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Why Interest Matters

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
This article originally was published on October 11, 2020, at IndySchooler, and ported here on May 26, 2024.

Children and adults tend to learn about things that interest them. How does interest work? What can parents and teachers do to foster a child's interest in a given subject? Should adults seek to foster such interest, and, if so, how and when should they do so? These are some of the important questions addressed in a recent podcast discussion between "Schooled" host and education professor Kevin Currie-Knight (whom I've interviewed) and and psychologist K. Ann Renninger.

Renninger suggests that interest has an intellectual side and an affective side, the "valuing that goes along with development." In other words, in order to learn about something, children have to have at least some understanding of what's going on, and they have to care about what's going on.

Thankfully, as I think is obvious from observation, children are naturally curious beings. They normally deeply desire to learn about the world around them and to successfully navigate it. Of course, some children grow up in an environment rich with learning opportunities, some do not. Some children are actively encouraged in their interests by caring adults, some are not much encouraged or even actively discouraged. And, of course, due to background experiences, personal choices, and (sometimes) innate capacities, different children tend to develop interests in different things.

I also think it's obvious that adults should do something to help the children in their care nurture their interests. Beyond that point, at least for me, the questions get harder. How can we (as caregiving adults) help our children develop their interests without getting in the way of their interests or unduly pushing our own interests onto our children? I found the podcast discussion really helpful in thinking about such matters.

As Renninger suggests, children can develop strong interests in general as well as strong interests in particular areas. People with strong interests, she says, tend to be good at setting goals, confident in reaching goals (they have "high self-efficacy"), and good at regulating their behavior so as to achieve their goals. It's easy to see how these broader traits and skills can transfer to new particular interests. Children who develop strong interests in particular areas tend to become good at developing their interests generally, and they can then apply their more-general skills to new interests.

Something that Renninger said about less-developed interests really struck me: "Someone less developed in their interest may not even know that something has triggered their interest. They don't imagine that they could have an interest. They don't actually feel self-efficacious, that they think they can do it. They certainly are not self-regulating with respect to any kind of goals that they've set."

The lesson I take from this is that, as adults, we want our children to develop strong interests in particular areas as well as the broader skills to develop interests ambitiously.

Renninger distinguishes between the early "triggering" of a person's interest in some area and the later "well-developed interest." Children tend to find things interesting that relate to their established values, that present "really rich problems" to be worked out, but that are not beyond a child's current capacities. (This reminded me of the idea of "flow.")

Most children potentially can find most things interesting, Renninger suggests: "Interest is something that's hard-wired, so everyone has the potential to develop at least some interest in [a given] subject area." Hence, supportive adults can play a very important role in helping a child develop an interest in some subject. Adults can do this through such means as offering "rich tasks and problems" and presenting a "challenge that's within range" of the student's abilities, Renninger says. "Having an opportunity to find your own connections to the content, and having those legitimized," is important, she says.

What about "intrinsic versus extrinsic" rewards? Renninger says, "Early in the development of interest, when someone doesn't even know that he or she could have an interest, rewards actually are huge, and they haven't really been appreciated." However, she's not talking about things like "M&Ms and grades necessarily"; she thinks the personal connection with the adult can be reward enough. This makes a lot of sense to me: We are deeply social creatures, and we see children taking joy in spending time with their caregivers and trying to copy their behaviors. A good example of this is adults instilling a love of reading in their children by reading to them from a young age.

"The reward is actually really important until they get to a point in their developing interest where the knowledge and value that they have for the content . . . actually has activated the reward circuitry, at which point they do not need to be receiving rewards in order for it to be rewarding. What happens is that interest becomes its own reward," Renninger says.

Renninger does gently warn adults that "performance" expectations actually can get in the way of children developing their interests. This makes sense to me: Children overly concerned with grades and the like may be fundamentally interested in the external rewards, not in deeply learning the subject matter, and might avoid interests unattached to such external rewards.

Renninger offers her remarks in the context of a school teacher who must teach specific content to a specific group of children. Within that context, she argues, teachers can help children take an interest in the topic at hand.

Of course, parents, and especially homeschooling parents, face rather broader questions in this regard. Our fundamental question is not, "How do I get a child interested in this topic which I must now teach?," but, rather, "What interests should I help a child develop?"

As I've argued, parents should foster their children's autonomy. So it is not fundamentally the parent's role, as I see it, to get a child interested in what the parent wants the child to be interested in. Rather, the parent's main role is to help a child develop strong interests that the child chooses.

Of course, in our world, to be successful at most anything, a person needs to learn how to read, write, and work with numbers, and a person needs to know some basic facts about the world and its history. So my point about autonomy is not that children should exclusively frolic among the flowers and never learn their letters. But this is not a real problem. Generally, children want to learn how to successfully navigate their world, and this implies getting a basic education. So my point is that when, with their parents' encouragement and active participation, a child consciously chooses to learn the basic subjects of "school," rather than having adults try to force-feed them that material, the child is in an excellent position to develop an authentic interest in the subject at hand and to learn deeply about it. A self-motivated child is not merely jumping through hoops or going through the motions of "school" for the sake of controlling adults.

So I learned a lot from Renninger's discussion about interest. My basic critique is that, by limiting the discussion to classes that adults typically force children to attend, Renninger does not here take her own lessons about interest far enough.

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