Introducing Catalytic Pedagogy:
Cultivating Equity in Schools

Hello and welcome.

Despite a consensus that one-size-fits-all academic pedagogy was a mistake, schools still struggle to get rid of it.

It was the industrial revolution that put THAT albatross around our necks. 

In the USA, the dominance of standardized academic pedagogy became firmly established sometime in the century spanning from 1850 to 1950.

Overcrowding was repeatedly caused in many schools by the combination of several large waves of immigration, laws about compulsory school attendance, and later child labor laws. 

Faced with great unwashed masses of children clogging up their classrooms, legislators and educators were desperate to apply pedagogical mass production by standardizing academic instruction. 

It is now a trope of school criticism to lament that “one-size-does-NOT-fit-all” children.

Today, factory-style one-size-fits-all industrial schooling is assumed to produce poor results.

But, what if that complaint is wrong?

What if, pedagogically speaking, “one-size-CAN-fit-all?”

The central problem with schooling today is that our pedagogical forebears, based on what they knew at the time, chose to standardize the wrong feature.

Consider the possibility that IF the school system standardized a different feature of being educated THEN one size DOES fit all children and we could achieve both unheard of educational efficiencies and equity.

Catalytic Pedagogy: A New View of Education

My name is Don Berg. 

I want to introduce you to Catalytic Pedagogy, a perspective on education based on the critically important roles that engagement, motivation, and psychological need satisfaction play in learning. 

Catalytic Pedagogy is grounded in a scientific understanding of learning derived from the most throughly researched model of human motivation, Self-Determination Theory. 

Consider the following analogy.

What if you were charged with being a gas blender? 

The job of gas blending is to create the air that a scuba diver breathes.

Mistakes can have dire consequences. 

Admittedly far more dire than making an educational mistake, but this analogy is pertinent because of the role played by the primary physiological need for oxygen. 

So, it turns out that there IS a one-size-fits-all formula for breathable air. 

If you don't know the science you might figure that more oxygen is always better.

But the formula calls for the necessary gas, oxygen, to be within the range of about nineteen to twenty-three percent.

Because we exhale it, the toxic gas carbon dioxide is always present, but it cannot exceed more than about one percent.

The remaining seventy-six to eighty percent is made up of neutral non-toxic gasses such as nitrogen and water vapor.

One size fits all.

Without proper training or, like I did, getting scientific information online, a mistake may be likely, though understandable.

Like the breathing process, the learning process is only effective when primary needs are satisfied.

During the period since the industrial revolution as today's school models were being designed, the designers lacked key scientific insights into learning.

A Mistaken Focus for Pedagogy

In terms of the analogy, most schools tend to mix into their classrooms just a little too much of the toxin of authority, not enough of the necessity of agency, and they over-emphasize the neutral component of academics. 

When they were choosing what to make the central focus of pedagogy our ancestors' made their best guess.

They did not (and to be fair, could not) take into account the role that primary psychological needs play in well-being and the subsequent role that psychological well-being plays in learning.

We now have key information that is going to make a huge difference in how primary schools operate.

On page fifty-eight of his 1999 book The Unschooled Mind, Howard Gardner, a Harvard Professor and the creator of Multiple Intelligences Theory, expressed his suspicion that early child development experts made an error when the field was first getting started. 

That bunch of famous scientists, who usually disagreed, came to a surprisingly quick consensus that symbolic mastery serves as the developmental imperative for children six to twelve years old.

Gardner was correct to question that consensus about the role of academics, because it’s wrong.

This special regard for symbolic mastery was a nod of approval to Content Delivery Pedagogy, the dominant schooling practice in the vast majority of the world. 

The central task in Delivery Pedagogy is transmitting from teachers to students academic content knowledge, skills, and information. 

By contrast, Catalytic Pedagogy maintains that academics are peripheral, not central, to educating children.

Don't get me wrong; today becoming educated includes academics as a meaningful part of the process. 

However, in order to achieve Catalytic Pedagogy it is necessary to recognize that the developmental imperative for primary school-age children is governance. 

Let me explain.


The one-size-fits-all recipe for breathable air could be said to consist of three key components the necessity- oxygen, the toxins- carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, or other pollutants, and the neutral- nitrogen, water vapor, etc. 

The active ingredients are the components that evoke necessity and toxicity.

We can generalize this to talk about the needs, the toxins, and the neutral components of human experience. 

Human experiences mostly occur within the context of activities.

Activities are combinations of behaviors while behaviors are made up of physiological and psychological components.

There are eight primary human needs that science has identified as being the central causal factors in the well-being of all humans. 

Of those eight needs, four are physiological: air, water, food, and shelter.

Four are psychological: sleep, relatedness, autonomy, and competence.

These are the key components, the memetic alphabet if you will, of human experiences.

They are mixed and matched in everything we do.

Satisfying those eight primary human needs is therefore the central causal factor for facilitating well-being. 

Well-being enables humans to learn deeply from their activities.

Deep learning maximizes the human ability to productively participate in governing their own and other people's behavior.

And well-governed behavior is a necessary prerequisite to effective symbolic mastery.

In terms of the analogy, academic instruction is like humidity in the air.

Taking a reading of the humidity in the air does not help us determine whether or not there is enough oxygen.

