Self-Determination Theory for Dummies: Part One

(To borrow a phrase from Alexander Russo’s blog: I geek out on this stuff so you don’t have to.)

When I realized that Alfie Kohn’s highly touted book “Punished by Rewards” has well over twenty footnotes from the research of Ed Deci and Rich Ryan, I decided to follow the river back to the spring. I found one of those books that will come to my desert island: Ed Deci’s “Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation” (1995). What follows is Part One of Three on this theory and its applications to teaching.

I’ve never tried this in-depth kind of blogging before, but I am inspired by the lively and thorough prose of Eduwonkette (here’s her latest post), and I am feeling the need to document how important I think this theory is for teachers. But if your interest flags, worry not. Read another blog. I’d suggest the folks we really should be listening to: kids.

So here we go:

I was given an envelope yesterday morning that contained a pencil, a bookmark, and a colorful little eraser. I was told that at some point I should stand out in the hallway and give these out to whatever student was carrying around a book to read.

Motivation, in otherwords.  How can people motivate others? This is the question every good teacher should be asking, right?

Except that it isn’t.


The proper question, Deci says, is this: “How can people create the conditions within which others will motivate themselves?” This reframing is very important, because it puts aside that idea that “motivation” is something that we can “do” to other people. Instead, motivation, in order to be truly effective, becomes something that must come entirely from inside the people we work with. It is tapping into their innate vitality: the natural need to engage and be engaged by the world.


Deci’s answer is that the fastest, most productive, most enduring way to create intrinsically motivating circumstances for a human being is to support that person’s autonomy. Well-aware of the touchy-feely dangers and self-help gurus that populate this topic, he uses nearly twenty-five years of comprehensive, rigorous psychological research to back up this answer. He calls it “empirical humanism.”


Deci also conducts research to determine whether intrinsic motivation is all that it’s cracked up to be. It is. Intrinsically motivated tasks result in greater conceptual understandings, superior retention of information, technical expertise, and creativity.


Autonomy support, Deci asserts, means addressing the three fundamental psychological needs of people—something like the air, food and water of the psyche. They are the need to feel self-determined; the need to feel competent; and the need to be connected to others. In every activity we undertake, if we consciously address these three needs, then this creates a situation where intrinsic motivation can thrive.

In his experiments, Deci addressed these needs in three concrete ways: providing a rationale for tasks (self-determination); acknowledging feelings (connection); and minimizing pressure (competence). In every case, intrinsic motivation occurred where these three things took place; and proportionately less intrinsic motivation occurred where they were absent.

And here’s a kicker: “Autonomy support,” Deci writes, “is a crucial context for maintaining intrinsic motivation…it also turns out to be essential for promoting motivation for uninteresting, although important, activities.” More on this next post—although I can’t resist commenting here on how telling it is that in this part of the book, all Deci talks about is school.


Deci also discusses the range of behaviors in humans which are not autonomous (the gold standard). There is, of course, compliance, or doing something simply to do it. You might call this the “I don’t believe in this, but I don’t want to get in trouble” approach.

The opposite, one which teachers also know well, is defiance. Deci is very clear (and perhaps for us liberal-minded folk, this might come as a shock) that defiance for defiance’s sake is not autonomous, either. This might be termed the “Screw you, no matter what you’re saying” approach—or, more subtly on the adult level, “All change is good.” Defiance that is defined entirely by external control, in otherwords, is merely reaction, not autonomy.

But there is a middle ground as well. Deci calls this introjection. “These people,” says Deci, “do a behavior in spite of not feeling free, not enjoying it, and not believing it was personally important. They had swallowed the thought that they should do it, and they plodded forward, rather like sheep to the slaughter.” I’ll be talking more about how this  applies to school in my next post, but suffice it say for the moment that these people are tough nuts to crack. They comply; and they will even say, perhaps with great conviction, that they WANT to comply. But their motivation for doing so is not, at bottom, true to their authentic selves.


Here is the list. For those of you who may not be familiar with this, it’s a little shocking. Remember that this is backed up by twenty-five years’ worth of data.

1)      In general, rewards of any kind: money, certificates, or colorful little erasers.   

2)      Pressure.

3)      Competition.

4)      Threats/demands.

5)      Surveillance.

6)      Critical evaluations.

7)      Summative tests and quizzes.

8)      Grades.

Deci puts it best: “Not only do controls undermine intrinsic motivation and engagement with activities, but—and here is a bit of bad news for people focused on the bottom line—they have clearly detrimental effects on performance of any tasks that require creativity, conceptual understanding, or flexible problem solving.”  

And the costs don’t stop there. Very strong extrinsic aspirations in adults– the same ones we encourage in our students–were always—always— associated with poorer psychological health.

Lots to think about…

In Self-Determination Theory Part Two, I’ll be addressing some foundational questions that arise from this work, and also how this theory applies specifically to teaching and learning.

13 thoughts on “Self-Determination Theory for Dummies: Part One

  1. Hi.
    VERY interesting.
    It gives me a good deal to think about in how I go about raising my own children!
    Thanks for the “food”.
    Pete Saracino

  2. Thanks, Pete. I really enjoy your posts on Joe’s site. I’ve got two little ones too (boy, 3, and girl, 5) so I know where you’re coming from. I’d recommend reading the entire book, since I’m summarizing the hell out of it here and not particularly hitting the parenting parts (there’s quite a few of those).

  3. Aaah! Found your blog through your comment at TMAO’s. So happy to have found it. Maybe I’ll go ahead and buy the book right now.

  4. Did it – yay for Amazon marketplace. By the time the book arrives there’ll be students and papers everywhere though, so your short intros will be much appreciated.

  5. Thank you very, very much for sharing this link with me in a comment on my blog.

    It’s connectivism at its best 🙂

    Bookmarked, subscribed, and positioned for further reading!

    Right now I’ve got to get my head around how much of this can be applied to my PLN elective….

  6. Sounds like an excellent book. I’ve added it to my reading list.

    What else have you read along this line that was good?


  7. Thank you for this enlightening and intriguing blog post. I was referred to it by a friend and am now interested enough to purchase a book by Deci and Ryan. As a long-time educator, I can attest to many of the ideas brought up by this theory. You can lead some to education, but you can’t make them think…or, at least, you can’t make them think what you want! This also dovetails in an interesting way with the work by Dr. Marvin Marshall, who has developed the Raise Responsibility system. Choice and self-reflection are keys to helping others become more aware.

  8. Hey Dina,
    I came across this blog researching for an essay i’m doing for college. I really like your explanation of SDT but I can’t find part 2!

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