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Self-determination theory - helping students to become autonomously motivated in physical education

The first day of the conference is always a little slow as people arrive from around the country and across the world. The lull before the storm allowed me to engage in some planning of my own (which I won't bore you with) and to engage in some pedagogical discussions of my own with colleagues from other institutions. This type of professional development (PD) - autonomous in nature and determined by common interests and a desire to further my own knowledge and understanding of my field – seems to be what is lacking from systemic PD. If all (or at least more) PD worked like this then teachers might actually have time to investigate and challenge their pre-conceptions and ideas about and around Phys Ed rather than merely accepting things are as they are.

The first of the parallel sessions started 4.30 and the Phys Ed special interest group (SIG) explored the theme of researching Phys Ed and self-determination theory. As the latter seems to be a buzz word in the research in our subject I was interested to see what it was all about. After listening to three fascinating papers (although I have to admit that the statistical analysis was beyond me) I will now try and summaries the findings.

[However if you go into the resources section on the website you will find David Kirk’s discussion paper on the symposium which is much more extensive than my summary]

The first of the three papers suggested that autonomous motivation is important in predicting habitual physical activity. The second paper found that ‘in-class’ variances between the ways in which individual pupils are treated by their teachers also had an influence on autonomous motivation. The pupils’ perception of their teacher’s perception of individual student need seems to be important in the development of increased student motivation. Some of the students in these studies felt that year-on-year consistency (in terms of the teacher who is responsible for their learning over time) was important. Other students, unsurprisingly, found that being taught by the same teacher year-on-year was de-motivating. I concluded from this that some students develop positive relationships with their teachers (even if that is shown through respect for the teacher and an understanding of their 'ways' rather than just liking them and the way they interacted with these students) while others don’t.

The third paper explored predictors of these teacher behaviours. Age, floor space, numbers of pupils, level of academic qualification, environment (warm or cold)  and perceived pressure (felt by the teacher) all had an impact on teacher behaviour. Older teachers and more qualified teachers were more controlling in their pedagogy. Increases in the number pupils and degrees in the floor space both had an impact on type of pedagogy used and tended to be an indicator of controlling rather than autonomous behaviours. The presenter concluded that older teachers and more academically-minded teachers were more likely to exercise controlling pedagogies with less open questions than those who had chosen teaching over qualifications. Furthermore she suggested that those who had engaged in recent teacher education courses had greater experience of autonomy as opposed to controlling teacher behaviours.

The discussant concluded that self-determination is a teaching revolution but there is currently more questions than there are answers and no proof that autonomy leads to greater physical activity. Yet importantly there is some evidence to suggest that student motivation is not related necessarily to Phys Ed at a class level but at an individual level between student and teacher (in the singular). This suggests that teachers have the potential to have a lifelong impact on individual pupil’s lifelong physical activity. Yet are we teaching to increase student motivation or motor learning or perceptions of confidence...or improve school team performance?

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