More Human Than a Ladder or Pyramid: Psychology, Behaviorism, and Better Schools

Chris McNutt
May 13, 2023
Teachers must understand that teaching is dominated by entrepreneurial mindsets that are in dated pedagogy and problematic strategies.

Psychology is integral to professional development and teacher training programs. Teaching concepts from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to stoplight behavior management charts are rooted in psychology. Our application of psychology in the classroom, however, is flawed. Emerging at roughly the same time, psychology and mass industrialization intertwined in problematic ways: schools have interpreted psychology through industry’s interpretation of psychology. This warped view has created dehumanizing spaces that control students, preparing them to fit into a toxic vision of work rather than shaping better realities.

Interpretation of behavior appears on the left, with a down arrow, then psychology, business management, into schools on the side.
Pictured: A chart shows interpretation of behavior moving from psychology to business management to schools.

Root Problems

The widespread adoption of public education began at nearly the same time as F.W. Taylor’s scientific management theory, or Taylorism, which focuses on hyper-standardization toward hyper-productivity. It encouraged managers to simplify jobs to basic tasks, having workers repeat those tasks, then issuing rewards as tasks were completed. Beginning in the early 1900s, The Principles of Scientific Management became the typical toolkit for managing workplaces.

Psychology was in its infancy, with famed psychologist Sigmund Freud publishing The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, the basis of psychoanalysis in 1901. Freud believed that people were driven by conflict and instinctual urges which were often unseen – the id, ego, and superego. At this point, psychology was rarely linked to economic principles and focused on internal thoughts and ideas. 

Psychology and business began to merge when B.F. Skinner popularized behaviorism. In the 1940s, Skinner theorized that simple reinforced rewards and punishments were key to training people to perform tasks. But unlike Taylor, Skinner believed that these rewards weren’t just monetary: a manager needed to account for other forms of motivation (time off, positive messages, pizza parties) as well as punishments (reprimands, demotions). 

Pictured: Two students studying a Skinner box: a tool where, typically, a pigeon would choose between two levers: the correct lever with food and the other with an electrical zap. Through many rounds of reinforcement, pigeons would understand which lever to pull. Source: Wikimedia

Connections Across Business and Education

Taylorism and behaviorism are arguably the most impactful force on past and present workplace management. B.F. Skinner's work on operant conditioning and reinforcement scheduling had a significant impact on understanding employee motivation. His ideas on positive and negative reinforcement influenced the development of various motivational strategies in business, such as incentive systems, performance-based rewards, and employee training programs. By applying behaviorist principles, businesses sought to shape and reinforce desirable employee behaviors to improve overall performance.

One of the most famous business management books of all time, still recommended to virtually every aspiring entrepreneur, is Dale Cargenie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936). Carnegie wrote in the first chapter:

“B. F. Skinner, the world-famous psychologist, proved through his experiments that an animal rewarded for good behavior will learn much more rapidly and retain what it learns far more effectively than an animal punished for bad behavior. Later studies have shown that the same applies to humans. By criticizing, we do not make lasting changes and often incur resentment.”


“This great contemporary psychology has shown…the good things people do will be reinforced and the poorer things will atrophy for lack of attention.”

Modern management books like How to Be a Great Boss (2016) call for managers to issue clear praise, set 3 strike rules for negative behavior, and adhere to a “right seat, right person” mentality.

Side by side, as public schools grew in number and began to serve a broader population, there was a call to standardize the curriculum and teaching methods. Behaviorism led to the development of standardized teaching techniques that aimed to efficiently modify students' behaviors and facilitate learning. These principles emphasized efficiency and the application of scientific methods to management and organization. Building upon the standardized right-or-wrong approach introduced by Edward Thorndike, these tests aimed to objectively measure students' learning and performance. This led to an emphasis on test-based accountability and data-driven decision-making in education – simple reward and punishment measures on students, educators, schools, and districts.

Further, behaviorism is sometimes clumped with behavioral economics in school management, techniques, professional development, and under the label of “cognitive science.” Economists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman found that individuals are economically irrational, often acting against their own best interests due to bias, incompetence, or impulse. One of the most popular professional development books, Teach Like a Champion, is a behaviorist guidebook for popular reward & punishment systems, such as cold calling, targeted praise, and mandatory eye-tracking. The author Doug Lemov wrote that,

“Often when I visit an organization in the sport sector, I’ll make reference to some key concept or text in cognitive science and find that almost everyone in the room has read it. I’ve worked with coaches at a couple of MLB franchises. You mention Daniel Kahneman in that setting and it seems like everyone knows who you’re talking about…

Few people are pulling their copy of Kahneman out of their bag. You only see that in some parts of the high performing entrepreneurial schools sector, where people are serious about proving a concept, but not in the average school…

Instead you often find people carrying around the baggage of unfounded or discredited ideas: Dewey, multiple intelligences and vague platitudes about learning by doing or teaching your peers being the best form of learning. Vygotsky’s writings from 1918 count as science.”

