Carl Ransom Rogers
Who was he?
Carl Rogers († 1987) was an eminent American psychologist and was among the founders of the humanistic approach to psychology. He is considered to have been one of the pioneers of psychotherapy research.
He originated the nondirective, or client-centred, approach to psychotherapy, emphasising a person-to-person relationship between the therapist and the client (formerly known as the patient), who determines the course, speed and duration of treatment.
Rogers made significant contributions to the field of education with his theory of experiential learning. He maintained that all human beings have a natural desire to learn. Therefore, failure to learn is not due to the person's inability to learn, but rather to problems with the learning situation.
Carl was the fourth of the six children. His father, Walter Rogers, was a civil engineer while his mother, Julia, was a homemaker and a devout Christian. Rogers could already read before starting kindergarten, and so started his education directly in the second grade. When he was 12, his family moved to a farm some 30 miles west of Chicago, where he spent his adolescence in a strict religious and ethical environment. He became a rather isolated, independent and disciplined person, developing an appreciation for the scientific method in a practical world.
At university, he initially studied Agriculture, but later changed to Religion, and as part of his studies served as pastor in a small church in Vermont. In 1921, he decided to begin studying History at the University of Wisconsin, finally graduating in 1924 with a BA in History. Selected for the World Student Christian Federation Conference, Rogers also lived in China, where he broadened his thinking and started to doubt his religious convictions. However, after graduation in 1924, he enrolled in the Union Theological Seminary in New York to continue his religious studies, with a view to becoming a church minister. At that time he also married Helen Elliot. They had two children, David in 1926 and Natalie in 1928.
Rogers left the seminary after two years. The liberal approach to religion that the seminary encouraged, as well as his participation in several YMCA conferences, convinced him that he could not work in a field where he had to stick to one set of beliefs. Instead, influenced by a psychology course he took at Columbia University, he was drawn to psychology. He transferred to Teachers College of Columbia University (which was located across the street from Union Theological Seminary) and entered the clinical psychology programme. Rogers earned his master’s degree in Psychology in 1928 and his Ph.D. in Psychology in 1931.
Helen and Carl were together until 1979, when Helen passed away. Carl Rogers had a healthy and active work life until the age of 85. He sustained a pelvic fracture after a fall in 1987, and died that year in La Jolla, California.
In 1928, Rogers joined the Rochester Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (RSPCC) in New York as a child psychologist, and a year later, he was appointed Director of the Child Study Department. In 1935, he became a lecturer at the University of Rochester, New York, a post he held until 1940, publishing The Clinical Treatment of the Problem Child (1939), which was based on his experience of working with troubled children. He was then offered a full professorship in Clinical Psychology at Ohio State University. While at Ohio State, he wrote his first book, Counseling and Psychotherapy (1942), in which he made the startling suggestion that it is the client, not the therapist, who has the resources to resolve difficulties and gain the insight necessary to restructure his or her own life.
In 1945, as Professor of Psychology and Executive Secretary at the University of Chicago, he was invited to set up a counselling centre, which he ran until 1957. During this period he conducted studies to determine the effectiveness of his methods, and his theories and findings appeared in his major work, Client-Centered Therapy (1951) and in Psychotherapy and Personality Change (1954).
Rogers served as President of the American Psychological Association (APA), and in 1957 he took up a post at the University of Wisconsin, where he wrote one of his best-known books, On Becoming a Person (1961). However, following various internal conflicts within the Psychology department, Rogers became disillusioned with higher education. In 1964 the American Humanist Association named him "Humanist of the Year", and he was invited to join the research staff of the Western Behavioral Studies Institute in La Jolla, California, where he lived for the rest of his life, writing, providing therapy, giving public talks, and facilitating Person-Centred Approach workshops. In 1968 he co-founded the Center for Studies of the Person (CSP). He made a significant impact in the field of education with the publication of Freedom to Learn (1969), which outlined his ideas on experiential learning.
