Written by Greg Smith.

One of the arguments I’ve used to justify place- and community-based educational approaches has been tied to the way I’ve seen it increase students’ intrinsic motivation to learn and participate.  I’ve suggested that this enhanced motivation is tied to students’ opportunities to engage in activities that allow them to contribute to the health and welfare of communities or natural systems and to develop competencies that are valued by others.  Recently, I’ve learned that these assertions are backed up by research by two psychologists at the University of Rochester, Richard Ryan and Edward Deci.  For the past three decades they have been developing what they call the Self-Determination Theory that links human well-being and socially beneficial behaviors to the fulfillment of three central psychological needs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness.  The meanings they attach to the concepts of competence and relatedness match our common understanding of these terms.  With regard to autonomy, however, they emphasize that the fulfillment of this need has less to do with independence than with “the feeling of volition that can accompany any act, whether dependent or independent, collectivist or individualist” (Ryan & Deci, 2000, p. 74).  They argue that to be psychologically fulfilled, all three needs must be met, and that social environments that foster this are more likely to result in happy, engaged, and productive people.

Regrettably, many conventional school activities result in students feeling controlled, incompetent, or at odds with their classmates and teachers.  Students have limited choice about what they are learning and the instructional activities presented to them.  They are too often assessed before they have mastered new information or skills, leading to the experience of failure.  And more frequently than not, little attention is paid to helping students grasp the social importance of curriculum content for themselves or their families or to situate learning in ways that enable them to develop meaningful social ties with their classmates or people beyond the school.  The social conditions encountered in too many classrooms militate against engagement and motivation.

In contrast, well-structured place- and community-based experiences can more easily nurture competence, autonomy, and relatedness.  A few years ago students and teachers at the Detroit Institute of Technology partnered with SEMIS and the Detroit Energy Squad to engage in school- and community-based projects that demonstrate how this can happen.  At their school, students completed a sustainability assessment that involved going from classroom to classroom checking for water damage or leaky faucets and recording the number of appliances in each room, computer monitor settings, and types of lighting.  They tabulated potential energy savings and then shared their report with building administrators.  In the community surrounding the school, students conducted home energy audits and helped install window coverings as well as provide advice about repairing leaking faucets and reducing energy expenditures.  In many instances, students, teachers, and community partners designed their projects first and then determined the educational standards that could be addressed through their work.  These experiences helped students gain new skills, engage in projects over which they had some level of control, and do work that brought them into contact with appreciative neighbors and community activists.   As SEMIS director Ethan Lowenstein observed in Bob Gliner’s film, Growing Up Green, projects like these are “intellectually rigorous, ethically engaging, and emotionally meaningful for students” (in Gliner, 2013).

Not only do local projects like these motivate students to become more engaged in school, they can also result in students becoming more engaged in the life of their own communities.  A few years ago, I taught a young woman who had been a student at Portland’s Sunnyside Environmental School in the early 2000s.  Sunnyside was one of the early adopters of place- and community-based educational approaches, arranging its schedule so that student could engage in community service, environmental restoration, and biological fieldwork activities at least one day a week.  Students were also required to participate in and design their own community service projects.  My student observed that nearly all of her classmates she had remained in contact with had chosen to go into fields of work involving service or advocacy.  Ryan and Deci have argued that “social contexts catalyze both within- and between-person differences in motivation and personal growth, resulting in people being more self-motivated, energized, and integrated in some situations, domains, and cultures than in others” and that such experiences can “optimize peoples’ development, performance, and well-being” (2000, p. 68).  According to my student, learning experiences situated within the context of their own communities and place had made a significant contribution to both her own and her classmates’ vitality, social involvement, and sense of purpose.

As teachers (and their students) create place-based learning experiences, I encourage people to keep Ryan and Deci’s central psychological needs in mind.  How well does a lesson or unit support the development and demonstration of competence?  Has it allowed for student participation in its design or execution?  And how might it intentionally foster more opportunities for social connection and interrelatedness?  By doing so, it may be possible to even more successfully foster engaged students, citizens, and stewards.


Gliner, R. (2016). Growing up green.  San Francisco, CA: Kanopy Screening.

Ryan, R. & Deci, E.  (2000).  Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic

motivation, social development, and well-being.  American Psychologist, 55:1, 68-68.