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The truth about “Maslow before Bloom”

Among the many famous sayings that teachers know by heart, “Maslow before Bloom” stands out the most. Unlike other popular educational theories, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (HN) seems to have reached a universal agreement: students are motivated to achieve learning goals when their basic needs, such as hunger and safety, are met.

Credit: Simply Psychology

That looks easy enough for anyone to follow. Yet, it has a few problematic points that we seem to gloss over.

First, many articles out there still promote the idea that teachers should be the ones to address students’ diverse needs. Without a predefined curriculum, schedules, and a pandemic on our hands, maybe that would be possible.

In reality, “Maslow before Bloom” doesn’t just happen in a classroom. For example, the UK government’s controversial decision to stop offering free school meals during the holidays is a clear departure from this philosophy.

We need to look at the broader context of school culture and communities.

Moreover, few people question Maslow’s pyramid since it goes hand in hand with what teachers do: they teach the whole student, with real needs and emotions. While this is a noble purpose, in practice, we see exceptions all the time: students that excel despite adversities and students who struggle for no apparent reason.

Which begs the question: have we got it all wrong?

Today’s blog is all about how a misunderstanding of Maslow’s theory makes it less effective in educational settings and why, despite that, the approach can bring some value to teaching.

Why Maslow before Bloom?

Maslow’s hierarchy of physiological, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization needs tells us that there’s more to a student’s behavior than what we see on the surface.

When students have self-esteem issues, teachers see behavioral patterns such as poor focus and disengagement. When students don’t feel safe in their communities or households, they’re in a permanent state of alert, which won’t go away unless the problem is solved. When teachers work with students that are entirely able to participate in class, that’s when Bloom’s taxonomy is best put to use.

Credit: Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching

And yet, there’s a big problem with the way educators have learned to interpret Maslow’s HN, starting with the fact that there’s so much we still get wrong about the theory itself. Wininger and Norman of Western Kentucky University firmly suggest not only do psychology education textbooks present inaccurate information, but there’s a minimal attempt to teach how to apply it in educational contexts.

What they found out might surprise even the most experienced educators.

What teachers need to relearn about Maslow’s HN

Before taking my first ever real Psychology class, I was very confident that my understanding of Maslow’s pyramid was top-notch. After all, I’d passed more than one exam to get into that program. It’s a famous pyramid encountered in many textbooks!

Well, my “knowledge” was debunked by a professor in five minutes or less. The name of the class? Introduction to Psychology.

The problem with a simple interpretation of any theory is that we’re leaving out the nuances, and nuances best guide our work. We rarely question that what we have learned is accurate because our initial sources have shaped our fundamental understanding of that concept.

So, without further ado, here’s what many people get wrong about Maslow’s HN:

We think it’s a pyramid

Maslow never used a pyramid to describe or to represent his theory. The pyramid imagery was created by a management consultant. Maslow worked on his ideas, expanding and improving them over the years, so it’s astounding that we’re still fixated on physiological needs at the bottom and self-actualization at the top, with everything else in between.

Instead, the HN is best represented by a ladder, in which we go up and down. We don’t stay fixated on one need for the rest of our lives. All of them exist at once: you can be hungry and crave knowledge at the same time.

The none or all approach

Needs depend on one another, but you don’t need to be happy in one area before moving on to the next. In other words, this isn’t an “all or none” phenomenon.

Who says so? The man himself: “‘If one need is satisfied, then another emerges.’ This statement might give the false impression that a need must be satisfied 100 per cent before the next need emerges.” (Source).

Further proof is this study by Diener and Tay (2011), involving 60,865 participants from 123 countries, which strongly suggests that the order of needs fulfillment has nothing to do with well being. A student might have 60% physiological, 30% safety, and 70% esteem needs met and still be pretty content overall.

We assume there’s a rigid sequence

The pyramid imagery is deceitful because it gives the impression that there’s a stable sequence of needs. Love after safety, right?

Well, no. The order of needs is not rigid, meaning that individual differences and sometimes even cultural differences can shape it. For some students, the need for self-esteem can be higher than belonging to a group.

Maslow thought that creative types are most likely to achieve self-actualization first, even ignoring physiological needs. The same goes for people with high ideals and values. I bet that you’ve also been so engrossed in a task that you’ve forgotten to eat or drink water. I should get up from my desk right now, but I’ll fix myself something later.