As schools are under constant threat of “never before seen” low test scores, entrepreneurial PD authors propagate messages of going “back to basics”, utilizing these simple stand-and-deliver behaviorist models to “fix” schools. The problem is twofold:

  1. Behaviorism is a dehumanizing mechanism of learning that reduces human beings to simple inputs and outputs. There is an ever-growing body of research suggesting that behaviorism is not only harmful to how we learn, but is also oppressive, ableist, and racist.
  2. Capitalism, classrooms, and scientific management are multifaceted, connected pieces. Therefore, behaviorism is the assumed and dominant mechanism in which educators are taught to manage their classroom. 

Although many social, political, and economic changes have occurred since the early 1900s, radical behaviorism is still mainstream in classroom management strategies.  Here’s a short list of behaviorist (often problematic) practices that are commonplace in nearly all schools:

In many of these cases, young people routinely tell us this makes school feel like prison. And in practice, it essentially is. Behaviorism normalizes controlling people’s minds and bodies. It regiments them like tools to be manufactured and output.

This is well documented in journalist Joanne Golann’s Scripting the Moves, where Golann spent a year and a half in a “high performing” charter school. She observed teachers creating a prison-like system with silent hallways, infractions for every minor “violation” such as chewing gum or being a minute late, direct instruction every second of every period, and extraordinarily levels of compliance-driven learning. As she writes in a summary of the work,

“Because teachers constantly narrated expectations for behavior and scanned classrooms for compliance, students felt as if they were always under surveillance. Even the best-behaved students felt pressure. One mother told me that she kept her daughter home for two weeks because her daughter could not handle the pressure of being set up as a positive example for her classmates.”  

(Our full interview with Golann highlights how just one school gave 15,423 infractions for 250 students over 188 days. Only 6 students did not receive an infraction.)

(As shown in this video from AQA Forensic, a typical prison uses Contingency Management, a behaviorist process where prisoners are issued specific rewards for good behavior through the “token economy”: TV access, money, material goods, praise vs. punishment: time out, fines, reprimands.)

Incorporating Humanistic Psychology

Soon after behaviorism became mainstream, humanistic psychology emerged as its antithesis. Abraham Maslow, who co-developed the theory, pointed out that humans are not just a list of components to be improved or rejected, but people with creative, value-driven lives. Maslow believed there were two types of existence: Deficiency and Being. When you control people through rewards and punishments, you automatically destroy human expression as people are reduced to tools – the Deficiency model (e.g. behaviorism). Instead of manipulating people, he wanted to bring about people’s intentionality and individual uniqueness – their Being. 

The overall impact of behaviorism on teaching and learning has warped the way educators understand humanistic psychology. Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs stated that people needed their basic needs met, along with safety, love, security, and acceptance, and then finally people would give the world their authentic self: unique traits and gifts they offered the world. Importantly, Maslow believed that people were constantly shifting between each level of the hierarchy, able to reach the pinnacle at multiple points, as well as improve within multiple levels at the same time. He never displayed his thoughts as the often cited pyramid:

Maslow's pyramid shows different layers. Starting from the bottom: psysiological, safety, belonging and love, esteem, cognitive, aesthetic, self-actualization, transcendence.
Pictured: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (as a pyramid). Source: Wikimedia

The reason why Maslow’s hierarchy appears as a pyramid is due to how industry interpreted humanistic psychology. Douglas McGregor, a business management professor in the 1950s/60s, simplified Maslow’s hierarchy into a series of steps to make the theory applicable to entrepreneurship. McGregor created the management style “Theory X” and “Theory Y”:

Although McGregor believed that only incorporating Theory X wouldn’t work in the long term, he believed both theories were necessary to be a great manager – which is quintessential behaviorism. This is no different than B.F. Skinner’s critique of Taylorism – that people need praise and other forms of motivation to be successful – and Theory X & Y are essentially the table of contents for business management technique books.

Charles McDermid, a psychologist, translated the simplified version of Maslow’s hierarchy into a pyramid in the 1960 issue of Business Horizons: “How money motivates men”, which argued that the pyramid can be used to “maximize motivation at the lowest cost.” Professors Todd Bridgman, Stephan Cummings, and John Ballard found that much criticism of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was/is directly associated with McGregor’s interpretation and McDermid’s accompanying illustration of the pyramid. Because it was such a simple graphic to easily include on PowerPoints and in textbooks, the pyramid became the defining force of Maslow’s legacy.

Schools have embraced behaviorism and limited their incorporation of humanistic psychology. Pedagogy and teaching practices that utilize humanistic ideas are warped through managerial mindsets that are dominated by radical behaviorism and dehumanizing practice. It’s difficult to find resources that aren’t shaped by a business management approach. 

