More Flies with Honey: The Humanistic Approach for Adult Learners

As sex educators, we may find ourselves confronted with the challenge of providing information about a topic that is under-valued with regard to fiscal and academic representation in Pennsylvania’s school systems. Why is that the case? Try finding “Sexuality Education” in Pennsylvania’s Department of Education Standards website here. In place of where “sexuality education” should be, you see the word “abstinence”. Sadly, the scarcity of information regarding sexuality for our youth forces them to resort to an artillery of second-hand misinformation, provided in a whisper-down-the-alley fashion on primary school playgrounds, or worse insinuated from an atypical first hand experience that they have generalized into fact. WebMD offers a prototypical scenario where this has occurred, (as well as some decent advice about talking to younger children about sexually based misconceptions!) Implicit in said challenge is the objective of educating budding adults to a topic that a lot of student’s would consider themselves an expert on: their own sexuality.

 This challenge becomes exponentially complicated when the youth mature into adults that remain under playground assumptions. As someone enrolled in a graduate-level sexuality education program, holding conversations with my grandmother about the continuum of sexual orientation resulted directly in this facial expression:

 (No, my grandmother is not a white male from the 1800’s. But, please let this gentleman’s expression speak to the severity of dismay and confusion she expressed as I breached a topic of which she had never before experienced.)
Hence, I believe an interesting cognitive issue may ensue for adult learners.  Cognitive dissonance is at the forefront, as the adult student struggles to accept information of which is laden with implications that the learner had previously misunderstood, been ignorant, or of which they had been negligent. This could manifest feelings of shame, guilt, or even anger for the learner. How is a sex educator to manage this situation effectively? This is where honoring the affective component of relaying sexually related information should have made sense to me earlier.

As an educator with a slightly under-developed emotional intelligence (understatement), involving emotional expression into my sexual education practice was an unpredictable, (and frankly), terrifying practice for me. (Please note: I care deeply for people, but prior to my current education, I thought it best to only offer facts about potentially upsetting issues. I can be very helpful 1:1, but in a classroom setting, I shut emotional output down to “manage” what I perceived as “the crowd”.) I shied away from incorporating emotion because I was concerned as to whether I would be able to manage the emotional expression of my audience. It was too difficult for me to predict which unique “bundle of life experiences” was going to commence an attack against my curricula of sexual fact with their emotional expulsion.

I am in opposition to my previous demeanor. The scientist in this illustration represents an acurrate, (and esoteric), description of my previous demeanor. I came to find that breaching these emotionally sensitive areas didn’t require me to be a licensed therapist. I just had to hold a calm, accepting place for their feelings.

I used the above illustration with purpose: there are spelling errors and grammatical issues. For me to be able to see the concept of that illustration, (above it’s errors), represents personal growth for me as an educator.

As an adult who teaches adults who were often not educated in the United States with English as their primary language, I have been confronted with a lot of different needs from my students. A lot of these needs were more superficial, and technical in nature: arithmetic, spelling, etc. Since it has never been my strong suit, it was easier for me to focus on giving facts and negate the affective components of education. However, my education and my experience have taught me that negating the affective was ultimately not very effective… One example was when I came to find that my student, who had become consistently absent during class hours, was keeping constant tabs on her father in Africa during the Ebola crisis. Or, when another student had difficultly understanding “sex play” because her genitalia had been performed a procedure on in her native country to prevent her from enjoying sex. Or, some of my male students from conservative middle eastern regions of the world, who find my “female independence and out-spokeness” offensive.

What do I say? No one gave me a script for this. “I’m sorry… This must be hard for you. Do you need anything? How can I help?” Yes! Say that! And cue in the “Humanistic Approach”…

The humanistic approach is learner-centered. It provides the opportunity for the students to offer their own expertise, and experience, into the instructional design. This approach values the learner as a unique individual whom brings his or her own experiences and needs to the instructional setting. The role of the “teacher”, thusly becomes one in which they are a facilitator, helper, and partner in the learning process. Learning, via this approach, becomes a personal experience for each individual learner.

The 16 Commandments of Humanistic Approach (Brockett, 1997)

  1. Emphasis on the process of learning;
  2. Self-determination, as reflected in learner autonomy, self- direction, and self-evaluation;
  3. Mutual caring and understanding among teachers, learners, and others (connectedness);
  4. Relevance of material, including readiness of the student to learn;
  5. Integration of affect and cognition in the teaching-learning process;
  6. An “awareness of the environment, culture, history, and the political and economic conditions in which learning takes place” (Shapiro, 1987, p. 160);
  7. Preference for affective and experiential learning approaches;
  8. An approach to social change that is anti-authoritarian with the intent to “serve society by improving its education institutions” (p. 160);
  9. Equity, consensus, and collaboration through democratic participation in the learning process;
  10. A personal growth orientation that stresses self-actualization via self-awareness;
  11. A people orientation based on trust and a positive view of humanity, such as is reflected in McGregor’s (1960) “Theory Y”;
  12. Emphasis on individualism;
  13. A concrete, pragmatic view of reality;
  14. Self-evaluation that emphasizes formative over summative evaluation;
  15. Variety and creativity, as reflected in spontaneity, originality, and diversity in learning;
  16. A transpersonal orientation that stresses holistic development of the person, including potential for spirituality.

Teaching from a humanistic approach is intended to afford a sense of necessity, importance, and meaning to the learner. The facilitator permits the learner to come to an individual understanding, first and foremost, because this approach values the learner’s morals, ethics, and affect. Being that sex-educators work with various cultural, social, and economic standings; embracing the student’s individuality is of the utmost importance if we hope for our messages to make a presence.

As they say, “you catch a lot more flies with honey”. If an educator imparts to a conservative Christian student that sex before marriage should be guided by safe practices, the sex educator may lose their student, as the student may not agree with sex prior to marriage. If the facilitator, instead, poses the same situation as an “imagine if” quandary that the conservative Christian student can individually resolve, the result may differ. That student may be more apt to approach the situation as a quandary to solve, from a perspective detached from their own beliefs. From here the facilitator is able to help the student expound upon their current understanding of their beliefs, with respect to the student’s goals, but in line with the facilitators objectives.

Humanism: One Step Further?

In my opinion, Andragogy, a form of Adult Learning Theory, plays nicely with humanistic approach. One tenant of Androgogy asserts that adult learners are internally, rather than externally, motivated (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007). Another tenant states that the adult learner must understand why they are learning something to desire to learn it. In some cases, our sex-educator objectives may be in direct opposition to our adult learners firmly held belief system. Why fight it? As educators, let’s offer them  a situation where we permit the learner to hold, and manipulate the material for themselves.

Further, Andragogy ascertains that adults have accumulated variant and rich resources of personal experiences, of which it may be in the educators best interest to honor. Instead of viewing our adult learners as potentially expulsive, why not honor the their emotional experience in a way that past educators have likely discouraged?


Additional Information

What is Humanism?

The Relationship of Moral Education in Public Schools


Brockett, R. G. (1997). Humanism as an instructional paradigm. In C. R. Dills & A. J. Romiszowski (Eds.), Instructional development paradigms (245-256). New Jersey: Educational Technology Publications, Inc.

Merriam, S., Caffarella, R., & Baumgartner, L. (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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