Educational Theory

Maslow’s Hierarchies On Trial: Useful Framework, Outdated Hogwash, or Something In-Between?

Photo by ptyczech from VectorStock

If you’ve taken an introductory psychology, sociology, education, or likely many other liberal arts courses, it’s likely you’ve heard Abraham Maslow’s name with an accompanying graphic of his pyramid (updated from its inception in 1948).

The premise of the pyramid is relatively simple: in order to learn and reach higher levels of complex thought (ie: creativity, abstract thought, and the ever-nebulous concept of self-actualization), more basic needs (such as hunger, sleep, human connection, and safety) need to be met. As the theory’s title suggests, these needs are hierarchical. That is, those at the bottom of the pyramid (namely psychological and safety needs) must be satisfied fully in order for a person to feel love and belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization.

I first learned the theory in Psychology 101 in 2005. In my experience, as a white, middle class woman having lived in the Midwest of United States for my life’s entirety, the theory checked out for me. Can I be wholly creative and woke when hungry? Inconceivable. Am I more prone to consider my morality when I know I’ve got supportive friends and family with whom to discuss my personal philosophies and values? Totes.

Indeed, at age 18, this all made perfect sense and checked out with my world view at the time. I continued on my merry way through a bachelor’s degree, and a Master’s of Education, smiling and nodding through every mention of Maslow and his pyramid. I would diligently jot a note down here or there about self-actualization, never thinking too critically one way or the other about it.

Recently, however, I came across a series of resources shared by teacher researcher, master educator, and PhD candidate Christina Costa, one of which challenged Maslow’s theory.

Wait, thought Sara-of-now-mid-30s , it might not be real!? How embarrassing, my lack of critical reflection! Ok, blah-blah, let’s move on from my complacency. After the seed was planted that Maslow’s theory may not be true, I went on a quest of my own. My chief wonders were as follows:

  • Why might Maslow’s theory be flawed?
  • Who might Maslow’s theory be serving and more importantly, NOT serving?
  • What are alternative theories put forth (or do we need any?)?

And my quest began. Some articles wasted no time with niceties and went straight to the heart with criticism, most notably a 2012 article published in Forbes online (which, to be fair, was half earnest criticism and half book promotion; take the harshness with a grain of salt):

Simple, orderly, intuitively sensible, cognitively appealing and  offering order out of chaos, the hierarchy of needs has only one problem: it is plain, flat, dead wrong.

Steve denning (“What maslow missed“) on Forbes

Denning, drawing on the criticisms put forth by psychologist Pamela Rudlege, argues that Maslow’s principle error is the hierarchy, particularly as it undermines the essentiality of human connection in favour of basic needs (hunger, sleep, warmth, etc.). Consistently, modern research in the field of psychology has yielded no significant evidence that supports Maslow’s theory, particularly its hierarchical nature. While the individual elements of a healthy, functioning human indeed include all of the put forth by Maslow, however, the order of importance proves to be much more complex and interconnected than a mere hierarchy.

Maslow’s rewired theory from Forbes

A range of critical analyses have emerged over the years around the world, particularly as Maslow’s theory relates to educational settings. Chief among these is the ethnocentrism implicit in Maslow’s theory. Maslow’s theory is inherently suited towards individualistic societies, namely North America, with its heavy-handed emphasis on self-actualization as a pinnacle of personal growth. Collectivist cultures, in contrast, have alternative goals more closely aligned with community needs, rather than individual fulfilment, and values not mirrored in Maslow’s proposed hierarchy.

Ok, so, this hierarchy from 1948 is wrong. This matters to teachers because…?

A few reasons.

First, blindly accepting Maslow’s needs confirms and perpetuates an unnecessary and exclusive Western paradigm that just isn’t representative of a classroom’s learners. To continue to assume an exclusively Western, individualistic perspective as the model for all of human development is irresponsible and in some cases, harmful. By assuming this model we cheat our classrooms of the rich, diverse, and wildly unique backgrounds from which our students come.

Might we use Maslow’s theory as a general, non-absolute benchmark of human development guidelines? Sure. Just do so wisely and critically. It is helpful to consider students’ safety, connectedness, hunger, morality, and esteem. However, to decide for our students which is most important which is the most important in their own lives, is irresponsible.

