Exploring Maslow’s Hierarchy in the Inquiry Classroom (Part 1)


Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was proposed in 1943 as a way to study the universal needs of society. It is a motivational theory that explains the need for human’s physiological needs to be met before they can attend to needs that are higher up the pyramid, such as safety and self-actualization. Maslow believed that self-actualization can only be met when people are nurtured at the most basic level first. This idea remains incredibly important to educators, and within school communities as a whole. Furthermore, there are many possibilities for students to explore the hierarchy within an inquiry-learning environment. This post will outline ways that teachers can facilitate an inquiry into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs with their students.


Breaking Down Maslow’s Hierarchy

Before beginning an inquiry into the hierarchy of needs, students need to understand the levels individually:

1) Physiological needs:

These include our basic needs, such as food, water, warmth, and rest. These are also referred to as “deficiency needs”, which arise as a result of deprivation. Explained simply to students, these are the needs that humans require to function at a basic level. For example, students who are hungry or overtired will have to overcome more challenges in the classroom than a peer who has had a filling breakfast or a good nights’ sleep. If these physiological needs are not met, students have a harder time functioning at an optimal level. All other needs are secondary until these basic needs are met.

2) Safety needs:

Once our physiological needs are met, we can focus on the need for safety and security. Typically, humans prefer order and structure in order to feel in control of their lives. These needs can be fulfilled by rules that govern society (such as police and schools) or through emotional means (employment, financial security, etc). In simple terms, feeling safe in the classroom is about feeling safe to express yourself, step outside of your comfort zone, and to rest assured that taking risks and making mistakes are accepted and normal. It is important that students feel confident that their classroom is a safe place to share ideas and make mistakes.

3) Love and belongingness needs:

These needs include things like having relationships, friends, and companions to trust and confide in. Once students feel safe, they look to others to form friendships, groups, and healthy relationships. These are important because they help foster feelings of trust, acceptance, affection, and affiliation. Students need to feel like they belong to their own classroom as well as the larger school community. There are many things teachers can do to help foster this sense of belonging; for example, pronouncing students’ names correctly, telling “inside jokes”, and having a set of classroom roles and responsibilities. All of these can contribute to students’ feelings of belongingness.

4) Esteem needs:

Once we feel safe, accepted, and cared for, we look for ways to matter. Students look for ways to feel respected by their peers and for ways to gain self-esteem both in and out of the classroom. Put simply, every time a student is faced with a challenge in the classroom, that student’s self-esteem is activated, either in a positive way or a negative way. For example, if a student feels safe to share their idea about a math problem and is told that their answer is wrong, they might experience a drop in self-esteem. The next time they think about sharing an answer, chances are that they will be reluctant to share; they may also be expecting the same feelings of humiliation and self-doubt. Unfortunately, these feelings can have a ripple-effect.

Related Reading: The Important Links Between Mindfulness and Inquiry Learning

5) Self-actualization:

This is the highest level in the hierarchy. It refers to the realization of a person’s potential and growth. This level is described as the desire to accomplish everything that one can in order to become the best they can possibly be. In the context of the classroom, students who contribute excellent ideas in a particular subject, and who receive regular positive feedback, may feel encouraged to pursue their passion and contemplate what else can be achieved with their knowledge. Students love testing their boundaries and delving deeper when they feel confident enough to do so. Inquiry learning can be a fantastic way to promote these “deep dives”; however, to get there, it takes a lot of work at the ground level to build up students’ confidence, self-esteem, and risk-taking tendencies.

Maslow’s Hierarchy photo by Simply Psychology

Different levels of need in the classroom

It is important to recognize that students will never all be at the same level in the hierarchy. There are many reasons for this. Some students may lack basic necessities, be picky eaters and therefore skip breakfast, or simply not have access to things like clean water, a proper bed, or even a shelter.

In my experience, the majority of my students have had their physiological needs met and feel a sense of safety and belonging. I am incredibly fortunate to have worked in a variety of educational settings in two different countries.

However, there have been times when students have come into school hungry, severely lacking sleep, or feeling completely unfocused and unprepared at a physiological level. In these cases, things like breakfast clubs or morning programs are hugely beneficial in order to raise the standards of equity and inclusion within a school community.

Related reading: Helping Students See Their Value in the Classroom 

Links between Maslow’s hierarchy and inquiry-based learning

Self-esteem and self-fulfillment are levels of the hierarchy when teachers really see student potential shine. Giving students things like voice and choice and using inquiry learning are ways to spark confidence and intrinsic motivation. Teachers should allow students some degree of freedom over what they choose to study and investigate. Inquiry learning is great for this! Alternatively, putting aside 30 minutes each week for something like genius hour can boost confidence and self-esteem in students.

Before diving into an inquiry about Maslow’s needs, talking to students about the hierarchy will help them understand their basic needs and how they relate to academic performance and self-esteem. Exploring concepts like empathy, mistake-making, and being part of a community are great places to start. Soft skills such as perseverance, initiative, and collaboration are also important to discuss with students to help them understand how the theory works.