Read more: The complexity of self-actualization and how to help students achieve it

We confuse popularity with validity

Like any psychologist worth their salt, Maslow was apprehensive about the wide adoption of his theory without legitimate proof. He mostly wanted motivation as a subject to gain more ground. He was hesitant to present his work as “fact.” Researchers found little empirical support for the HN, starting with the concept of “need” itself.

That’s because Maslow used biography as a research method. Initially, he only selected a small sample of 18 people he considered to have reached self-actualization, such as Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, and Eleanor Roosevelt. It’s not hard to see why such a subjective and ultimately unscientific research method could have flown under the radar in the 1940s, but not today.

We don’t know about the preconditions

What preconditions, you might ask? In his work, Maslow also mentioned conditions that come before basic needs fulfillment. For example, freedom of expression, freedom to investigate and seek information, fairness, and honesty are necessary, or in Maslow’s words, “Danger to these is reacted to almost as if it were a direct danger to the basic needs themselves” (Source).

For him, it was clear that cognitive needs also play an essential role. He recognized that each of us has a fundamental desire to know and understand, which happens inside and outside the school system. Put simply, if a student feels mistreated in school, they’ll be less motivated. Encouraging students to use their voice and express themselves freely leads to excellent teaching.

Read more: Giving students a V.O.I.C.E. in your classroom

So what’s beyond “Maslow before Bloom"?

In my opinion, we shouldn’t discard Maslow’s HN entirely. I believe that it can be of value to educators who want to understand what motivates students and can use it as a starting point for finding more up-to-date research.

Here are a few conclusions that we can draw from today’s article:

  • Understand that any behavior is multi-motivated. It might be true that a student cannot concentrate before having a good meal, but at the same time, the student might need more encouragement from the teacher.

    Read more: How to motivate students for lifelong learning

  • Look beyond the classroom for answers. Expecting teachers to solve all problems, especially those in the broader community context, is too much to ask. That’s why in some cases involving parents is essential, while in others, bigger changes need to be made.

    Read more: Keeping parents in the loop with edtech

  • Work on strengthening the student-teacher relationship. Effective teaching is also emphatic teaching. Get to know your students, their background, their strong and weak points. Be open and show vulnerability.

    Read more: 7 Tips on how to adapt teacher-student rapport while teaching online

  • Student autonomy. Students need support, but also to express themselves freely. Are students comfortable with asking questions? Are they unafraid of speaking up? Do they know how to share their opinions? If the school culture frowns upon these things, remember that a lack of autonomy affects the learning process.
  • Support for parents. Giving parents more resources to help with remote learning is far more critical than sending emails and memos with to-do lists. In these uncertain times, it should be a whole school initiative to strengthen the parent-school connection.

    Read more: Best practices for supporting parents with remote learning

  • Keep the routine. A solid routine rooted in predictability is paramount for fulfilling safety needs. For example, if you had a “silly hat day” each month, continue to do so in online classes as well.
  • Make time for brain breaks. Depending on your students’ age, taking more frequent breaks to focus on their needs can be immensely beneficial. Brain breaks improve their ability to stay on task for more extended periods. It also teaches them proper self-care.

    Read more: 9 Easy mindfulness activities for the virtual classroom

  • Supportive environment. (Cyber)bullying, socio-economic inequality, the digital divide can be aspects of a student’s life whether we like it or not. Social-emotional learning can be a starting point.

    Read more: Teaching SEL skills in online education

  • Teacher teamwork. One teacher cannot do all the emotional work in a school. Helping students has to be a team effort; the same is true for sharing activities and best practices.

    Read more: Learning and growing as educators

These are just some of the examples and activities that address needs before learning objectives.

Final thoughts

Misunderstood theories don’t support excellent teaching. Although famous, Maslow’s HN is controversial and has limited empirical support. That doesn’t mean that we should forget about it altogether. We need to analyze what could be useful and only take good ideas. Preferably, we should look at more recent studies before adopting a new approach.

A precondition such as student autonomy is just as essential as fulfilling basic needs. Teachers, while awesome at what they do, cannot do it all by themselves. We need to look at the bigger picture if we want to apply “Maslow before Bloom”.

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