Many theorists have contributed to the education arena with their profound theorists about human learning and motivation. Among them, Maslow and Skinner offer opposing yet plausible ideas. In this paper, we expound the relevance of the theories of Maslow and Skinner in motivating young learners. Particularly, the paper presents a table that presents the basic principles of the two theorists, and discusses their relevance to learner motivation.
Comparing Maslow and Skinner
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Skinner’s Behaviorist Theory of Learning
Recognizes hierarchy of human needs such as physiological, safety, belongingness and love, and esteem, self needs, accordingly.
Believes pleasant experiences are positive reinforcers to make people attain their goals.
Believes that knowledge self-actualization can only occur if one has fulfilled the other needs.
Recognizes that negative experiences are negative reinforcers. They lead a person to avoid such experiences or stimuli.
Proposes that deficiency in one level of needs will cause failure to attain other needs.
Claims that the lack of reinforcement leads the person to change behavior.
According to his Hierarchy of Needs, Abraham Maslow believes that a learner’s motivation relies on the fulfillment of basic human needs. This means that before one can be motivated to learn, physiological, safety, belongingness and love, and esteem needs should be satisfied first. The ability to learn and understand thus depends on the fulfillment of other needs.
On the contrary, Skinner believes that the motivation to learn can be present if a person obtains positive reinforcement such as reward or praise. In accordance to this, the rate of learning is dependent on receiving continuous positive reinforcement. As such, negative reinforcement such as punishment can likewise affect learning ability in a negative way. For instance, if a student is praised and appreciated, s/he will likely be motivated to learn. If the student is always reprimanded and noticed for mistakes, that student will likely lose interest in studies.
Bases on Maslow’s, motivation for elementary students is different from those in the high school. Since both have different backgrounds, an elementary student has fewer expectations than a high school one. For a student in this level, simple rewards to satisfy basic needs will do to motivate the individual. However, a high school student may be more difficult to please as he may have already obtained the basic needs in the past. Following this, the student already seeks more than food (candies, chocolates, etc.) or other material rewards. Instead, s/he is in search for something more, which could be higher than the basic needs in the hierarchy.
For Skinner, the motivation to learn may be similar for both levels of students. He recognizes that each person needs positive reinforcement to continue with one’s own purpose. Thus, an elementary or a high school student would be well motivated if they receive rewards or are being appreciated for what they do or how they perform. These rewards may be material or affective/emotional.
The similarity between the theories lies in the recognition of individual needs. As Skinner identifies emotional needs of people to be noticed or appreciated, Maslow also recognizes the human yearning for esteem needs, which forms the fourth level in the hierarchy.
The difference between the two lies in the level of importance. For Maslow, basic needs including food, shelter, water, and safety are important in order for one to survive or be motivated to proceed displaying a behavior. However, for Skinner, emotional, love, and esteem needs form the biggest part in one’s motivation to do good.
In a real classroom setting, a teacher who adheres to what Maslow suggests would often see to it that basic needs are met first. Every morning, this teacher ensures that each of the students has eaten breakfast or snack, and checks everyone’s welfare. The teacher probably opens her class with, “How are you today? Have you had enough sleep? Have you eaten breakfast?” On the contrary, a supporter of Skinner realizes the importance of human support and understanding. As such, this teacher greets the class with “How are you feeling? You look good today. Such praise could capture the interest of the learner because the teacher puts emphasis on the concern and appreciation for the student. Also the teacher could say, “You performed very well yesterday. I hope you will do good today.” This statement not only reminds the student of how well s/he performed the previous day, but also how the teacher appreciates the positive attitude.
On Skinner’s claim that the lack of reinforcement causes one to change behavior, we may give an example of some students who tend to lose their attention from their studies. Some students who are not given much attention because they are neither good nor bad lose their attention and have the tendency to underperform. If the teacher sees this, s/he should employ positive reinforcement to boost the person’s morale.
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