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Flipping Maslow: How One Pyramid Misguided Generations of Teachers & Spawned the Achievement Gap

The Future is Revolution.

If it weren’t for Anne Sullivan, we never would have heard of Helen Keller. Had a lesser teacher arrived at the Keller residence in the spring of 1887, one with less verve and grit, Helen would likely have lived out her adulthood in a state hospital when her parents could no longer care for her. 

Nineteen years after learning how to read, write and speak despite being visually and hearing impaired, a reporter asked Helen, “What are you committed to, education or revolution?”
“Revolution,” Keller replied. “We can’t have education without revolution. We have tried peace education for 1,900 years and it has failed. Let us try revolution and see what it will do.”
Over a century later, not enough has changed.

I spent a 34-year career in public school classrooms chasing the answers to education’s most important questions: What is the Achievement Gap, how do we close it, and how can we fill the teaching profession with growth mindset humans? The answer that stood out as the most overlooked, easiest to explain and most misunderstood was the Achievement Gap. What’s shocking is that because of what Helen Keller accomplished, we’ve known what constitutes the Achievement Gap for well over 100 years. Which means we’ve also known how to close it. 
Ms. Sullivan did not have any secret talents. She was 20 years old and fresh out of college. The most she could have possibly known would not have been enough to teach Helen Keller, but Ms. Sullivan had something more powerful than teacherly knowledge. 
Anne Sullivan had an overwhelming, unshakeable belief in Helen Keller. 

We love beliefs. We watch movies like the Shawshank Redemption and the Pursuit of Happiness and television shows like Ted Lasso because we want to see beliefs in action, see them play out in a beautiful yearning for more. Humans have a deep-seated desire to watch someone overcome, someone achieve something beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.
In the 60s, the Pygmalion Effect proved that teachers can and may treat children differently just by what they’ve been told about students and that those students will rise or fall according to those beliefs. Jane Elliot, with her Brown Eyed/Blue Eyed experiment, proved we can dismantle a child’s self-worth with a note pinned to their shirt. Years later, in 1995 at Stanford University, Claude Steele proved a single phrase uttered to a high-level female math student could improve her score. 

 There are countless experiments proving that empathetic managers, professors, coaches and leaders have long lasting impact on the outcome of those they lead, but there are fewer negative experiments because of the obvious potential for negative.

The Achievement Gap.

 In New York Time’s best seller, Humankind, Rutger Bregman examines multiple instances where people are drawn to negative news such as the alleged pillaging, raping and murder in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, or the Bystander Effect example that allegedly stopped neighbors from calling the police when they heard a woman screaming during the Kitty Genovese attack in New York City. These negative beliefs have long lasting effects on our minds and on our behavior. Bregman explains how social media intentionally plays the Nocebo card (an assumption something bad will happen because they believe it will) in order to engage us in their advertising campaigns, feeding us drama in the form of customized sensationalism for the sake of profit. 

At the root of the Achievement Gap are beliefs. While we can definitely blame colonization, centuries of racism, packaged curricula for a nuanced profession with an unpredictable population, mismanaged funds, maligned school boards, self-serving school districts, politicians, and a system that keeps ineffective teachers and spits out effective ones, for today, for this moment, I’d like to blame Charles McDermid, a consulting psychologist who, according to Scott Barry Kaufman, hijacked Maslow’s Hierarchy and shoved it into a pyramid for his 1960 article in Business Horizons.
McDermid’s pyramid caused the Achievement Gap by creating an apocalyptic Nocebo Effect on generations of teachers and their students. Thousands of teacher colleges have taken McDermid’s version of Maslow’s Hierarchy and pointed relentlessly to the bottom, insisting over and over again that a child’s physiological needs must be met first before the child can learn and ultimately, self-actualize. 

 Our own system has fed thousands of educators the same tired misinformation and mantra, “First feel sorry for the child, then understand you aren’t in a position to help him so you can’t teach him, so don’t bother.” This deficit mindset has tainted our education system and crippled generations of children.

 I can only imagine what Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan would think of our education state of affairs now.


There’s a Hindi story about a man passing a group of elephants, each with a small rope tied to one leg but not tied to anything else. These elephants could leave at any time. “I don’t get it,” he said to the trainer nearby. “What did you do to get them to stay here?” 
“Well,” said the trainer, “when they are younger, we use the same size rope to tie them because it’s enough to hold them. Then as they grow, they are conditioned to believe they cannot break away.”

This is where we are today, tethered by a rope so tattered and frayed we only need to believe we can break it in order to actually break it. 

The difference is that Anne Sullivan knew without a doubt that Helen could: read, write and speak. How much faith she must have had in Helen, and in the off-chance Anne had failed, we know Helen would have fallen into the Achievement Gap. 
We need to accept the fact that what children think, what educators think, what we think, what the world thinks, matters. If we think negatively about our own potential, our children’s potential or our students’ abilities then we spread those beliefs onto those children whether we intend to or not. 


Within the first six months of meeting Anne, Helen learned 600 words. If every child knew 600 written words when they were seven years old then we would not have a literacy issue.
In the words of #MayaAngelo, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when
you know better, do better.” This is where we are now, and we must do better.

Flipping Maslow.

No one would argue that Maslow’s Hierarchy is significant. In a perfect world we would all have our needs met: physiological, safety, social, esteem and self-actualization. Yet, despite calling his theory a ‘hierarchy,’ even Maslow did not see it this way. He didn’t identify steps that needed to be completed in order, that was someone else. That was McDermid, an unknown psychologist who bastardized Maslow’s theory for his own purposes. The tragedy is that we accepted McDermid’s version, continued to call it hashtag#Maslow and foisted it onto children.

McDermid’s pyramid was not meant for students, it was never meant to galvanize the entire education system into believing that educators must address issues far outside of their reach and their purview in order to teach children. That was and will always be an impossible task, but there is something we can do. 

What if we flip McDermid’s pyramid until the base becomes self-actualization? 
What if we constantly supported children with our belief in their perfect selves? 
What if, “YOU CAN DO THIS!” was stamped into every moment of every lesson of every minute of
every school experience, until their ears are filled with so much hope, so much belief in their
abilities that they don’t dare turn away from their potential.
This is what revolution looks like. 
Are you in?
Are you with me? 
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