Hierarchy of Student Needs in the Mathematics Classroom

(Jan 2016 Note: I’ve expanded on this post in a subsequent post.)

(Jan 2020 Note: I recently learned that there is some evidence that Maslow appropriated his theory from indigenous Blackfoot traditions. It was a good reminder to me that his theory is likely to be culturally specific and that in other cultures one might find a different set of motivations and/or ordering. For example, instead of self-actualization at the top of the pyramid, one might find community actualization or cultural perpetuity.)

Lisa Bejarano’s tweet today got me thinking.

It’s totally awesome that this student felt comfortable enough sharing something so personal. It was an indication that the student felt safe. And that got me thinking about things that all humans need.

(Source: Wikipedia)

How do each of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs connect to the mathematics classroom?

Physiological. Thankfully, many of us are blessed to teach in relatively comfortable environments where we are properly sheltered from the environment. Sometimes, the air conditioning makes my classroom too hot or too cold, but by and large I don’t have to worry about my Mudd students’ physiological needs. Far too many students in the United States, however, are food insecure. That is why, though I have mixed feelings about LAUSD’s Breakfast in the Classroom program, it is meeting an important need.

Safety. Besides the need for safety from bodily harm, I think there are two other forms of safety to consider in the mathematical classroom: emotional and intellectual. Lisa’s tweet shows that her student isn’t afraid of being made fun of, being criticized, or being outed to others (including the students’ mother!). That kind of emotional safety is crucial for students to be open to learning in a classroom. This is also why anti-bully campaigns are important.

Intellectual safety is possible when you feel that your ideas are valued by others even if they are incorrect or there is disagreement. Lani Horn is working on a book on how to develop this kind of intellectual safety in the classroom. I believe that some of the most crucial moments for fostering intellectual safety occur when reacting to a student’s incorrect answer or idea.

Belonging. I’ve been posting quite a bit here about inclusivity. I think that there are lots of things that instructors can do to help students feel a sense of belonging to (1) the mathematics classroom, and (2) to a larger community of practice of mathematicians.

  • Simply by learning students’ names early on, we give our students a sense that they belong in our class.
  • I love the holiday lights in Lisa Bejarano’s classroom–to me they exude a sense of calm, warmth and belonging.
  • At TMC15, Glenn Waddell told us about what happens when you give high fives to all of your students every day of the year. (Answer: a stronger connection with all of his students.)
  • A teacher’s sense of humor can sometimes be a great tool for helping students feel a sense of belonging–when you’re in on a joke that only those in your class can understand, that helps you feel like you’re part of a community. This video of a manatee features prominently in all my classes. It’s silly, but it’s also memorable and super effective at building community.
  • Group work can lead to amazing results, but when implemented poorly it can also lead to disastrous results. When left untreated, status issues in a group of students can lead to students feeling excluded from the group. (Lani Horn has suggestions for addressing status issues here.) Once I had the painful experience of having a student drop my class because of group work gone awry that led her to feel less skilled than her group members.

These are just a few examples of how to build a sense of belonging in the classroom. I’m sure you all have many more–feel free to contribute more by commenting below.

Esteem. The Wikipedia page on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs describes esteem as “a need to feel respected… to have self-esteem and self-respect.” The analog of esteem in the mathematics classroom is a student’s self-concept as a learner of mathematics. Every time a student is presented with a mathematical task, that student’s self-concept is activated in the form of an appraisal of her/his own abilities as a learner of mathematics based on prior achievements, comparisons with peers’ abilities, and perceptions of the mathematical task at hand. That appraisal of success at the task gives the student confidence or reluctance to take on the task. When I taught high school, I noticed that students with low self-concept would become disruptive or disengaged when presented with a task that they thought they would not be able to complete. These behaviors, unconsciously or consciously, help the student avoid the possibility of failure and public or private shaming from the teacher so as to preserve his/her self-esteem. (I found this old blog post from 2009 that gives a specific example of this.) At Harvey Mudd, instead of disengaging or becoming disruptive, students with low-concept will procrastinate on their work and rationalize their poor performance as due to lack of time devoted to the task.

Self-actualization. Ok, if you’re like me, you probably approach this word with a little hesitation about sounding self-helpy…. But, the according to Maslow himself, self-actualization refers to the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be. That makes a lot of sense to me. When one has achieved a certain level of success with mathematics I think it is natural to wonder what else one can achieve and then to try to do it. That need to test one’s boundaries is a wonderful human characteristic.

One way that instructors can help students mathematically self-actualize is to have high (but reasonable) expectations for all students. When your teacher doesn’t expect you to do well, you’re probably not going to expect much of yourself either. I struggle a lot with conscious and unconscious bias. It is a constant battle for me to have suitably high expectations for students even when they have not met them in the past.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs implies that some needs are more important than others. If we apply this idea to the mathematics classroom, then it would seem that the need to belong is more important than the need for high self-concept as a learner of mathematics. However, it seems to me that both of these things are extremely connected and dependent on one another because so often we (and our students) derive their self-worth and sense of belonging from their achievements.

How else do you meet your students’ mathematical needs in your classroom?

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