I came late to Maslow’s Hierarchy. Even though I had been a student and a teacher for nearly 40 years, I had never encountered – indirectly or directly – Maslow’s important work until I took a class on educational psychology as a graduate student in 2015. This fact is both stunning and totally not at all surprising given the emphasis in school on academic achievement and the ways in which we in education have taken for granted the uniqueness of experience and the diversity of the people in our classrooms and hallways.

In brief, Maslow argues that higher-order thinking depends on the meeting, first, of elemental needs. Only when a person’s psychological, safety, love and belonging, and esteem needs are met can that person begin the significant journey to self-actualization. Thoreau says pretty much the same thing when he writes in Walden that all people really need in order to achieve an authentic, thinking life is food, shelter, clothing and fuel (heat). And in “Student-Teacher Relationships Are Everything,” James E. Ford reminds us of a simple, useful tenet for education: “Maslow before Bloom.”

Bloom’s Taxonomy, that pyramid of learning so many of us have used as we’ve designed our lessons and planned out or syllabi, has been revised in recent years to reflect some of the bigger big shifts in education. The revised taxonomy is arguably clearer and more helpful in terms of describing the skills we now believe learners need to demonstrate on their way to mastery and work/life readiness. I like this visual aid from Iowa State University’s Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching. But Bloom’s Taxonomy, revised or otherwise, does not get at the wholeness of learners or the ever more complex experience of school in a global, digital age.

I thought this as I read Grant Lichtman’s wonderful article in the most recent issue of Independent School magazine about what keeps school leaders up at night. Based on the reflections and thoughts of a number of respondents, Lichtman compiled four areas of concern, which can be articulated in the form of these questions:

  1. What gets in the way of our ability to articulate and pursue vision for the future and make it real?
  2. How do we contend, as educators and as people, with what will happen vs. what we want to have happen?
  3. How is learning different and the same now, and how will it continue to change, or not, in the future?
  4. What do we need to hold on to – as educators and as people – from the past, and what should we jettison?

Lichtman offers some answers to get us thinking. He believes that “the basic school model is outdated and large portions of it must be redesigned on a fundamental level” and that traditions and ways of thinking and living in our schools need to be “aggressively” evaluated and potentially changed to make our school communities more inclusive in both fact and in experience. Further, and perhaps of greatest importance,”we must shift to a model of learning that is more flexible, interdisciplinary, and focused on the interests, needs, and voices of the students.”

While exciting and necessary, it is not easy, at all, to shift our schools away from the pedagogies, priorities, and cultures of old to better serve the students in our schools today. Empathy for all, including graduates of our schools, faculty and staff within our schools, as well as students and their families, is required. Whether we embrace Maslow before Bloom, or Maslow + Bloom, or design wholly new frameworks for thinking about our work in education, we are wise to hold Thoreau’s wisdom in the forefront of our minds: simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. Education is about people.



Jessica is a doctoral candidate, education consultant, writer and editor. She is the founder of bookclique, a collaborative of English teachers and students working to promote book culture, and a co-founder of Well-Schooled, the site for educator storytelling, dedicated to sharing first-person educator stories. All Rights Reserved - What I Learned Today in School.