How Build Interest in Anyone About Anything

But First, Rice Farmers in Alabama and Thailand

When I was in seventh grade, I had a teacher named Mrs. Van Lith. She had been a relatively high powered corporate contract lawyer before having a change of heart, beginning a family, and becoming a high school history teacher. She was as fierce and stubborn of a woman as she was warm and well meaning. One day she told us a story of rice farmers in Alabama and those in Thailand to explain the differences in yields. In Alabama, she said, a rice farmer would open a bag of rice seed, grab it by the bottom and swing it around, spreading the rice seed over the paddy helter-skelter. The Thai rice farmer, she said, would cultivate rice seedlings, and carry them with them in shoulder bag. Each foot the farmer would push the rice seedling into the muddy water of the rice paddy and then say a prayer over it before moving to the next.

Situational Interest, Personal Interest

Interest beings situationally and moves to being personal. Situational interest evaporates when the situation that caused it ends. Situational interests or loosely rooted personal interests cannot survive criticism, discouragement, and feedback (no matter how constructive). Once an interest is personal it can begin to endure challenge and criticism. An interest that is finally firmly rooted in a learner’s personality will be able to overcome great obstacles.

1. The 1st Phase — Attention

During the first phase, we are sparking the very beginning of a situational interest.

2. The 2nd Phase — Agency — Power — or “Why?”

Immediately after grabbing the learner’s attention, we must anchor that attention by affording the learner power and agency through the subject matter learned. If agency is not involved, if a learner of any age does not get a sense that they can do or achieve something with what they are learning, then interest will vanish as soon as that class is over, maybe even before.

If the student has to ask “Why are we learning this?”, the teacher has already failed.

The teacher has failed because they’ve failed to establish the agency and the power that a student will get from learning what they are learning.

  1. Finding a Power that is Valuable — The power or agency that you frame to students has to be valuable to them. If you suggest that learning arithmetic will help them in 10 years to balance their check book or “get a good job” — they don’t care, no one, not matter what age, can care about something so abstract and so far in the future. Give them a superpower immediately that they value. Memorizing Alexander Pope’s poetry is probably less of a superpower than memorizing the lyrics of their favorite musical artist, start with the musical artist and then move to Pope later, maybe even years later.
  2. Ordering Learning Activities for Interest — Much of what is taught in schools is severely out of order for the development of interest. Often concepts are chunked and scaffolded for their conceptual and semantic order, with less abstract foundational concepts taught first and more abstract dependent concepts taught later. Chunk and scaffold information for interest development. Start with what is most attention grabbing, then move to what gives the most agency, then move to what is challenging. Once interest is more anchored as a personal interest, the learner will be driven to face the boring complexities of a particular subject.

3. The 3rd Phase — Encouraging Coach

Once a situational interest has been established by grabbing learners’ attentions, and then the door to the road of developing a personal interest has been opened by engaging the agency and power of the learners, next we must encourage learners as they do the work and practice of gaining that agency and exploring the subject.

4. The 4th Phase — Challenging Coach

Once a learner has had sufficient time and encouragement to practice and gain fluency in the power of a subject matter, then educators can develop interest more by challenging the learner to go far and beyond what they’ve already accomplished.

5. The 5th Phase — Peer Mentoring

Wait I thought there were just 4 phases!? There are 4 phases of interest development, but what comes after interest is totally developed and personal? I call it the peer mentoring phase.



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Educator, Founder, Engineer. Interested in Evidence Based Education and Solving BIG Problems.