Milestones in humanistic education

“The  world is  changing –  education must  also change. Societies  everywhere are  undergoing deep transformation, and this calls for new forms of education to foster the  competencies  that societies  and economies need,  today and tomorrow. This means moving beyond literacy and numeracy, to focus on new learning environments and on new approaches to learning for greater justice, social equity and global solidarity. Education must be about learning to live on a planet under pressure. It must be about cultural literacy, on the basis of respect and equal dignity, helping to weave together the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. This  is a humanist  vision of education  as an essential common  good. I believe this  vision renews with the inspiration of the UNESCO Constitution, agreed 70 years ago, while reflecting new times and demands. Education is key to the global integrated framework of sustainable development goals. Education is at the heart of our efforts both to adapt to change and to transform the world within which we live. A quality basic education is the necessary foundation for learning throughout life in a complex and rapidly changing world”.

I. G. Bokova (2014), UNESCO Director General  

1 Think globally: act locally

The quest for sustainable development is espoused by a multitude of international and local  organizations, governments, think tanks and academics. It is by far the world’s most important goal towards which collective local, regional and national actions are sought.  An important exhortation “think globally, act locally” has gained world-wide prominence, which resonates a broad understanding of the world’s contemporary problems including global warming and loss of biodiversity, prompting actions to address such issues. This blog presents two examples of humanistic education involving engagement with the local environment, each of which is set in a global knowledge system for learning about climate change.  

2 Humanistic  education: Skomer

Skomer, a small offshore island off the South West coast of Wales, played a significant historical role in the development of humanistic education because it was a focus of Julian Huxley’s idea of evolutionary humanism in the 1930s.  Huxley moved on to become a founder member of UNESCO.  His idea was applied by Denis Bellamy to establish a succession of field courses on the island organised on humanistic principles in the 1970s.  Global warming as an educational topic was hardly visible in those days. Now, to be an evolutionary humanist one has to acknowledge that global damage done to the environment has been caused by human action and constitutes an existential threat to humanity and many other species.  Only we humans can manage the climate crisis we have created. Therefore, the practical goal of humanism is to act on the understanding that the responsibility to create and maintain sustainable methods of living is a collective one. 

There are five basic principles of humanistic education which make it particularly suitable for online classrooms and lifelong learning:

  • Students should be able to choose what they want to learn. Humanistic teachers are facilitators, not disseminators of knowledge, who believe that students will be motivated to learn a subject if it’s something they need and want to know.
  • The goal of education should be to foster students’ desire to learn and teach them how to learn. Students should be self-motivated in their studies with a desire to build a personal body of knowledge on their own and communicate it to their peers.
  • Humanistic educators believe that grades are irrelevant and that only self-evaluation is meaningful because grading encourages students to work for a grade and not for personal satisfaction. In addition, humanistic educators are opposed to objective tests because they test a student’s ability to memorize and do not provide sufficient tutorial feedback to the teacher and student as a learning unit.
  • Humanistic educators believe that both feelings and knowledge are important to the learning process. Unlike traditional educators, humanistic teachers do not separate the cognitive (knowledge) and affective (attitudes) domains.
  • Humanistic educators insist that classrooms need to provide students with non threatening environments so that they will feel secure to learn. Once students feel secure, learning becomes easier and more meaningful. 

The five basic principles of humanistic education can be summarized as:

1) Students’ learning should be self-directed.

2) Classrooms should produce students who want and know how to learn.

3) The only form of meaningful evaluation is self-evaluation.

4) Feelings, as well as knowledge, are important in the learning process.

5) Students learn best in a non threatening environment.

Today, practical work in the context of a humanistic education involves assembling a personal body of knowledge about a particular feature of the local environment backed up with a digital library.  The outcome of the investigation is then presented online as a mindmap delineating connections with, and dependencies on, other features and a wider curriculum. These individual digital presentations thereby become information packages for others to build upon.  An example is the educational framework proposed by Julian Huxley for Skomer. The features contributing to a holistic view of the island are listed in the contents of the book ‘Island of Skomer’ (Table 1), published in 1950 as the report on the first field survey of the island in 1946.

Table 1 Features of Skomer Island suitable for humanistic education projects


The Flora

Spring Migration


The Petrels

The Auks

Gulls and Cormorants

Small Mammals

The Atlantic Seal

Marine Biology

Autumn Migration

The Rock Types 

This list can be regarded as the holistic catalogue of a Skomer digital library from which a student can select a feature of its biodiversity, geology or archaeology to assemble a personal body of knowledge that can be displayed on line (Fig 1; Table 2).

Fig 1 A humanistic mind map for navigating from a personal body of knowledge about Skomer’s  Puffins to enter the wider context of a syllabus about global warming

Table 2  Four examples of websites created collaboratively as classrooms as assignments to communicate personal bodies of knowledge. 

Skomer: a Mind Map

Skomer: a Knowledge Island

Rescue Mission Planet Wales

Global Warming

International Classrooms Online

3 Humanistic education: Rescue Mission

Agenda 21 is a non-binding action plan of the United Nations with regard to sustainable development. The “21” in Agenda 21 refers to the 21st century.  It is a product of the UN Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992, which has been adopted by the UN, other multilateral organizations and individual governments around the world to be executed at local, national, and global levels.   

The Agenda has been affirmed with a few modifications at subsequent UN conferences with the aim of achieving global sustainable development. One major objective of the Agenda 21 initiative is that every local government should draw up its own Local Agenda 21 in consultation with its communities. Since 2015, Sustainable Development Goals are included in the Agenda 2030.

The book ‘Rescue Mission Planet Earth’ was launched in 1994 as an educational outcome of the 1992 sustainable development summit.  To communicate the language of the agenda, 28 young people from 21 countries assembled to edit the book, which is organized into four chapters containing 46 subject headings which correspond to the 40 chapters of Agenda 21. Each chapter clearly represents corresponding concepts detailed in Agenda 21, with excerpts from the United Nations document, quotes, commentary, poems and illustrations from youth around the world. Since 1992 the agenda has been confirmed by successive summits with ever increasing urgency.

The focus of part IV is on the role of young people in shaping local action plans that will give them a prominent role in protecting the environment. The goal of this chapter is summed up by the following quote: “You children of today are the hope for tomorrow.” The Law on Child Rights, signed by 148 governments, gave youth the right to participate in decisions that affect them. Rescue Mission clearly illustrates the need to adopt humanistic behaviours from the classroom to respond to the impact of a developing global political-economic structure that starts at the child’s local school/community and extends to international organizations promoting lifelong learning for living sustainably.  

At the time of its publication Rescue Mission was praised as the simplistic yet comprehensive overview of Agenda 21 telling future generations how they should act for humanity’s long term survival.  In this respect it provides environmental educators with information and tips for incorporating ideas into their classrooms. Moreover, it offers a wealth of information for everyone in the form of a glossary, index, listing of the Agenda 21 taskforce, an outline of Agenda 21 and contact information to participate in the national and international Resource Mission.

Rescue Mission singles out not only the profound institutional and cultural barriers to accomplishing a more sustainable development, but reflects on several of the necessary radical steps and strategies: 

  • the transformation of capitalism;
  • the transformation of politics and regulation; 
  • the restructuring of science and education;
  • and a peaceful  revolution in culture. 

The book points out several untapped forms of humanistic education, in part viewing society as a cradle-to-grave learning system where a multitude of small actions can make a major difference. It presents a tentative proposition of a new humanist agenda for a sustainable future. In general, Agenda 21 addresses the challenge of transforming the complex aggregate of modern society – its cultural, economic, political and scientific components — in order to tackle fatale environmental destruction.  

The call for a new humanism in the 21st century roots in the conviction that the moral, intellectual and political foundations of globalization and international cooperation have to be rethought. Whilst the historic European humanism was set out to resolve tensions between tradition and modernity and to reconcile individual rights with newly emerging duties of citizenship, the new humanism approach of Agenda 21 goes beyond the level of the nation state in seeking to unite the process of globalization with its complex and sometimes contradictory manifestations. As Irina Bokova postulated in her installation speech as UNESCO Director-General (November 2009), the new humanism constitutes; 

“a universal vision, open to the entire human community and embracing each and every continent […] it is to give fresh impetus to solidarity, to bring people together and awaken their conscience”. 

