Pedagogy Focus: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

As part of our Pedagogy Focus series, we look at Maslow's hierarchy of needs and ask, how is it used in schools?

Pedagogy Focus: What is Maslow's hierarchy of needs?

What is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory of human motivation that proposes (originally) five different levels of human needs, arranged in a hierarchical pyramid structure. 

These needs are cumulative and should be met at each stage before the desire to pursue a higher need can be realised. 

They move from the basic physiological requirements of food, water, safety and so on, through to those of accomplishment and self-actualisation. 

Maslow suggested that motivation to have or pursue needs altered depending on progress up the pyramid; once met, deficiency needs (lower on the hierarchy) call for less or no motivation, while the growth needs (at the top of the hierarchy) encourage further drive and desire.

Where did the theory come from?

The hierarchy of needs first appeared in Maslow’s 1943 paper "A Theory of Human Motivation". Maslow went on to expand on this theory in his own book and continued to refine and develop his ideas over a number of decades. 

As a humanist psychological theory, Maslow’s hierarchy became popular with those looking for a more positive outlook on human behaviour that considered the individual and the personal choices they might make when it came to their own development.

How is it used in schools?

The principles of the hierarchy of needs can be seen to underpin many of the approaches found in schools. The hierarchy asserts the idea that before a student’s cognitive needs can be met, they must first fulfil their basic needs. 

Teachers and schools should therefore modify their approach and put in place support to ensure that all pupils have the opportunity to satisfy their physiological and psychological needs before expecting them to be motivated to learn and progress.

This could happen in the following ways:

  • Through school-wide directives such as encouraging all pupils to have water bottles out in class, offering healthy and nutritious meals and snacks, and creating safe and secure spaces for learning and break times.
  • By aligning ideas about motivation and the necessity of meeting human needs with the pastoral care system. Students who are underachieving in a number of areas or significantly lacking in self-esteem might warrant further investigation in terms of their other, more basic needs and the extent to which these are being met.
  • Creating seating plans and activities that help to support and foster friendships in the learning space; feelings of belonging and networks of support are necessary for students to further progress in terms of motivation and learning.
  • Giving praise to students to help boost self-esteem but also following this up with clear and realistic feedback in order to help them see how they might progress. Knowing how to move forward and having a new goal to work towards is vital for continued motivation and ongoing self-actualisation.

Is it controversial?

There is a significant lack of data to substantiate many of the claims made by Maslow, and the research that he conducted is often criticised for lacking validity and a reliable methodology. 

Maslow analysed a number of biographies of (people who he deemed as) high-profile self-actualisers and compiled a list of characteristics and qualities they all had in common. 

Not only was this approach subject to personal bias (owing to the highly subjective nature of the material and selection of evidence) but the sample of chosen individuals was also unrepresentative as it mainly consisted of highly educated white males.

Also, the hierarchical set-up of the model implies that needs are only ever confined to each level and doesn’t seem to account for motivation governed by multiple needs. 

It can be limiting in this respect and cannot account for people who might not be able to fulfil certain needs as a result of adverse circumstances, and yet still form relationships and are motivated to achieve.

Further reading

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (Simply Psychology website)

Maslow, AH, "A Theory of Human Motivation", Wilder Publications, 2013

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