Explanatory Rationales, Fostering Autonomy, Stimulating Learning and Well-Being

David Streight (July 2019)

Offering a reason—or reasons—for the importance of doing something is one of the most powerful ways a teacher (or parent) can foster a child’s autonomy. It’s called offering an “explanatory rationale.” When a child has a richer understanding of why something is important, this understanding leads to deeper engagement with the subject matter, to greater persistence when learning gets hard, to more complete learning, and to a greater sense of happiness/well-being. The goal of a rationale is to clarify how subject matter (or new behavior) relates to the child’s perspective or life. Rationales tend to be especially useful when the task at hand is not intrinsically interesting. Unfortunately, much that happens in the classroom, as well as a number of school rules, fit into this category.

Two important, relatively recent, articles (Vansteenkiste et al., 2018; Steingut et al., 2017) have greatly added to our understanding of what makes a good rationale and how rationales work. Three features of a good explanatory rationale have come to the foreground.  
The first of these featues is the need to make the rationale relevant to the student’s life; note: not to the teacher’s life, to the student’s life. In other words, “I want you to learn this because it will make what we’re doing next week a lot easier for you (i.e., helpful to the student)” is more powerful than “I want you to learn this because I’ve put a lot of time getting this lesson together for your guys.”

A second feature entails casting the rationale in terms of intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, goals. For example, “In the long run, becoming proficient in this skill will make you a happier, more fulfilled human being” seems to be more effective than “Becoming proficient in this skill will earn you more money in the future.” 

A third feature that research has uncovered suggests that rationales are stronger when they’re new, rather than “same old-same old” redundant reasons kids have already heard. Researcher Johnmarshall Reeve refers to this as the activity’s hidden value: the useful purpose or relevance of an activity that the teacher is aware of, but the student is not (Vansteenkiste et al., 2018). In this regard, when goals relate to a student’s real-life (intrinsic) interests the rationale is never perceived as old or redundant: “Hey, you know, what we’re doing here relates a lot to your interest in dogs. You should really look at this.”

What happens when these features are incorporated into a rationale? They help students feel as if the activity they are engaging in, or the learning they are doing, is more theirs; in other words, the activity becomes more autonomous, thus it has greater value and is engaged in more willingly. Motivation becomes more internal.

Of course learning, or behavioral improvement, is even more greatly internalized when explanatory rationales are embedded in other strategies that support autonomy, like non-controlling language, an adult’s acceptance of (empathy with) children’s expressions of frustration or dislike for the activity, and children being offered some choice when choice is appropriate. A beautiful example of a mix of autonomy-supported practices is offered in the article by Vansteenkiste and his colleagues mentioned above. Laboratory studies have looked at the effects of teachers offering rationales, versus students having the chance to generate their own rationales via thinking about their own reasons for why a task might be important, or why a certain school rule might help us work together in a more optimal way. The results have suggested that the greatest success comes when both happen: the adult offers a few, and students are invited to come up with more of their own. When a list is drawn up, if students are invited to look through it and selectively endorse a few from their own perspectives, the ability to exercise their “choice” makes the exercise even more autonomy supportive.

Steingut, R.R., Patall, E.A., & Trimble, S.S. (2017). The effect of rationale provision on motivation and performance outcomes: A meta-analysis. Motivation Science, 3, p. 19-50.

Vansteenkiste, M., Aelterman, N., De Muynci, G-J., Haerens, L., Patall, E., & Reeve, J. (2018). Fostering personal meaning and self-relevance: A self-determination theory perspective on internalization. The Journal of Experimental Education, 2018, 1, p. 30-49.