The Importance of Interest
Interest may be one of the most fundamental, most important concepts in education.
When we scramble from one strategy to another in our pursuit of a modern, successful education system we miss the importance of interest. It is interest that drives discovery in the evolution of human understanding.
Student success, one of our most central educational goals eventually leads to a discussion of what motivates students to learn. The answer is interest.
But teachers will claim that not everything they are obliged to teach is interesting. Then they fall back into a debate about ways to motivate students. What tricks can teachers learn to make the subject seem more interesting? When students drop out of the education system prematurely we once again point to the failure to make learning interesting to them.
But the pleasure of learning new things is inherent in our human nature. Just watch young children. Adding games or play to the learning environment, while often completely legitimate, is at other times a poor deception which tries to fool students into learning. This often results in a dumbing-down of challenging concepts and skills. It also produces a host of gimmicks.
Among the greatest deceptions is the marketing of technology as an essential tool for motivating students. Teachers have been told to “integrate technology into teaching” because that’s what young people like. However, this form of pandering is no more likely to motivate students than the use of chalk and blackboards.
Some educators transfer the responsibility for motivation to the student. They would say, “You can lead students to water but you can’t make them drink”. While it is true that learners do control their own motivation, leaving them solely responsible for it is an abdication of professional teaching responsibility.
Motivation is about interest. Young children, for example, are always interested in something. Starting school is often the beginning of a process aimed at focusing their attention on things that are important to others. This is a process that can overlook the importance of genuine interest. Getting students to perform at grade level becomes the reason for them learning anything. This has little motivational value for young learners.
Any attempt to understand the motivation to learn comes back to interest. This is a very important word. It defines not only a state of curiosity but also something of value, as in “I have a vested interest in the future of the planet.” It also represents a reward for investing, as in “interest income”.
This raises the obvious question, “Where does interest come from?” Can we affect another person’s level of interest? When a child, or anyone, is truly interested they will invest considerable effort in understanding and doing. In a typical educational program, spanning several years, there are many different things to study. Is it possible for a learner to be genuinely interested in all, or even most, of them?
The Latin word interest means “it is important” and the prefix inter implies a connection between things. This suggests that connection is central to the interest something can create in us.
Most systems of education presume that proper sequencing is essential to connecting concepts and skills. Hence the lock-step advancement through grades or levels — in learning arithmetic, for example, before higher mathematics. But good sequencing is surely no guarantee of student interest.
Learning might be enhanced if the subject being studied was connected to the learner’s personal experience. However, through decades of public education large scale customization has been largely unattainable. (It is comforting to note that there is now a discussion of “personalized medicine“. One might hope that it will spill over into education.)
Is there a universal kind of connection that can link any subject of study to something important for any learner? That would be the solution to the problem, if it exists.
Educator Parker Palmer describes what he calls Teaching from the Microcosm. For Palmer every small concept that might be presented to a learner connects to something higher. For children, learning to count and do basic arithmetic allows them to better understand their world and how to manipulate its elements.
Children are surrounded by adults who are able to do interesting things. For children the main goal is to become an adult with all the rights, privileges, and possibilities. Everything they learn brings them closer to that goal. They need to speak the languages of their parents and of their peers in order to demand the things they want and to communicate with those who can help them. They need to be able to walk in order to approach things that are attractive.
As children near adulthood their learning priorities shift. What is interesting to them has changed but it is still interest that is driving them. In structured public education we seem intent on trying to interest learners in what interests us. We invent the programs and curricula and set the markers that show progress. We should not be surprised then when learner interest is lacking and we are running off to a conference on how to motivate students.
This kind of experience leads teachers to become disconnected from the very subjects that once attracted them. They now define themselves as the expert who must create the motivation for their students’ learning or, in the worst case, simply throw the responsibility for motivation back on the student.
This widespread failure is largely a result of being focused on the outputs of the educational process, at the expense of the inputs. The outputs are the grades and success rates that are contrived to measure progress, but which often measure very little. The inputs are the inventory of elements provided by the educational system. The list varies but might include qualified teachers, solid pedagogy, physical environment, class size, and numerous other elements. More on this.
The more education authorities aspire to meet the educational needs of their changing world the more they risk losing touch with the genuine interests of their clientele. Learners live in the same world as educational decision makers. Allowing educational experiences to build upon genuine learner interest doesn’t seem like a great risk to take and will likely lead to real student success.