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Abraham Maslow

    Abraham Maslow (1908-1970)

    “Education can become a self-fulfilling activity, liberating in and of itself”

    Maslow grasped the essence of education and its ability to be both self-sufficient and free of any boundaries. He was fully aware of the liberating effect of education and its ability to bring out positive qualities in people.  

    Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist famous for his theory of psychological health, established on the fact that distinctive human needs are fulfilled following the priority principle. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs explains that first the basic human needs must be met to continue with the fulfillment of the higher ones like social, emotional, and the need for self-actualization. Once you satisfy your needs for food, safety, love, and self-esteem, the desire to become what you are meant to be will emerge as the highest need in Maslow’s hierarchy. His hierarchy provides an educational model that motivates students in their learning process. Without meeting the lowest level, students can’t fulfill the next level. The key to moving forward is the ability and motivation to improve with each level.   

    Maslow became one of the founders of humanistic psychology, a viewpoint that strives to help people fulfill their true potential and increase their well-being rather than focus on dysfunction. Therefore, he was identified as a pioneer in the science of happiness. Always looking for the best in people, he thought they can reach happiness through the hierarchy of needs, self-actualization, and peak experiences (transcendent moments of pure joy and excitement that stand out from everyday events).


    Abraham Harold Maslow was born on April 1, 1908, in Brooklyn, New York, and died on June 8, 1970, in Menlo Park, California.

    Maslow studied psychology at the University of Wisconsin, where he obtained his B.A. M.A. and Ph.D. in 1934. He also studied Gestalt psychology at the New School for Social Research in New York City. In 1937, Maslow joined the faculty of Brooklyn College, where he continued to work as a member of the school’s faculty until 1951. The same year, he became head of the psychology department at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, and stayed there until 1969.

    Under the influence of existential philosophers and literary figures, Maslow was a significant contributor to humanistic psychology, also known as the “third force,” as opposed to behaviorism and psychoanalysis. His motivational theory of needs hierarchy (5-level model of human needs) especially emphasizes the importance of the highest psychological need for self-actualization as the essence of a person’s health and happiness. Educators have found great use of Maslow’s hierarchy to enhance students’ learning through motivation, hence his impact on educational psychology. Abraham Maslow spent his last years in semi-retirement in California, where he died on June 8, 1970 of a heart attack. He dedicated his career and life to the positive aspects of human nature. Maslow is remembered to this day as one of the leading and most quoted psychologists of the 20th century.

    Maslow’s Theories

    “One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.”

    Maslow believed that a person’s life can only be comprehended by taking into account the highest aspirations, such as growth, self-actualization, and ambition for excellence. By trying to understand what motivated great people throughout history, he created his theory so we can realize what we’re capable of and what we can achieve. His life’s work was dedicated to our growth, self-fulfillment, and happiness. His ideas overlap with teachers’ goals because they too want to help their students grow and reach their true potential. Let’s review Maslow’s 5-level hierarchy of needs to understand its application in the classroom:

    Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a scalable vector illustration on white background

    1. Physiological needs 

    The first level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is reserved for the basic biological needs for our survival (food, water, sleep, warmth, shelter, rest…).

    • Teachers create a learning environment where first all students’ basic physiological needs are supported and satisfied so they can move to the next level in the hierarchy (all students have access to water, water bottles, nutrition snacks, a place for a short nap…).

    2. Safety needs

    When a person reaches the second level, it means he/she has satisfied his/her physiological needs, so they’re ready to fulfill the need for security and safety (emotional security, financial security, law and order, social stability, health, and wellbeing…).

    • To achieve student success, it’s crucial to meet safety needs. Therefore, teachers must create a safe environment not just by fulfilling physical parameters, but including emotional and psychological safety as well (students feel safe in a classroom where they feel free to share ideas and ask questions without being teased by their peers or criticized by teachers).

