The 30-second briefing: What is Maslow's hierarchy of needs?

11th May 2016 at 10:01
A brief rundown of this widely used theory of human development

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who sought to understand what motivates people. He came up with a model that sets out five stages of “need” that a person must work through to achieve "self-actualisation" (which he defines as "the desire for self-fulfillment"). His theories have been around since the 1940s. You might recognise this pyramid:


Looks familiar, but how exactly does the hierarchy work?

The bottom level of the pyramid refers to basic physiological needs, such as air to breathe, food and water. A person must have these basic needs met before they are free to progress through subsequent stages of need to reach self-actualisation, a stage in which they are seen to be creative, spontaneous and self-sufficient amongst other things.

What does this have to do with teaching? 

To be honest, the links to education are somewhat tenuous. The suggestion is that pupils can only get to where we want them to be as learners – the level of self-actualization – if all their needs further down the hierarchy are being met.

But there are problems with this. The shape of the model itself suggests that learners take a Super Mario-style approach to jumping up levels, which doesn’t take into account the diversity of learners as individuals or the dynamics of the classroom.

So, it’s not the tool I need to solve Year 9’s motivation problems?

Probably not. For new or trainee teachers, Maslow’s hierarchy can be helpful for taking the temperature of the learning environment. For instance, do children feel socially secure in the classroom? If not, then their love and belonging needs are not being met, and you may need to reconsider the working groups that you are placing them in. Or, you might need to think about the language you are using with children or the tone of your marking to make sure that you are satisfying needs related to self-esteem.

What about the physiological needs? Are those relevant in the classroom?

In some ways. On a sweltering day, are you adapting to the needs of the pupils by letting them loosen their ties or take off their blazers? Are there opportunities for pupils to hydrate throughout the day?

And the teacher’s needs? Aren’t those important too?

They sure are − and they can be far more complicated than simply needing the wi-fi to work when you’re experimenting with the department’s class set of iPads for the first time.

The thing about Maslow’s hierarchy is that it is a complex and multifaceted system that has been reduced to its basics, built upon and adapted to be used by many industries from sales and advertising to education. To make proper use of it requires a much deeper understanding of psychology than can be expressed in a nicely coloured pyramid.

So, is this one to avoid?

You don’t need to avoid using it. Just bear its limitations in mind when you do.

Sarah Wright is a senior lecturer at Edge Hill University. She tweets as @Sarah__wright1

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