Reimagining Maslow’s pyramid for the 21st century

Most educators are acquainted with Maslow’s Pyramid- a hierarchical structure that designates importance to our needs so that we can survive and thrive. Our physical needs establish the foundation of the design, while our psychological and motivational needs form the apex.

I have taught third graders about wants and needs through this pyramid but have always speculated whether it required an upgrade in the 21st century. In post-pandemic times, our mental health has been considered as essential as physical fitness. In every sphere of education, we opine on SEL practices and developing a holistic curriculum. In the light of these developments, does Maslow’s pyramid still hold true? Should we teach our students about these needs in black and white with no room for debate on what is essential in life?

The need for change

To my knowledge, an individual who has not obtained self-actualization will never be happy despite having all the physical comforts the world offers. A hungry man residing in poverty who has love may be more contented than the wealthiest king. Wants and needs can no longer be housed within pre-defined constructions. The last generation worked intensely to safeguard themselves financially while millennials chase happiness and inner satisfaction. Can we condemn either for their inclinations?

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Rather than a pyramid, we should sort our needs into a free arrangement that can hold a balance of aspirations rather than leaning heavily on some. These needs can be interchangeable and vary in significance based on the motivation of every individual affected. We live in an age where we accommodate individuality and celebrate uniqueness. Therefore, we need to ensure that we accept that each need is essential.

Dismissing ‘unnecessary needs’

It is easy to dismiss some needs as frivolous or inconsequential. We have been conditioned to aspire to pragmatism as a society, and the remainder shouldn’t ideally take precedence in our lives. We snicker and sneer at those who build houses in clouds or wear their emotions on their sleeves. We ought to recondition ourselves to see people with a renewed vision that is centered on acceptance and encouragement. Our needs are no longer founded on simply providing for ourselves and others. Instead, following a self-care routine by being honest about our needs ensures everything else falls into place.

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Today’s students need to realize that they are not selfish when they have emotional desires that are not being met. Teachers should acknowledge that being supported is a need and asking for help isn’t a sign of being an attention seeker. If we wholeheartedly follow the original Maslow’s pyramid, it indicates that SEL is something to be put aside until every other need is met. Alternatively, if we were to redesign the structure itself and create a balance of physical and emotional needs, we would find ourselves with a happier and resilient generation.

A change in mindset

As time goes on, education systems are evolving to match the needs of our young learners. Reimagining Maslow’s pyramid is just the beginning is a series of changes that need to develop in students’ and adults’ mindsets.

Hierarchies are treacherous creations intended to keep some elements firmly at the bottom while elevating others. If we glance at society itself, we want to move from firm hierarchies towards a free system where every individual can seek success. In the same strain, pyramids or ladders should be done away with so that individuals feel recognized and can stand out once they are open about their needs without condemnation.

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