Coaching Letter #106

Hi, I hope this finds you well! The contents of these coaching letters are a mix of things I’ve wanted to say for a long time, things I feel like I say all the time, and things that I’m just now learning and thinking about.  This letter represents a mix of all three. I know it’s a bit out of sequence, because I have so much to say about the last Coaching Letter, #105, given all the responses—for which I am extremely grateful—but I’ll get back to it another time. In the meantime, if you haven’t already watched the video Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?, that’s what most of the feedback was about, so you should check it out.

This letter is a response to a tweet from Paul Gorski, author of Gorski, P. C. (2017). Reaching and teaching students in poverty: Strategies for erasing the opportunity gap and this article, “Avoiding Racial Equity Detours”. At the Center, we have used his work quite a bit and recommend it highly, especially in concert with our book study of How to be an anti-racisthave you joined the online conversation yet? Anyway, the tweet was just an open-ended question about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and I have a lot to say about that—mostly that what you think you know about it is probably wrong.

Abraham Maslow was an interesting guy, but he is best known for his model known as the Hierarchy of Needs.  Almost every textbook you’ve seen gets it wrongsee, for example, this article on the Psychology Today website.  The common interpretation is that humans first have to have their basic needs satisfied, then they worry about other things like belonging, and finally if they get all those things, they can start turning their attention to self-actualization.  Educators read these textbooks and get the impression that kids who come from disadvantaged households are less able to learn.  Well, the argument goes, you have to understand, these kids can’t be expected to do well in school, because they don’t have their basic needs met.

My mother had no patience with this argument.  She was a kindergarten teacher, and would get angry when teachers in the small school in the small town in England where my parents lived for many years would betray low expectations.  That’s not where she started teaching.  We are from a large industrial town on the River Clyde, where ships like the Royal Yacht Britannia and the QE2 were built, and which had a huge Sewing Machine factory where my dad worked.  My mother had a steely streak and sparks in her eyes, and they would flash when she would say, “Some of them had nothing.  But they would all learn to read!”  The very idea enraged her. I wouldn’t recommend crossing my mother.

And she was right.  Maslow was actually saying the opposite of what people seem to think he said.  He said that, except in cases of extreme deprivation, people are highly motivated to become self-actualized.  What modern textbook authors don’t seem to know is that Maslow was making an argument against behaviorism.  Behaviorism posits that people respond to reinforcement, and that the reinforcement is what motivates them, and Maslow said no, not really.  Maslow was not the only psychologist to argue against this theory.  Viktor Frankel wrote about the search for meaning among prisoners in Nazi concentration camps, and deprivation doesn’t come much more extreme than that.  Carl Rogers compared humans to potato plants that, even when kept in the dark, send out shoots towards the light—not the most elegant metaphor, I know. Albert Bandura’s theory of perceived self-efficacy was also a rebuttal of behaviorism.

If you want to learn more about Maslow and his ideas, you might read the original article Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396—always a good idea; you’ll notice, for example, that there is no pyramid—or the biography of him: Hoffman, E. (1988). The right to be human: A biography of Abraham Maslow, which you can get for a couple of bucks used on Amazon.

Professionals in business and health care and education have a bit of an infatuation with Carol Dweck’s work on mindset, and I certainly understand that and think there is a lot there that we should be paying attention to. HOWEVER… two things. First, that’s not all she wrote. We should be reading some of her other work, and most apposite to this topic I would like to recommend that you get hold of a copy of Elliot, A. J., & Dweck, C. S. (Eds.). (2013). Handbook of competence and motivation; the connection to what Maslow was really trying to say is inescapable. Second, we are in danger of treating Dweck’s construct of mindset the same way we treat Maslow’s work and related constructs—if only kids had a growth mindset, if only they had grit, if only there was no poverty, if only… I’m not saying that these things don’t impact kids, but at some point we have to take on board that the kids are not the problem. I wish every educator had the same belief in the power of powerful instruction as my mother, and the same invincible perceived self-efficacy.

I hadn’t heard anyone talk about Maslow in a really long time, so I thought he was pretty much forgotten about.  But I’ve heard a couple of people repeat the erroneous interpretation of Maslow just recently, and I think it’s problematic.  Then I saw the tweet from Paul Gorski, and decided this was the right moment to write about it. And I want to put it in the context of trauma-informed instruction, but I want to be very clear that I am not saying that trauma-informed instruction is a bad thing.  Far from it; having been a teacher of students with emotional disturbance and having watched some teachers interact with them and manage to take a tiny flicker of a situation and turn it into a blazing inferno, I think you should treat all kids as if they have experienced trauma.  But that doesn’t mean that they are less able to learn. Gorski’s article is really relevant here. And I have more to say about grit, resilience, and adversity, but that will have to wait for another time.

As always, if you have any feedback for me, I would be grateful if you would get in touch. Best, Isobel

Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
151 New Park Ave
Hartford, CT 06106
Cell: 860-576-9410
Twitter: @IsobelTX
Coaching Letter:

Stevenson logo