A Classroom’s Hierarchy Of Needs

I just got home after a morning of observing two classrooms. One was wonderful, a place that all students would long to be in. One was dreadful, a place that students would only just barely tolerate and where one student actually said, when asked to make a metaphor using the word school, “School is jail”.

What made them different? On the face of it they were both nice looking places. The teachers both looked “teacherly”. Everything seemed to transpire as teaching should. Objectives were noted, tasks were given, worksheets completed, reviewing done. Still, I was left with this stark difference. From where did the light shine on the one and the darkness overcome the other?

So I got to thinking about Maslow for some reason. Good old Maslow. Boldly stating the obvious, he clarified a lot for us. Like a true genius he made us see what is always there. That life does have a purpose and it is to become “self-actualized”, a being that participates in their own creation and growth.

I got to thinking that we could well apply his findings not only to students but even more succinctly to “classrooms”. What are the “needs” of a classroom? What makes them different and helps them achieve the ends and their purpose? Here below is a summary of my afternoon’s ruminations.

1. A Classroom’s Physiological Needs

Every classroom needs the basics. Adequate lighting. A cool and controlled temperature in which to “think”. Resources for which learning may be enabled. These might be chalk and a board or a Macbook. These might be paper, scissors. This might be evidence of learning on the walls and around the classroom. There should be in the classroom, a look of a place that respects knowledge. This is a classroom’s most basic “need”. Design it so that this is apparent. It could be just a few books in a treasured spot but make sure your classroom has an appearance of a place that worships “thought”.


2. Safety Needs

Of course classrooms should be places that are physically safe. No sharp edges, fire extinguishers checked and ready, windows secure. However there is a bigger “safety” concern – that of its soul. Is the classroom a place where the child trusts the teacher and feels warmth and security? Is the classroom a place where a child would come to, to feel safe and “at home”? Is the class bright and warm – not just in look but in spirit? Make your classroom into a place where student’s feel “safe”, every student.

Nicolas Hobbs in his “Re-education Process” outlines how vital trust and security are in education.

“Trust is the glue that holds teaching and learning together …. The first step in the reeducation process is to help the young person make a new and very important distinction that adults can be counted on as predictable sources of support, understanding and affection.

3. Belonging and Love Needs

A classroom is a place where human beings gather. As such, it needs to be a place where every member feels at home and “belongs”. Each student needs to feel ownership of the classroom – that it is his/her classroom and not just a place they have to pass so many hours or a place to drop their backpack.

We should ask, “Do the members of the classroom care about each other, really care?” Do they have each others back? Is the “power” of the classroom leveled, so that caring might occur. Nel Noddings, who has written so eloquently about this issue states,

The caring teacher strives first to establish and maintain caring relations, and these relations exhibit an integrity that provides a foundation for everything teacher and student do together.

Meaning, that if there is to be a caring classroom, teachers must first commit to this as a priority and investigate why it isn’t occurring. A teacher must forge a “relational” view of learning by getting all students to participate and also by lowering the “power threshold” and making the classroom a community not a kennel.

Activities where students cooperate and get to know each other are vital to this. Without them – a classroom is a vessel full of tedium, weighed down, it goes nowhere.
4. Esteem Needs

I have arrived at the conclusion too many classrooms do not offer students real “success”. Our classroom’s are about competition and “a winner”. They are about comparing and ranking and assessing each to each. How in god’s name can we ever create self-esteem when there is only one king or queen and so many lowly failures?

“If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or things.”
Albert Einstein

Classroom’s have to be places built upon the fundamental tenet that each student will experience success. Teacher’s must create classrooms where success is contagious and an ongoing event. I’m convinced, through thousands of hours of observing classrooms – I’m absolutely convinced we’d have a lot more “successful” people in society, if only teachers simplified everything. We teach to the top and try to pull everyone up. We shouldn’t. We should join the principles of special educators and teach to the bottom, letting everyone ride that wave as they wish.

There isn’t enough success in our classrooms. Thus, there isn’t enough self-esteem. Too often, classrooms are rooms where people are sorted. This one left, this one right. The teacher is the SS guard and students can hear the german shepherds nipping at their heels. Classrooms should not be “concentration” camps – they should be places where children feel and experience the elation of achieving something and tasting their potential. They find this on the sports fields and in gyms and music rooms – ask yourself why they don’t find it in the regular classroom?

If a child leaves your classroom without tasting the delicious food of success. If you haven’t reminded the students of what they’ve accomplished and achieved — your classroom has a dark cloud hanging over it.

“Men were born to succeed, not to fail.”
Henry David Thoreau

5. Self – Actualization

This is what it is all about. Every classroom should be a place where students can realize their full potential and participate in their own development and creation.

The only way this can occur is if the prior conditions have been met. Further, there needs to be a freedom for the student to choose for themselves, what they want to do and what they want to be. Teachers need to control less and put the onus on students to find their own path towards the goals of the classroom.

If Johnny wants to learn about tigers – let him! If Janet wants to describe osmosis through a dance – let her! Teachers need to give students more opportunity to express the curriculum in their own manner and style. If this happens as it should (and I’d even go further – schools also have to give students more opportunity to control when and if they go /come to school), if this happens, true happiness is the result.

I remember, a tiny, skin and bones, 99 lb grade 8 boy. I wanted to do my end of term class speech (to which winners would “advance”), on guerrilla warfare. My teacher dissuaded me, as only a teacher knows how – I had to talk about volcanoes. The day of the speeches, I went up there and at the last moment, changed my mind. I spoke about guerrilla warfare. Sure, nobody knew who Ho Chi Min was, sure, all students thought I was speaking about “gorilla” war, sure my teacher was aghast — but I was never happier. And never happier to leave behind that classroom. And that is what self-actualizing is about – happiness. The end goal of all our classrooms and teaching.

If you help create one happy individual through their participation in your classroom – you are making a difference. I know Maslow would agree.

PS. If you read this far – you might be interested in A.S.Neill’s tenets of education, as elaborated by Eric Fromm. Absolutely bang on and will never be out of date. Also, my own resources and lecture on Happiness in the Classroom.