    3. Love and belongingness needs

    Once the first and the second need have been met, it is time for the third psychologic level of a person’s needs (emotional needs for intimate relationships, friends, being part of a group, being loved, and having a sense of belonging).

    • Teachers promote sensible basic rules in their classroom about mutual respect, trust, and acceptance, so students can feel a sense of belonging and love. They use comprehensive learning techniques, role play, and teamwork to help students identify with their peers and fit in the class.

    4. Esteem needs

    The fourth level in Maslow’s hierarchy is dedicated to self-esteem, strength, status, accomplishment, recognition, and respect. This level has two categories. The first is the esteem for oneself, and the second is the desire for reputation or esteem from others.

    • Again, the pre-condition to meet level four is the fulfillment of the previous three levels in Maslow’s hierarchy. At this level, students are most receptive to knowledge because they want to accomplish a good level of self-esteem through respect and achievement. Once they reach the level of esteem needs, students feel assured in their capability to learn and become responsible for their learning. Teachers include students in learner-centered activities (peer teaching and assessment) to fulfill students’ self-esteem needs.

    5. Self-actualization needs

    The highest level refers to recognition of human potential, self-fulfillment, personal growth, and peak experiences. Simply put, Maslow believes that a person desires to become the best version of himself/herself.

    • Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is also known as the motivational theory due to this fifth level because self-actualization is the motivating factor. With that in mind, at this level, students proactively look for ways to satisfy their full learning potential. They pursue higher learning goals and try to find ways to achieve them. Teachers support and motivate their students through the entire learning process to get to this final, highest peak of Maslow’s hierarchy, where students have the freedom and knowledge to achieve greatness.

    Maslow’s Impact

    Abraham Maslow’s theory has made quite an impact on the process of learning, teaching, and classroom organization. Why? Because he observed the entire set of qualities in a person (physical, emotional, social, and intellectual) and their influence on learning. It’s easy to recognize the application of Maslow’s hierarchy theory in the classroom. Teachers of today know that before the students’ cognitive needs are met, their basic physiological needs have to be fulfilled. A thirsty and tired student can’t focus on learning. Teachers create a soothing classroom environment where students feel emotionally and physically safe. Maslow’s ideas are used by teachers to motivate students, so they can reach their full potential.

    Using Maslow in the Classroom:

    Successful teachers use Maslow’s theories in the classroom in the followings ways:

    • Fulfill one level at a time before students are ready to satisfy the highest need in the hierarchy;
    • Show students that they are valued and respected in the classroom;
    • Strengthen students’ self-esteem;
    • Develop stronger and healthier students that would take their lives into their own hands;
    • Satisfy students’ physiological, psychological, and self-fulfillment needs;
    • Increase student’s awareness, understanding, and empathy; 
    • Teach students to pause and reflect;
    • Consider which physiological issues are affecting students’ motivation levels;
    • Create a caring learning environment that helps students meet their different needs and feel a sense of belonging;
    • Provide social learning possibilities in a social learning environment that helps students pursue their inner talent and creativity;
    • Offer students opportunities to cooperate and compete with each other;
    • Use teaching techniques that enable work in groups, group discussions, solving specific issues, or answering FAQs;
    • Use game mechanisms (badges, points, levels, leaderboards) as motivational tools and a way to make learning a fun experience;
    • Encourage self-esteem through rewards that give students a sense of accomplishment and motivation to improve;  
    • Help students find their purpose and then work towards its fulfillment;
    • Deepen students’ understanding of motivation, goal accomplishment, and personal satisfaction;
    • Provide students’ support through interpersonal relations that will enable them to climb up the hierarchy and reach the top when they begin to self-actualize;
    • Meet the students’ needs one step at a time to achieve self-actualization.

    Once the school fulfills the needs for food, water, shelter, and safety, its teachers turn to create a stimulating environment where students are valued and respected. Finally, teachers should use a curriculum focused on in-depth knowledge that motivates students to reach their full educational potential and reach the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

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