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Maslow’s Hierarchies On Trial: Useful Framework, Outdated Hogwash, or Something In-Between?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

Classroom Hack: Table Captains for Small Group Work

Small group-work: on the surface, it seems like a fantastic way to foster inquiry, bolster peer-to-peer interaction, and give students a taste of those real-world skills of collaboration, problem-solving, and communication.

But, as any substitute teacher will tell you, small group-work does not just happen. In fact, giving students a set of directions and letting them at it is most certainly a recipe for not-total-success. There are a lot of implicit assumptions on the teachers’ end: that students will know when they’ve reached the end of the task; that students will have all of the resources to finish the task; that all students will contribute and roughly equally; that all students will know exactly what needs to get done and a general idea of how. And the list goes on.

And, if your students are anything like I was when I was 11, if any of the above assumptions prove faulty, soon the task at hand, the collaboration, and any form of focus will fly across the room faster than a spitball.

So what to do?

First, let’s cover the bases. In order for group-work to…work, the following is a quick to-do list for teachers:


…come to think of it, this is probably an applicable framework for introducing anything in the classroom. But, I digress.

One of the problems with giving directions and letting students have at it is that students likely need more support when it comes to role definition. It’s unfair to constantly assume one student will “step up” as a leader. This is typically an extroverted student who perhaps doesn’t always particularly like the role, and it also makes it ever-challenging for introverted or more timid students to take on a role, which they may actually love!

Enter Table Captains: an equitable way for students to practice leadership roles, either as designated leaders or active followers.

How it works

Here’s the gist:

  • Students are divided into groups of 3-6
  • Each group has 1 Table Captain
  • Table Captains have extra responsibilities are in charge of keeping the team in line with respect to task completion; timing; and organization

A Table Captain is in charge of all materials and ensures the small groups stay on task within the given time frame. The philosophy is that students without a strong focus or drive tend to rapidly dissipate. With a clear leader in the group, students know who to turn to when they have questions about the task at hand. Additionally, when students have a leadership role, they are more likely to be invested in the tasks at hand, and ultimately, the learning at hand. This strategy also allows students to practice speaking to one another, instead of simply just to a teacher. In doing so, you’ll find students are learning from one another, and really… isn’t that kind of what we’re going for here? (Nod your head)

The Goods

Below is a sample Table Captain Task Page:.

Table Captain supplies in my (Grade 5-7) classroom typically include Post-Its + Folder with all necessary articles and Table Captain task page. I announce Table Captains the night before so students who may need (or appreciate) it can mentally prepare for being a leader.

Putting it all together

In order for students to understand how this works, follow the above to-do list:

  • EXPLAIN IT (have a conversation with your class about leadership opportunities)
  • EXPLAIN IT AGAIN DIFFERENTLY (show students a Table Captain sheet. Ask them what roles a Table Captain seems to hold)
  • MODEL IT (use a fellow teacher, aid, student, etc. and show, in a condensed version, of what this process looks like. For real. Do it.)
  • PRACTICE IT (give a sample task to the class. Offer students the chance to demonstrate to the class, if they’re confident)
  • DO IT (give a real task! Let it rip!)
  • COACH IT (wander about while students engage in Table Captain tasks. Check in with your Captains after class. Have them send you a quick email, including what went well and what was challenging– 1 sentence each)
  • PRACTICE IT AGAIN (keep doing it! You won’t know how it’s going until you’ve done it more than once)
  • SUPPORT IT (check in with your Table Captains. Be consistent. Even if it seems to not work the first few weeks, give it a chance. Don’t judge it until students have been Table Captains at least 3 times. That’s approximately 12 rounds. Data is important!)
  • REFINE IT (something work better or differently in your classroom? Get creative! Own it, customize it, rock it.)
Social-Emotional Learning

GIRL em(POWER)ed: Tools & Tips to Embolden Girls


It’s no secret that girls today are facing adversity. With gender pay gaps still a reality and the hard truths of the #metoo movement exposing trauma and , it’s a scary time to be a girl. As educators, it’s more important than ever that we are tuned in to our students– not just their names or their grades, but a holistic understanding of who they are and what their world is. If we can’t recognize the gamut of conditions that exist in our students’ worlds outside of the classroom, we’re not doing our jobs.

This series, GIRL em(POWER)ed, will speak to the need to cultivate strength, boldness, and confidence in our girls. All of the activities can certainly be applied to any gender, but they were created with females in mind.

So, what are girls of today facing, exactly? Geography pays a huge role. If we focus on North America, we eliminate some of the tragic issues faced by other nations, including limited access and incentive for schooling; poverty and forced labor-force participation; limited curriculum available to girls; long distances to school; violence; sex trafficking; and forced family creation. There are a few amazing, dedicated organizations who have made their mission to girls education (see: PlanCanada, CARE, Malala Fund, Global Girls Alliance, to name a couple).

This series provides bite-size, easy steps for your classroom, club, organization, family, and so forth, that you can use on a daily or immediate basis with limited planning and resources. It’s founded on three central themes for fostering strong girls:

Freedom to Individuality: Girls are bombarded on all sides with messages, often wildly conflicting, about how they should be, who they should be, how they should act, and what they should or shouldn’t do. It’s impossible to shut out all of those voices as you’re just beginning to navigate who you are. While we want to foster strong and bold girls into women, we must allow them to try on many versions of themselves and be individuals and ultimately, allow girls to choose who they are. Let them be free to discover themselves and support them relentlessly on the journey.

Relationship: Navigating this world feeling like nobody cares or is on your side is truly the worst feeling. There are so many contentious messages regarding self worth girls are internalizing, and doing it solo is not only painful, but also unhealthy and even unsafe. Fostering relationships with girls is critical not only for the girls themselves but for healthy, happy, thriving classrooms. Find out their interests, make connections. Ask them how their swim meet went. Care about their weekends. Really read what they write in their creative essays. Invest in girls. 

Belief: Believe in girls’ abilities to learn, to change, to grow, to try, to care, to evolve. Some of my own most vivid memories that defined my self-worth as a young woman are offhand comments a teacher or coach made, both the positives and the negatives. I had a cross-country coach who said to me once, “You really don’t care, do you?” I actually really did- I just didn’t believe in myself. That comment has stuck with me until today, and still makes me feel ashamed. Conversely, my 6th grade science teacher complimented me in front of a group of my peers, saying my poster layout I contributed for the team was sophisticated. I have never forgotten how proud that made min that moment. We likely all have moments like this, and the takeaway is: tell and show girls that you believe in them. Be a mentor who encourages and believes in them without condition.

How are you empowering girls in your schools? I’d love to hear about it!