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Abraham Maslow's theory frames personal needs or motives as a hierarchy, meaning that basic or “lower-level” needs have to be satisfied before higher-level needs become important or motivating (1976, 1987).
Compared to the stage models of Piaget and Erikson, Maslow’s hierarchy is only loosely “developmental”, in that Maslow was not concerned with tracking universal, irreversible changes across the lifespan.
Maslow's stages are universal, but they are not irreversible; earlier stages sometimes reappear later in life, in which case they must be satisfied again before later stages can redevelop. Like the theories of Piaget and Erikson, Maslow’s is a rather broad “story”, one that has less to say about the effects of a person’s culture, language, or economic level, than about what we all have in common.
In its original version, Maslow’s theory distinguishes two types of needs:
• Deficit needs
• Being needs
Table 4 summarises the two levels and their sublevels.
Deficit needs are prior to being needs, not in the sense of happening earlier in life, but in that deficit needs must be satisfied before being needs can be addressed.
As pointed out, deficit needs can reappear at any age, depending on circumstances. If that happens, they must be satisfied again before a person’s attention can shift back to “higher” needs. Among students, in fact, deficit needs are likely to return chronically to those whose families lack economic or social resources or who live with the stresses associated with poverty (Payne, 2005).
Deficit needs: getting the basic necessities of life
Deficit needs are the basic requirements of physical and emotional well-being.
Initially they are physiological needs, e.g. food, sleep, clothing, and the like. Without these, nothing else matters, and especially nothing very “elevated” or self-fulfilling. A student who is not getting enough to eat is not going to feel much interest in learning.
Once physiological needs are met, however, safety and security needs become important. The person looks for stability and protection, and welcomes a bit of structure and limits if they provide these conditions. A child from an abusive family, for example, may be getting enough to eat, but may worry chronically about personal safety. In school, the student may appreciate a well-organised classroom with rules that insures personal safety and predictability, whether or not the classroom provides much in the way of real learning.
After physiological and safety needs are met, love and belonging needs emerge. The person turns attention to making friends, being a friend, and cultivating positive personal relationships in general. In the classroom, a student motivated at this level may make approval from peers or teachers into a top priority. He may be provided for materially and find the classroom and family life safe enough, but still miss a key ingredient in life— love.
If such a student (or anyone else) eventually does find love and belonging, however, then his or her motivation shifts again, this time to esteem needs. Now the concern is with gaining recognition and respect—and even more importantly, gaining self-respect. A student at this level may be unusually concerned with achievement, for example, though only if the achievement is visible or public enough to earn public recognition.
Being needs: becoming the best that you can be
Being needs are desires to become fulfilled as a person, or to be the best person that you can possibly be. They include:
• Cognitive needs: a desire for knowledge and understanding
• Aesthetic need: an appreciation of beauty and order
• Self-actualization needs: a desire for fulfilment of one’s potential
Being needs emerge only after all of a person’s deficit needs have been largely met. Unlike deficit needs, being needs cause more being needs; they do not disappear once they are met, but create a desire for even more satisfaction of the same type, e.g. a thirst for knowledge leads to further thirst for knowledge.
Partly because being needs are lasting and permanent once they appear, Maslow sometimes treated them as less hierarchical than deficit needs, and instead grouped cognitive, aesthetic, and self-actualisation needs into the single category self-actualisation needs.
People who are motivated by self-actualization have a variety of positive qualities, which Maslow went to some lengths to identify and describe (Maslow, 1976).
He argues that self-actualizing individuals:
• Value deep personal relationships with others, but also value solitude
• Have a sense of humour, but do not use it against others
• Accept themselves as well as others
• Are spontaneous
• Are humble
• Are creative
• Are ethical
Maslow felt that true self-actualization is rare. It is especially unusual among young people, who have not yet lived long enough to satisfy earlier, deficit-based needs.
In a way this last point is discouraging news for teachers, who apparently must spend their lives providing as best they can for students still immersed in deficit needs. Teachers, it seems, have little hope of ever meeting a student with fully fledged being needs.
Taken less literally, though, Maslow’s hierarchy is still useful for thinking about students’ motives. Most teachers would argue that students, young though they are, can display positive qualities similar to the ones described in Maslow’s self-actualizing person.
However annoying students may sometimes be, there are also moments when they show care and respect for others, for example, and moments when they show spontaneity, humility, or a sound ethical sense. Self-actualization is an appropriate way to think about these moments—the times when students are at their best.
At the same time, of course, students sometimes also have deficit needs. Keeping in mind the entire hierarchy outlined by Maslow can therefore deepen teachers' understanding of the full humanity of students.
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