Maslow's Hammer Time

Bryan Slater · February 12, 2019

“If the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems begin to resemble nails.” -Abraham Maslow


I believe it was the Fall of 2012 when I first read this quote to my Theory of Knowledge seniors as we began preparing to write the infamous TOK Essay. I remember the explosion of curiosity it generated in the classroom as we began to discuss points and counterpoints to this claim. “Does it mean we force people to cave to our will?” implored one student. “I don’t know. To me it means that we turn all people into things that they are not in order to make sense of them,” responded another. The beauty of Maslow’s Hammer is that it can apply to so many concepts in education, one of which involves the way we approach challenges in our own classroom.

“When the only tool you have is detention, all problems can be solved by detention.”

“When the only tool you have is an outburst, all problems can be solved by outbursts.”

“When the only tool you have is to belittle people, all problems can be solved by belittling people.”

As the years have passed, I’ve found myself going back to the concepts embedded in this quotation time and time again. It applies to so many of the methods our students use to solve the problems in their lives. While personality certainly plays a role in the *way* students approach solutions to their problems, the tools they have at their disposal when it comes to solving those problems vary greatly and are taught in many different places - some students learn about them at home, some at their place of worship, some from the School of Hard Knocks - each context providing a unique set of approaches to problem-solving.

I recently had a student who approached me because he was frustrated: “Mr. Slater, it just doesn’t feel like these kids care. None of them are listening to the solutions I have to a massive problem in our school. What am I doing wrong?” As I listened, I noticed the student was using the phrase, “these kids,” pretty frequently. I then referred the student to Maslow’s Hammer and explained: If you see someone trying to drive a screw into the wall with a hammer with no success, what are you most inclined to do? You’re going to tell them all about a screwdriver and then show them how to use it, right? But if you approach that person by saying, “Hey idiot…haven’t you ever heard of a screwdriver? Gah…these kids don’t know anything,” how likely are they to be receptive to what you know? And in that moment, there was an “ah ha.” I had just taught him about Maslow’s Hammer by using the concept of Maslow’s Hammer. And he was receptive! “These kids,” was the wrong tool. “My peers” or “my classmates” makes all of the difference. “So you’re saying if I approach them as if they’re my equal, they’ll be more likely to listen?”


The same holds true for teachers; when you refer to our students as “these kids,” you are releasing yourself from responsibility to the solution. On the other side of the coin is the use of the term “my kids.” I was talking with my sister about this and she told me this great anecdote of what can happen when we refer to our students as “my kids.”

When I taught I always referenced "my kids", but even that's a problem. Because I had a lot more patience or love with "my kids". When I would hear one of "my kids" walking down the hall doing something not up to par in regards to say language or wearing their hat when they shouldn’t have etc…I’d have the patience and love to handle that situation with accountability and grace for the student. Did I have the same patience or love enough to talk to the student I didn't really know or think of as one of "my kids"? In other words, was I treating all students as “our kids?” Probably not. If I saw all of "our students" as "my kids" maybe I would have”.

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Try using the tool, “our students,” and see what changes in both the receptivity that others have to your ideas as well as the receptivity your own students have to be a vested party in your career/life.

Maslow’s Hammer raises more questions than it provides answers, there’s no doubt about that. However, it does make one wonder, “What social-emotional tools are my students coming to my class prepared with on a daily basis?” “What if every social-emotional “tool” their parents/guardians use at home is a hammer? How/why would they know that a screwdriver exists -let alone know how to use it - if they’ve never been exposed to one and seen the ease it brings to the lives of others? Every one of our kids today deserves to know how to use the whole gamut of tools available to them to solve the many problems they will encounter on a daily basis. Hammers don’t always work. If they don’t know the tool exists and as a result don’t know how to use it when it’s made available, whose job is it to teach them? It is my position that this task, to a greater extent than it already is, falls on the shoulders of the education system and that system is obliged to introduce the tools of respectfulness, patience, kindness, humility, selflessness, forgiveness, honesty, and commitment; the tools of love. Beyond that, they are also obliged to teach students what it looks like when those tools are used correctly. To learn more about these tools and the importance of them in the lives of our children, check out this video.


Bryan Slater

Bryan Slater is an experienced classroom teacher who has taught high school Social Studies in Tacoma, WA, Lagos, Nigeria, and Sumner, WA since 2002. He currently teaches IB 20th Century Topics, Advanced Leadership, and Theory of Knowledge to 10th, 11th, and 12th graders at Sumner High School. Bryan's passion centers on helping teachers and students understand the importance relationships play in developing a culture of learning and trust in the classroom. He believes the Eight Essentials are the key to those relationships and works hard to challenge his fellow colleagues and students to think about how they are creating their "Character Brand" as teachers and learners through the 1,000's of choices they make each day.