Creating a Motivational Climate for Life Long Learning – Competence, Autonomy & Relatedness

What motivates a student – by nature, captive in a classroom – to learn? What makes them perform, invest, care and work to their fullest? It’s this question of motivation that has intrigued and commanded the attention of writers like Daniel Pink, whose seminal work Drive charts the changing attitudes to motivation – and how we’re on the cusp of a new age of understanding exactly what propels us – a Motivation 2.0.

Motivation was my own area of research, when I studied for my doctorate under the auspices of the Royal Air Force. Here I would undertake an examination of psychological determinants to better understand the motivational dynamics at play that kept (or failed to keep) service men and women fit, healthy and prepared for operations. Years later I would find that my findings directly paralleled what is happening in our classrooms.

My early research revealed that, when formal training ceases, many military recruits tended to retreat from continuing the fitness practice that had been enforced upon them for many months whilst in compulsory training. Rather than inculcating a life-long habit, the end of training was often the end of fitness itself – the recruits had failed to buy into the intent of this training, the ‘vision’, the ‘why’ they were undertaking fitness training in the first place – and, hence, they rarely undertook the behaviour of their own volition even if they knew it was of benefit to them. This, I would later understand, often mirrors children’s feelings about education. If we all start off as curious beings with an incredible thirst for learning as babies and toddlers, why do so many children have to be coerced into learning as they grow older? If the greatest resource educators can tap into is students’ natural tendency to be curious and want to discover new things, why is education also a domain in which external controls are strictly imposed?

Rather than being engaging on a fundamental level, student engagement becomes part of a vicious cycle: control only leads to more control,with never ending ‘intervention’ and ‘revision sessions’ where learning is seen as a means to an end, the generation of good exam results, rather than a practice to be undertaken for its own reward. The question was: why was this happening, and what could be done to subvert it? What if we had established the correct motivational climate from the outset? Would it have made the experience a more positive one for a child, thus encouraging a life-long love of learning? Was it possible to motivate our students to motivate themselves?

The real route to creating fitter, more resilient soldiers I would find would, lay in making exercise and health a ‘habit’ in their everyday lives – and this brings us straight back to my previous post on Icek Ajzen’s Theory of Planned Behaviour, and the idea that the development of the appropriate culture could positively influence the decisions a person made. Understanding the Theory of Planned Behaviour is therefore the critical first step in shepherding our students to brighter futures, but it does not stop there. The only reason why some soldiers were successful in habitually exercising for the long term was just that – they had redesigned their lives post compulsory training which enabled them to continue with this behaviour – the habit of exercising and associated motives were greater and more important than the reasons for not exercising. It is through an understanding of both the principles of modern theories on decision making and motivation, especially as they pertain to the world of education, that not only help us understand how some people make good choices whilst others don’t, but why some choose to continue to execute those choices day in day out.

There is strong evidence to suggest that our happiness as human beings is directly related to how in control we feel of the journeys we are each on. Aristotle once described the good society as one which enables its people to flourish and be personally fulfilled – to have purpose and meaning, to master new skills and reach new heights and be able to connect with people in their social milieu.  One the most prescient thinkers in this field for our time is a man named Edward L. Deci. Deci, and his colleague Richard Ryan are the authors of Self-Determination Theory, or SDT, a body of research that seeks to explain the very things that make us tick, and a theoretical framework which underpins much of Pink’s writing in Drive. Whereas Ajzen’s theory investigates the antecedents to our behaviour and determinants over our decisions and choices, Deci and Ryan’s theory delves into why we are impelled to act (or in some cases not to act). Brought together, their theories describe a condition of living which might be called ‘the pursuit of personal worth and freedom.’

Like all the best thinkers, Deci’s principle might seem simple but it revolutionises the way we interrogate the way we act. Fraudulent motivation might come from the traditional carrots and sticks of reward and punishment, but according to these theorists the only genuine motivation, intrinsic motivation, comes from the authentic self that drives each one of us. “External pressure,” Deci wrote, “can sometimes bring about compliance”, but not motivation in its truest sense. In fact, much of Deci’s work has gone toward showing the difference between motivation – when we seek to do something because we are being driven to it by our intrinsic selves – and compliance, when we’re compelled to do something by punishment or reward. And it’s in this grey area between the two extreme poles of motivation that Deci locates some of his most interesting thinking: an investigation into whether behaviour is autonomous or controlled, and what effects each have on us or as Deci states ‘…the degree to which the regulation of a non-intrinsically motivated behavior has been internalised’.

According to Deci, society has since time immemorial been built upon a reward and punishment basis. When we behave well, we’re generally rewarded: a gold star at school, a bonus at the end of each year for a banker who’s performed admirably for his company. This is the type of motivation we grow up with and which we implicitly understand. But is it the natural one? Toddlers don’t learn to crawl and then walk for the reward of a gold star, they take in learning for learning’s sake – that sense that an activity can be its own reward, and instinctively is, until we develop enough to start assimilating the way the world traditionally works.