From 1975 until the end of his life, Rogers continued to travel internationally, holding Person-Centred Approach workshops and attempting to apply his theories to areas of political and social conflict, such as Northern Ireland, South Africa, and the Soviet Union. In 1987 he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. He continued his work with client-centred therapy until his death in 1987.
Rogers was a prolific and influential writer, producing 16 books and over 200 professional articles. He received numerous awards for his contributions to psychology, including the inaugural APA Distinguished Professional Contribution Award (1956), and the APA Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award (1972), a unique honour only ever granted to Rogers. He was also given the Nicholas Murray Butler Silver Medal by Columbia University in 1955, and received honorary degrees from universities across the world.
Principles of Learning
The strength of Rogers’ approach lies in part in his focus on relationships. As he once wrote, ‘The facilitation of significant learning rests upon certain attitudinal qualities that exist in the personal relationship between facilitator and learner’. Freedom to Learn (1969) is a classic statement of educational possibility in this respect. He had already begun to explore the notion of ‘student-centred teaching’ in Client-Centred Therapy (1951). In Freedom to Learn, he offered ten hypothesised principles of learning that he abstracted from his own experience:
- Human beings have a natural potentiality for learning.
- Significant learning takes place when the subject matter is perceived by the student as having relevance for his own purposes.
- Learning which involves a change in self-organization - in the perception of oneself - is threatening and tends to be resisted.
- Those learnings which are threatening to the self are more easily perceived and assimilated when external threats are at a minimum.
- When threat to the self is low, the experience can be perceived in a differentiated fashion and learning can proceed.
- Much significant learning is acquired through doing.
- Learning is facilitated when the student participates responsibly in the learning process.
- Self-initiated learning which involves the whole person of the learner - feelings as well as intellect - is the most lasting and pervasive.
- Independence, creativity, and self-reliance are all facilitated when self-criticism and self-evaluation are basic and evaluation by others is of secondary importance.
- The most socially useful learning in the modern world is the learning of the process of learning, a continuing openness to experience and incorporation into oneself of the process of change.
Rogers defined two categories of learning: cognitive (or meaningless) learning, which involves academic knowledge, such as multiplication tables, and experiential (or significant) learning, which is applied knowledge, such as how to repair a car. The key distinction is that experiential learning addresses the needs and wants of the learner, and thus has the qualities of personal involvement, self-initiation and self-evaluation, and has long-lasting effects.
To Rogers, experiential learning is equivalent to personal development. In his view, all human beings possess the natural propensity to learn, and it is the teacher's role to facilitate that learning by encouraging, clarifying, and organising learning resources, but not to impose their own view of knowledge on their students. Rogers suggested that learning is facilitated:
- when the student participates in the learning process, having control over its nature and direction;
- when learning is primarily based on confrontation with real problems, whether they be social, personal, scientific, or practical;
- when students are required to use self-evaluation to assess their progress.
Experiential education, or "learning by doing," is the process of actively engaging students in an authentic experience that has benefits and consequences. Students make discoveries and experiment with knowledge themselves, instead of hearing or reading about the experiences of others. Students also reflect on their experiences, thus developing new skills, attitudes, and ways of thinking (Kraft & Sakofs 1988).
Experiential education changes schools because it requires new roles of students, teachers, and administrators. It can provide a different, more engaging way of treating academic content through the combination of action and reflection. Experiential education empowers students to take responsibility for their own learning. It can also provide a process for helping all those involved in schooling become more comfortable with the unfamiliar roles commonly proposed for restructured schools. Whether teachers employ experiential education in service learning, environmental education, or more traditional school subjects, it involves engaging student ‘voice’ in active roles for the purpose of learning. For further insight into experiential learning, visit:
In Freedom to Learn (1969), Rogers included two essays that contain the basic ideas on learning of a very creative and original psychologist. Freedom to Learn brought together a number of existing papers along with new material – including a fascinating account of ‘My way of facilitating a class’. Significantly, this exploration brings out the significant degree of preparation that Rogers involved himself in (including setting out aims, reading, workshop structure etc.) Carl Rogers was a gifted teacher whose approach grew out of his orientation in one-to-one professional encounters. He saw himself as a facilitator – one who created the environment for engagement. This he might do through a short (often provocative) input. However, what he also emphasised was the attitude of the facilitator. There are ‘ways of being’ with others that foster exploration and encounter – and these are more significant than the methods employed.
