Making Progress on Progressive Education: First Empower Teachers

Eric M Schildge
March 20, 2019
At the heart of progressive pedagogy are questions about student motivation: How can teachers best motivate students? How can schools best motivate teachers?

At the heart of progressive pedagogy are questions about student motivation: How can teachers best motivate students? How can schools best motivate teachers? The ultimate goal of progressive pedagogy is to maximize the intrinsic motivation of students to engage with ideas that matter to them and their communities. Research tells us that for this to happen, schools must first maximize the intrinsic motivation of their teachers.

Progressive teachers center their teaching around their commitment to the growth of students as individuals and as part of a larger community. However, many teachers struggle to do this in environments that stifle their own motivation and capacity for self-determination through coercive employment practices like merit pay, evaluations based on test scores, micromanagement, and overt and subtle hostility to unionization.

Ample research illustrates that these practices, ostensibly designed to motivate teachers through competition and incentives, actually corrode intrinsic motivation. In the 1970s, psychologists developed a theory of human motivation known as self-determination theory. The theory, backed by considerable evidence, indicates that in order to develop a student’s interest in learning, a valuing of education, and a confidence in their own abilities and attributes, students must experience autonomy, relatedness, and competence (Deci and Ryan, 2000).

Put briefly, autonomy is the feeling that we are in control of our own behavior, competence is the ability to master the tasks that matter most to us, and relatedness is the sense of belonging and connectedness that we feel with others (Deci and Ryan, 2008).

Teachers who are respected, trusted, and experience autonomy in a deeply connected community are better able to respect, trust, and foster autonomy in their students.

Research indicates that it is unlikely that a school will foster self-determination in its students without first developing it in their faculty. For example, researchers in Quebec discovered that the less capacity teachers felt for self-determination, the more likely they were to exert coercive control over their students (Pelletier, et al., 2002). On the other hand, when teachers work in an environment that contributes to higher levels of teacher autonomy, relatedness, and competence, they are more likely to foster classroom environments that promote self-determination for their students (Leroy et al., 2007). Encouraging teachers to be self-determined enables students to develop and experience autonomy, relatedness, and competence.

What does this look like in practice? Creating spaces in which trained and experienced teachers have the autonomy to use their professional judgment. Teachers and students can build connections by cooking and eating together. Teachers who collaborate with one another to develop knowledge and techniques become more competent educators.

Studies show that students are aware of their teachers’ efforts to support their autonomy and intrinsic motivation for learning. Researchers have found a positive correlation between teachers’ perception of their autonomy in their work and both students’ perceptions of their teacher’s attitude and their own intrinsic motivation and autonomy in the classroom (Roth et al., 2007).

For the past forty years, most American schools have chosen to pursue a narrow path of standardized testing and top-down accountability measures, thereby inhibiting teachers’ self-determination and diminishing their ability to support the development of autonomy, relatedness, and competence in their students.

There is a clear link between intrinsic motivation and learning environments that support autonomy, relatedness, and competence (Bosso, 2014). Truly progressive leaders chart a bold course, respecting and supporting the autonomy of teachers, and creating the space for them to facilitate classrooms where students make meaningful decisions about their learning as part of a deeply connected and capable community.


Bosso, D. R. (2015). “This is what I am”: Teacher motivation, morale, and professional identity in the context of educational reform. Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences. ProQuest Information & Learning. Retrieved from

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). “Self-Determination Theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development, and health”. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 49, 182–185.

Leroy, N., Bressoux, P., Sarrazin, P., & Trouilloud, D. (2007). “Impact of teachers’ implicit theories and perceived pressures on the establishment of an autonomy supportive climate”. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 22(4), 529–545.

Pelletier, L. G., Séguin-Lévesque, C., & Legault, L. (2002). “Pressure from above and pressure from below as determinants of teachers’ motivation and teaching behaviors”. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94(1), 186–196.

Roth, G., Assor, A., Kanat-Maymon, Y., & Kaplan, H. (2007). “Autonomous motivation for teaching: How self-determined teaching may lead to self-determined learning”. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(4), 761–774.

Ryan, R. and Deci, E. (2000). “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions”. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), pp.54–67.

Eric M Schildge
Eric is an English/Drama teacher at Sparhawk School in Amesbury, MA. He collaborates with artists, writers, actors, journalists, and other professionals to bring learning to life for students.
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