Above all, a critical analysis of Maslow’s theory underlines the absolute importance of being critical learners as educators. We are responsible for our own professional development, and part of this includes investigating and questioning theories, particularly to whom these theories might apply and/or exclude.


What do you think?

  • Is Maslow’s theory still relevant?
  • What are criticisms of Maslow’s theory you’ve heard?
  • What of this theory is still relevant?
Instructional Tools, Must-Reads, Social-Emotional Learning

BOMish: August 2019

This month’s BOMish is a bit over the top.

It’s less about ONE book and more about… 35! *Gasp!* Say what?!

Indeed! This week, the Huffington Post compiled a list of 35 children’s books that are centred around empathy. These books range for reading levels from approximately grade 1-5 (more heavily clustered to lower elementary reading levels) featuring characters who embark on “compassion, acceptance, and inclusion.” The books range in diversity of topic, including heavy world events like terrorism (Most People) to diversity in our schools and neighbourhoods (All Are Welcome; Chocolate Milk, Por Favor; and Last Stop on Market Street) to bullying (One) to the power of reaching out and being a friend (Save Me A Seat). It also includes the modern elementary classroom hit, Have You Filled A Bucket Today? – a guide for happiness and social-emotional awareness for kids and classrooms, as well as the age-old classic of Ferdinand (personal fave). Books feature characters from all over the world and many have a focus on cross-cultural understanding and celebrating differences. Authors, too, represent

Admittedly, I’ve not ready many on the list, though I’m thrilled to seek inspiration and find more diverse voices and choices as I bolster my classroom library.

Huff Po’s 35 Children’s Books on Empathy & Kindness

  • Last Stop on Market Street (Matt de la Peña)
  • Those Shoes (Maribeth Boelts)
  • You, Me, and Empathy (Jayneen Sanders)
  • Most People (Michael Leannah)
  • The Invisible Boy (Trudy Ludwig)
  • Come With Me (Holly M. McGhee)
  • All Are Welcome (Alexandra Penfold)
  • Little Blue Truck (Alice Schertle)
  • Be Kind (Pat Zietlow Miller)
  • Save Me A Seat (Sarah Weeks & Gita Varadarajan)
  • Chocolate Milk, Por Favor (Maria Dismondy)
  • If You Plant a Seed (Kadir Nelson)
  • One (Kathryn Otoshi)
  • We’re All Wonders (RJ Palacio)
  • I Am Enough (Grace Byers)
  • Enemy Pie (Derek Monson)
  • Lovely (Jess Hong)
  • A Sick Day for Amos McGee (Philip C. Stead)
  • Have You Filled A Bucket Today? (Carol McCloud)
  • Each Kindness (Jacqueline Woodson)
  • I Am Human (Susan Verde)
  • Superheroes Club (Madeleine Sherak)
  • I Walk With Vanessa (Kerascoët)
  • The Monster Who Lost His Mean (Tiffany Strelitz Haher)
  • The Rabbit Listened (Cori Doerrfeld)
  • Otis and the Scarecrow (Loren Long)
  • Lost and Found Cat (Doug Kuntz & Amy Schrodes)
  • Hey, Little Ant (Phillip and Hannah Hoose)
  • How Kind! (Mary Murphy)
  • Pass It On (Sophy Henn)
  • Listening With My Heart (Gabi Garcia)
  • The Story of Ferdinand (Munro Leaf)
  • Empathy is My Superpower (Bryan Smith)
  • Just Feel (Malika Chopra)
  • Kindness is Cooler, Mrs. Ruler (Margery Cuyler)

  • How many of these have you read?
  • What’s missing in this book list?
  • What are some of your favourite titles for young learners?

You’ve Read “Educated”… Now What? Accompanying Resources & Guides

Photo Courtesy of the New York Times

One of the books top on my summer reading list was Educated by Tara Westover. The book shares a deeply personal, often-troubling, and raw memoir from Tara’s life growing up in a survivalist family in rural Idaho, and her anything-but-direct route to Cambridge. Tara’s education included extremes, from her family’s extremist upbringing which entailed junkyards, herbalism, religion, and even abuse. Her captivating story takes readers on a winding path of cringeworthy social settings, second-hand embarrassment, empathy, heartbreak, inspiration, incredulity, sorrow, and so many more emotions.

I left the book feeling SO MANY THINGS (the short list of which is mentioned above) and ultimately found myself scouring the internet for some sort of shared reflection, discussion, or… I wasn’t really sure what I wanted or needed.

