Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs


Needs the must be met to enable higher-order learning

Principal Metaphors

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs does not speak to the dynamics of learning, and it is thus not especially attentive to the metaphor and imagery that it invokes. While it draws on a range of notions, the Attainment Metaphor is especially prominent:
  • Knowledge is … scope of possibility
  • Knowing is … goal (mastered needs)
  • Learner is … a striver (individual)
  • Learning is … attaining (meeting needs)
  • Teaching is … supporting; metamotivating (assuming that deficiency needs are met)




Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs falls among Motivation Theories. It categorizes and ranks human needs, based on the assumption that more basic needs must be met before one will be motivated to achieve higher-level needs. The model culminates with self-actualization, an excellence-oriented “metamotivation” mode that can only be engaged if all more basic “deficiency needs” are met. Those more basic categories of need include physiological (food, water, etc.), safety, love/belonging, and self-esteem. Importantly, different levels of motivation can happen at the same time, but one would be most inclined to ensure that lower-level needs are addressed.


The strongest criticisms of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are focused on its culturalist and ageist biases. Many assert it is a “First World” theory that amplifies and privileges trivial concerns. Moreover, it is suggestive of sensibilities and priorities in individualist societies, and it does not reflect worldviews and motivations of collectivist societies. (Maslow partially addressed the matter of the model’s individualistic focus by musing that a higher, self-transcendent level might be warranted to account for human tendencies toward altruism and spirituality.)

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Abraham Maslow

Status as a Theory of Learning

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs can be construed as a theory of learning – or, perhaps more accurately, a description of what must be in place for learners to engage with the sorts of higher-order concepts that are encountered in schools.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has figured prominently in discussions of formal education for more than a half-century, suggesting that it has been embraced by educators as a useful theory to inform their work.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is heavily contested. It lacks a robust evidence base and is unable to answer to many observations that contradict core assumptions and assertions.

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2020). “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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