Learner-Driven Education


The psychological effects of various educational methods on learners depend primarily on the factor of intrinsic motivation. Research reveals that higher intrinsic motivation, defined as interest and desire in learning, leads to more effective learning. Whenever intrinsic motivation is lacking, there will be less learning and a host of other problems. One main way to decrease intrinsic motivation is to make education controlling and coercive, through required assignments and imposed tasks as well as structures of rewards and punishments. Honoring the volition of the learner best fosters intrinsic motivation and thus a beneficial and productive learning environment.

The Nature of Educational Systems and
Their Psychological Effects on the Learner

This paper deals with the philosophical questions inherent in the educational process, whether it be homeschooling or traditional schooling. We will discover that there are not only different educational techniques, but also different ethical views of the relationship between the student and teacher (or student and school). In fact some theories favor doing away entirely with the teacher—at least in its current interpretation as one who directs the learning process of the student. We will analyze the merits of such views in light of the evidence and logical interpretation. Isolating the ramifications of directing the learning of the student is crucial, if we are to arrive at a comprehensible understanding of the ideal method (or methods) of education.

To discover how students learn optimally, one has to inspect the factors involved in the learning process. When the student is learning alone, he or she is interacting with his or her own mind and store of knowledge. Obviously in such a situation, the student becomes his or her own teacher (Montessori, 1979). This is the case with many homeschool learners. Nothing is expected of these students other than the demands they place on themselves, or the demands they have internalized from their family or culture.

It is now common knowledge that homeschoolers in general consistently score higher on standardized tests than students in school environments. This phenomenon is represented in the research, which shows that students who lack a sense of educational autonomy will typically choose less challenging and less demanding tasks (Boggiano, Main, & Katz, 1988). This will likely be reflected in the amount of information learned and therefore, it is deduced, test scores.

However, in an educational context where the student works with a teacher, the factors involved in the learning process become considerably more complex. The basic issues can become difficult to distinguish within the information gathering and integration process. Questions naturally arise: What is the best form of interaction of the teacher with the student? Should the teacher serve as a director, telling the student the best way to gain knowledge in a certain subject? Should the teacher determine what is the required way to learn a particular subject of interest? We will see in the following pages that the research tends to show that the teach-as-director pedagogy fails in many ways. In fact pedagogical control leads to such dismaying things as less creativity, impoverished intrinsic motivation, poorer achievement and self-regulatory behavior, and less psychological stability and mental health (Kohn, 1993).

Goals of Education

Deciphering certain essential characteristics of the educational process is crucial. It enables the psychological researcher to better understand and devise an optimal learning environment. Understanding both the positive and negative effects of certain practices will go a long way to implementing a system that is suited to the needs of learners everywhere.

Naturally, we must deal with the question of the general goals of education. Much is debated in our culture about collective aspects of educational programs and results. For example, many educators concentrate on whether classes of students in America can compete with the rest of the world. So, they tend to concentrate on the most practical and effective approaches to increase the literacy of graduating high school students. They seek to “turn out” intelligent, thoughtful, critical learners who will be welcomed into the job market.

Yet to focus on class results (or city, state, or national results) rather than the individual student runs counter to the conclusions of research in cognitive psychology: the most effective and deeply integrated aspects of learning for the long term (involving higher level mental processes) demand conditions that are opposed to the routine class work done in groups, or for that matter directed by a teacher (as in an assignment) (Doyle, 1983).

Thus, instead of a one-size-fits-all approach that teaches to the theoretical “average” students—and even then does not hold the bulk of their attention for long—an individualistic approach catering to each learner’s particular intellectual and emotional context is most consistent with optimal cognitive functioning. In the realm of information acquisition, processing, and effective utilization, the individual must proceed at his or her own pace, according to the level of interest involved. Hence, group school work that is not requested (thus having no appeal) tends to be cognitively ineffective.

Types of Education

As noted, an educational program can be devised in various ways. On one end of the spectrum, there are individual-initiated teaching circumstances, such as homeschooling (also called unschooling (Holt, 1976)). Homeschooling, of course, can be structured to greatly resemble the traditional school environment consisting of textbooks, tests, and regimented course work. However, the format is really left to the discretion of parents and students, regardless of the particular state laws requiring and stipulating the curriculum of the homeschooled student (Llewellyn, 1997). Unschooling could be seen as a subset of homeschooling. It entails a learning environment that lacks other-directed study. Instead, the learner him- or herself decides what to study, and when, and in what manner.

There are also institutional formats that vary from being a free school, to an open school, to a traditional school. A free school allows learners complete freedom concerning what they study and when and in what manner. Teachers in such schools are basically helpful guides, although they can provide more directed instruction when it is requested. (We will notice that teaching “when it is requested” is key to student growth, creativity, and motivation.) Some free schools have even gone as far as allowing students democratic influence in the structure and operations of the school (including who will staff them). The idea is to foster as much self-responsibility and independence as possible within a school environment.

Open schools tend to be more teacher-influenced versions of free schools. They have an occasional lesson or structured activity given by teachers that everyone must participate in. They do not have grades and tests, however. Feedback on work is provided when requested, but evaluation of students by a teacher is usually thought to be detrimental to independent and self-focused scholarship. This reflects the research, which shows that even many high-achieving students, in response to rewards such as grades, end up taking short cuts to achievement and tend to view out-of-class learning as unfulfilling (Thomas, 1980).

Finally, traditional schools, which include the progressive varieties, are based primarily on the idea that teachers are the final judge of student activities—teachers know best what the students should be doing with their time and energy. Myriad exercises and lessons are devised to assist in controlling the learning processes of students, supposedly better fostering their intellectual growth. Variations of group and individual activities are assigned by the teacher, with lesser or greater amounts of student choice involved. Most activities are expected to be completed by a certain deadline.

Parallels in this method are drawn here by teachers (and administrators) to employees in the workplace: The employee must do his or her job as outlined by the employer and perform in such a manner as to satisfy the job requirements and complete tasks on time—if not, the employee gets reprimanded or fired. In turn, the teacher instructs; the student follows instructions. The teacher gives orders; the student obeys and executes them, hopefully with minimal fuss—if not, punishments are enforced (for example, lowered grades) and privileges taken away, even the privilege of attending school (for instance, suspension or expulsion). And in many cases, as psychologist Alfie Kohn (1993) pointed out, “Teachers hold out the possibility of more academic work as a punishment (or the possibility of less work as a reward), which drives home the lesson that learning is something a student should want to avoid” (p.151).

Other researchers have noted that the parallel between traditional schooling and circumstances in the workforce merely trains students to be good followers and reactive to rewards and punishments, rather than responsive to their own conscience and values and creative capacities (Bowles & Gintis, 1976).

The Detrimental Effects of Coercive Schooling

While most of us are quite familiar with many of the problems in traditional schools (from elementary to college), the most prominent ones need to be addressed: the lack of following orders and the lack of learner motivation and efficaciousness. Even schools that rule over their pupils with an iron fist and exact penalties with unrelenting authority, usually dissolve into a compromise of focused work and idle chit-chat or plain goofing off. This results in learner environments in which only a certain percentage of the time is spent “on task” (formal learning). The rest of the time, the teacher must create strategies to obtain compliance in the classroom; classroom management (i.e., student behavior management) becomes the overriding concern. This of course raises the question about the value of the educational material being presented and, in particular, the way it is being presented. In the words of one researcher “It is meaningless teaching, not learning, that demands irrelevant incentives” (Smith, 1986, p.83).

While the factors involved in “off task” behavior may stem partially from the natural developmental activity of children (their desire to play sometimes), one contributor is the social context they are cast into (peers assembled into large groups)—in spite of the demands of individual learning processes. Most importantly, though, stripping students of intrinsic motivation drastically and oftentimes irreparably amplifies these educational difficulties (Kohn, 1993).

The psychological theory and techniques of Behaviorism are ordinarily used to maintain a tolerable level of conformity to class rules. Commands and controls and rewards and punishments become the mainstays to achieve class objectives (albeit mostly short-term and transient ones). These tactics are utilized in spite of the evidence of their disturbing contributions to feelings of anxiety, depression, and helplessness (Boggiano et al., 1989; Boggiano & Barrett, 1992). Since behaviorist techniques must be implemented consistently in order to be “effective,” many teachers not surprisingly become exhausted and suffer from burn-out (not to mention cynicism about students) after only a few years or months in such an educational system.

Such a system is no doubt an injurious one. Regardless of the intentions of its promoters, it exhibits a certain view of the psychology of the learner: Students are not to be trusted with their own particular paths of learning; they are to be directed. It is contended further that students, contrary to research findings (Harter & Jackson, 1992), do not have the motivation to pursue their own interests and cannot stay enthused about subjects that they are learning (Holt, 1976).

This definitely raises a question about the goals of education. If it is personal growth of students that educators want—students who are happy, well-adjusted, self-directed, have high self-esteem and are excited about learning—then promoting intrinsic motivation ought to be foremost on their agenda (Ryan & Powelson, 1991; Ames, 1978). But if the goal is to have “well-rounded” students, cognizant of many different subjects in any given conversation or endeavor, then we have to question the utility and validity of the methods of achieving such a goal. It may actually turn out to be unattainable. A goal such as this, in order to be at least partially achieved, must be a personal ambition of the student; it cannot be effectively imposed. Upon examination, the creation of a “well-rounded” student may defy the nature of the learning process. Not only does it demand unbelievable feats of memory, but it also asks (or demands) that the student study subjects and fields of knowledge that have no appeal to him or her.

In fact these two aspects—memory and appeal—are interconnected. Research shows that learners remember much better what they have interest in learning (Anderson, Shirey, Wilson, & Fielding, 1987), which typically is a smaller breadth of information than they are given in modern or traditional curricula. Basic study of human cognitive processes tells us that in order to remember something for any length of time, one has to repeatedly come into contact with the information in a mentally constructive way—or at least in the form of rehearsal. More importantly, one needs to actively integrate and relate the information to the rest of one’s knowledge—that is, make it comprehensible.

The best intentions for remembering do not accomplish anything in the learner when these two factors (repeated constructive contact and comprehensible integration) are not honored. Again, learners do not remember much of what they are not interested in learning, which stands to reason. Enthusiastic and motivated students take learning seriously and try to obtain the most from their experiences, which includes remembering what is important, versus what is trivial (Brophy, 1983).

If a learner sees little point in learning and retaining information for any extended length of time, on account of it being divorced from the personal meaning of his or her world, the only obvious use of such information is for regurgitation on a test. Cramming for exams then becomes common practice for students. In traditional schools mostly, students’ interests in certain fields of knowledge and types of information are typically washed away in a flood of unending assignments that focus on assessments or grades or deadlines.

Completion of assignments according to teachers’ standards then becomes the primary concern for students, rather than authentic integration of useful knowledge. The tragic effects on the learner of this transformation in education only furthers more of the same teacher tactics (Ryan, Connell, & Grolnick, 1992). Loss of interest and attention and increase in “off-task” behavior seems to demand more teacher control and monitoring. Teachers must now deal with extrinsically (rather than intrinsically) oriented students.

The research is clear about this: Educational control begets extrinsic motivation in students, and educational freedom begets intrinsic motivation (Switzky & Schultz, 1988; Deci, Nezlek, & Sheinman, 1981). Studies repeatedly show that various forms of carrots and sticks (i.e., types of extrinsic “motivators,” pressures, and commands) tend to foster an environment that purportedly requires this style of teaching. Worse still, they lead to many deleterious learning consequences—for instance, less depth and enduring comprehension of knowledge (Ryan & Stiller, 1991), less creativity (Amabile & Gitomer, 1984), and even less efficiency in task completion (Wang & Stiles, 1976). Such tactics foster students who respond less well to feedback and are more likely to attribute lack of academic success in specific activities to an inherent lack of ability (rather than lack of effort) than those who are intrinsically motivated (Boggiano et al., 1992). Another study showed that students who had controlling teachers experienced lower self-esteem as well as diminished interest in activities which were otherwise interesting for non-controlled students (who had teachers who promoted decision-making); diminished level of intrinsic motivation was yet another outcome of the teacher-controlled group (Deci, Nezlek, & Sheinman, 1981).

Losing interest in learning (i.e., losing intrinsic motivation) is definitely one of the worst consequences of controlling and teacher-directed (as opposed to learner-regulated) education. Various studies have found that such losses in intrinsic motivation are damaging to students, whereas programs that foster intrinsic motivation are academically, emotionally, and personally beneficial (Ryan & Grolnick, 1986; Zuckerman, Porac, Lathin, Smith, & Deci, 1978; DeCharms, 1972; Rainey, 1965; Cobb et al., 1991). In fact, if there is no motivation, there will be little meaning placed on the learning process. And if there is little meaning for the student, there will be little excellence in education (Lepper & Hodell, 1989).