Famed linguist Noam Chomsky believed that freedom and creativity were central to learning and life, sponsoring a humanistic approach to education. In the 1950/60s, he famously refuted B.F. Skinner’s behaviorist theory in a series of back-and-forth debates. In part he wrote,

“..the insights that have been achieved in the laboratories of the reinforcement theorist, though quite genuine, can be applied to complex human behavior only in the most gross and superficial way, and that speculative attempts to discuss linguistic behavior in these terms alone omit from consideration factors of fundamental importance that are, no doubt, amenable to scientific study, although their specific character cannot at present be precisely formulated.”

In what became one of the most famous arguments in the history of psychology, Chomsky was widely considered to “win” the debate. Yet behaviorism remained the mainstream psychology adapted by corporations. After all, it is a much easier method of managing workers who rely on a paycheck. Although many leaders encourage creativity from their employees, creativity often involves intentionally bending the rigid systems already in place. Rewards and punishments have a more direct, controllable relationship to outcomes than creativity and purpose. 

Just like authentic learning, humanistic psychology is messy. It’s organized chaos. James Bugental, Maslow’s contemporary, built a three pronged humanistic model. He wrote that this psychology meant:

Adding that there are five basic principles:

  1. Humans are more important than the sum of their parts. They can’t be reduced to individual components.
  2. Humans have a unique human context as well as cosmic ecology. They investigate the world through cultures, societies, spirituality, faith, and more.
  3. Humans are aware and are aware of being aware. They have consciousness of themselves and of those around them.
  4. Humans can make choices and therefore have responsibility.
  5. Humans have goals and know that these shape future events. They seek meaning, value, and creativity.

What does this look like in the classroom? Here’s a short list of humanistic teaching practices:

Unlike the behaviorist list, humanistic values are complicated. When we don’t reduce people to simple rule-obeyers, it requires educators to have nuanced, creative approaches to their teaching – a system without specific step-by-step strategies. It’s an art, not a technical role. Teachers cannot manage their classrooms like Amazon warehouses or a call center. Just as workers must fight back against the egregious dehumanization of labor, educators must create spaces that bring human flourishing to their community.

In response to McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y, Maslow proposed Theory Z. He believed that McGregor’s Theory X was dehumanizing and Theory Y lacked greater purpose. It kept people from becoming truly fulfilled. Theory Z outlined transcendence, a concept that went beyond Maslow’s initial goal of self-actualization. He believed that reaching the pinnacles of prosocial values was the ultimate course for human beings. It had many components, all much more complex than the straightforward management of X or Y:

“Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos.”

Maslow, 1971, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (Revised). From the bottom, layers show: physiological (survival), safety, love (belonging), esteem, self-actualization. Then, a sun looms in the distance at the top reading "self-transcendence."
Pictured: Maslow’s Theory Z was also misinterpreted as an updated pyramid.
A sailboat diagram. The base reads with three layers: safety, connection, self-esteem. Then the sail reads in three layers: purpose, love, exploration. In the water, there's "security". In the air, there's "growth". Then in the clouds is "transcendence."
Pictured: Some psychologists agree that Scott Kaufman’s sailboat diagram is a better representation of Maslow’s ideas. It’s not a pyramid or a ladder.

Maslow’s transcended values run counter to managerial mindsets because they operate outside of a framework of producing goods for managers. How can someone manage employees if they don’t value money or success? What would it mean to reward or punish a laborer who has moved beyond competition? 

Humanistic psychologists didn’t care about the business community because they weren’t focused on it. Being human doesn’t have anything to do with finances or production – it is about creativity, personal growth, expression, and fulfillment. These weren’t ideas to be cooperated by business toward controlling employees but concepts to aim for as we build proactive societies. 

And now, humanistic psychology has been expanded upon with social justice and more holistic methods, ensuring that our questioning of humanity isn’t limited in scope or perspective. It’s an evolving study that is necessary for pedagogy and practice. It isn’t that Maslow had solely figured out the answers to a better education paradigm – but that we must expand upon our thinking from the behaviorist, capitalist framework.

Teachers must understand that teaching is dominated by entrepreneurial mindsets that are in dated pedagogy and problematic strategies. By changing the narrative, we can approach each new idea with a critical lens. We can analyze each new development through a deep understanding of what it means to be human. If what it means to be human is to be controlled, regimented, and worked for capital – then we’re doing a fairly good job. But if what it means to be human is recognizing who we are, connecting deeply to those around us, and finding greater purpose, then we have a long way to go.

When humanistic psychologist  James Bugental passed away in 2008, he repeated his last words over and over to his friends who sat by his side. In a sentiment that must echo across our classrooms and workplaces if we are to build a better future:

 “We need more kindness. We need more kindness. We need more kindness.”
Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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