An Unofficial Hierarchy of Learning

Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash

Caring before learning

It helps to think of what we already know as a web. To learn something new, that new material needs to be integrated into the web. Learning, as an evolutionarily advantageous process, was designed to help us survive. Therefore, to get something into the web, we need to believe it will help us survive, or, at minimum, that it is important.

What kinds of things are important to a human? We have Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs for that.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Imagine the brain web of the average thirteen-year-old like a giant spider’s web strung up across a wall. Integrating information from the self-actualization level, such as facts about old dead people, and scientific definitions, is like throwing bouncy balls at the web – they repel right off.

But teach him how to interact with a potential mate (a love/belonging level need)? That is like spraying silly string at the web: it’s going to stick, and it’s easy to integrate.

And what about information that gets at safety needs, like how to survive being humiliated in front of the whole school? Well that’s like throwing a ball coated in Krazy Glue at the web: you’re never going to get rid of it.

The Hierarchy of Learning Motivation

A so-called “hierarchy of learning motivation” approximates the reverse of Maslow’s hierarchy. It ranks how easy it will be to learn a topic based on how seemingly important it is. From most motivating/easiest to learn to least motivating/most difficult to learn, we have:

              Hierarchy of Learning Motivation

Physiological: This will literally save my life right now

Safety: This will save my life in the long run (get a partner, make money to survive)

Love/Belonging: This will help me fit in with my friends and/or family

Esteem: I am interested in this subject and want to learn more

Self-actualization: This will be on the test, or help me get some job someday

The list is still a hierarchy, because most learning in school activates the lowest form of motivation, while it is rare that we teach anything truly life-saving.

So what can you do to flip it?