Psychologically, a student’s sense of worth and competence (and ability to control his or her own life) is in jeopardy when extrinsic motivation displaces intrinsic motivation (Ryan, Connell, & Deci, 1985). His or her education is now out of personal control, left at the mercy of teachers and “the system.” Under such circumstances, the best an educator can hope for is students who retain some vestige of interest in learning new things—or at least have the discipline to study what is assigned and the ability to follow directions.

When a group of about 25 elementary students (in a private allegedly Montessori school) were asked why they study in school, only about one fourth responded “because I want to” as their most important reason; the most popular reason was “in order to succeed in life.” Also, most said that they could only learn “a little” about the world without going to school (Bertrand, 1999). Another study of 1600 students (from 3rd to 8th graders) found, significantly, that as children progress through school, they do schoolwork less for satisfying their own curiosity and more for grades and/or pleasing their teachers (Harter, 1981). Ultimately, fulfilling teachers’ wishes and guessing their expectations correctly is part and parcel of the traditional educational system (Silberman, 1970).

Tests and their product, grades, that have not been requested by the student have been shown repeatedly in research to be counterproductive to maintaining such things as interested, creative, high-achieving learners. Yet, encouraging students to focus on the present work of interest and not their performance level achieves the opposite—long term involvement in learning and greater personal (intrinsic) motivation (Ames, 1992).

Tests and grades can create a concentration on the end result (good or bad performance), rather than the process. This of course is distracting and destructive of effective and high-quality process-oriented work (Butler, 1992). Drawing a student’s focus to his or her performance can also foster forgetting the challenging material just dealt with (Graham & Golan, 1991). Students who focus on tests and grades instead of being immersed in the task at hand are likely to forget even rote material a week or so later (Grolnick & Ryan, 1987).

A definite qualitative difference exists between evaluating students with tests and grades and providing informative feedback on the work being done. Tests and grades are shortcuts to authentic feedback; they ask little of the educator, and of the learner for that matter (Kohn, 1993; Holt, 1972). Even giving controlling feedback to students (involving a comparison to how they should be doing), as opposed to providing straightforward information about their performance tended to impair their performance on a task (Ryan, 1982).

Educators could take some notes from successful tutors in this matter. Successful tutors typically give learners little explicit corrective feedback and outright diagnoses of mistakes. Instead they provide learners hints in the form of queries or statements implying the inaccuracy of their past answers or responses. Successful tutors also make suggestions about the way the learner might proceed, or point out the part of the problem that seems to be causing him or her difficulty (Lepper, Aspinwall, Mumme, & Chabay, 1990). The main task in providing feedback is to find constructive ways to let learners know they have not done well without destroying their motivation (Deci & Chandler, 1986).

Honoring the Volition of the Learner

External control and evaluation, the exceedingly common approach to teaching, must be acknowledged as deleterious, based on both empirical research and moral issues concerning autonomy and promotion of the learner’s free will. A pedagogy that infringes on the volitional capacity of the learner through tactics of required textbooks, required assignments, imposed tests and unsolicited grades, and minimal self-directed and self-initiated learning, must ask itself what exactly its aims are. In the short term it may be to “produce” (some) students who follow directions correctly and think on their own only when told it is necessary to do so (for instance, in choosing a topic for a required paper)—or to stay “on task” for a satisfactory length of time to process a certain amount of information—in other words, to follow a curriculum as outlined by the teacher. These are, to say the least, suboptimal goals for nurturing the human potential. They are not effective at promoting thoughtful, creative, critical-minded, independent, well-adjusted, confident, happy, and educated children, adolescents, and adults.

These suboptimal goals (and the procedures they entail) also raise the issue concerning the invalid concept of omniscience on the part of the teacher. No teacher can possibly know on a personal level the cognitive/emotional and intellectual context of all the learners he or she “teaches.” No teacher can determine whether all minds are ready to listen to, let alone accept, the information lectured about. Lecture or study material, after all, must be seen for what it is during any given day in any given class: only a small percentage of all the possible knowledge in a given area provided from a certain person’s perspective, which commonly disregards the numerous questions, concerns, and caveats raised in the thinking student as he or she attempts to understand it.

Given this, one may wonder whether the current practices of education actually require thinking students. Instituting a regimen of lockstep classes, lectures, directed assignments, and evaluation through tests and grades would favor a “No” response. If the goal is for the teacher (the alleged expert in that particular field, at least for the time covered in class) to offer material that he or she sees as most important for students to learn—regardless of each student’s psychological and intellectual context—then it is incompatible with needing thinking students. Thinking students see issues and ideas from differing perspectives and desire to reconcile the various ostensible contradictions and comprehend the meaning of what is being investigated.

