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Overview: Self-Determination in Education

Understanding learners’ motivation is key if we want to educate children to become self-directed and lifelong learners, as a wealth of evidence suggests from Self-Determination Theory (SDT, Ryan & Deci, 2017Deci & Ryan, 2000).

According to SDT learners have a natural tendency to explore their environments, to grow, learn and develop. An important goal of education then is to cultivate this inherent interest that exists within the learner. Yet, in reality, many teachers are in a daily struggle to energize and motivate learners who lack enthusiasm, are passive, refuse to cooperate, or even display aggressive or disruptive behaviors. Teachers therefore would not necessarily portray their students as naturally proactive and endowed learners. And evidence shows teachers are right! Learners’ intrinsic motivation dramatically deteriorates with increasing age, and during the teenage years many learners have lost interest in and excitement for school. In this context SDT provides a sound theoretical framework that stimulates a critical perspective on some of the widely used contemporary educational policies and practices which are hampering rather than fostering learners’ intrinsic motivation.

From Learner to Teachers: The Importance of Motivational School Climate 

Motivation in school is of course not only about learners. Teachers themselves are a decisive element in the classroom. Teachers bring their own personality and motivation to the classroom. Too often, teachers’ own autonomy, competence, and relatedness is undermined by administrative control, inflexible curricula or lack of support. During the past decade, more and more SDT researchers have examined the contextual factors that influence teachers’ motivation, while concurrently taking into consideration the role that teachers’ motivation plays for their way of interacting with their students. Evidence shows that when teachers are empowered, receive confidence and opportunities to be creative, learners will benefit. Supporting both learners and teachers needs through the creation of a motivational school climate thus has substantial advantages in terms of educational outcomes. Yet, the creation of a motivational school climate is not an easy job! Just as teachers face the challenge to motivate their learners, policy makers and principals are challenged to prevent teachers’ burn-out or drop-out, and to motivate teachers towards the implementation of educational reforms or curriculum changes.

SDT as a Framework in Education

SDT provides a framework that stimulates a critical and refreshing perspective on some of the educational policies and regularly applied practices in education. Application of the principles of SDT to education focus on how principals and teachers can facilitate the satisfaction of the basic psychological needs of teachers and learners, respectively so that schools are places in which all parties can develop intrinsic or fully internationalized extrinsic motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2017, p. 380-381). If policy makers, school leaders, teachers, and parents can relate back to this sound and refreshing theoretical framework, this can inspire them towards the creation of a school-wide motivating learning climate.

Education In Practice

A Need-Based Approach to Motivating Teaching 

SDT refers to three basic psychological needs (autonomy, competence and relatedness), the nutrients needed by every learner to actively and positively be involved in learning. These needs are innate and their satisfaction is fundamental to foster intrinsic motivation and internalized forms of extrinsic motivation (i.e., the process by which non-fun activities can still be valued and embraced by learners). The need for autonomy refers to learners need to be the initiator of their actions and to a sense of psychological freedom when engaging in a learning activity. The need for competence refers to learners’ feelings of effectiveness and to their need to experience confidence in achieving desired outcomes. The need for relatedness refers to learners’ experiences of positive and mutually satisfying relationships, characterized by a sense of closeness and trust. Many factors can contribute to the satisfaction of these three needs, but among the most important is the teachers’ style of engaging with the students.

Teachers thus face the challenge to support rather that thwart these three basic psychological needs through the adoption of an autonomy-supportive, structuring and warm motivating style rather than a controlling, chaotic or cold motivating style, so that they can foster intrinsic motivation and internalization.Hundreds of studies have demonstrated the benefits of a need-supportive motivating style and the motivating strategies associated with it (e.g., positive feedback, empathy, choice and rationale provision). Also the drawbacks of a need-thwarting style, and particularly a controlling style are very well documented.Within this body of research, the detrimental effects of extrinsic rewards, punishments, high-stake testing, social comparisons, and different types of pressuring or controlling feedback have been widely examined.

More recent SDT-based work in education also recognizes that every situation and every student is different. Students enter the classroom with different backgrounds, goals and personality characteristics. A truly motivating style essentially refers to adopting a curious, receptive, flexible, warm and open attitude, which allows for teachers to gain deeper insight into the differences between learners, so that they can tailor their motivating strategies to these learners’ emerging skills, interests, values, and preferences. This basic need-supportive underlying attitude then pervades in everything teachers say or do when interacting with their learners.

Suggested Readings & Research

(2021) Educational Psychologist

Autonomy-supportive teaching: Its malleability, benefits, and potential to improve educational practice

Reeve, J. Cheon, S. H.

(2020) Contemporary Educational Psychology

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation from a self-determination theory perspective: Definitions, theory, practices, and future directions

Ryan, R. M. Deci, E. L.

(2012) Journal of Educational Psychology

Longitudinal test of self-determination theory's motivation mediation model in a naturally occurring classroom context

Jang, H. Kim, E. J. Reeve, J.

(1991) The Educational Psychologist

Motivation and education: The self-determination perspective

Deci, E. L. Vallerand, R. J. Pelletier, L. G. Ryan, R. M.

(2009) Theory and Research in Education

Autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom: Applying self-determination theory to educational practice

Niemiec, C. P. Ryan, R. M.

(2009) Theory and Research in Education

Undermining quality teaching and learning: A self-determination theory perspective on high-stakes testing

Ryan, R. M. Weinstein, N.

(2022) Learning and Instruction

When students show some initiative: Two experiments on the benefits of greater agentic engagement

Reeve, J. Jang, H-R. Shin, S. H. Ahn, J. S. Matos, L. Gargurevich, R.

(2021) International Journal of Bullying Prevention

Teachers’ motivation to participate in anti-bullying training and their intention to intervene in school bullying: A Self-Determination Theory perspective

Sutter, C. C. Haugen, J. S. Campbell, L. O. Jones, J. L. T.

(2021) The Qualitative Report

Emotional turmoil or peaceful agreements? A phenomenological study on coping with reforms in higher education institution

Meristo, M.


Student-centered pedagogy and course transformation at scale: Facilitating faculty agency to IMPACT institutional change

Levesque, C. S.

(2021) Educational Psychologist

Autonomy-supportive teaching: Its malleability, benefits, and potential to improve educational practice

Reeve, J. Cheon, S. H.

(2020) Contemporary Educational Psychology

Fostering the use of pedagogical practices among teachers to support elementary students’ motivation to write

Guay, F. Gilbert, W. Falardeau, E. Bradet, R. Boulet, J.