George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social and Emotional Learning

Student Autonomy, Compliance, and Intrinsic Motivation

The pressures of education today seem to be tilting the balance toward order and compliance, and this can have harmful long-term consequences for both children and society.
February 15, 2016
A closeup of a side profile of a young female student looking out a window. Her left cheek is resting against her left hand, and there's a hair tie around her wrist.

Many empirical studies have shown that excessive control from strict, negative rules and punishments and extrinsic rewards for doing the "right thing" can achieve short-term compliance.

But there are costs: It undermines intrinsic motivation, it decreases the overall quality of performance, and it connects continued performance to the availability and delivery of rewards.

This is the conundrum when education takes place in a pressured environment in which the teachers' own sense of autonomy has been eroded. Fast compliance is needed so external controls are used, which seem to "work." This success can become addictive, especially since it takes a bit of time to wean students off of extrinsic rewards. It becomes seemingly easier to continue to use external controls for short-term compliance.

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Seeking Ideas From Colleagues

The solution for this is a shared philosophy and commitment to developing student autonomy in a developmental sensitive and ongoing way -- from the moment a student enters a school to the moment they depart. Everyone can't simply do their own thing; when people run into disciplinary and organizational trouble, the answer is not to revert to excessive controls. One answer is to reach out to colleagues and get ideas about how to have order and continuity while still supporting student autonomy.

The Balance of Freedom and Order

This balance of freedom and order has been under increasing discussion of late as representing the essence of democracy and a definition of moral responsibility.

In his book, Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation, Edward Deci wrote, "People find freedom in part by accepting their real constraints, but that alone does not ensure that they will function effectively within society. In addition, they may need to accept some of the arbitrary conventions created by the social organization."

Many societies around the world, both secular and religious, vary along which pole they place greater emphasis. Individuals also have to find the right balance for themselves and their life situations in developmentally appropriate ways.

And this is the challenge for educators: How much freedom? How much order? The pressures of education today seem to be tilting the balance toward order and compliance, and this can have harmful long-term consequences for both children and society.

It would be foolish to advocate for autonomy at all times. Getting things done and living in social relationships with others requires some structure. We have to get schools started within a time frame, move students and educators periodically, make time for nutrition and physical activity, foster creativity, and end the day in some predictable and organized ways.

The unanswered questions are: How much autonomy is enough, how much do different individuals need, and how do the answers change over time?

Why SEL Matters

There are direct implications of this for how we present social-emotional and character development (SECD) programs, as well as programs to prevent problem behaviors. The reasons for learning SEL and having positive character are not for a grade or for rewards. SEL skills and character allow you to accomplish great things in the world.

They allow you to be helpful to others, to learn effectively, to contribute to your family, friends, school, and community, and to make your life better. These conversations must be a part of every SECD lesson.

Addressing Risk Behaviors

Similarly, prevention of drugs, alcohol, smoking, and other tobacco and drug use, as well as violence and premature sexual behavior, needs to connect to biology, health, and relationships with others. "This is what happens to you -- realistically, not in the extreme --when you engage in these actions. Here are your risks." It's essential to realize that when students feel a sense of failure, hopelessness, and lack of accomplishment, their sense of risk is different than what their teachers might think.

There is not much risk when one does not have much to lose. But when competence matters and feels attainable, behaviors that compromise that competence are easier to call into question, even in the face of peer pressure.

In Support of Classroom Autonomy

We can give Edward Deci the last word:

Intrinsic motivation represents an orientation to make choices, along with the moral compass to make responsible choices. These are attributes that only accrue positively with practice, and trust, and adults' being willing to challenge their own comfort zones toward the greater good that may result for more children when they are less controlled and more autonomous around learning.

How do you encourage and support intrinsic motivation in your classroom and with your students? Please share in the comments section below.

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Filed Under

  • Social and Emotional Learning
  • Character Education
  • Student Engagement
  • Teacher Development
  • All Grades