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Maslow’s Hierarchies On Trial: Useful Framework, Outdated Hogwash, or Something In-Between?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 {35 Children’s Books on Empathy & Kindness}

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?
School Design

Surprise Money for Classroom Makeovers: My Experience, Reflections, and What I’d Do Differently

Photo by Nicole Honeywill on Unsplash

My first semester of teaching was all about survival. The second semester was about student management and creating systems. The summer was for picking up a side gig to pay the bills (and bonus time refining my management style).

After building the confidence and practice as a new teacher over the first full year of teaching, my second year saw a shift in my focus away from management towards content creation and creating learning spaces. I worked at a private school and funding was somewhat nebulous– sometimes there was a random yet marvellous donation, sometimes budgets were watertight, and most of the time, teachers had a fair amount of autonomy in how they created and designed their learning spaces. I toyed with flexible seating options, including rugs and beanbag chairs, as well as intimate spaces for independent or quiet study time. Eventually my school received a large amount of funding to be used on learning spaces, and my classroom was elected as the test classroom ( S C O R E ! ). We involved the students in the decision-making process by arranging a field trip to the classroom furniture store (very similar to this place). Here, students worked in small groups to product-test. Their job was to explore the options in the following categories:

  • Independent work spaces
  • Group work desks
  • Seats

Using clipboards, they kept track of the products by recording their model, assigning them under one of the above mentioned categories, and giving them a ranking. The rankings were as follows:

  • Converts to group + individual work station
  • Only Group
  • Only Individual
  • Helps me focus
  • Just for fun

They also kept track of price and a few other details (such as size dimensions, as applicable).

Students spent about an hour product testing, which was a hoot to watch. It was also somewhat clear what pieces of furniture would actually be effective for groupwork (as evidenced by students engaging in their furniture debates on the actual pieces of furniture), and which would decidedly not be (*unpopular opinion* Fatboy— so comfy, you could fall asleep in them. Perhaps their marketing with adults in pajamas is indicative of their purpose… #notinmyclassroom).

Back at school, students then created proposals, which included designs and drafts of their proposed learning space needs, including quantities and makes/models of desks, chairs, tables, and other elements. Student proposals included drawings featuring multiple iterations of group and individual seating arrangements (they gave these arrangements names, and we used these names in class for future groupwork). In addition to layout, students also wrote value statements, which included why their selected pieces of furniture would add value to our classroom, in terms of group needs, as well as any identifiable and unique features (ie: can they speak to a learning style?). The proposal went to the head of school, who would be placing the order and decide upon the best proposals put forth.

The entire process from field trip to proposal lasted in total 2 days and was done in the first week of school. At first, my team and I questioned the value of furniture testing, however, we quickly saw that this would be an excellent opportunity to start setting norms about field trip etiquette, craftsmanship, groupwork, and ultimately, teachers shouldn’t have exclusive say on the learning spaces. Students will spend nearly 1/3 of their day in these walls, too, and it’s important to include them in the process.

In the end, the classroom arrangements included 2 standing desks, 8 folding desks on wheels, 2 Fatboys (*sigh*), and a classroom set of Hokki stools. We were able to keep our existing set of classroom chairs in addition to the stools.

After the classroom upgrade, was there a notable difference in learning?

One of my frequent musings when perusing the world of teacher Instagram accounts is: classroom renovations can look absolutely STUNNING, but if they don’t serve to enhance student learning, is funding truly being allocated wisely?

That’s generally my query, but with funding in any school typically being somewhat random and dependent on other factors, most teachers (myself fo sho included) will not be turning down funding for classroom upgrades anytime soon.

In this particular case, I can’t truly answer if there was a notable difference in learning. This is partially due to timing, as the funds became available 2 days before school began, and this endeavour lent itself to some of the first-week projects. It ended up taking several months for the furniture to actually come, and we used somewhat random bits and bobs of furniture, including camp chairs and discarded art tables (the school was undergoing unprecedented growth). We also spent a great deal of time on field trips with our class and were used to frequently creating makeshift classroom on a city hall lawn, museum cafeterias, and hospital waiting room.

While creativity and motion are invaluable, by the time we got the furniture, we were all ready. So, how did it all go?

The Wins

Having flexible seating options, particularly for some of my wigglier students, was helpful. The Hokki stools, in particular, I cannot recommend enough. Like any new tool, if students are given boundaries and can help generate acceptable etiquette, there generally will be success. With Hokkis being new and exciting, at first all kids wanted to use them. Over time, the kids who really needed the extra motion to help them focus saw success with them. Some students became more distracted by the motion itself and found more success in the traditional classroom chairs. For some kids, the Hokkis and a traditional chair still didn’t seem to cut it, though other strategies did (such as standing at a desk, or using a rug on the ground). I identify as a wiggly adult and found these stools to be the missing ingredient needed to bolster my attention span at faculty meetings.

Standing desks seemed to have mixed success. Some students, particularly my tall students, found them helpful, but most of the class tended to use the tables or the floor when given choice. My teaching partner and I tended to get more use out of the standing desk during prep and planning time.

The folding desks with wheels were the most invaluable. The flexibility to use them for individual work, labs, large group discussions, and to completely roll them up and stash them away was huge. We were able to gain tons of space using them, and there’s very little that can be distracting on them. At times, we even folded them and used them as temporary displays of student work.

What I’d Change

Fatboys! I want to love these, but I’ve had little success with bean bags in my classroom. I find they get trashed during lunch hours or during other classes (I shared my classroom), and that norms were challenging to implement across the many students who used the classroom. I’m certainly not opposed to beanbag seating, but I don’t think I’d do it in a shared classroom again. Fatboys, however, are juuuust big enough that students can almost squeeze 2 people on them, and while at times cute, is overall more distracting than it is an asset to learning.

More Affordable Options

Admittedly, I had it made in this scenario. A wide range of learning space supplies at my fingertips, opportunity for student input, and a generous budget? Truly- it was a blessing.

And, oh, what a rare blessing it was, and one I doubt I shall see again any time soon 🙂 I savoured it, indeed.

I’m completely aware that this is simply not viable or possible for every educator. So, how to make classroom renovations more affordable? Check out DonorsChoose. This website is created specifically for classroom educators who are looking to improve an aspect of their learning spaces (supplies, furniture, etc.) and put out their classroom wishes. Donors choose which projects they want to fund and can provide a funding match, as well. Similarly, AdoptAClassroom is a platform for teachers to propose funding needs and create campaigns for their classrooms. AAC can also be used district- and school-wide.

  • Have you ever done a classroom renovation?
  • What are your favourite elements of flexible seating?
  • How have you involved your students in classroom makeovers?
  • What ways have you made classroom renovations affordable?