Learning about learning: why all educators should read Carl Rogers’ Freedom to Learn

Hazel Christie

Sometimes the classics are the best.   This week I’ve been reading Carl Rogers’ classic text Freedom to Learn to help me to refine and understand different approaches to learning.  For a whole generation of scholars Rogers is a hero because he put student-centred learning at the heart of educational practices.  He also raised awareness of the power of learning outcomes and group learning in the design and delivery of learning opportunities.  Learning is a relational process which takes place in and through the dynamic relationship between the learner and the facilitator, and Rogers was one of the first theorists to put this message at the heart of a theory of learning.

In ‘Freedom to Learn’ Rogers offers a lucid account of this approach to learning.  Drawing on his background in theology and psychotherapy, as well as his own experiences of student-centred teaching, he devises a holistic theory of learning.  Learners and facilitators work together to develop ‘significant learning’; that is learning which makes a difference to the individual, perhaps to a behaviour or course of action, or to attitudes or personality. Crucially, this significant learning only takes place when the subject matter is perceived as having relevance to the students’ own purposes.  People are motivated to learn when they have a reason to do so.  And, for Rogers, students learn best in groups especially those where they have a ‘direct experiential confrontation with practical problems, social problems, ethical and philosophical problems, personal issues, and research problems’ (1983: 162).

Rogers’ theory of learning is overly familiar these days so why did I go back to it with such insistence, such longing?  I confess I read through it in one greedy sitting.  And I think you should too.  For me three things stand out about Freedom to Learn.  First, the book is beautifully written.  It’s a wonderful, seemingly effortless, evocation of how to construct a good argument, a story if you like, that inspires you to think differently about yourself and your students, and that’s a powerful position from which to think about your own teaching practices.  Secondly, it reminds me of just how much our learning environment has changed in the last 60 years.  In an earlier collection of essays, ‘On Becoming a Person’, Rogers describes the ‘explosive’ reaction to his ideas about student-centred learning when he presented them at a conference at Harvard in the late 1950s.  His approach was met with opprobrium – it would threaten jobs and surely he was saying things he didn’t mean?   Such a reaction would be unthinkable these days when active learning is central to everything we do.  And finally, I think we should all read Rogers when we’re feeling dull and jaded about our role in
the learning process.  His vital approach reminds us of the need always to think about learning from the students’ point of view.  What do they want to learn and why?  What is their starting point in the learning process?  And what resources can I provide them with to enable significant learning to occur?  It reminds us that we, with all our lived experiences, are but a small part of the learning process.


Rogers, C. (1958) ‘Significant learning: in therapy and in education’ reprinted in Rogers, C. Ed (2004) On Becoming a Person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy, Constable: London

Rogers, C. (1983) Freedom to Learn for the 80s, New York: Merrill Wright


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