Rethinking educational responses through a human-centred approach
By Scherto Gill1
Panel Discussion on:
How can Education Effectively Promote Respect for Diversity and Tolerance?
UNESCO, Paris: 18 March 2015
Learning to be more fully human
In view of the interests of this panel, I will start by reading a letter to all educators as quoted in
Margo Strom’s article “Facing History and Ourselves: Integrating a Holocaust Unit into the
Curriculum”, published in Moral Education Forum, Summer 1981.
I am the survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should
Gas chambers built by learned engineers.
Children poisoned by educated physicians.
Infants killed by trained nurses.
Women and children shot and burned by high school and college graduates.
So, I am suspicious of education.
My request is: Help your students become human.
Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated
Reading, writing, arithmetic are important but only if they serve to make our
children more human.
For 20 years, the UNESCO, through its four pillars of learning, has suggested that education is the
answer to many of today’s challenges. Not because education is a means to an end but rather that
education is uniquely a pathway to that which enables us to be and become fully human.
The question is: Why does becoming fully human serve to address our current concerns?
Firstly, human life is simultaneously material, intellectual, social, moral and spiritual and a person’s
life so comprised of diverse experiences, activities and processes has intrinsic value, then so does the
person who is living such a life. This points to the moral nature of being human, central to which is
an acceptance of other people as moral beings who are equally worthy of our love and respect,
however different they may be from ourselves.
Another key aspect of being fully human is an awareness that humans are finite and our worldviews
are always situated – in our history, memories, collective wounds, religious teaching, cultural
practices, and personal journeys. So it is imperative for us to engage with others and their otherness,
and be in relationship with others in order to overcome our limitedness, and transcend human
conditions. In this way, our growth is not only enriched by those others we encounter, but also
co-dependent on the growth of others and humanity as a whole.
1 Dr Scherto Gill is a Research Fellow at the Guerrand-Hermès Foundation for Peace and a Visiting Fellow at
the University of Sussex. http://www.sussex.ac.uk/profiles/136057 firstname.lastname@example.org
Furthermore, our value as a person is constituted in our dignity which is in part the result of our
caring for one another and caring about what matters to us in life. Such care underlies moral pillars
of our societies: respect, compassion, forgiveness, understanding, justice and so forth.
So for education to reach for such aims of making our children and young people more fully human,
it must be about more than an access to schooling. It must be what is termed 'human-centred'.
Indeed, human-centred education is akin to ‘formation’ and transformation – a facilitated process
through which each child and young person can thrive and flourish. Accordingly, teaching and
learning is to be directed towards the child as a whole person, nurturing those worthwhile qualities
and virtues in accordance with her own nature. The traditional 3Rs, or knowledge, information and
skills are not the only focus of education, they are there to inform and the growth of the whole
human being. Such an approach could be the answer to our current challenges precisely because of
its potential to nurture our qualities, dispositions and virtues as human beings.
However, for education to become aligned with human-centred aims, radical rethinking is necessary.
In this presentation I will briefly examine some of such possible shifts in a whole school process,
including ethos, spaces, pedagogical strategies and learning engagement. This also serves to
illustrate that by cultivating humane qualities, education can contribute positively to a more
peaceful world. In contrast to the traditional 3Rs, I have playfully chosen 5R's which are core values
and attitudes to be cultivated in education - Relationship, Reciprocity, Reasoning and Reflection,
Fundamentally, human-centred education calls for an explicit shift from schools as institutions of
instruction and transmission to schools as humanising learning communities where teachers and
students and others in the community can actively pursue a meaningful life together.
It starts with an ethos of valuing teachers and students as persons or subjects rather than as role
occupants or objects. Treating each other as persons is the basis for building a safe learning
environment in which individuals can develop a strong emotional bond with each other. Such bond
unites people around shared concerns and is enabling, facilitative and empowering.
Secondly, a school as a learning community demands that teaching and learning is imbued with care
and caring – from adult to children and among children. Care and caring underpin pedagogy and
curriculum. In an increasingly dehumanised world, care is humanising and engenders emphatic
relationship, contributing to a child’s inner security and solidarity with their peers. When a child is
loved and cared for, she develops self-respect, respect for others and closeness with others. One
example of care is that in a learning community, adults (teachers and parents) model non-violent
communication. NVC not only creates a culture a respect in the school, but also extend such culture
to the wider community. It fosters trust and enables the child to become trustworthy. Such trust
developed in childhood can become trust between strangers later in a person’s life.
Thirdly, a learning community is a place of encounter and there must be formal and informal spaces
for encountering differences at many levels – race, gender, religion, culture, social class, physical and
intellectual abilities... Encounters are ideal for developing respect for each other and for cultivating a
sense of belonging. This doesn’t mean that we rule out all conflict. On the contrary, conflict in a
classroom is public forum in which the whole group can learn to engage with differences.
