The Nondirective Teaching Style of Carl Rogers: What It Is and How to Do It



In the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, Carl Rogers gained attention for his style of teaching—a style that could hardly be characterized as teaching at all. (See an interview about his approach here.) His approach was to give his students the resources they needed so that they could teach themselves. If any learning happened, then it was not by Rogers’s hand.

Carl Rogers was an American psychologist in the 1930s-80s, and a decorated member of the scholarly community. He cofounded the Society for Humanistic Psychology, served as president of the American Psychological Association, and authored of many bestselling books on therapy, development, and relationships. Shortly before he died, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. At the base of Rogers’s system of psychology were the following beliefs.

  • Humans are inherently good, and their inner direction can be trusted
  • Humans flourish when they are provided an environment of honesty, trust, and empathy

In therapy, these beliefs meant that Rogers would not give advice. He would not tell clients what he felt they were doing wrong. He would not try to make them feel better about themselves. Instead he would communicate a sincere interest in whoever was sitting across from him. Rogers would communicate that he believed in them no matter how confused or clumsy they seemed. And he tried to understand the world from his clients’ perspective. Rogers believed that if he could refrain from trying to solve his clients’ problems, and if he could succeed in communicating trust, honesty, and empathy, then his clients would resolve their problems on their own. His therapy was often called “nondirective therapy,” because of his refusal to give instructions.  

(Rogers’s nondirective therapy could be compared to cognitive therapy, which is where the therapist uses logic and rational thinking and best practices to solve the problems in clients' lives.)

Rogers developed a nondirective style of facilitating learning in the classroom, too, which he actually began developing before ever becoming a psychologist. When viewed alongside his therapeutic approach, nondirective teaching doesn’t seem that wild. But viewed alongside conventional teaching, nondirective teaching sounds outlandish.

Directive Teaching

Most teaching could be classified as directive teaching. With directive teaching, it is the teachers or college professors who are in control. Directive teaching is where teachers and professors set the curricula, write the exams, do the evaluations, assign the grades, give the feedback, design the activities, and so on; it is the teachers and professors who tell the students what to do. At the beginning of the semester, students anxiously wait to see what it is they will learn. Good courses are ones where the learning is painless or fun, or if the learning happened to be applicable to a given student’s personal or career goals.

Nondirective Teaching

In nondirective teaching, it is the student who is in control. Learning objectives, lesson plans, activities, evaluations, grades, homework, lectures, and so on are decided by the students.

Even as I am writing it and practicing this on a regular basis, I cannot help but think that the nondirective teacher sounds a lot like an absent teacher. And, of course, I think that is a risk. But it is just as easy to be an absent teacher in a controlling classroom (e.g., by recording and posting lectures, setting up automated quizzes and exams, and checking e-mail once a week while spending the rest of the summer in Hawai’i).

In its best version, the nondirective teacher is not absent. They are necessary in order for nondirective teaching to work. It is the nondirective teacher who cultivates an environment where learning and growing can occur—where the barriers to learning and growing are removed. Below are four examples of how the nondirective teacher is present to their students.

1.     Through the honesty and candor of the nondirective teacher, students feel that it is okay to be themselves.

Students come in all varieties: straight-A student, slacker, witty, indifferent, shocking, and on and on. These roles have been developed to deal with the demands and pressures of organized learning. There is a lot of ritual playing that goes into classroom learning. It is difficult to have a real interaction in this context—difficult to encounter real problems or to be yourself. If the nondirective teacher simply sat in the corner and scrolled through the Reddit boards, then they would be doing nothing to create an environment where students could be themselves or learning could happen. But by being present as the unique person that they are, the nondirective teacher communicates trust in their students. They say: “I trust you all enough to be myself.” 

In this way, the nondirective teacher is present in a way that is more than their body occupying classroom space. They are their whole selves—interests, curiosities, quirks, feelings, aspirations, doubts, and so on. They are a living example of what it is like to participate in the classroom with your whole personality.

2.     By accepting students, the nondirective teacher communicates to their students that they are okay.

It is very easy to feel embarrassed in the classroom. This goes for teachers and students alike, but for now we are thinking about the experience of students. They can feel embarrassed by saying something that’s wrong, misspelling a word or name, misremembering a common fact, misunderstanding what someone has said, and so on. They can feel embarrassed by how they dress or by appearing different. Even beneath all of these embarrassing experiences, there is a deeper concern that there is something about them that other students will not accept. That they are, at their core, not okay.

But today, in the classroom of their nondirective teacher, there is someone who will not correct this student when they make a mistake; a grown up who will not roll their eyes when this student talks back or tells an obvious lie; there is a person who will patiently wait and listen as this student tries to find the right way to communicate something using their own words. When this happens, the student realizes that they don’t need to be playing defense. They can let that guard down, if only for a moment, and be themselves. They can say something or do something without discovering if it was right/wrong, correct/incorrect, A/B/C, acceptable/unacceptable, and so on. Much of their classroom experience has been organized around the principles of operant conditioning, where every student behavior is either corrected or reinforced. The nondirective classroom abandons this scheme.

3.     By providing resources, the nondirective teacher helps students teach themselves.

It is impossible for a teacher to know what interests a given student. It is even more difficult when the student in question is many years younger than the teacher, or when the student comes from a different culture, ethnicity, race, religion, or socio-economic class. But there are ways to investigate these interests. The nondirective teacher will take this task as seriously as ordinary course design in conventional courses. They will seek out the best topics for their students as well as the best media format for those topics. The nondirective teacher will take what they find and present it to students as resources for self-directed learning. If it seems necessary, then the nondirective teacher will also demonstrate how those resources might be used through tutorials and so on. 

The resources will be left for students, sort of like abandoned toys on the playroom floor that are just begging to be picked up and played with. There won’t be any belligerent adult pointing to a specific toy and saying, “Look at this monkey! The Monkey looks fun. Why don’t you want to play with the monkey?” If nobody plays uses a resource, then it is set aside, and new resources are provided.

4. By actively trying to understand what their students are saying, the nondirective teacher will help their students communicate in a way that is clearer, richer, and more meaningful.

When students share an observation about a resource, current event, or whatever is being discussed, the nondirective teacher will occasionally check in to see if they understand what the student has just communicated. The teacher will ask in a way that communicates sincere interest in the student, and not as though to indicate that the student has misspoken. The student will then adjust the words they used or how they spoke them so as to clear away any ambiguity. Sometimes this will reveal that the student wasn’t as sure of what they were saying as they thought, and they will dig a little deeper. 

As you can see, nondirective teaching is not about making yourself absent in the classroom. It is about being very present to students, but in a nonpressuring and nonthreatening way. I think this works best in the face-to-face classroom, but I have used it with some success in online and asynchronous courses, too.


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