"Experience is, for me, the highest authority. The touchstone of validity is my own experience. No other person's ideas, and none of my own ideas, are as authoritative as my experience. It is to experience that I must return again and again, to discover a closer approximation to truth as it is in the process of becoming in me. Neither the Bible nor the prophets – neither Freud nor research, neither the revelations of God nor man – can take precedence over my own direct experience. My experience is not authoritative because it is infallible. It is the basis of authority because it can always be checked in new primary ways. In this way its frequent error or fallibility is always open to correction.”
from On Becoming a Person
Essays are available here: Carl R. Rogers, Freedom to Learn (1969) (panarchy.org)
Links to Carl Rogers’ Theories
Carl Rogers had a profound impact on psychotherapy, personality theory and education. His passionate regard for humanistic values, his optimistic and implicit faith in the inherent goodness of human beings and his steadfast belief that troubled people can be helped, contributed to the popularity of his work. His publication record, the number of students he attracted to his classes and the honours bestowed on him by fellow psychologists, made Rogers one of the most significant figures in twentieth- century psychology. The emergence of humanistic psychology as the "third force" in psychology is due in large part to Carl Rogers.
Rogers' work on experiential learning has had an abiding impact on education. One widely adopted form of experiential education is service learning, or learning through service to others (Kielsmeier & Willits 1989). An example is Project OASES (Occupational and Academic Skills for the Employment of Students) in Pittsburgh public schools, where eighth graders, identified as potential dropouts, spend three periods a day involved in renovating a homeless shelter as part of a service project carried out within their industrial arts class.
Other approaches at university level include laboratory courses in social sciences and humanities that seek to parallel laboratory courses in the natural sciences. In social science laboratory courses, students combine theory with tests of the theory in field settings and often develop their own social models in disciplines ranging from history and philosophy to economics, political science, and anthropology, (Lempert 1996).
Friends World Program, a four-year international study program operating out of Long Island University, operates entirely around self-guided, experiential learning while immersed in foreign cultures. Other projects and ‘capstone’ programmes have included everything from student teams writing their own international development plans, presenting them to presidents and foreign media, and publishing their studies as textbooks, to running their own businesses, not-for-profit organisations, or community development banks (Lempert 1996).
‘Adventure education’, which uses outdoor activities to learn how to overcome adversity, work alongside others and develop a deeper relationship with nature, is one form of experiential education that is highly effective in developing team and group skills in both students and adults (Rohnke 1989).
Carl Ransom Rogers
The Carl Rogers Reader
Carl Rogers. A Critical Biography
The Life and Work of Carl Rogers
Reflections on Rogers
A Backdrop for Psychotherapy
Place in HLT
Carl Rogers’ clinical practice drew on such diverse sources as Otto Rank and John Dewey (the latter through the influence of W. H. Kilpatrick – a former student of Dewey’s). This mix of influences – and Carl Rogers’ ability to link elements together – helps to put into context his later achievements. The concern with opening up to, and theorising from experience, the concept of the human organism as a whole entity and the belief in the possibilities of human action all have their parallels in the work of John Dewey. Carl Rogers was able to join these together with therapeutic insights and the belief, born out of his practice experience, that the client usually knows better how to proceed than the therapist. Best known for his contribution to client-centred therapy and his role in the development of counselling, Rogers also had much to say about education and group work.