Lastly, a learning community involves a close partnership with parents and others within the wider
community and values parents’ input as being of importance for the child’s learning and growth as
well as the growth and flourishing of the community. Parents also learn and grow as they participate
in the life of the school and extend a culture of caring to a much wider circle of communal life.
Within a learning community, the empathetic connections between people can set the foundation
for fostering reciprocity in the relationship. Reciprocity suggests that humans’ destinies are bound
up together and will prevent individuals from being swayed by their worse impulses and
Human-centred education perceives learning as relational, a shared inquiry, and teaching as
guidance, facilitation, direction and mentoring, all involving a high degree of reciprocity. That is to
say that both teachers and students gain from the learning encounter in different ways and both
offer something meaningful to the other. Similarly, closeness between peers implies such
reciprocity. This active reciprocity evokes that the nature of our being and learning together is
intersubjective and schools can create opportunities for such give-and-take ‘game’ of play in
Dialogue in schools is not a gesture or a particular event; instead, dialogue must be the basis of all
pedagogical practices. Dialogical pedagogy points to a strong degree of equality and mutuality in
teaching and learning. It further affirms each person’s worthiness, including acknowledging each
person’s otherness or differences as worthy. In such affirmation and confirmation, the child
identifies a better self or a higher self and encourages its development.
Deeper encounter will enable students to know each other well and be able to see what the other is
striving for, their dreams and hopes. Such knowing is the basis for fellowship and solidarity of
c. Reasoning and Reflection
When schools are communities underpinned by relationship and reciprocity, young people have
more opportunity to confront each other critically and honestly over imputed meanings, personal
biases and prejudices. For young people whose developmental task is to find answers to questions
concerning value conflicts and moral dilemmas, cultivating the art of thinking and reasoning is most
necessary so that they can step out of a simple binary structure of “us versus them,” or “right versus
wrong” thus becoming open to diverse viewpoints, belief systems and values in complex way.
Reasoning and critical thinking are developed through enhanced cognitive capacities and equally in
dialogue. The power of dialogue here lies in questioning which directs our attention to what we care
about (as we are being cared-for), including values, the well-being of others and the betterment of
our world. Such questioning and caring are the basis for developing a sense of justice and ethical
A young person’s holistic development also involves self-conscious reflection. Contemplative
reflection is the listening to the innermost voice to find out who we truly are; the formation of
inward capacities to tolerate ambiguity; and the self-direction of our attention to what is profoundly
meaningful for us. Thus reflection is equally dialogical.
In reasoning and reflection, we connect with our emotions in the now. Contemplation is an
important part of being human, and a human-centred approach integrates mindfulness, meditation,
solitary walk and other reflective activities into the everyday fabric of a school’s life. Teachers and
students find peace in the space of deep reflection and they encounter each other as human beings.
Human-centred education encourages and empowers student to have ownership of learning and
thereby take responsibility for her experiences, including getting involved in the planning of project,
making choice of what interests her and developing the dispositions to complete learning tasks. A
listening and cooperative culture will serve to nurture the student’s independence and sense of
responsibility where a child’s voice respected, accepted and acted upon.
Only by having the experiences of responsibility and leadership (including self-leading) in the
everyday learning processes and decision-making, can a young person have the courage to stand up
against social injustice or any forms of discrimination, and aspire to pursue other civic engagement
as part of ‘lived citizenship’, such as initiating and participating in community-based projects.
By highlighting how human-centred values such as relationship, reciprocity, reasoning and reflection
and responsibility can be pursued in a whole school process, I attempted to make a case that it is
possible to re-engage education in a fundamentally different way so that it is a true pathway
towards human flourishing. It also shows that when we rethink education as a response to the
challenge of religious intolerance and discrimination, we must seek and address the problem from
Parker Palmer once said that what truly holds community together; what makes this capacity for
human relatedness possible, is love. Human-centred education embodies such values as love,
compassion, care and respect. These are not added on as programmes or interventions; instead
these are embedded into educative process itself and lived by teachers and students.
In today’s world, institutions tend to draw circles to keep some people in and others out.
Human-centred learning communities are the only place where it is possible to draw a large enough
circle and include everyone so that we can proudly say – we belong not because we are the same,
we belong because we are different.
For examples of human-centred learning communities, please refer to:
Bina Cita Utama in Indonesia (www.bcuschool.com)
Lewes New School in England (www.lewewsnewschool.co.uk)
Colegio Amor in Colombia (http://www.ghfp.org/Portals/ghfp/publications/gill_amor_report.pdf)