And, as so often is the case, the Internet hath provide.

Below are 3 resources that can accompany your post-Educated journey.

Bill Gates’ Interview with Tara Westover

Bill Gates has not been shy to give Educated exceptional praise and in an eloquent and meaningful way. I found myself nearly hypnotised by Westover’s story, yet couldn’t quite put my finger on what I found so mesmerising. Gates’ articulates similar sentiments (did I just compare myself to Bill Gates? Moving on…), and I’m particularly appreciative of the following observation:

It reminded me in some ways of the Netflix documentary Wild, Wild Country, which I recently watched. Both explore people who remove themselves from society because they have these beliefs and knowledge that they think make them more enlightened. Their belief systems benefit from their separateness, and you’re forced to be either in or out.
But unlike Wild, Wild Country—which revels in the strangeness of its subjects—Educated doesn’t feel voyeuristic. Tara is never cruel, even when she’s writing about some of her father’s most fringe beliefs.

Bill Gates (https://www.gatesnotes.com/Books/Educated)

Check out more of Bill Gates’ conversation with Tara Westover here.

New York Times Discussion Guide

Call me old-fashioned (a nerd and a half), but I love a good book club discussion guide. This particular guide, published in the New York Times, divides the book into thirds and is intended to accompany Parts I-III in Educated. While there are a few guides floating around the web, I appreciated this one due to its detail-oriented questions, particularly after a few weeks after I’d read the book. I was able to precisely remember the context in which the questions were relevant and think a bit more deeply about the reading. In other words, it really focused my attention to the content and making meaning from the entire text, rather than invent surface-level connections (something of which I am certainly guilty with summer reading…). But, don’t take my word for it. Here’s a sample:

 In the Author’s Note, Westover cautions that this memoir is not about Mormonism or “any form of religious belief,” and that she rejects a negative or positive correlation between believing or not believing and being kind or not being kind. But her father Gene’s faith informs how he sees the world. What did you make of Chapter 8, “Tiny Harlots,” which moves from Gene’s distrust of Westover’s dance recital uniform to his pride over her singing in church?

“Now Read this” from the New York Times Discussion GUide for Educated (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/08/books/educated-tara-westover-discussion-questions.html)

Tyler Westover’s Response & Corroboration

I’m a hopeless critic. Give me the greatest book in the world, and I’ll immediately Google “criticism of ___name of book____” upon completion. I’m not implicitly negative or spiteful (promise!), but having spent enough time in the world of science, I’ve learned the value of taking a critical approach– to consider the source and what would need to be untrue (or less true) in order to allow something to be true (or more true). In any issue, there’s always another side, another perspective, and even if it’s not entirely true, it adds value and/or texture to our understanding.

And so, I found my curiosity piqued shortly after completing Educated, and thus, Googling things like “Westover family response to Educated” and the like. The Westover family is large and dynamic, and while Tara’s perspective and story are incredible, one cannot consider the entire story without the viewpoints of others involved. Tara’s mother is relatively active on social media, and there are a few comments from Richard, one of her older brothers. However, the most detailed response I’ve found has been Tyler (another brother) Westover’s response to Educated. Tyler’s perspective is particularly compelling to me, as he, it is presumed, lived a life closely paralleling Tara’s…from upbringing to leaving for a university education to navigating Westover relations into adulthood.

Tyler’s response to Educated at first was jarring. In many ways, he validated Tara’s story and seeks not to undermine her experiences. In other ways, he is clear to say that her experience is not what he witnessed or experienced himself.

In her book, in numerous places, Tara interprets for me and other members of my family things that we did, said, thought, and even felt. I cannot speak for the other members of my family, but in my case I think in many instances she greatly incorrectly conveyed my experiences. 

Tyler Westover (https://www.goodreads.com/questions/1337824-i-saw-mentioned-that-tyler-westover-has)

This account, in particular, was the first indication that perhaps Tara’s story includes inaccuracies or misremembrance of events. This is, of course, expected to some degree in all memoirs. It’s the recalling of human experience, a process that is deeply personal and true to one person and one person alone. Tyler’s review and response actually helped create more poignancy in Tara’s story, yet also made me wonder to what degree memories were clouded or a product of misinterpretation.

  • What other resources exist for Educated?
  • What were some of your biggest takeaways from Educated?