Climbing Maslow’s Paradox: “Systems Design” A Core Leadership Practice

Abraham Maslow was an American Psychologist who is best known for his theories that human needs have a hierarchical structure. Maslow taught that a person’s need for physiological, safety, love, and esteem must be met before a person can fully self-actualize. At New Visions, and in particular on the CloudLab team, we believe that schools and educators also operate in a Maslovian hierarchy of their very own.

At the peak of Maslow’s hierarchy is the notion of self-actualization. In schools, the holy grail that we are all searching for is transformational instruction - the idea that no matter where a student comes from their educational experience will open up vast opportunities for living a more fulfilling and meaningful adult life. Thousands of books have been written about how teachers and school leaders can achieve the goal of transformational instruction. Some of my favorites include Rafe Esquith’s Teach Like your Hair’s on Fire, Grant Wiggins’, Understanding by Design, Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion, Kylene Beers’ When Kids Can’t Read, Salman Khan's The One World Schoolhouse and obviously my favorite (I have an autographed copy) Driven by Data, by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo of Uncommon Schools.

Maslow's Hierarchy

There are hundreds of Education Schools with thousands of programs dedicated entirely to the goal of training the next cohort of transformational educators. Maslow's paradox in the field of education is that little has been written and even less is taught about the prerequisites of transformational instruction that constitute more fundamental educator-Maslovian needs.

School Maslovian Hierarchy of Needs

The educator hierarchy of needs is very similar to Maslow’s proposed structure. Both start with basic security and safety. The worst schools in the country are those where students and teachers feel unsafe. It is challenging to learn Algebra when also worrying about getting beaten up in the hallway. It is much more difficult to facilitate a lesson when also thinking about having your smartphone stolen from your desk than leading the same lesson in a safe and secure environment. It is no coincidence that many first year teachers tend to focus their professional growth on classroom management - the practice of maximizing time on task in the classroom. Only after developing a basic classroom management proficiency does it make sense for teachers to wrestle with tougher instructional questions and theory.

Not all safe schools are great schools though. Many schools, where both adults and students feel safe suffer from resource and infrastructure issues. Resources in schools are the ways time and space are allocated to meet the instructional needs of the student population. In some schools the schedule or course sequence itself is so inflexible as to make it almost impossible for students to get back on track once they hit their first road block. For example, in many New York schools if a student spends a year in a Life Science class and at the end of the year fails the Living Environment Regents (a standardized science exam often given in ninth grade that is a requirement for graduation in New York), the student often moves along into Earth Science the following year instead of a separate course designed to address the unmastered skills and content from the previous life science course.

Teaching loads vary significantly across schools as well. For example, it is not uncommon in a small New York City public high school for a 9th grade English teacher to have eighty students. It’s also not uncommon to find a 9th grade English teacher with 120 students. What is possible to do in terms of feedback and personalization for 80 students is very different than what is possible for 120 students.

Infrastructure in schools matter as well. The availability of computers in schools vary from none at all, to a poorly maintained computer lab in a different area of the school, to reservable computer carts, and all the way to a full 1:1 device to student ratio. The quality of wireless internet can also present a significant hurdle for the typical classroom teacher. It takes only one experience scheduling time in the computer lab or securing a laptop cart (with charged laptops) only to be foiled by connectivity issues that prevent half the class from accessing the day’s lesson to make teachers shy away from future exercises in technology integration. On the non-tech side of infrastructure, schools handle copy machines and teaching supplies very differently with vastly different implications for instructional quality and school culture. For example, at my wife’s first school all copies had to be submitted two weeks (I thought two days, until she reviewed this post and corrected me) in advance to the supervising assistant principal for approval - which was not always forthcoming or easy to secure. At the New York City iSchool, where I worked as an assistant principal from 2009-2013, teachers have free access to the supply closet and copy machines at all times.

Moving up the hierarchy after resources and infrastructure, but still one important step below transformational instruction, is the idea of systems, structures and routines. Systems are an explicit set of relationships, roles and responsibilities, and expectations that exist around accomplishing something. Analyzing the school operations and performance of a single cohort can be an overwhelming endeavor without strong systems that leverage the web's best technologies. In a typical small New York City public high school with 425 students, there are:

  • 40,000 lessons taught annually
  • 4,100 credits towards graduation to track
  • 2,550 marking period grades per year
  • 1,272 possible Regents exam administrations
  • 300 individual course codes and titles
  • 250 teacher team meeting notes and reflections
  • 200 annual teacher observations

My hypothesis is that if schools establish systems to simplify and routinize basic operational and instructional functions, they can devote more of their resources to the difficult task of personalizing learning for each student.

A systems approach establishes this infrastructure and offers the stability and analysis necessary for continuous improvement.

Over the next few weeks, I will add posts describing systems that use New Visions Add-ons in combination with Google Apps for Education to address the non-instructional sections of the educator Maslovian hierarchy. On June 22nd and 23rd I will be presenting these ideas at InnEdco, in Keystone Colorado. I hope you’ll join me!