Traditional methods of motivation suggest that people are simply algorithms: we might respond to external stimuli, but not in a complex or nuanced way. But if this was the case, why, then, do children shirk at school? Might it not be that a simple reward system is not actually motivating to our authentic selves? Certainly this is Deci’s thesis: that rewarding a person is, on some level, always interpreted as a method of control, and that, since human beings long to be the agents of their own destinies above all other things, rewards might, in Deci’s own words, “people’s intrinsic motivation [be] undermined by extrinsic rewards”?

A key principle of SDT is the more self-determined our behaviour, all of which are driven by three underlying and intrinsic human needs – our desire for competence (Pink terms this ‘mastery’), autonomy and relatedness (Pink terms this ‘purpose’) – the greater the level of our intrinsic motivation and the longer we will repeat the behaviour and reap greater benefits. A further advantage of this theory is that it also explains how we can be extrinsically motivated for a behaviour yet still demonstrate an element of self-determination in our behavioural regulation as this diagram shows about one common example in schools when teachers mark their students books.

It is Deci’s contention that controlled behaviours run contrary to what makes us human – that the hidden goal we all share is the urge to express ourselves according to the dictates of our intrinsic selves, and to hold complete mastery over our purpose and direction in life. When we act autonomously, Deci argues, it infers that we’re acting according to our authentic selves which also aligns to the upper stages of the continuum – identified and integrated regulation and intrinsic motivation. This is similar to what Aristotle termed eudaimonia, the inherent sense of joy and personal fulfilment on completing an activity which is central to who we are and what we stand for. Yet, when we’re being controlled through introjected and external forms of regulation, we’re acting “without a sense of personal endorsement”, and this makes our actions groundless (even hopeless in the form of amotivation); we’re puppets rather than puppet masters. And just like when we mark our books because we feel compelled to do so out of guilt or worried about getting into trouble from superiors, actions pursued for these extrinsic reasons have been empirically shown to lead to ineffective, negative and short term behaviours.

We’ve already seen how, when people are solely oriented toward rewards, they usually resort to the route that takes least effort in order to receive them. That’s our ‘quick fix culture’ by any other means. Author Daniel Pink goes further. For Pink, the traditional carrot-and-stick matrix is flawed in seven deadly ways: it extinguishes intrinsic motivation, it diminishes performance, it crushes creativity, it encourages shortcuts and unethical behaviour, it becomes addictive – and it fosters short-term thinking: “if students get a prize for reading three books,” he says, “many won’t pick up a fourth.” Rewards don’t set targets to aspire to; too often they set limits to our aspirations.

When companies aren’t meeting their targets, their instinctive response errs toward either reward or punishment: we either reward staff for increasing productivity, or punish them for not accomplishing enough. And in schools the system is strikingly similar: children not trying hard enough will often find themselves in trouble, and those who do are often rewarded – either with intangible rewards, gold stars or certificates of merit designed to lift their self-esteem, or sometimes even tangible rewards. We’re making the assumption that students don’t want to learn, or that workers don’t want to work – and that’s a form of patronisation that builds barriers and fosters antagonism between teachers and students, between workers and employers; it’s the engendering of an “us vs them” mentality to the detriment of us all. Rather than looking at the root cause of a problem, that students might be under-prepared for their classwork, homework or examinations, we’re side-stepping the real issues. It’s the quick fix culture of old. Even for students able to fulfil these expectations, who do respond to cash incentives – and the evidence shows that, in some instances, this can be successful – our message is unclear. Rather than rewarding success, we’re actually turning it into a transaction – and that’s the very thing that undermines the purpose of education in the first place. What’s more, we’re exonerating ourselves as educators; we’re neglecting to interrogate ourselves and whether we’re doing the best by our students, and instead laying the blame for poor performance on issues of attitude and effort.

And here’s where Deci’s Self-Determination Theory is vitally important. Because if we accept that one of the fundamental goals of human life is to achieve a kind of mastery, required to have self-direction, over our own destinies, then tactics of punishment and reward are necessarily obsolete. If the route to true motivation is in belying these traditional methods, it brings us back to questions of culture, educating our students in the right values, equipping them with the right mind-set to build on these virtues, and making certain the culture in which they work is so steeped in these virtues and mind-sets that they’re empowered to act on them through personal leadership.

For it is in highly effective cultures that Ajzen’s Theory of Planned Behaviour and Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory intersect. If Ajzen’s work dictates that a prerequisite to developing good intentions is the confidence and self-efficacy that comes from knowing how our peer group might react in any given situation, and Deci’s Self-Determination Theory suggests that to be properly empowered we must feel in control of our own decisions in life, then it follows that, only by putting our students in the most influential surroundings, only by exposing them daily to the values by which we believe they should live their lives, only by ensuring they absorb these lessons even when they are not actively learning, can we ever help them develop lasting character traits.

The really interesting side to learning happens at the sweet spot found on the intersection of these two theories – where competence, autonomy and relatedness meet positive attitudes, norms and beliefs of control and self-efficacy. In psychological terms, this state can be described as ‘flow’, a theory on peak performance developed by Milhaly Ciskszentmihalyi, the University of Chicago psychologist. Ever felt like something lasted 5 minutes when actually you were performing the behaviour for very much longer – you were in flow! Imagine the quality of well being and academic outcomes if students were in flow every lesson! More on this in my next post.

Thanks for reading.

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