Research Myth 2: Maslow’s Hierarchy

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Have you fallen for Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?

The educational world is crammed with monstrous myths and legends that hoodwink teachers and schools into thinking they are credible when in reality they have little or zero evidence to support them.

Here is one such offering.

Apart from the % Learning Pyramid and the ones in Giza, one of the most famous pyramids of all time is Maslow’s pyramid showing a hierarchy of needs even though Abraham Maslow himself didn’t actually frame it as a pyramid. He also added two more layers to the hierarchy (‘knowing and understanding’ and ‘aesthetics’) even though people mostly refer to a five layered pyramid.

While Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and the research methods he used to derive his conclusions were flawed, the pyramid is still frequently used and referred to in educational circles and beyond.

In 1962 Maslow described how surprised he was that people “swallowed it whole” and that at the time nobody repeated his motivation theory, “tested it, or really analysed it or criticised it.”

Maslow’s non-existent pyramid was eventually tested after his death and researchers found that the hierarchy of needs makes intuitive sense but is completely wrong because “the actual structure of motivation doesn’t fit the theory.”

So, why do we still refer to a flawed model of human needs and motivations?

Maslow himself offered no empirical evidence for his theory and the absence of solid evidence has tarnished his status.


Let us know what you think – have you fallen for Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?

Read 12 Educational Research Myths in full here.

6 thoughts on “Research Myth 2: Maslow’s Hierarchy

  1. Once a teacher understands that learning isn’t linear, then all the gobbledygook of hiearchies around needs, processing etc. disappear. Whats interesting about using an approach that includes all the toolkit/pyramid/taxonomy. is that you have a list of checks great people before you have found helpful.

  2. I find it useful as an starting point for discussion with trainee teachers around different needs of the child: hungry children can’t learn; unhappy children can’t learn; self actualisation- however you define that should be a goal. The discussion often becomes philosophical- can a homeless person love? (Of course!) ; what sort of love do you need? etc. So long as , like most theories, you use it as a starting point, I see no harm.

  3. Agree with James above Maslow is a useful starting point for discussion but as every teacher knows children and adults learning is gloriously complicated and unpredictable . Often I have found that a moment of ‘self actualisation’ results in feelings of self esteem and belonging for instance . When teaching in India and east Africa withbvery poor hand often undernourished children I have many times seen them – mostly in practical and collaborative creative tasks -forget temporarily about their physiological and other needs

  4. I don’t think it’s a case of whether Maslov’s model is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but recognising the limitations. That recognition enables us to see where and when the model might be useful in understanding learning and where and when it is too limited. The hierarchy of needs is actually included in a number of curriculum subjects, including psychology. Students are required to be able to evaluate it, understanding the limitations, so teachers should too.

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