Academic instruction is an activity.

Whether or not needs will be satisfied by that activity requires further analysis to determine; in the same way that finding out if air contains the right amount of oxygen requires analysis. 

Children need to occupy their time with activities and academic instruction is one possibility that could serve that purpose.

The question is: when is it a GOOD option?

Identifying Good Options

Whenever people can extract from a particular situation the right mix of satisfiers of their primary psychological needs and simultaneously prevent too much build up of psychological toxins, then and only then, is that particular situation a good option. 

The density of the neutral components is irrelevant except to the degree that it may affect the proportion of the active ingredients.

So, the necessary active ingredients in pedagogy are sleep, relatedness, autonomy, and competence but we can lump those together as “agency.”

Thus, agentic behaviors satisfy primary needs.

One of the potentially toxic active ingredients in human activities is authority. 

Authority refers to how members of a group behave in order to satisfy the needs of the group. 

Authority is like carbon dioxide, it is always present because, even when we are alone, we are inescapably embedded in our society. 

The active ingredients of agency and authority can be lumped together in the term “governance.”

Ideally, governance will satisfy the needs of both individual members and the group to which they belong.

Good governance requires the leaders to recognize that authority can sometimes become toxic to individuals.

Governance is the developmental imperative for young children because it is how humans, even pre-literate ones, have ALWAYS managed the active ingredients in human activities.


In chemistry the term “catalyst” indicates substances that are not consumed in the catalyzed reaction but can act repeatedly to increase the rate of that reaction. 

Since institutions exist independently of each of the individuals that make them up; institutional governance can, potentially, act as a catalyst for individual learning.

Unlike the physiological need for oxygen, it is not accurate to say that the psychological needs are provided from the outside.

In regards to pedagogy, the term “catalytic” is a recognition that, despite occurring within the mind of an individual learner, it is whatever the learner pays the most attention to that will produce learning. 

The best teachers can hope for is to be chosen by their students to be a catalyst. 

Education is dependent on children exercising THEIR agency, as much as possible. 

Thus, in reference to schooling, individual assertions of authority should be minimized for both adults and children alike. 

Establishing boundaries for safety and respect requires adults to constrain children's behavior, but those obligations are best exercised, NOT by individual adults, but collectively.

The more that the children can participate in the governance of the institution the better.

Too many schools in the world today make the delivery of academic content more central to how their schools operate than the psychological well-being of their students and teachers.

Problems and inequities are naturally going to follow in primary schools that put peripheral activities, like academics, ahead of the more educationally central activity of governance.

The children need to become accomplished managers of their own and other people's behaviors.

For secondary and tertiary schools, primary schools that neglect of the developmental imperative of governance pass along students who lack effective governance skills.

Because those students lack the appropriate skills to advocate for needs to be better met, they create a pattern that inevitably perpetuates learning problems and systematic inequities. 


The appropriate data to collect in pursuit of Catalytic Pedagogy includes robust school-wide measures of the depth of engagement, the patterns of motivation, and the extent of psychological need satisfaction.  

By contrast, in Delivery Pedagogy the bureaucratic hierarchy wields arbitrary governance power that tends to over-emphasize the psycho-toxin of authority and the neutral component of academics while under-emphasizing the psychological necessity of agency, for both students and teachers. 

Some notions of “constructivism” may run afoul of Catalytic Pedagogy, too.

If “constructivism” means adults dictating options then potential educational value may be lost if, as students make their choices, they do not not experience enough agency. 

In the abstract “constructivist” pedagogues seem to get that some positive role is played by the oxygen of student agency. 

However, consistent achievement of Catalytic Pedagogy will elude them if they fail to properly appreciate the potential toxicity of teacher authority.

Evidence of effective educational catalysis in a school or education system includes

  • Among learners:
    • more primary and particular need satisfaction
    • more autonomous motivations
    • deeper engagement
    • more intrinsic goals
    • more concepts of learning
  • Among leaders:
    • more skillful implementation of
      • an organizational direction
      • an organizational coordinating mechanism
    • motivational styles that are autonomy supportive and activity structuring
    • virtue cultivation
    • free rider elimination
    • more goals of leadership, and finally
  • System-wide policies that explicitly integrate the goal of Holistic Equity


In my book More Joy More Genius I present an organizational strategy, called Back-to-Basics 2.0, for integrating into system-wide policies the data model of Catalytic Pedagogy in pursuit of the goal of Holistic Equity.

The strategy consists of explicit support from the top down through funding and legally binding protections for innovative educators who are working to pursue equity from the bottom up.

The Catalytic Pedagogy perspective on education and schooling is the culmination of my years of practice as a holistic educator, study and research in psychology, and experience as a leader in a variety of organizations. 

The big idea here is to take advantage of the strengths of standardization by making the satisfaction of primary human needs, motivation, and engagement the central focus of school reform and design. 

I am offering you an innovative holistic approach to achieving the goal of educational equity.

My COVID-19 quarantining has been an unexpected opportunity to create a whole new iteration of my work from the ground up. 

My ultimate goal is to get the science of learning embedded in policy, so that policy stops interfering with learning.

Please join me in my new adventure!

Thanks for watching.

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