Sunday, November 21, 2010

Self-determination theory

I shared my ASEE talk with a few friends and colleagues and, as expected, received a range of responses from total to cautious agreement to complete skepticism. What was interesting to me, though, was that most of the skepticism centered around the issue of "trust": In a completely free and autonomous environment, how can we trust that all students will be sufficiently self-motivated to learn? Or is the approach to learning I advocate one that can only work for students that are already (somehow, magically, innately) self-driven?

My own intuitive feeling is that if our education process from the very first days of schooling is truly free, then all students (who have not had their self-drive destroyed by conventional one-size-fits-all schooling) will retain their innate self-motivation to learn and grow. But this is only a partial answer. Other environment factors may be important too. What are they?

For deeper insights on this problem, I want to explore the psychology literature, particularly research findings and theories that relate to motivation for growth.

After my talk, someone in the audience came up to me and asked me if I had read about "Self-Determination Theory" develop by the psychologists Deci and Ryan at the University of Rochester. I had not, so he jotted down a pointer for me on a card. I came across that card today, which reminded me to take a look.

I confess I haven't made it past much more than the Wikipedia entry on SDT, and the high level overview of self-determination theory on their website yet, but from what I can tell, it is quite consistent with what Rogers and Maslow (two noted psychologists whose work on related subjects I am more familiar with) have had to say on the subject of autonomy and self-actualization.

This theory posits that there are three innate human needs that must be satisfied for optimal growth: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. The Wikipedia entry further notes:

Deci and Vansteenkiste (2003)[7] claim that there are three essential elements of the theory:

  1. Humans are inherently proactive with their potential and mastering their inner forces (such as drives and emotions)
  2. Humans have inherent tendency toward growth development and integrated functioning
  3. Optimal development and actions are inherent in humans but they don’t happen automatically

To actualise their inherent potential they need nurturing from the social environment.

I am looking forward to learning more about this. In particular, the third point is exactly what I want more insights on. What kind of nurturing is needed?

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