top of page

Thinking machines that feel or feeling machines that think?

For The Madera Tribune

Madera Unified School District Superintendent Todd Lile.


School is back in session for Madera Unified, and the voices of its students from a unique in-service held recently are still ringing in the ears of the district’s employees.

Teachers and classified staff met on August 1 and 3 to learn how to become student champions. Most of the lessons came from students and former students.

As speaker after speaker, young and old alike, drove home the message that students must feel appreciated, valued, and respected, it became clear that Madera Unified is giving new meaning to the term, “building student relationships.”

The core concept of the Student Champion in-service emerged from a statement made by Superintendent Todd Lile when he advocated giving precedence to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs over Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning. In other words, the schools chief was suggesting that feelings were at least as important as facts.

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who developed the idea that people develop in stages according to their needs. He arranged these needs in the form of a hierarchy. At the bottom were physiological needs (food, water, etc.). Then in ascending order of importance came safety (security, health, jobs, etc.) — love and belonging (friendship, family) — esteem (status, recognition) — and self-actualization (becoming all that one can be). Maslow taught that needs lower down in the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can attend to needs higher up.

Benjamin Bloom was an American educational psychologist who developed a hierarchical framework for thinking and learning that worked like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. At the bottom was remembering (recall facts and basic concepts). This was followed by understanding (explain ideas or concepts) — applying (use information in new situations) — analyzing (draw connections among ideas) — evaluating (justify a stand or decision) — and creating (produce new or original work). As with Maslow’s hierarchy, in Bloom’s taxonomy, skills lower down on the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can effectively attend to needs higher up.

By urging teachers to tend to Maslow first, Lile is suggesting that the emotional needs of students are at least as important, and perhaps more important, as cognitive needs — feelings over facts. In this, Lile follows neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, who said that, “We are not thinking machines that feel, but we are feeling machines that think.”

According to Lile, the district should attend to the deepest needs of students before pushing hard on academics. “These two thinkers (Bloom and Maslow) provided brilliant models for understanding human nature and learning. We know students have to feel safe and connected before we can expect them to do their best!

“Human needs, when being met and attended, create the safe space for learning with high expectations. Know your kids and what they are experiencing and needing. And then teach and challenge them (with a) good relationship, a respectful classroom, where brains feel connected, respected, and challenged. ‘We are feeling machines that think.’”

A second round in the Student Champion course will take place for all employees in January.

bottom of page