On the other hand, if the goal is to allow students to proceed at the pace they deem appropriate, to pursue the subjects they have decided to study in the way they think (and the teacher suggests) is most suitable to their needs and interests—with the teacher functioning as the “guide on the side,” rather than the “sage on the stage”—then we need to alter the basic premises and practices of modern education.

We have to realize what teachers have in mind about the nature of the learning process. Ordinarily, the goals of modern educators are simply their own goals, not the goals of students. Such a viewpoint implies that students are incapable of discovering what is good for them, incapable of finding the information they need to satisfy their own desires.

Dispensing with these preconceived notions enables us to see just how beneficial and moral it is for students to responsibly search for the information they are looking for (with possibly the requested guidance of an informed and motivated teacher). The main objective then becomes to satisfy their own desires for knowledge. As Aristotle discussed over two millennia ago, the quest for knowledge for its own sake is important.

So, what would society be like if such trust were invested in learners? This trust is really a trust in the life force of human nature, that part of every human being who desires to gain an insight, perfect a motion, resolve a disagreement, achieve a dream, create a project, solidify an idea, and hone a skill, just for the satisfaction of doing so, and of being able to do so (and of course realizing all the beneficial effects of this process). This is obviously antithetical to fulfilling someone else’s expectations about what one should be doing with one’s time.

This issue is more than about the nature of learning. It is about living for one’s own sake; it is about an independent mind grasping reality by means of its own reasoning capability (Rand, 1993). It also requires a basic trust in the scientist and artist inside each of us (and thus in others) to produce and maintain an advanced civilization of benevolent progress.

Actually, if this attitude and capacity were not part of human nature, we would not see people (e.g., teachers) trying to instill such a mindset in the bulk of the young human population. This would beg the question: If learning were a taught skill rather than a intrinsic and learned one, then one would wonder who taught the teachers and how did they ever get the motivation to continue onward, after their days of being taught were over? How does any scientist, for instance, maintain the drive to continue his or her research, knowing that there will be many more failures or dead-ends in future experiments than successes?

After inspection of children in various contexts we can safely conclude that human beings have an innate ability to acquire knowledge, and more still, to enjoy the process of acquiring it (Montessori, 1979; Holt, 1972). Given this, the bearing it has on the validity of modern educational methods is monumental.

Education need not be something that only the so-called experts devise to control the learning activities of initially eager and bright young people. The famous psychologist Carl Rogers knew the significance of these observations when he stated the proper goal of education: “To free curiosity; to permit individuals to go charging off in new directions dictated by their own interests; to unleash the sense of inquiry; to open everything to questioning and exploration; to recognize that everything is in process of change—here is an experience I can never forget” (Rogers, 1983, p.120).


So, a distinction must clearly be drawn between schools that direct student learning and those that facilitate or offer learning environments where students can pursue their own interests (which of course includes various homeschooling or unschooling environments). Particular pedagogical techniques are obviously involved in each type, but more broadly—and more importantly—two contrasting views of human nature are represented.

In order to understand the psychological needs of the learner, we have to differentiate the coercive tactics from the appropriate tactics in other-directed learning environments. Direction in learning certainly has its merits in delimited contexts, on account of neophytes’ paucity of knowledge and skills in particular areas. But as knowledge and skills increase, typically in a short amount of time, structured direction should be replaced with facilitating methods. There is a major difference in directed instruction in, for example, martial arts or foreign language class versus any intellectual pursuit. The former disciplines encompass physical skills which have to be mimicked and repeated often at the direction of a coach or instructor. Intellectual pursuits, on the other hand, are open to all sorts of different avenues of approach, many equally effective. The point of being a teacher is not to put the pupil into an educational straightjacket, for we know the ill effects of such a practice. Deciding the appropriate learning path to take is part of the student’s learning process.

Ultimately any learning environment depends on the interests and attention of the learner and the consistently noncoercive (i.e., voluntary) nature of the tasks involved in the educational program. Eventually, educational systems will be structured to benefit every student no matter the extent of his or her involvement; the only penalty for “non-compliance” will be merely a lack of time spent in that specific endeavor in that certain fashion. (Of course, this entails changing the political side of education, such as various states’ coercive licensure and requirement programs that are embraced by the educational establishment.) This will be learner-directed (i.e., customer driven) education, not education-driven (or State-driven) education. It will not be a place of frustration and wasted time for students, in which the ultimate end is often to attain both elite and ordinary “job tickets” (i.e., diplomas) (Holt, 1972).

