Self-Determination Theory

In 1971 Edward L. Deci from the University of Rochester published an article titled “Effects of Externally Mediated Rewards on Intrinsic Motivation” and so birthed a new theoretical framework in psychology called self-determination theory (SDT) to explain what we intuitively already know – that freedom is a fundamental component of human development.

SDT states that people are naturally motivated to learn about the world.  SDT predicts that this natural process is thwarted by attempts to control it through rewards, coercion or punishment.  In 1999 Professor Deci co-authored a research paper that examined the results of 128 studies which confirms the predictions of SDT.

The importance of this research cannot be overstated when considered in the context of education.  What SDT shows is that students are inherently motivated to learn but only in an environment that supports this natural tendency – i.e. freedom.  Freedom is a basic human need expressed by our inherent desire to learn and become competent in those things that interest us.  Students literally thirst for the freedom to learn just as they thirst for water.  Rewards (grades, gold stars, rankings) and other forms of control undermine this natural motivation and inhibit curiosity.

SDT and its exhaustive research confirms the wisdom of the Sudbury school principle of freedom.  By creating an environment where students can pursue their own interests in their own way a Sudbury school enhances, in the words of academia, their “intrinsic motivation” – an “inherent characteristic of human beings” and the “prototype of psychological freedom or self-determination.”  In other words, a Sudbury school gives students the opportunity to do what they do naturally – learn.


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