A quick glance at the blurb on the back would have been all it took for Rob to realise he had me to ransom. 

I’ve been banging on about Ryan & Deci’s Self-Determination Theory (SDT) for ages, suggesting that it should provide a useful framework for us to apply when thinking about our relational research, and in particular how it relates to the motivation and engagement of teachers and learners in schools. Given the fact I’d not yet provided a considered rationale for such a suggestion, he had been very patient with me. So, soon after a copy of Roger Wood’s book (‘The Influence of Teacher-Student Relationships and Feedback on Students’ Engagement with Learning’) had landed on his desk, Rob was dangling it in front of me, saying I could read it, so long as I promised to write a review. 

For me, this was a no brainer. 

Initially developed by social psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan in the 1980s, SDT has been adopted by researchers in many fields of social science as a broad dialectical framework for the study of human motivation and personality. This breadth enables it to serve a number of purposes: it is a meta-theory that usefully frames motivational studies; it provides academic definitions of specific intrinsic and extrinsic sources of motivation; and it describes how these intrinsic and extrinsic sources of motivation are expressed in cognitive and social development, and in individual differences. Importantly for the field of leadership and management, as well as teaching, SDT also provides a theoretical platform for exploring how an individual’s experience of autonomy, competence and relatedness in a social context affects their sense of volition and initiative, which in turn affects their wellbeing and performance. Where these psychological needs are supported, performance, resilience and creativity are enhanced. Where they are unsupported … well, you get the picture.

The reason I am so enthusiastic about SDT relates to my frustration that this relatively straightforward and yet highly sophisticated and enriching framework for understanding a key function of human life is well known to directors of human resources and organisation development in other sectors, but not yet in schools. It does not seem to feature in teacher training or school leadership development programmes. Thus, we find that student and employee engagement strategy in classrooms and staff-rooms alike are, at best, informed by Maslow's impoverished hierarchy or Herzberg's simplistic drivers, rather than Ryan and Deci's far more nuanced, humane, and less instrumental concept. Anyway ...

That said, a great deal of academic and professional research has applied SDT in a range of educational contexts over the last 20 years or so, exploring the impact of supporting or thwarting psychological needs within families, classrooms, and teams of educators. Much of the work in schools to date has emphasised the importance of autonomy and competence as the basis for self-determined engagement (i.e. motivation), but has sidelined relatedness as a supplemental need. Now, however, in this important book by Wood, we have a study which actually puts the teacher at the centre of the equation; which, in the spirit of the age, recognises the importance of the teacher as a vital catalyst to students' motivated engagement with learning. And because, by necessity, the interface between teacher and student is relational, Wood finds that the creation of positively perceived teacher-student relationships (i.e. satisfying students' basic psychological need for relatedness) is actually an essential driver of student engagement, thanks to its impact on their need to feel competent and capable of autonomy.

A primary science teacher with over twenty years experience in schools, Wood explains in his engaging narrative that he set out on an academic path to better understand how and why students are intrinsically and extrinsically motivated to learn, and how teachers can turn that self-determined motivation - that potential to learn - into engagement with learning. It was this specific interest in the impact of teacher behaviour on student engagement that led him to Ryan and Deci’s work, which in turn enabled him to identify gaps in the prior research. Although he found a good deal of SDT-informed classroom-based research focusing on students’ motivation to learn, he found none that focused on the interplay between student perceptions of the quality of their relationship with their teacher (relatedness), and their perceptions of themselves as competent and/or autonomous learners. Neither did he find any which sought to investigate the relative impact of each BPN on engagement.

Wood approached his research, therefore, with the view that engagement may indeed be a response to the motivation that students gain from the teachers satisfying their need for competence and/or autonomy, but also that there must be some key teacher behaviours that enable this satisfaction, which must - of course - be relational. Indeed, it became an aim of the research to identify a hierarchy of motivational factors, for use in informing practice and designing interventions. 

So, what did he find? 

Firstly, that the three BPNs are "variant [i.e. not of equal weight] in their reciprocal impact upon students' perceived motivation for and engagement within the classroom." Moreover, that "the strongest influences within SDT are the reciprocal relationships between relatedness and competence." Specifically:

  1. "that an individual's motivation to be autonomous is an outcome dependent upon students' satisfied needs for both a positive teacher-student relationship and perceived competence;
  2. that perceived competence is informed by and reciprocally informs the quality of the teacher-student relationship, and;
  3. that there is a potential cumulative connection between students' perceived competence and the quality of the teacher-student relationship, in terms of the combined impact upon the quality and persistence of autonomous motivation."