Having said this, just what is the most effective method of education, and is there only one way? First, what do we mean by “effective”? Second, effective for whom and for what purpose? Only when these questions are answered can we move on to discovering the various ways the learner can be successful in his or her pursuits. If by “effective” we mean the only moral and empirically validated beneficial relationship between the student and teacher, then the answer is now obvious: one that fosters intrinsic motivation—that is, one that lacks coercion and encourages self-responsibility, autonomy, and interest in learning. It turns out that there are many effective ways individuals can learn things (and be taught), but this subject is obviously outside the bounds of this paper.

Suffice it to say that whether the process is deemed best done on one’s own, with a tutor, amongst peers, with one’s family, at a school with elective study and knowledgeable and respectful teachers, or at a school with (temporary) directed study such as specific skills training (which would still have to be elective at base), all must honor the distinctive aspect of human consciousness, the distinctive aspect of reason—free will. In the end, the type of education depends on the decisions and interests of the learner. We, as professionals in psychology and education, should honor students’ choices in any number of these situations.

Addendum: A social commentary about two school movements

In the midst of the current contradictory nature of the educational system, we find notably two alleged remedies to the problems created by its activities. Some recommend that we go “back to basics” and teach the essentials of reading, writing, and arithmetic, coupled with an intense study of the classics, for example of Ancient Greece and Roman and English literature. By doing so, it is thought that learners will come to their senses and see the need for these subjects; after all, studying them can indeed provide a sizable amount of knowledge about the world, other people, and oneself.

Usually coupled with this recommendation is the demand for more discipline, which entails the belief that obeying orders and following rules yields less trouble; “causing trouble” will supposedly be seen by students as inimical to their well-being and interests—having internalized the moral/behavioral edicts of their educational authorities. Such a stance has widespread appeal because it is both relatively easy to implement and requires no inspection of the root causes of the problems with students (e.g., laziness, rudeness, incivility, thoughtlessness, cruelty, violent outbursts and destructive acts) (Gatto, 1992).

Root causes of troublesome behaviors are likely to be multifaceted and systemic, but the main remedy to most of them involves changing a fundamental aspect of education: making the learning process totally the student’s choice and responsibility, rather than the teacher’s, school’s, or community’s. With such a basic change in the structure of pedagogy, students would have to seek out teachers and schools or other educational forums they think could help them in their journey. They would have to choose which path of information-gathering they believe is most appropriate for their education. Of course, to doubt students’ capacities to perform such activities—as well as to doubt their initiative to take on such personal responsibility—does nothing to foster their growth. It also makes it impossible for any significant changes to occur in students or society.

Such lack of trust in students’ ability to learn as they see fit reflects a lack of trust in the nature of humans and therefore in the nature of oneself to do what is in one’s rational self-interest. To doubt oneself in such a fundamental way is to lock oneself into previous patterns of behavior. It also serves as a scapegoat to avoid addressing the real causes of student failure and juvenile delinquency.

In the midst of what should be labeled modern coercive education, another movement has sprung up, attempting to mitigate the ill effects of the present system and the problems with students: The self-esteem movement. While at first glance the two main movements in education (i.e., the more discipline and back to the basics and classics movement, and the self-esteem movement) may appear to be at odds with each other, they do share a common element. Both movements are concerned with what educators should do tostudents to get them to be “good” and healthy learners, not what educators should do for students. Students are actually, and must be seen as, consumers of learning services.

Still, the discipline movement typically scoffs at the self-esteem movement. The criticism is often made that the self-esteem movement puts good feelings about self ahead of real achievement and learning complex and diverse skills and competencies in school.

Of course, objectively speaking, a view of self-esteem that tells one to feel good about oneself regardless of how one actually feels, demands the impossible psychologically. Bad feelings will occur despite others best attempts to make them go away. The real question concerns how to understand the genesis of these feelings and thus how to beneficially change or deal with them.

Self-efficacy—feeling effective at a particular skill or task—at school must be differentiated from self-esteem, which is a generalized conviction of mental competence and feeling of self-worth. Self-efficacy is only a partial element of self-esteem. There are people who have a high degree of self-efficacy in types of school work and yet still maintain a relatively low level of self-esteem; they maintain a deficient self-concept and self-image.

