He is also staff member of the Interuniversity Centre for Educational Sciences and Professor of Education at the Research Institute of Child Development and Education of the University of Amsterdam (CDE/UvA). He is (co)author of a large number of articles and books and is involved in different international networks. His main research topics include learning and instruction, cognitive processes for language learning, L2 learning, (early) literacy development, parental involvement in supporting the learning process of children, test anxiety and learning potential.
PsychED: What is the source of your interest in educational psychology?
Ron Oostdam: In a metropolitan context such as Amsterdam, we are dealing with students from very different socio-cultural backgrounds and home environments. Often the problem occurs that students are not optimally served in mainstream education. For example, children in primary education with language arrears are often referred to different streams in secondary education that do not fit well with their actual cognitive abilities and learning potential. There is also the problem that sometimes too little differentiation takes place within classes, as a result of which the educational process of children is insufficiently regulated and supported. Gifted students with an IQ of 130 or more can be given as an example. Most of these students learn top down which means that they will only perform a task when they fully understand it and master the skills to perform the task adequately. Teachers may therefore think that these students do not understand tasks properly because they do not tackle the tasks in the more bottom-up way as other pupils do. As a result, such students are sometimes completely trapped or underachievers, because mainstream education is often not well attuned to their individual learning needs and their way of top down learning.
My personal motivation is to contribute to the improvement and innovation of education. The mission of my chair as a professor is to conduct research into the optimization of the educational learning processes of individual students. In doing so the general assumption is that every student has unique development opportunities and that the education must meet differences between students. Good education is arranged in such a way that it enables each student to learn optimally, so that every student feels at home. According to this view, differentiation to the individual learning needs of students is the core of good education.
PsychED: Your article is based on the idea that bad behavior in school could be explained by the frustration of three basic psychological needs. Could you explain what they are?
Ron Oostdam: Of course there is no single cause for maladaptive behavior at school. Our study is specifically related to underlying motivational aspects. In our article we report on the relation between various types of maladaptive behavior at school and the extent to which students feel their teachers and peers meet their three basic psychological needs: competence, autonomy and relatedness.
Competence is defined as the need for students to act successfully and effectively and the volition to learn something. When students repeatedly experience that their efforts do not yield the desired result, they will start to feel incompetent and put in less and less effort. Such negative experiences will decrease students’ motivation to learn, which in turn may encourage maladaptive behavior. Hence, it is important to reinforce students’ conviction that they can master the curriculum and successfully finish cognitive tasks.
Autonomy is defined as students’ need to set, pursue and attain their own goals, values and interests. In a motivating learning environment with latitude for autonomy, students are given the opportunity to work on personal learning objectives, are allowed to make choices in their personal learning process and have, in their perception, a choice in carrying out tasks they consider relevant. In a learning environment in which students experience little or no autonomy, learning motivation can decrease with maladaptive classroom behavior as a result.
Relatedness refers to the extent to which students feel connected, safe and respected. When students feel truly appreciated and respected by their teachers, they are more willing to respect the values, norms, rules and regulations at school. Several studies have shown that a good understanding between teacher and student encourages motivation and scholastic achievement and helps to prevent maladaptive behavior.
PsychED: Your findings show that both teachers and peers have an influence on the (dis)satisfaction of students’ fundamental needs. How do these two processes play out?
Ron Oostdam: The study in the first place investigates the general hypothesis that the extent to which teachers in secondary education meet their students’ need to feel competent, autonomous and relatedness is an important factor that decreases the likelihood that students will display maladaptive behavior in the classroom. In adolescence, students are developing rapidly and have a growing need to get confirmation that they are able to achieve something. Moreover, they increasingly want to make their own decisions. At the same time, they put great stock in their relationships with others who they are looking to for acceptance, respect and understanding. Teachers who do not sufficiently meet these basic needs of their students could therefore be more confronted with maladaptive behavior as teachers who take these needs more into account.
But although teachers play a key role regarding students’ psychological needs, they are not the only relevant actors in the school context. At school, students spend most of their time in the presence of, and interacting with, other students. Their peers can also have great impact on whether students feel their sense of competence, autonomy and relatedness is promoted or thwarted. For example, fellow students can consciously or subconsciously have a negative impact on a classmate’s sense of competence or relatedness by refusing to work together, repeatedly making negative comments, or bullying. On the other hand, students can also foster their peers’ sense of competence and autonomy by supporting them and leaving them room to pursue their own goals. Peers can be very influential, particularly when working on school projects together.
Results of the study show significant negative correlations between maladaptive student behavior in the classroom and the extent to which students’ basic psychological needs are met by teachers and fellow students. Both teachers and fellow students play a role in students’ maladaptive behavior toward school and withdrawn behavior.
PsychED: How can school leaders ensure that bad behavior be not only punished, but also proactively prevented?
Ron Oostdam: In the context of school, it seems that maladaptive behavior of students may not only be influenced by the hierarchical teacher-student relationship but also by the social peer system in the class. Our findings strongly suggest that students’ maladaptive behavior in school can be influenced by both the teacher and the peers. The picture emerges that students need satisfaction of all psychological needs by the teacher to prevent or reduce different types of maladaptive behavior, whereas they need satisfaction of autonomy and relatedness from their peers. It can therefore be recommended to respond adequately to these needs in education in order to reduce maladaptive behavior in the classroom. For example, teachers and/or student supervisors could involve students more in developing cognitive tasks, generating activities and drawing up rules of conduct. Other key factors include developing a close personal bond with students and responding to students’ personal interests and motivation. Also attention for the group dynamics in the classroom is important. For example, when teachers notice a student shows increasingly withdrawn behavior in school, they may try to help the student by improving the relationship and cooperation with peers. A possible way of doing this is asking what the student experiences when working together with classmates and asking what kind of agreements he or she finds helpful when working with peers for school. Teachers could, for example, monitor how joint school projects are actually carried out and check whether they are helpful for the student or merely lead to frustration, for example by peers that tell the student what to do.
PsychED: What other areas of educational psychology are you currently interested in?
Ron Oostdam: There are currently several projects running. An example is a project aimed at identifying, preventing and dealing with bullying behavior in the classroom. Within this project, materials and practical tools are developed with which teachers can reduce bullying behavior. Another project concerns the way teachers can deal with controversial topics in their class. The most challenging moments for teachers are situations in which controversial topics come up such as the Holocaust, homosexuality or terrorism. Teachers often do not know how to deal with the violent reactions of students and the sometimes extreme viewpoints that conflict with fundamental values of a democratic society and often also conflict with the personal moral views of the teacher himself. The project aims to gain more insight into pedagogical-didactical strategies that teachers can use to deal with controversial topics in a structured way in the lessons and to examine how teachers can best be guided in their application. Furthermore, I am involved in several studies on effective language didactics and the way in which parents can be actively involved in the language learning process of their child.
PsychED: Thank you so much!