From this first significant finding emerged a second, which is a proposed "motivational pathway" for the impact of SDT's three BPNs: That relatedness and competence combine in a number of context-dependent ways to reinforce students' self-determined engagement with learning, and their perception of themselves as autonomous learners. The pathway is itself based on Wood's observation of "reciprocal interaction between the students' perceived relationship with their teacher and the enhancement of students' domain-specific competence, and the teacher behaviours and learning methods that influence students' sense of relatedness and competence within an autonomy-supportive learning environment."

Underlying these is a further finding, which is that SDT is a useful tool for understanding the key drivers of students' engagement with learning. 

For the Relational Schools Foundation, these are important and mission affirming findings. As Wood puts it, the "research suggests that the teacher behaviours and methods supporting students' perceived competence and motivation to be autonomous are optimized when students perceive that they have a positive relationship with the teacher within the classroom." When viewed alongside his finding that a perceived positive teacher-student relationship correlates with enhanced intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation, competence motivation and autonomous motivation, we can begin to see the vital importance of relational quality or, as we would have it, relational proximity.

But what behaviours are we talking about here? What is a relational teacher? 

In the study, "students revealed that they base their views of the quality of the teacher-student relationship upon their perceptions of the teacher's effectiveness at enhancing students' perceived competence," which in turn, by providing students with opportunities to demonstrate their competence and then supporting them with positive feedback, encourages autonomy and leads to self-reported engagement. More specifically, Wood identified a number of teacher characteristics or behaviours that were predictive of and predicted by a positive teacher-student relationship. These were:

  • "receptive to students' perceived competence and self-confidence;
  • mindful of students' competence levels, allowing learning to progress at an appropriate pace;
  • adept at explaining ... concepts and theories in such a way that all students may understand them;
  • providing opportunities for students to discuss their ideas and explore their understanding of subject-specific concepts;
  • providing opportunities for the students to demonstrate their mastery, understanding and application of subject-specific concepts;
  • listening to students, acknowledging their ideas and questions;
  • being positive and encouraging in ... feedback about a student's progress and competence, including the correction of misunderstandings;
  • perceived to be working hard to help students develop their competence and understanding of subject-specific concepts and processes;
  • treating all students fairly and equally, avoiding nepotism, and;
  • being adept at maintaining good relationships with students outside of the classroom."

So, most satisfying for an organisation that aims to improve society by strengthening the quality of relationships in schools!

But more objectively, this is an important book for any teacher or school leader interested in better understanding how to get young people more engaged and self-motivated in their learning. Its focus on the importance of supporting subject-specific competencies will delight those who prioritise knowledge and subject learning, whilst its focus on the importance of student-centred practice will delight everyone else. For us at RSF, it's just great to see an academic paper highlighting just how vital the teacher-student interface is to learning. 

One thing that isn't covered, but which would be an interesting focal point for future research, is the extent to which the achievement of the desired outcome - students' self-determined engagement with learning - loops back and has a positive impact on the teachers' own level of engagement with their jobs and their students. After all of course, it's not just students that need their basic need for relatedness, competence and autonomy to be met in order to feel motivated and develop a sense of purpose. 

Does the work have any faults? Well, yes. 

It is let down to an extent by the depth and breadth of the research, which - due to his school context having other priorities - had to be redesigned and scaled back half way through. It’s three components - a meta-ethnographic literature review; a retrospective series of multi-cohort, multi-occasion surveys to test emergent findings, and; an online survey of students to triangulate the claims to knowledge from the review and main study - are sufficient to enable the important conclusions drawn to be seen as valid, but perhaps not a lot more. What it does do very successfully, however, is clear the table and lay the plates for some much broader yet focused follow up research.

Sadly, at least with respect to this print run, Wood has also been let down by the publisher, which is always heartbreaking to see. I was tripped up just too many times by syntax errors which occasionally render Wood’s rather dense academic prose unfathomable, even after several attempts. There’s also an horrendous pagination error at a key point of the general discussion (chapter 7), and at least one missing reference (McClaughlin 2004, referenced on p.202).

But overall, this is an important application of Ryan and Deci's SDT framework to the classroom which, in taking a sophisticated approach to understanding student motivation and engagement with learning, throws light on the vital interface between teacher and student. In showing just how important that interface is for enabling student engagement and therefore achievement, Wood prioritises relational thinking, and reminds us that teaching is, after all, just about two people in a room, and that learning depends on both their basic psychological needs being met.

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