So, achievement in school is definitely a separate topic than feelings about one’s self. If a student happens to fail at certain tasks that have been coercively imposed on him or her, such failing should not be a rational cause to feel bad about his or her self. Drawing such an emotional conclusion has dire consequences, to be sure. If a learner disparages his or her worth and views learning as a difficult and burdensome (if not impossible) task, chances are slim that that learner will continue learning well in that domain.

A proper view of self-esteem does not mean that a person has good feelings about self when he or she does “good work” and bad feelings about self when he or she does “bad work” (as the discipline movement proponents tend to view it). Such a view would jeopardize one’s foundation of confidence in the face of adversity (and the nature of reality). It would undermine the capacity to be resilient and to learn adaptively from one’s mistakes. Unfortunately, there are many children and adults who castigate themselves (rather than practice self-acceptance) when they fail to turn a bad predicament around and achieve important things. In any event, the idea or the hope by the discipline educators that one should feel bad about oneself for failing, is simply not understanding the issue of self-esteem properly. Most importantly, it also fails to recognize the ill effects of coercive education.

Self-respect is part of self-esteem, and so is self-confidence. Undoubtedly, one would be very hard pressed to maintain positive feelings about self regardless of the irrationality of the values one is upholding (e.g., purposeless goofing off or general laziness) or regardless of the irrationality of the values one is complying with (e.g., authoritarian instruction). Of course, critics accuse self-esteem proponents of advocating this sort of emotional separation from reality and one’s choices. Yet for self-esteem to be maintained, the learner must have an inviolate belief in one’s own capabilities as a human being (not merely as a student). Moreover, the learner must integrate the belief subconsciously that he or she is worthy of happiness regardless of the obstacles and setbacks he or she encounters (Branden, 1994).

While these two main elements of self-esteem may be the intention of those spearheading the self-esteem movement in schools, they tend to get lost in the midst of the nature of coercive education—which, as we have seen by its very structure, is detrimental to such a vital psychological value.


Amabile T. M., & Gitomer, J. (1984). Children’s artistic creativity: Effects of choice in task materials. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 10, 209-215.

Ames, C. (1978). Children’s achievement attributions and self-reinforcement: Effects of self-concept and competitive reward structure. Journal of Educational Psychology, 70, 345-355.

Ames, C. (1992). Achievement goals and the classroom motivational climate. In Schunk, D. H., & Meece, J. L. (Eds.), Student Perceptions in the Classroom. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Anderson, R. C., Shirey, L. L., Wilson, P. T., & Fielding, L. G. (1987). Interestingness of children’s reading material. In Snow, R. E., & Farr, M. J. (Eds.), Aptitude, Learning, and Instruction, vol 3: Conative and Affective Process Analyses.Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Bertrand, W. (1999). [Six question survey of twenty-three Montessori elementary 4th, 5th, and 6th graders]. Unpublished raw data.

Boggiano, A. K., & Barrett, M. (1992). Gender differences in depression in children as a function of motivational orientation. Sex Roles, 26, 11-17.

Boggiano, A. K., Main, D. S., & Katz, P. A. (1988). Children’s preference for challenge: The role of perceived competence and control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54,134-141.

Boggiano, A. K., Main, D. S., Flink, C., Barrett, M., Silvern, L., Katz, P. (1989). A model of achievement in children: The role of controlling strategies in helplessness and affect. In Schwarzer, R., Van Der Ploeg, H. M., & Spielberger, C. D. (Eds.), Advances in Test Anxiety Research, vol. 6.Amsterdam: Swets & Zeitlinger.

Boggiano, A. K., Shields, A., Barrett, M., Kellam, T., Thompson, E., Simons, J., & Katz, P. (1992). Helplessness deficits in students: The role of motivational orientation. Motivation and Emotion, 16, 271-296.

Bowles, S., & Gintis, H. (1976). Schooling in capitalist America: Educational reform and the contradictions of economic life. New York: Basic Books.

Branden, N. (1994). The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem. New York: Bantam Books.

Brophy, J., (1983). Conceptualizing student motivation. Educational Psychologist, 18, 200-215.

Butler, R. (1992). What young people want to know when: Effects of mastery and ability goals on interest in different kinds of social comparisons. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62, 934-943.

Cobb, P., Wood, T., Yackel, E., Nicholls, J., Wheatley, G., Trigatti, B., & Perlwitz, M. (1991). Assessment of a problem-centered second-grade mathematics project. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 22, 3-29.