The new humanism approach to education exemplified in the creation of Rescue Mission by an international group of young people, advocates the social inclusion of every human being at all levels of society and underlines the transformative power of education, sciences, culture and communications. Therefore, human­ism today needs to be perceived as a collective educational effort that holds governments, civil society, the private sector and human individuals equally responsible to realize its values and to design creatively and implement a humanist approach to a sustainable society, based on integrated economic, social and environmental development. 

This “conscience of humanity”, to put it in the visionary words of Jawaharlal Nehru, reflects UNESCO’s normative principles and political mandate and indicates the way forward to multilateral strategies for sustainable development, “releasing a political energy that can deliver us right to the heart of contemporary thinking about cosmopolitan democracy”.

A new humanism as set out in Rescue Mission describes the only way forward if we want to live in a world that accounts for the diversity of identities and the heterogeneity of interests and which is based on inclusive, democratic, and, indeed, humanist values.  To this end the book was the starting point for a pilot in Welsh schools With funding from theTexaco refinery, the local authority and the Countryside Council for Wales, Rescue Mission was promoted through schools into the communities they served. The pilot, was known as SCAN (Schools and communities Agenda 21 network). Despite the success of the pilot which was coordinated in teacher’s resource centres, the National Curriculum and the embryonic Internet were limiting factors in its widespread uptake.  However, a practical component of environmental networking/monitoring role in schools continues to this day in the National Museum of Wales’ Spring Bulbs educational network.

4  Being as one with nature

The aim of lifelong learning is to focus on new digital classroom environments to teach the competencies  that societies and economies need, today and tomorrow. helping to weave together the social, economic and environmental dimensions of global warming and over-consumption of Earth’s environmental services.  This means learning for living on a planet under pressure, with an emphasis on:

  •  cultural literacy;
  • greater justice;
  • social equity; 
  • global solidarity;
  • being as one with nature.

Being as one with nature is living for the mutual benefit of all life forms.  The phrase defines a land ethic which expands the definition of “community” to include not only humans, but all of the other parts of the Earth, as well: soils, waters, plants, and animals, or what Aldo  Leopold called “the land.” In Leopold’s vision of a land ethic, the relationships between people and land are intertwined: care for people cannot be separated from care for the land. A land ethic is a moral code of conduct that grows out of nature connectedness and caring relationships in a family of things.  This is elegantly stated in the following poem by Mary Oliver.

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things”.

—Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”

Nature connectedness is the extent to which individuals include nature as part of their identity. It includes an understanding of nature and everything it comprises, even the parts that are not pleasing.  Characteristics of nature connectedness are similar to those of a personality trait: nature connectedness is stable over time and across various situations. Schult describes three components that make up the nature connectedness construct:

  • The cognitive component is the core of nature connectedness and refers to how integrated one feels with nature.
  •  The affective component is an individual’s sense of care for nature.
  • The behavioral component is an individual’s commitment to protect the natural environment.

These components are evident in the holism of Skomer and Rescue Mission.  In fact they are now central for us to adapt to global warming in that they highlight the importance of effective teaching to define being at one with nature.  Everyone should be aware of this societal problem, takes action in solving the problem, and becomes socially responsible for future generations. A topic framework for a global warming syllabus is presented in Table 3.

Table 3 A topic framework for a ‘global warming’ syllabus.

1 Warming

2 Causes

3 Effects

4 Feedback dynamics

5 Climate models

6 Responses

7 Politics of global warming

8 Elements of a decarbonising economy

9 History of the science

10 See also

Although the syllabus can be entered  through any topic, ‘Responses’ is a good portal because it opens up a wider perspective for practical work, whereby students become engaged with the management of global and local biodiversity as adaptations to effects of  global warming (Table 4). 

