Can we design learning environments geared for maximum motivation?

Take cues from Maslow's Hierarchy to build a strong, safe foundation for students to take risks and get to know who they are, and who they’re becoming

What can we learn from human psychology about designing learning environments geared for maximum motivation?

Let’s start by identifying core human motivations using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs. Psychologist Abraham Maslow studied human motivation as a whole, rather than the discrete pockets of motivation prior studies had identified. Maslow’s Hierarchy is depicted as a pyramid, with the base of the structure housing the most basic needs and more rigorous needs building on top of those. Maslow referred to the first four levels of the hierarchy as deficiency needs, which is to say each lower-level need must be met before moving on to the next level. Should any lower-level need become deficient in the future, people will work to correct the deficiency before moving forward.

All this motivation builds toward the tip of the pyramid: self-actualization. This may seem like a stretch for students, given that most adults spend their lives striving toward this lofty goal. When we build a safe, motivating place for students to turn their focus inward, they’re free to pursue the beginning of self-actualization. How’s that for whole-child education?

So how exactly do school leaders create a learning environment geared toward nurturing and motivating the whole child? Let’s take a cue from Maslow and start at the base of the Hierarchy of Human Needs.

Physical needs
The most basic human needs make up the wide base of the pyramid linked to bodily comfort and function. In a school setting, we can equate this to creating an accessible, functional environment for all students. A group effort is required to achieve this in schools and districts—enlist the help of the school business office and maintenance teams to correct deficiencies where you find them.

Sources of light in classrooms—whether natural, fluorescent, or some combination of alternative lighting—must be bright enough for students to complete their work. If possible, place SMART boards or other demonstration locations away from any glare from windows or lights.

Help students focus with appropriate sound levels during lessons. To change the acoustics (how sound travels) throughout the learning environment, place textiles and upholstered items strategically to minimize sound absorption near demonstration areas, and increase absorption near echoey cinderblock walls. Consider playing some light background music during group activities to help students focus on the voices nearest to them. For some students, classroom acoustics are the difference between receiving a high-quality education and straining to catch snippets of instruction all day.

ADA compliance isn’t a trend in learning environments—it’s the law. Follow the basic ADA checklist for existing facilities to ensure accessibility for all students.

Inspect and maintain HVAC systems to ensure a comfortable temperature for learning. Heating problems resulted in frigid temps and burst pipes in Baltimore (MD) Public Schools, ultimately shuttering the district over winter 2017.

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