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Maslow’s Hierarchies On Trial: Useful Framework, Outdated Hogwash, or Something In-Between?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?
Educational Theory, Social-Emotional Learning

Welcoming Values into the Classroom

Beginning in April 2019, I forayed into the world of freelance curriculum development and consulting. I’d had experience in this realm before, minus the freelance part, and had a blast getting to know a few educational companies more in-depth. One of these awesome organizations I worked with (and continue to!) is Sole Girls.

Sole Girls is a girls empowerment program that tackles self-esteem, physical and emotional health, and running through after-school programs, workshops, camps, and mentorship. Sole Girls was conceived by super-inspiring Canadian social entrepreneur, Ashley Wiles, in her late 20s. Ashley was impelled to take action after hearing about the tragic suicide of 15-year-old Amanda Todd, a teenager in Coquitlam, B.C. who was bullied, alone, without an advocate, and without the perspective of another way out. Ashley had been traveling the world working for a variety of organizations unsure of next moves, and after hearing about Amanda Todd, knew she had to come back to Canada and start a program that could support and empower girls while equipping them with skills and tools to navigate the frequently messy Girl World. And thus, Sole Girls was born.

Sole Awesomeness

Sole Girls works with females (and has a Sole 4 Boys program, too!) ages 5-12 through a 9-week curriculum, which is guided by the acronym S-O-L-E (Support, Open-Minded, Love, Enthusiasm) and culminates with a 5km run. The 5km run adds an element of challenge, forward-thinking, and bravery…all of which are absolutely transferable to social-emotional learning.

In addition to developing a variety of interpersonal skills, self-discovery, and running, Sole Girls also provides girls with a safe and encouraging community where they can share freely their experiences, questions, and connect with mentors ranging from high school to adulthood who play a diverse role in the programs’ communities. Six years of age, Sole Girls runs across Canada and has begun programming in Australia, as well.

I had the great privilege of working with Sole Girls, beginning in September 2019 in a variety of creative capacities, including leading programs (coaching) for both the Littles (ages 5-7) and regular (8-12) programs, curriculum development, and workshops.

…wait, can we bring this back to me for a second?

These programs are so special to me. As a kid, I never quite fit in, and I moved from a Montessori school to a public school and while I lived to tell the tale, retrospectively, I was thrown to the sharks. “Fitting in” was a totally new concept to me (made 0% easier by my strange obsession with growing a rat-tail and my parents’ wholeheartedly supporting nearly any form of said personal expression; side note- WHY, MOM AND DAD, WHY!? Jk- I love you); at my old school, all the kids played together, and for the first time, I experienced and saw that kids could be left out, which was jarring and confusing and really had no way of understanding any of it. I survived, yet constantly felt awkward, never knew when to “tell” on a student, and never knew what to do in the face of gossip or teasing. In short, I really had no clarity on my values.

And this is precisely why I adore Sole Girls programming, which takes a values-based approach in its curriculum and is also implicit in its mentorship programs.

But, I’m not really qualified to talk about that stuff…right?

Talking “values” with students might seem intimidating or “something they can do with their counselor,” but think about it. As educators, we learn about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs starting in day 0 of any training, so we know that students have needs they need met before they can master counting to 100 or writing a 5-paragraph essay or shooting a free-throw (pick your teaching poison). Specifically, these needs are Basic (which are physiological & safety), followed by Psychological (Belongingness & Esteem), and finally Self-Fulfillment…which, let’s be real, do we ever really attain?
Photo courtesy of:

If we want to reach our students, we’ve got to meet them on this triangle first and foremost, before we think about behavior adjustments, learning support, and calling home, it’s worth seeing where students are feeling in regards to how they feel about their friends, their learning communities, and themselves.

Teaching values need not be complicated or deeply emotional. Introducing a word or theme of the day/month/week/year is a simple way to help students start learning about values and unlocking or further developing their own.

Okay, maybe I’m on board.

So, what are examples of values you may be asking? Here’s a few:

      • Gratitude
      • Friendship
      • Trust
      • Responsibility
      • Creativity
      • Optimism
      • Compassion
      • Kindness
      • Integrity
      • Curiosity
      • Craftsmanship
      • Enthusiasm
      • Honesty
    • Sincerity

…and so on! Chances are, some other words or values were sparked when you scanned the list. Using these words in grades or assessments, as well as at morning meetings and/or advisory periods is an easy way to incorporate more meaning into the academic schedule and help students’ navigate and further clarify their needs for belonging and esteem.

As it is February, a simple way to incorporate values into your classroom is with a fun resource I made for Sole Girls this year: VALUE-tines!

These simple, (free printable!) cards are an alternative take on Valentine’s Day, in which students can recognize and celebrate the values they see in one another. Have each student draw a name and create a VALUE-tine for a member of the class; or have small groups work together to create a VALUE-tine for someone who works at the school; or trade VALUE-tines with another class. Get creative! Remember to model yours first!

  • What are your top 5 core values?
  • Have you used values in your classroom?
Educational Theory, Recent + Research-Based

Gardner-ing Multiple Intelligences

This week, I’m inspired by Howard Gardner, and in my pursuit of all things multiple intelligences, I listened to his TEDTalk from 2015 “Beyond Wit and Grit: Rethinking the Keys to Success.” Working in expeditionary schools, I’ve heard quite a bit about grit as a desired character trait, and wit, which Gardner uses in this talk to refer to multiple intelligences.
The overall theme of his talk was to look beyond possessing traits (a particular intelligence style or propensity, or a character trait like grit, in this case) to the application of these. Gardner makes some compelling observations, such as that Hitler had a lot of grit, as did Nelson Mandela. Fair point. Likewise, with multiple intelligences, he states that his research never indicated a hierarchy of intelligence– rather that a rainbow of intelligences exist, and we ought to use this diversity to guide our interactions accordingly.
Gardner’s talk brings up some thoughts for me, particularly now that “community curriculum” is gaining some traction:

  • What is our responsibility as educators when it comes to helping students identify themselves (whether through multiple intelligences, character traits, leadership styles, etc.)?
  • Is it merely enough to simply have students identify these? Or might we even be causing some shallow or deep psychological damage by not following through with a more cohesive way in which students can leverage their learning style?
  • How do we teach application of learning styles?

Ultimately, I agree that, like most things, it is not enough merely to introduce students to a concept– there must be substantial follow-through. I’m curious to hear from schools who have adopted a community curriculum what the teacher training or coaching may look like, as well as what the student guidance looks like following.

[Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash]