Mentorship through Maslow’s Self-actualisation: Teaching, Learning and Assessment Theories

| January 10, 2017


The past decades has seen the rise in mentorship programmes targeting individuals and groups. Interest in mentoring programmes has been fuelled in part by the increased recognition that mentorship results into positive relationships between the mentored and the adult mentors, which have been noted to promote resilience among youths (Wilson and Peterson, 2006). In other words, mentoring is a critical aspect of human growth with the ability to transform an individual’s hidden ability into an elite performer. However, it should never be assumed that the essential features of the natural association between an adult mentor and a young mentee is enough to influence the process of mentorship leading to satisfactory results. Moreover, most research studies have mainly focused on mentee benefits, while ignoring their motivation and interests.

Because of its multidisciplinary nature, mentorship requires a multidimensional approach to issues. As such, various theories have been proposed to enhance mentorship programme’s effectiveness. Maslow’s humanistic theory is based on the notion that experience is the basic phenomenon in the study and understanding of human learning behaviour (Kenrick, 2010). Maslow emphasises on the importance of choice, creativity, values and self-actualisation as distinctive human qualities, indicating that meaningfulness and subjectivity are more significant than objectivity. In other words, Maslow rejects the behaviourism and psychoanalysis because of the belief that it leads to over-reliance on human frailty at the expense of human strengths. This paper expounds on how a mentor can use Maslow’s theory of self-actualisation to facilitate mentorship success, through the theories of teaching, learning and assessments.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

It’s prudent to highlight the Maslow’s five hierarchy of needs and what these needs stand for, before delving into how the last need, self-actualisation, is essential for a successful mentorship programme. Maslow developed hierarchy of needs, which is based on the study of psychology focusing on the subjective experiences and freewill. In other words, human needs do change through a person’s lifespan (Kenrick, et al., 2010). Maslow, thus, ranks the human needs from most basic physical needs to the most advanced self-actualisation. These ranks, which are often referred to as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are: psychological needs, safety, belongingness, esteem, and self-actualisation. While physiological needs include essential things like food, air, water and any other factor that contribute to the human survival, the need for safety include issues to do with environmental security, job security, resource availability, healthcare and property ownership among others. In many instances, the loss for safety is experienced during economic crisis or a country experiencing a disaster.

The sense of belonging, as another need, includes love, sense of friendship, intimacy, and family belonging among other needs. Belongingness is thus established after safety and physiological needs have been assured. But there is exception to this rule particularly where peer pressure is involved, which may lead an individual to solicit for belongingness to satisfy a societal standards. Then there esteem, a need that include issues such as confidence, self-esteem, and respect among others. This level of need builds on the need for interpersonal elements of need such as love and belonging through the elements of being accepted and valued. It may lead to a close interaction between a mentor and a mentee, which often results to development of strong interpersonal and communication skills to the latter (Lunsford, 2011).

Lastly is the self-actualisation, which includes factors such as moral behaviour, creative thinking, and problem solving abilities.  Self-actualisation, considered the most significant of all needs, is the driver of every other aspect of human need (McGuire, 2011).

The theory of teaching, learning and assessment

In order to facilitate the impact of mentorship, a mentor may use various approaches of teaching, learning and assessment. Individuals have their own specific way of learning and to recognise that everyone does not learn the same way. As such, the contemporary concept of learning views it as a process of active engagement (Craig, 2013; Wilson and Peterson, 2006). A mentor influences a mentee through provision of appropriate structure, expression of positive expectation, advocating and explaining, administering challenges to learners, provision of vision that is able to sustain the interests of the learners. According to Feeney (2007), for mentorship to be effective, mentees must be guided on a journey at the end of which the mentee develops into a different and become more accomplished.

In the perspective of Maslow’s theory, a mentee is more likely to develop better career path if their interactions with their mentors is holistic. That is, mentees’ specific needs may directly influence their relationships with their mentors. For a mentorship programme to success, a mentor can focus on giving greater consideration in mentoring practice.

 Mentorship as processes of active engagement

One of the most critical aspects of education and learning over the past few decades is the move away from the concept that “learner is a sponge” toward an image of “learner as active constructor of meaning” (Israel et al., 2014: 954). The contemporary theory of learning focuses on behaviour. In this aspect a particular behaviour will lead to another and that when a mentor act in a certain way, the mentee will also act in a certain way as well.

The reasons why modern teaching, learning and assessment theories go hand-in-hand with Maslow’s theory, is that teachers hardly have control over the students’ ability to learn. This may also be replicated in mentoring, with a form of teaching that encourages mentors to facilitate learning process both within and outside their scope of control.  Some of the things a mentor needs to observe is whether the mentee is motivated, comfortable with the learning methods employed, interested, and whether the learning environment encourages interactions. These requirements are all contained in the Maslow’s theory of self-actualisation.

Holistic learning theory provides the basic premise of mentorship as it gives individual personality, which is comprised of elements such as intellect, emotions, desire, intuition and imagination (Lunsford, 2011). For learning to take place and be effective, all these elements must be activated. This is in line with Maslow’s theory that is based on the perspective that a person’s drive to learn is intrinsic, and is purposefully meant to achieve self-actualisation. In essence, the goal of a mentor should include the process of helping the mentee to achieve the desired self-actualisation of a mentee. In order to achieve the desired outcomes, it is necessary for mentors to establish relationships between mentors and mentees, which encourage patterns of regular contact over a significant period of time.

Mentorship as a social phenomenon: the social theory of learning

Another significant shift in the mentorship field is the growing awareness among mentorship theorists is that learners and mentees need social environment to facilitate learning and enhance the full benefit of mentorship. While previous learning theorists put more emphasis on individual learning, the current work places more emphasis on the critical role of social groups in the development of understanding and enhancement of mentorship success. Even though solitude and silent background provide good opportunities that are likely to favour learning process, the social occasions involved in various discussions, conversations, debate and partnership or group working equally play a critical role in the learning outcome. For example, small children may refer to everything with four legs as “dog”, but learn to separate a dog from a cat with time as they pronounce the names publicly and an adult gently amend their pronunciation. This kind of approach to learning sometimes is referred to as ‘activity theory’, which can be traced psychologist Vygotsky, 1981 (cited in Lunsford, 2011: 479), who theorised that social world has a strong influence on individual’s development.

Self-actualisation, as one of Maslow’s five hierarchies of needs, deals with the idea of setting a sense of problem solving. A mentor can use the social interaction to enhance their mentees develop more problem- solving skills. The common concept about self-actualisation is that knowledge and practice is inseparable, because humans learn or know by doing (McGuire, 2011; Wilkes, 2006). This means that a mentor can look at mentees as they are doing something meaningful, such as solving an authentic problem, in case they want to understand what the mentees’ level of understanding.

Learner difference as a resource

Another significant shift that people have adopted is the value placed on individual and group differences. Quinn and Hughes (2007) observe that one of the self-evident truths of schooling is that learners come with varied experiences, capabilities, understandings, and backgrounds. As a person seeks mentorship to achieve high-quality of what they value most in their lives, the differences between individuals continue to widen. For example, as school environments become more democratic, teachers/ mentors are forced to learn to deal with the inherent differences that exist between the students/mentees. While in the traditional model of teaching, teachers often used the “deficit model” of students to draw and plan the learning process, modern teaching, based on mentorship, emphasises that the difference between mentees should be treated as a resource.

This approach is in line with Maslow’s self-actualisation, which embraces the difference between individuals’ growth, which is treated as personal and fulfillment of one’s own potentials. A mentor, using this perspective, will focus on the difference between individual mentees as strength rather than a weakness, by focusing on each mentee’s own volition of success. In essence, a mentor should not use a standardised approach to building individual mentee’s personality. According to Maslow (1987, cited in Kenrick, 2010, p.4), a self-actualised person has a great sense of awareness, which allow them to maintain a near constant enjoyment of life. They often engage in activities that facilitate the feeling of unity with possible meaningful outcome. They also tend to develop some degree of acceptance for all that seem unchangeable as well as level of spontaneous and stamina to work on what is changeable (Kenrick, 2010). In essence, a self-actualised individual has developed a complete and coherent personality that enables them to dictate their life’s direction. A mentor can use this approach by applying theories of learning to help them:

  • Utilise and provide value to the contribution that a mentee brings to the table during the assessment process;
  • Undertake, facilitate and act upon feedback from a mentee with regard to effectiveness of the learning environment;
  • Allow the mentee to have some personal time for reflection of their personal as well as professional development;
  • Provide value-oriented and timely feedback and evaluation of individual mentee’s level of proficiency (Gopee, 2011).

The Theory of teaching for understanding

The other shift that mentors have redirect their concern is based on assumptions that knowledge is based on what a mentee is to learn. Nicklin and Kenworthy (eds) (2003) state that this theory is no longer based on what mentees quietly master or learn, but is based on the contemporary educational reform that demands that students possess more flexible comprehension of issues in a broader concept. In other words, learners must not only know the basics but also how to use those basic skills to identify and solve non-traditional problems. Alternatively, the use of critical thinking is meant to emphasise teaching for understanding. This theory has specific underlying assumptions that to be considered competent in a specific field, one must master core ideas, concepts and facts, and more importantly, its processes of inquiry and arguments.


Although critics of Maslow’s self-actualisation believe that this approach of teaching and learning oversimplifies complicated ideas, it may not be right to suggest that ideas about learning, learners, and knowing are either mutually exclusive or monolithic. If anything, the compatibility of these ideas is one of the reasons for their popularity in the last three decades. The idea of developing skills needs to be holistic, and mentors need to adopt methods that would embrace the contemporary theories of teaching, learning and assessments to increase the effectiveness of mentorship.

A mentor’s role in practice placement is critical helping a mentee go through successful learning and assessment process. Although the relationship that may develop between a mentor and a mentee is quite complicated, it is essential to establish certain form of association that allows a mentor to provide support while at the same time remain objective and analytical as well. From the perspective of a mentee, a good mentor is teacher who nurtures, while at the same time remains a ‘knowledgeable friend’ (Wikes, 2006). Maslow’s self- actualisation need can guide a mentor through identification of essential factors that would lead to a mentee becoming self-actualised. A mentor can facilitate the success of a mentorship process by jointly defining realistic expectations of their relationship with a mentee, to increase opportunities for understanding and trust.



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