DeCharms, R. (1972). Personal causation training in the schools. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 2, 95-113.

Deci, E. L., Nezlek, J., & Sheinman, L. (1981). Characteristics of the rewarder and intrinsic motivation of the rewardee. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40, 1-10.

Deci. E. L., & Chandler, C. L. (1986). The importance of motivation for the future of the LD field. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 19, 587-594.

Doyle, W. (1983). Academic work. Review of Educational Research, 53, 159-199.

Gatto, J. T. (1992). Dumbing Us Down. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers.

Graham, S., & Golan, S. (1991). Motivational influences on cognition: Task involvement, ego involvement, and depth of information processing. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83, 187-194.

Grolnick, W. S., & Ryan, R. M. (1987). Autonomy in children’s learning: An experimental and individual difference investigation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 890-898.

Harter, S. (1981). A new self-report scale of intrinsic versus extrinsic orientation in the classroom: motivational and informational components. Developmental Psychology, 17,300-312.

Harter, S., & Jackson, B. K. (1992). Trait vs. nontrait conceptualizations of intrinsic/extrinsic motivational orientation. Motivation and Emotion, 16, 209-230.

Holt, J. (1972). Freedom and Beyond. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.

Holt, J. (1976). Instead of Education. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.

Kohn, Alfie. (1993). Punished by Rewards. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Lepper, M. R., & Hodell, M. (1989). Intrinsic motivation in the classroom. In Ames, C., & Ames, R. (Eds.), Research on Motivation in Education, vol. 3: Goals and Cognitions. New York: Academic Press.

Lepper, M. R., Aspinwall, L. G., Mumme, D. L., & Chabay, R. W. (1990). Self-perception and social-perception processes in tutoring: Subtle social control strategies of expert tutors. In Olson, J. M., & Zanna, M. P. (Eds.), Self-Inference Processes: The Ontario Symposium, vol. 6. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Llewellyn, G. (1997). The Teenage Liberation Handbook. Rockport, MA: Element Books, Inc.

Montessori, M. (1979). The Secret of Childhood (Costelloe, M. J., Trans.). New York: Ballantine Books.

Rainey, R. G. (1965). The effects of directed versus non-directed laboratory work on high school chemistry achievement. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 3, 286-292.

Rand, A. (1993). The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution. New York: Meridian.

Rogers, C. (1983). Freedom To Learn for the 80’s. Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill.

Ryan, R. M., & Grolnick, W. S. (1986). Origins and pawns in the classroom: Self-report and projective assessments of individual differences in children’s perceptions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 550-558.

Ryan, R. M., & Powelson, C. L. (1991). Autonomy and relatedness as fundamental to motivation and education. Journal of Experimental Education, 60, 49-66.

Ryan, R. M., & Stiller, J. (1991). The social contexts of internalization: Parent and teacher influences on autonomy, motivation, and learning. Advances in Motivation and Achievement, 7, 115-149.

Ryan, R. M., (1982). Control and information in the intrapersonal sphere: An extension of cognitive evaluation theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43, 450-461.

Ryan, R. M., Connell, J. P. & Deci, E. L. (1985). A motivational analysis of self-determination and self-regulation in education. In Ames, C., & Ames, R. (Eds.), Research on Motivation in Education, vol 2: The Classroom Milieu. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

Ryan, R. M., Connell, J. P., Grolnick, W. S. (1992). When Achievement is not intrinsically motivated: a theory of internalization and self-regulation in school. In Boggiano, A. K., & Pittman, T. S. (Eds.), Achievement and Motivation: A Social-Developmental Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Silberman, C. E. (1970). Crisis in the Classroom: The Remaking of American Education. New York: Random House.

Smith, F. (1986). Insult to Intelligence: The Bureaucratic Invasion of Our Classrooms. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Switzky, H. N., & Schultz, G. F. (1988). Intrinsic motivation and learning performance: Implications for individual educational programming for learners with mild handicaps. Remedial and Special Education, 9, 7-14.

Thomas, J. W. (1980). Agency and achievement: Self-management and self-regard. Review of Educational Research, 50, 213-240.

Wang, M. C., & Stiles, B. (1976). An investigation of children’s concept of self-responsibility for their school learning. American Educational Research Journal, 13, 159-179.

Zuckerman, M., Porac, J., Lathin, D., Smith, R., & Deci, E. L. (1978). On the importance of self-determination for intrinsically-motivated behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 4, 443-446.