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Maslows Theory

Bonnie Isham Willis
Educational Leadership I
October 2004

I am likely not the only one who believes it is impossible to outline all people and all ways to learn with one theory or even a combination of theories. I think it takes much more to describe and attempt to understand humans and the way we learn. But, I realize the tremendous contribution and insight all of the theorists have given us to date. Perhaps my favorite theory is Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory. I believe it truly relates to adult learning and provides insight into so many dimensions of life.

There is something so innocently optimistic and hopeful about Maslow’s theory, yet also lends us an understanding into some of the lowest parts of human nature. Maslow believed that people were genuinely, naturally good and that the evils of the world were a reaction to need deficiencies. (Gwynne, 1997) His theory is based on a hierarchy of needs – beginning with the very basic needs of survival and reaching toward the highest need of self-actualization.

Gwynne summarizes Maslow’s needs at each level, describing the very basic needs for survival, like air, water, food, sleep, and sex. (1997) Maslow’s theory also illustrates that we can not move on, so to speak, to the next level, unless these basic needs are met. The next instinctual and survival based need level is about “safety needs – those dealing with security and protection.” (Caffarella & Merriam 1999) Some of this focuses on the actual physical need to be safe, but it also includes the psychological need to “feel” safe and secure.

Each level or type of need builds on the next. Maslow’s theory includes the inability to progress or move forward toward self actualization if the more basic levels of needs are not met. We are working purely on instinct and driven by survival and safety in the first levels. But as those needs are met, we are more open to seek out more advanced needs, like love/acceptance, esteem and self – actualization. These higher level needs become more important and is where the motivation for further learning comes in. Love needs include belongingness and companionship, being accepted and appreciated. (Gwynne, 1997) Esteem needs continue to build on those ideas of love. Self-esteem which can come from doing something well, also includes the need for recognition and praise from others. (Gwynne 1997) Maslow saved the very top rung on his hierarchy for self-actualization or fulfillment. Caffarella & Merriam state that, “for Maslow, self-actualization is the goal of learning, …” (1999)

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory is so widely accepted, especially in the adult education forum, that it is used as background and guidance for educators. Glencoe/McGraw-Hill give adult educators some guidance through Maslow’s theory. “By understanding Maslow’s theory of human needs, educators are better able to work with adult students to help them reach beyond their basic needs and fulfill the more esoteric and spiritual need of self-actualization.” (2000)

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory is so widely accepted, it is ingrained in our society. Health needs of children are addressed at school with the understanding that the lower needs of survival must be met before the children can concentrate and learn. If educators can understand their adult students and needs, they will become better teachers and will have a stronger impact on their class.


Glencoe/McGraw-Hill (2000). Motivating Adult Learners to Their Highest Potential, Teaching Today Postsecondary. New York. Retrieved on October 10, 2004, from:

Gwynne, R. (1997). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Retrieved on October 10, 2004, from

Caffarella, R.S. & Merriam, S. B. (1999). Learning in Adulthood, A comprehensive Guide, Second Edition. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco, CA. p. 257.

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