Related Reading: Using Bloom’s Taxonomy in Inquiry-Based Learning

Furthermore, ensure that students understand that the objective of the hierarchy is to progress through the levels in order to ultimately achieve self-actualization. The hierarchy itself provides us with a path to get there, and not every student works at the same pace, or in the same way. There will be varying levels of success for individual students, and this is okay.


Inquiry projects for “Physiological Needs” 

Discussion and discovery:

To explore the concept of “physiological needs”, begin by asking students what their morning routine looks like on a school day. Most students will say that they wake up, eat breakfast, get dressed, brush their teeth, and head to school. Expand this question by asking students what their daily routine looks like on either a school day or the weekend. Tell them to be as specific as possible and include details. Collect some answers and jot down the common steps most students take.

  • Waking up (from a bed, in a house, after sleeping)
  • Eating breakfast (nourishment)
  • Getting dressed (having clothes to wear)

An alternative way of exploring the concept of “physiological needs” is by letting students conduct an interview. Tell them that they will need to interview 3 friends to see what their morning or daily routines look like. Ask students to jot down their answers, then jot down the common steps on the board or on chart paper.

Ask students what these things all represent (sleeping, eating, breathing, having clothes and a home, etc). Discuss student’s answers and write down the term “physiological needs”. From that point, students can research the term in pairs or small groups and produce a poster that explains what “physiological needs” are. 

Use a structured word inquiry:

Simply put, a structured word inquiry (SWI) is an investigation of words. It investigates how words are connected through their origins, structures, and parts. Through inquiry, students explore the history of the word “physiological”. In this SWI, the focus is on understanding the root and structure of the word to understand it in a new context. They analyze the word “physiological” to help them identify patterns and similarities between similar words to build written language proficiency. Some steps might include:

  • Introduce the word “physiological” and ask students what they think it means
  • Examine the word’s structure (in pairs or small groups)
  • Share ideas and explore the word’s history and etymology
  • Make connections with other similar words
  • Represent findings
Learn more about structured word inquiries in this article!

In this instance, the root of the word “physiological” is phys. Its suffix is -ology. Use this etymological breakdown to discover the history of the word, usage examples, and the word family it belongs to. A good historical breakdown of the word can be useful to delve deeper into the origins of the word and how it was used centuries ago.

Taking action – How can we ensure the physiological needs of students at [school] are being met?:

Once students understand what is meant by “physiological needs”, they might be wondering if all students have these needs met. For some students, this might spark a desire to research the issue to find out why students in different parts of the city, country, or world don’t have their physiological needs met. With this project, it is important to emphasize that the reasons why some students don’t have these needs met shouldn’t result in judgment or criticism. Instead, shift the focus on finding ways to help.

Related reading: Creating Beautiful and Effective Classroom Learning Environments

Plan out and organize a breakfast club

Resulting from research or interviews with classmates, students might decide to plan out how to start a breakfast club in their school or classroom. It can be as simple as bringing in an extra snack to store in a food basket, or as complex as having a fully-planned slot of time during which students have a full breakfast and a chance to talk amongst each other. Challenge students by adding in parameters, such as cost, time, and logistics.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Investigate the effect that classroom temperature has on performance.

This is an interesting phenomenon that has been studied for decades. Students have a multitude of choices about how to investigate this topic, and how to present their findings. One idea is to research test scores around the world in different climatic conditions and draw conclusions based on their findings. If possible, students could also use a temperature-controlled room to conduct mini experiments on student performance (with permission, and with supervision). Plenty of experiments have been conducted on this subject, so students shouldn’t have too much trouble getting started. Other resources can be found here and here.

Conduct an inquiry into sleeping patterns.

Students track their own levels of sleep and compare them to their class performance by keeping a diary and recording how much sleep they get each night. After each day at school, students record how they felt, how much energy they had, and make conclusions based on the data they collected. A possible project idea would be to chart their sleeping patterns and juxtapose them next to their school performance. Alternatively, students can create an infographic or a presentation to show their findings to inform others.

Investigate access to clean water in their classrooms.

Do they typically use the water fountain, or do many students bring a water bottle? Perhaps students can conduct an inquiry into the effects of hydration on our bodies and present their results. Another idea would be for students to design and build a water bottle sanitation station, or an app to remind students how often to drink water to stay hydrated throughout the day. There are plenty of creative ways for students to make connections between hydration and performance at school (and at home).


Takeaways from Maslow’s Hierarchy

Maslow believed that self-actualization can only be met when people are nurtured at the most basic level first. This idea remains incredibly important to educators, and within school communities as a whole. Hopefully this post explored the hierarchy in a simple and understandable way, and provided some ways teachers can facilitate an inquiry into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs with their students. There are some more great resources, including a printable PDF of Maslow’s hierarchy on the ChangeKidsLives website. Many thanks to the Education Library for providing a wonderful resource on this topic as well!

Part 2 will discuss project ideas for the “Safety”, “Love”, “Esteem”, and “Actualization” levels of the hierarchy, so keep an eye out for that!

If you have any other project suggestions, please let me know in the comments below, or join the conversation on Instagram!

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