Table  4 Responses to the impact of global warming on biodiversity

6.2 Adaptation

6.3 Nature connectedness

6.4 Biodiversity hotspots

6.4.1 Terrestrial regions

6.4.2 Water-bounded islands

6.3.3 Habitat fragments

6.4.4 Cultural islands

6.5  Conservation management

6.6 Climate engineering

5 ‘Skomer’ and ‘Rescue Mission’: classrooms of the future

The humanistic classroom is, at its heart, a place to learn how to fix problems and live well.  With the evolution of computer technology, educational capabilities are growing and changing every day. The Internet is a vast electronic library of information, and both research and instruction can be achieved through a click of the mouse.  Educational technology in the digital classroom is generating new opportunities for personalized learning, engaging classroom strategies with much more collaboration between students, with teachers as facilitators. In the foreseeable future, the biggest impact of artificial intelligence in the humanistic classroom is likely to be in personalised tutoring and virtual reality learning.  Virtual reality makes learning fun, as students learn about things, places, objects from the comfort of their classrooms without spending money or time travelling. In a wider context artificial intelligence in the classroom can help address many of humanity’s most critical issues: including those related to education, the sciences, culture, media, access to information, gender equality, poverty alleviation and climate change. Yet these major opportunities that artificial intelligence offers can only be unleashed, if it is developed with respect to universal norms and standards, and if it is anchored in peace and humanism, with a focus on achieving ethical sustainable development. 

News that Pearson, the world’s largest textbook publisher, is phasing out print publications for higher education in order to adopt a resolutely digital-first policy may signal an eventual end for traditional book learning. But the wealth of technology coming on stream heralds an exciting new chapter for the future classroom.  In the view of Mike Buchanan, executive director of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, which represents independent school head teachers in the UK, digital education will unlock a less rigid approach to classroom-based learning, Buchanan predicts individual academic achievement will be charted by artificial intelligence, rather than by a plethora of exams, and argues that for teachers disenchanted by the current need to “teach to the test”, will gain freedom to pursue a more rounded curriculum and foster a new optimism.  In particular, living in a zero carbon economy in an ethical equilibrium with Earth’s ecological productivity will require an education system for adapting to a state of prosperity independent of wealth. Prosperity will be defined as flourishing and thriving with good fortune or successful social status encompassing happiness and health. 

Rose Luckin, co-founder of the Institute for Ethical Artificial Intelligence in Education steers developments in educational technology in a firmly ethical direction. She believes that while individual tools such as virtual reality, augmented reality or MOOCs (massive open online courses) will each play a role in the future classroom, close attention should be paid to the “over-arching intelligence infrastructure” as online education develops.

“We need to recognise that education for all ages must change to create the skills society will need in the future and this means looking at the possibilities of artificial intelligence in a more holistic way.  Cutting-edge technologies must be constructed from an ethical framework, which empowers both learners and teachers, rather than exploiting them for purely commercial gain.” she says.

Drawing a parallel with the growth in social media, Luckin believes: “We have all witnessed the power of the big digital networking platforms to shape users’ behaviour and habits, and there have been negative as well as positive, impacts from this. When we look at the future of the classroom, we can see that as long as there is an ethical purpose to what we do, individuals and society will benefit from a global education technology infrastructure which deploys a whole range of digital tools.”  But Luckin issues a warning to those who believe the future classroom needs to concentrate on computer coding alone.

“As society’s educational needs continue to change, we may well decide not to engage with some of the breakthrough things that we know artificial intelligence can deliver. We need advanced thinking around what we want to deliver in terms of lifelong learning for each individual citizen, rather than an obsession with clever algorithms and coding.”

Julian Huxley defined the ethics of lifelong learning in terms of treating all peoples as equals with respect to human dignity, mutual respect, and educational opportunity.  His idea of evolutionary humanism can be traced to his making of the first ever wildlife documentary in the 1930s as an exercise in mass communication about the wildness of nature.  After this he launched his vision of Skomer as an outdoor humanistic classroom with a steady stream of eager learners. In 1946 he became Unesco’s first Director-General and set out an education programme that was cosmopolitan in vision, one concerned with humankind in relationship with nature and with its past, one in which art and science were equally valued. During his tenure as Director-General he also began to articulate fully the concerns which would occupy the later years of his life: the relation of overpopulation to poverty and ignorance, the necessity for the conservation of wilderness and wildlife, and the importance of the renunciation of parochial views on religion and politics. Finally, he came to stress even more strongly than before his optimistic belief that humankind can and should take control of its own environmental and biological destiny.  His view of humanism as the foundation of UNESCO eventually bore fruit in the international group of young people who met after the 1992 UN environment summit to produce Rescue Mission as a prescription for planetary survival. Thus, both ‘Island of Skomer’ and ‘Rescue Mission’ stand as milestones pointing to science, art and literature as part of the bigger picture of planet Earth with all its species, human and nonhuman, as one interacting entity.

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