by an efficacious application of the education environment to the development of the individual.

“Being good at learning could change the whole outlook of some children who have given up on themselves” – Smith & Ragan (1999)

Parker Palmer (2007) made clear the clash between those who claim that this will only take place at the expense of the content. However, it is possible that by developing learners, the content that must be learned is much more fully engaged with, processed, and even developed by the students.

Thanks to Robert Hutchins (N.D.) and Mortimer Adler (1990), who used The Great Books as a foundation for educating the individual,  and to Sir Ken Robinson, who ever reminds us that talent comes in all shapes and sizes, I began to associate Human-Centered Learning with a holistic, integrated, liberal arts program. The model I have designed for Elyseum Hall goes a step further, providing students with a structure to begin operating in their areas of strength, not just becoming theoretically creative. Within a Human-Centered Learning community, the individual discovers, becomes, and then begins to express the unique gifts that no one else in the world can offer. For more information on what this core curriculum could look like in the first year, please visit A Model of Human-Centered Learning.

The end goal of Human-Centered Learning is the transformation of the individual (Mezirow, 1991). By making this assumption it is possible to move most of the learning experience to the highest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy allowing individuals to engage with information that leads tho their transformation and development within the context of their student-directed learning community. Self-government itself is an essential skill only learned through practice.

In this last regard, the ideas of Stephen Brookfield (2013) and Paulo Friere  (2010) have proved to be valuable as they introduce the idea of a democratic learning environment in which students are supported in identifying the values and outcomes they want to achieve and in which content is not pre-determined by some external party. Rather, in this context education becomes the means to self-empowerment, a pathway to freedom that cannot be given, only ever earned.


Academic Essays

For more information on the theories and theorists mentioned on this page, please visit

Continue reading about Human-Centered Learning here, or find out more about Elyseum Hall here.