Teachwell | Maslow’s Hierarchy – Critique Part Two
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Maslow's Hierarchy - Critique Part Two

COMM 110 Speech Critique by Shanzida Khandaker is licensed under CC BY 2.0
COMM 110 Speech Critique by Shanzida Khandaker is licensed under CC BY 2.0

In the first part of this post, I reviewed the link between Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and behaviour management systems in schools, in the context of excuses made for poor behaviour. I critiqued the commonly used diagram when presenting Maslow’s ideas and it impacts on how we perceive Maslow’s theory. 


I don’t dispute that Maslow identified important needs that humans have.


However, the way his theory has been and continues to be used as the basis for managing the behaviour of disruptive pupils, without critique, review or evaluation, is unethical. (The same goes for Bowlby’s attachment theory, but that is another post altogether).


Maslow’s sample was deliberately chosen from two particular groups. He studied people who he thought were ‘exemplary’ (such as Albert Einstein) and then chose a sample from ” the healthiest 1% of the student population”.


So not children then, much less children suffering from neglect, abuse or mental health problems.


He deliberately did not want to study those who had mental health problems as”the study of crippled, stunted, immature, and unhealthy specimens can yield only a cripple psychology and a cripple philosophy.”


I don’t think that Maslow could have been further removed from the study of the children his ideas are most applied to.


In their book ‘Urban Myths about Learning and Education’, `De Bruyckere, Kirschner and Hulshof highlight:

  • Maslow added two more layers to his hierarchy (knowing and understanding, aesthetics). Anyone who knows why we only encounter the earlier not the later version of his hierarchy in education, please feel free to leave a comment below.
  • In 1962, Maslow expressed surprise why his theory had not been repeated, tested, analysed or criticised. In his words, he felt that people had “just used it, swallowed it whole, with only the most minor modifications”. That is a pretty damning criticism of anyone who promotes a simplistic diagnostic use of his theory.  It would seem the education establishment in the UK and elsewhere is oblivious to this. How uncritically is Maslow being presented and taught if this criticism is unknown to teachers in comparison to the diagram? I have yet to encounter such a self-critique of a model in political science (my initial area of study) which I was not made aware of. Theories and ideas are not meant to be accepted uncritically, and it is yet another contradiction in the education system, that those banging on about critical thinking in education, seem to be doing the least.  Especially when it comes to Maslow!!
  • What detailed investigations there have been, did not provide empirical evidence for Maslow’s theory.


As Bruyckere, et al point out,


“Maslow thought that people would use his findings to conduct further experiments of their own, but that did not happen before his death in 1970. Why? Because sometimes we are too lazy to check whether something is right – or not. This kind of laziness can be dangerous.”


I couldn’t agree more, especially when well-intentioned educationalists preach it from the pulpits, teachers accept it as received wisdom and behaviour support teams/consultants/programmes, etc. peddle it out to support their ideas on behaviour management systems. To say Maslow has been influential is an understatement.


The following ideas are what I consider to be the greatest hindrance in supporting children, who like myself, come from families where they have witnessed or experienced abusive behaviour and relationships.

  • Needs are experienced in a hierarchical order.
  • Lower order needs must be met before higher order needs.
  • Morality is a higher order need and emotional needs must be met first.
  • Two levels of needs can not be experienced or met at the same time.
  • Deficiencies at lower levels prevent individuals from meeting higher order needs.
  • Personal growth and fulfilment is rare and is fixed at the top of the apex of needs regardless of one’s experiences in life.


This is by no means an exhaustive list, but they form the basis of my critique of the ‘excuses’ approach to behaviour management in the third part of this series of blogs.



De Bruyckere, Kirschner and Hulshof (2015). Urban Myths about Learning and Education.

Hofstede, G. (1984). “The cultural relativity of the quality of life concept.” 

Maslow, A (1954). Motivation and personality.

Wahba, M. A.; Bridwell, L. G. (1976). “Maslow reconsidered: A review of research on the need hierarchy theory”. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance 15

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