Today I found myself teaching a brief lesson on a modified interpretation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to my class. This lesson was at the beginning of a math lesson on converting fractions to decimals and decimals to fractions, of all things.
And it was completely unplanned.
Have you ever noticed that some of the very best lessons happen that way? Not to say that planned lessons are great. They are, and it is very important to plan for instruction. But I have learned through experience that flexibility is as equally important.
I had just sent off a handful of students to work with one of my tutors and was getting ready to start our math lesson when a student said something to another student that made me stop everything to talk to the class about safety and respect.
I brought up that our classroom should be the safest place outside the home for every single member of our class. I also explained that there are some people whose homes are not always safe, so that the school becomes the greatest place of safety they have. I wanted the students to understand why safety is so important, so I told them briefly about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
I drew the pyramid that is traditionally used to illustrate this hierarchy (even though Maslow himself never used it) and labeled it in a modified form: the base was food and safety, then companionship, followed by learning, and topped with self-actualisation. I told the students that self-actualisation is when people begin to understand “what makes you uniquely you.” I wanted the students to realise that the only way they can accomplish this understanding of self is to have the other things first. If they don’t have food and safety, they aren’t going to be worried about having friends and companions. If they don’t have food, safety, and companions, then they aren’t going to be concerned about learning, which is closely related to understanding themselves.
My goal is for each student to know how he or she learns, and to learn how he or she knows. This is another way to interpret the concept of self-actualisation. In other words, I think of self-actualisation as the companion to metacognition. Maslow’s hierarchy is a fairly useful tool for helping students understand why we have expectations for safety, respect, and responsibility in the classroom. I want my students to be safe and to feel safe so that they can receive the other things they need in their lives, like friends, learning, and personal understanding.
I think that most of them get it. There are a few who are still learning. But hey, that’s what life is for, right?