“Mom! Dad! Look What I Just Did!”

Reflections on Deci and Ryan’s Self-DeterminationTheory

Not long ago, I met with a family to talk about beginning piano lessons. I chatted with the parents for several minutes and as our discussion drew to a close, their eight-year-old son exclaimed, “Mom! Dad! Look what I just did!” Both parents turned to recognize their child’s enthusiasm and acknowledge the merits of his most recent achievement. The brief and somewhat routine exchange lasted only a matter of seconds. Without skipping a beat, the parents resumed our conversation while their son launched another adventure on his gaming tablet.

It’s probably safe to say that exchanges like the one above occur on a regular basis, maybe even so often as to take on a commonplace feel. From another perspective, such routine exchanges also capture something quite marvelous in the way they provide illustration of the remarkable research done by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester. Working together during the 1990s, Deci and Ryan developed what they call Self-Determination Theory (SDT) based on their observations that human growth and wellbeing are related to three basic needs – autonomy, competence, and relatedness. They observed that when those needs are satisfied, people are motivated, productive, and happy. When thwarted, growth and wellbeing may plummet. Expressions like “Mom! Dad! Look what I just did!” provide a great example of Deci and Ryan’s research in just a few words.

In the years since the emergence of Self-Determination Theory, its influence has been felt across various educational and entrepreneurial domains. Most notably, author of Drive (2009) Daniel Pink connects Deci and Ryan’s research to satisfaction and successful performance at work, at school, and at home. Australian music education scholar Gary McPherson and colleagues uses the SDT framework to explain the personal and interpersonal highlights of a longitudinal study of over 150 Australian music students (2012). Furthermore, the search-engine giant Google has instituted a policy that allows its engineers to spend 20% of their time working on projects of personal interest. These examples demonstrate how paying attention to Deci and Ryan’s combination of autonomy, competence, and relatedness may promote desirable outcomes both in terms of personal development and the quality of experience within specific contexts.

So, what does all this mean for instrumental and vocal music teachers and students? How can music teachers incorporate autonomy, competence, and relatedness? Here are some thoughts.

Autonomy may be understood as the need we all have to direct our own lives. Synonymous with notions of independence and freedom especially related to our feelings, thoughts, and actions, autonomy encapsulates our need for self-endorsement and self-government. For all children, autonomy is something we acknowledge as an unavoidable and necessary element of their growth, from the two-year old child’s penchant for the word “No” to the teenager’s inherent drive to do things his or her own way. Autonomy is also something we admire in the adult person’s ability to figure things out and make decisions. As an aspect of learning to sing or play a musical instrument, autonomy is all about students’ basic desire to feel in charge of their own activities and take ownership of their musical pursuits. This doesn’t mean that students have no need for teachers. Students rely on teachers in such a way that autonomy is not eliminated, as is the case with control, compliance, and conformity. They depend on teachers to pass on musical knowledge, values, and behaviors by incorporating and building on their autonomy.

Competence refers to the feelings of effectiveness in our personal interactions and successfully experiencing opportunities to exercise and express our capabilities. Our desire for competence is at the core of self-improvement – the need to run faster, express ourselves more fully, take on challenges, learn and create new things in our own lives. In learning to play a musical instrument, the need for competence is what underscores autonomous students’ and their instructors’ desire to seek out and create processes that maintain, enhance, and challenge students’ performance skills and capabilities. Playing fast and loud may be one approach that instrumental students typically employ to optimize their effectiveness in developing musical capabilities – an approach that’s completely in sync with the confidence and curiosity students bring to their musical pursuits. Effective teachers recognize the enormous impact of students’ feelings. They continuously use students’ personal investment in self-improvement as the foundation for a broad spectrum of engaging and productive practice and performance routines.

Relatedness reflects our basic need to feel socially connected and integrated, to feel that our autonomous efforts are relevant and valued by members of our surrounding networks. There is something universal in that we all want to valued unconditionally by the significant people in our lives. Students appreciate being recognized and accepted their teachers. Likewise, teachers appreciate being valued by students and parents. Relatedness also refers to the way communities provide infinite examples of successful human growth. Whether it’s musical, athletic, artistic, or scientific, seeing someone else’s positive results may provide the catalyst to our own actions, efforts, and intentions. In music instruction contexts, our need to feel socially valued helps to explain why it’s important for teachers to establish and maintain meaningful relationships with their students. This means teachers incorporate strategies that value students’ process and achievements as well as challenge their potential to tackle the uncomfortable. Effective strategies also highlight students’ successful learning and readiness for sharing their musical development with others at all stages of their musical journey. In this way, students who are part of a musical community experience significant ongoing advantages. They may benefit from being recognized for their contributions to the community’s musical life. And they may continuously draw inspiration from the knowledge, experience, and capacity for thinking outside the box demonstrated by their teachers, peers, parents, and more.

“Mom! Dad! Look what I just did!”  Have you ever heard a child’s exclamation of this relatively commonplace phrase? Perhaps you can think of similar phrases from your own personal experiences. What I appreciate about this exploration into autonomy, competence, and relatedness is the reminder that my role as instructor has multiple obligations. On the autonomy side, students need me to give them space to be successful, to make and learn from their own mistakes, and explore without limits. They need me to get out of the way as they exercise their musical autonomy. On the competence side, students need my guidance and depend on me to support their investment in self-improvement and competence. They need me to introduce aspects of musical development they cannot find on their own and work through their own intuitive musical discoveries. On the relatedness side, students depend on me to value their autonomous explorations and highlight the aspect of taking ownership. They need me to connect them with a breadth of musical experiences, to ensure their participation in sharing with and receiving from a musical community. My hope in doing so is that students will experience meaningful musical growth and personal wellbeing. And above all, I hope they’ll frequently have reason to exclaim – “Mom! Dad! Look what I can do NOW!”