Jan 6, 2010
As I stressed in my prior post, if we are going to build effective learning environments, the thing we need to focus on is kids - not teachers, administrators, or even parents, but kids. And one of the most important things we must consider when building such environments is motivation, or more specifically, what motivates kids to learn.

Any study in human motivation will undoubtedly lead to Maslow's "Theory of Human Motivation", which logically concludes that humans are essentially motivated by their needs. Knowing this, as well as how much the world has changed in the last decade, it might be tempting to assume that our students' needs have changed along with the world around them. But have they?

For review, let's have another look at Maslow's theory and see what we can glean from it. According to Maslow, all human motivation is driven by a hierarchy of needs, which are typically represented in the form of a pyramid as in the figure to the right. The pyramid is functionally divided into two halves, with bottom half representing deficiency needs and the top half representing growth needs. While the growth needs are what we care most about as educators, it's important for us to understand the deficiency needs before we even talk about growth.

The deficiency needs are what one might consider to be the obvious needs, with the bottom being the physiological - I need to eat, I need to sleep, etc. Once those physiological needs are met, then we are concerned about physical safety, followed by thoughts of love and belonging, and finally an interest in our self-esteem or sense of self worth. The important thing to remember is that these needs build on each other in such a way that the means to meet higher needs will not be sought until the lower needs are first met. A person will sacrifice their need for love/belonging, for example, if they feel physically threatened, and so on. The notion here is that the deficiency needs all have to be met before we can even start thinking about our growth needs. While schools are doing a pretty good job in these areas (although I have a particular beef with our obsessive over-emphasis on esteem, ie "everyone's a winner, noone's a loser"), we would be remiss if we didn't ask ourselves the tough questions: "Do my kids feel safe at school?", "Are they getting enough to eat?", "Do I create an environment where kids feel as though they belong?"

Once the deficiency needs are met, then an individual moves on to growth needs. In Maslow's original theory he only has one item above "esteem", and that is "self-actualization" or the desire for self-fulfillment and the ultimate reaching of one's potential. A deeper read into the matter, however, reveals that there are some important considerations that must be met on the road to self-actualization, and that there is an ultimate transcendent destination beyond it, which I have broken out in the chart above. He speaks of the cognitive needs - the need to learn, the need to know, the need to understand, and the need to explore. He uses the word "explore" or "exploration", which is something that I think we've lost much of today in education. Once one moves beyond the cognitive, they move towards aesthetics, such as recognizing beauty and the need for order and patterns. And only after that can one understand the nature of their abilities and endeavor to reach their true potential (self-actualization). But the ultimate goal, the one we should all be striving for, is that point where ego steps out of the way and we transcend to a level where we want to help others reach their potential.

Above all, the important detail to remember is that higher needs only gain focus when the lower needs are met, which means that a student's focus can be ever changing, depending on other influences in their life. It's hard to focus on math when you are worried about survival, but you are immensely interested in learning about survival. Likewise, the ultimate realization of a student's potential and consequential wisdom and transcendence will never be reached if we don't create environments where students fulfill their needs to know, understand, explore, and create.

But the interesting thing about all of this is that despite all the technology in their lives and all the changes in the world around them, kids' needs really haven't changed. They still need the same basic things. What has changed is the tools and influences around them that alter the mechanisms by which those needs are met...

More to follow in subsequent posts...


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  1. I think this hierarchy is certainly a useful tool in promoting dialog about meeting students' basic needs before you can reach their higher cognitive functions. This chart got thrown around quite a bit during my Master's program. Here are a couple paradoxes that I don't think the chart addresses (not diminishing your point at all- just something funny to think about):1) A rat will engage in the cognitive task of memorizing a maze to serve its basic need for food. Also, many animal trainers use an animal's basic need for food to train them to do amazing things. As my dad used to joke to me during lean college times, "Hungry students learn faster." Seriously.2) Paradox 2: I will often forget to take care of my basic needs while engaging in higher order activities. No, I don't forget to go to the bathroom, but I have gone for hours and hours without eating because I was wrapped up in doing something more interesting.So, what would Maslow say about that?

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