Responding to the psychological needs of learners

The teaching of bell ringing, like any other form of teaching, requires sensitivity and acute awareness of the needs of those who are going through the learning process. In recent years a great deal of work has been carried out to try to understand what motivates people to learn and why the sense of fulfilment or personal flourishing is so important in that process. An understanding of some of this theory can help us as teachers, to ensure that those in our care are better understood, and help us to see things from the learner’s perspective as well as from our own.

One such theory of motivation is Self Determination Theory (SDT), developed by American psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. This postulates that personal growth is linked to the fulfilment or satisfaction of specific and innate psychological needs, namely autonomy, relatedness, and competence. The theory argues that these three needs provide the foundation blocks for development or hindrance of motivation and general personal wellbeing. If these needs are fulfilled, then this results in positive learning and personal growth, and if not, then the individual will become demotivated and frustrated. In the bell tower context, if these needs are fulfilled, then the ringer will feel engaged and energised to learn, and if not, they will become agitated or disengaged.

Self Determination Theory has been applied in a number of contexts, including group leadership, health contexts, individual performance at work, and research studies have confirmed the importance of all three psychological components. Let us now take each of these in turn, and apply them to the bell tower context. No doubt, as practising ringing teachers, you will be more able to see the connections than I can.


The first component of SDT is autonomy. This refers to perceiving oneself as being the origin and source of ones’ behaviour, rather than simply as an automaton on behalf of someone else, as feeling in charge of ourselves and our actions. It is not the same as independence, where we don’t need to rely on someone else for help. Indeed, we may be very reliant on other people, both for guidance and for ongoing support in learning any new skill. But ultimately autonomy means that we are doing what we want to do. There is no sense in which we feel coerced or threatened into activity which we would actually rather not be a part of. Ringing teachers need to be aware of this as they lead and guide new-comers: yes, there are rules and structures that all ringers are required to adhere to, but:

the learner must be helped to feel that they are in charge of their own learning process, and ultimately, they will only rise to excellence when they commit to that learning process.


The second component of SDT is relatedness. Ryan and Deci describe this as, “feeling connected to others, to caring for and being cared for by those others, to having a sense of belongingness both with others and with one’s community” (Ryan and Deci, 2004. P7). It means feeling safe, secure and comfortable in the context and with the other people who are there. I guess that we all recognise this from our own experience: when we don’t feel known and accepted, we become self-conscious, and all of our energies are swallowed up in trying to fit in, or trying to gauge the thoughts and actions of everyone around us so that we know how to respond. In other words, the energy that should be going into learning to ring is instead dissipated into other concerns. Talking with each other about our thoughts and feelings is important here: are we feeling comfortable, is this enjoyable, do we feel as if we’re getting the hang of it? We British can sometimes be a little reluctant to share and probe each other at this level, but appropriate conversations are necessary in order for us to feel that we are being seen, understood and included.

On the other hand, this needs to be done with tact and sensitivity. Few newcomers want to feel that they are being scrutinised and made the centre and focus of attention. They want to know as much about others in the group as well. They will be looking for a two-way connection of minds and hearts, a real sense of becoming and being a part of the group. Unfortunately, we are all different in this respect: some of us feel the need to pour out our souls at the first opportunity; others of us are much more reserved, and prefer to watch and listen first, only sharing ourselves when we feel ready.

The key thing is to be sensitive to the newcomer, to be proactive as hosts, but taking our cue from them, and aware at all times of their needs as well as their insecurities.


The third component of SDT is competence. By this is meant a felt sense of confidence and effectiveness in the task at hand. Note that it is a felt sense, rather than an actual, objective mastery that is being referred to here. An individual does not need to be a world class ringer to feel competent, but they must feel that they are making progress or performing at a level that they are proud of. A greater sense of competence will lead to greater sense of confidence, self-respect and personal growth.Some people will be entirely self-determined in this respect: they don’t care what anybody else thinks, and they are only interested in whether they think what they have done is good. But they are the exceptions! Most of us will be looking out for cues from others: How am I doing? Is this right? In other words, our sense of competence will be strengthened or diminished by the looks and comments of others. As teachers then, we must give affirmation where it is due, as well as corrective guidance which will help to provide clear and honest feedback on actions which are not quite as should be expected. But most importantly, we should be sensitive to the learner’s inner psychological state.

The questions we should be asking are, What encouragement or clarification does this person need from me? How can I be helping this person to feel positive about the progress that they are making?

The components are linked

The other thing that SDT theory states is that each of these psychological components is intimately linked with the others. If we don’t feel in control (autonomous), it will affect our sense of belonging (relatedness) and our sense of competence. If we don’t feel competent, it will affect our feelings about autonomy and connectedness, and so on. In other words, ringing teachers need to be on the ball on all of these fronts.It is not sufficient just to focus on the learner’s sense of competence, ignoring how they are fitting in to the group or how they feel about the learning process itself. We must be aware that the learner is a complex social individual with a range of needs that have been shaped by circumstances well beyond our and their control. If we really want to help them to learn the ‘ropes’, then we need to acknowledge that, and to make provision for each of these elements.


In summary then, Self Determination Theory states that good progress and contentment in any context is dependent on three inner states of being: feeling autonomous, feeling related and feeling competent. This is hardly rocket science. But that is precisely the beauty of the theory. It is so simple that we can easily apply it to everyday life and practice. And there is a growing collection of evidence to show that indeed, each element of the theory is inter-related and convincingly significant.

So, as ringing teachers, what can we do to ensure that our ringers feel in control of their learning, fully connected to the group, and growing in competence and mastery on the ropes? How can we make sure that learners feel comfortable on all of these fronts, so that they are looking forward to coming back next week? Self determination theory provides some useful pointers for exploring these questions, and a helpful structure for enabling us to evaluate the ongoing quality of our provision for newcomers to the tower.


Mark Plater