Self-determination theory and character education

Returning to the theme of education, it's safe to assume that not all character education programs are successful. Lynn Revell (2002), who conductied research at 12 schools (seven elementary and five high schools), reported that high school students tended to be “cynical or sceptical about specific character traits promoted by Character Education,” especially those students in non-magnet schools who were even “hostile” (pp. 427-428), despite the similarity of programs across schools and the enthusiastic support of parents and school staff. Leming (2000) reported that a literature-based character program promoted cognitive skills among elementary students, but had “mixed results” with respect to affect and behavior. As Kohlberg (1999) states, reasoning is necessary for moral judgment, and moral judgment for moral action; however, moral reasoning and judgment are not sufficient for moral behavior. That is, one may be able to judge a situation correctly in terms of moral principles and still not take moral action, most likely because principles are not integrated into one's identity.

Deci and Ryan's Self-Determination Theory would assert that for individuals to pursue ethical values, internalize them as their own values, and integrate them into their self, their behavior must be self-determined and the environment must satisfy psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness, with autonomy referring to the volitional “experience of integration and freedom” and relatedness referring to “the desire to feel connected to others—to love and care, and to be loved and cared for” (Deci & Ryan, 2000, p. 231).

Thus, we return to the concept of love as an essential component of leading students (and ourselves) into developing character.