Self-Determination in Education

Pedagogy, Andragogy and Heutagogy2 Comments

What can education learn from one of the most important principles in Social Work practice: the principle of Self-Determination? Let me share a story with you and we’ll start to formulate an answer.  

Over five years ago, I had the challenging and rewarding experience of completing field placement in a Aged Care Psychiatric Assessment Team, as part of my Social Work studies.  I was assigned to an outreach team, which conducted initial mental health and cognitive assessment for people over the age of 65.  Without going into the details, we were determining the level of psychiatric support that our clients required.  Through this experience, I came face-to-face with the real meaning of this important ethical principles. I’m talking about “Self-determination”, a concept that became a dividing force in my professional practice.

If you look up the definition of self-determination in the free dictionary online you’ll find: “the power or ability to make a decision for oneself.”  The Dictionary of Social Work defines self-determination as: “An ethical principle that recognizes the rights and needs of clients to be free to make their own choices and decisions”

I can honestly say, there was not a week where I did not ponder the meaning and applicability of this principle when assessing and supporting our clients.  Looking back, I am certain that I fluctuated between “doing my job” (getting a client to accept and receive help), and creating an environment where my clients were autonomous.  I knew that autonomy meant clients being able to decide what they wanted to do, relate to the services being provided, and develop a level of competence about their care and recovery.   Understanding self-determination is important.  People can erroneously think that upholding someone else’s self-determination is about stepping back, disassociating yourself from the process, and leaving people on their own.  I can tell you now that this is not the case at all.  This is simply leaving people to sink or swim.  We can do more.

A lot has happened since the completion of my placement.  Life took me down a different path and I guess I thought less regularly about self-determination.  However, fast forward 5 years, and I found myself teaching, and now designing learning at RMIT University.  At the same time, in a seamless manner, self-determination crept into my conscience.  Although I now focus on a different group of people, ironically I face the same challenges.  I now ask myself: Why do we insist on telling students what to learn, how to learn, when to learn and where to learn? Why do we find it so difficult to allow students to be the actors and creators of their learning and teaching processes? Why can learning and teaching still be so passive?     

You see, what is ironic is that self-determination within the context of education is not a new or a recent concept, but unfortunately, I’ve discovered that it isn’t mentioned.  You hear about other teaching theories and frameworks, but at the end of the day it seems we are tempted to revert back to doing the same old thing.  We are inclined to make decisions on behalf of our students.  When we fail to acknowledge and recognise that students have the right to make their own choices, especially when it comes to their education needs, this can be detrimental to their learning.  This situation got me thinking that it is time to give this theory the attention it rightly deserves.

Self-determination theory was put forward by Richard Ryan, and Edward Deci, it is a theory of motivation that addresses issues of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation [1][2][3].  The theory proposes that three fundamental psychological needs must be addressed in order for individuals to function and grow optimally; these needs are: competence, autonomy and relatedness.  



So, what happens when we apply the theory to education? The answer is very straightforward: educational contexts that promote self-determination amongst students and teachers help learners to acquire knowledge, skills and beliefs, which in turn meet their needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness.  Learning environments, whether physical or virtual, which address these three needs are more likely to produce higher quality learning.  Such learning is characterised by students who become better learners, exactly because they are motivated by own internal desires.  This is very important.  In Social Work practice, the greater the level of self-determination the client feels, the greater the level of participation, engagement and motivation that they will experience and demonstrate.  In this sense, Self-Determination Theory fits very well with a Student-Centred perspective, since it creates a foundation for autonomous motivation to learn. Isn’t this something that those in education strive for?

“When these needs are supported, people gain self-determination and their motivation to learn is enhanced.”

I would like to hear your opinion on this. Please leave your comments below.


  1. Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being.American psychologist, 55(1), 68.
  2. Gagné, M., & Deci, E. L. (2005). Self?determination theory and work motivation. Journal of Organizational behavior, 26(4), 331-362.
  3. Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2002). Handbook of self-determination research. University Rochester Press.
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Leigh Blackall
4 years ago

Very nice post Zaina. It both draws me in emotionally, as I reflect on the same question with regards to my grandparents and their end of life, but also on a theoretical level, because i realise that all my work, over all these years, has been toward helping people determine their own practice. We work primarily with teachers, especially the ones who are either compelled or want to learn about a teaching practice involving internet technology. We are confronted with this dilemma on self determination all the time. Do we lead them into the institution’s suite of tools which, I… Read more »

4 years ago

Nice post Zaina, well articulated. I suppose there’s many reasons why we default to dictating the where, how and what of learning in higher ed but one surprising sticking point i’ve noticed in my travels in developing and building environments that allow more free will, is that sometimes students don’t appear to want to exercise free will and self-determination in their learning. In any environment that allows or requires self-determination there’s work to be done in articulating and convincing students that learning is their own responsibility, to help them reach the point where they understand that learning is not simply… Read more »