Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs


Hierarchy of Needs
Human Needs Theory


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 popular version of the model is typically presented as a pyramid that 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. Many subdiscourses have arisen – some focused on teaching, but many on leadership and management, including:
  • Theory X / Theory Y (Douglas McGregor, 1960s) – an application of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs at the group level, using the model give advice to team managers by distinguishing between workers focused on satisfying lower-level needs (Theory X, who require rigid environments and strict discipline) and workers motivated by higher-order needs (Theory Y, who require less structure and oversight)
  • Theory Z (Japanese Management Style) (William Ouchi, 1980s) – a direct response to Theory X / Theory Y (see above), and aligning more with Cognitive Motivation Theories than Drives Needs & Desires Theories, describing team-oriented workers who thrive on a sense of cohesiveness in the organization


A first important note about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is that neither the content nor the form of the popular version are especially true to Abraham Maslow's actual theory. For instance, while he did describe his model as a "hierarchy," he saw it less as a ladder or pyramid and more as nested levels, each of which included but transcended previous levels. As well, his highest level was not self-actualization, but self-transcendence. The popular pyramid was actually developed some years after Maslow published his work, in large part for pragmatic reasons by workshop leaders and others who were perhaps more interested in resonance with audiences than fidelity to the author. That said, the strongest criticisms of all versions of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are focused on culturalist and ageist biases. Many assert the model is a “First World” theory that amplifies and privileges trivial concerns. Moreover, it is suggestive of sensibilities and priorities in individualistic societies, and it does not reflect worldviews and motivations (and, consequently, the levels) of collectivist societies. (To be fair, Maslow partially addressed some of these issues with the suggestion of a self-transcendence level, which has some resonance with non-western sensibilities.) Finally, Maslow has been heavily criticized in this work for having appropriated, misinterpreted, and/or mischaracterized the cultural knowledge of the Siksika First Nation, part of the Blackfoot Confederacy.

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. Indeed, numerous researchers have published research that undercut different aspects of the model.


  • Theory X / Theory Y
  • Theory Z (Japanese Management Style)

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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