Fascinating new research on how to build interest in learners
If you ask everyone you meet what they think is the most important thing to motivate learners, they’ll tell you, and the answer is pretty consistent. People, almost ubiquitously, I find, answer: if you teach people what interests them, they’ll be motivated to learn.
The idea that interest is important to motivate learners is not a novel idea, but here I will share something new: using the research of the Toronto psychologist Suzanne Hidi, educators can predictably develop interest in anyone about anything before and as we teach them.
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.
The traditional schools seem to be more like the Alabaman rice farmer in Mrs. Van Lith’s story. They are flinging the seed everywhere over the rice paddy, trying to do they best they can, but without precision and efficiency, and with a low yield in student interest.
By reading Suzanne Hidi’s research (The Power of Interest for Motivation) and adapting it to practice, I’ve been able to develop a four phase model for developing interest in learning subjects. Using this model we might be able to develop interest the way the Thai rice farmer grows rice.
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.
Consider the history teacher who dresses in Civil War garb for one day to grab the attention of his wayward sophmores’ attentions. Or consider the teacher that orders a pizza to the classroom of sixth graders to bring fractions home.
These are more sparkly examples of grabbing the attention on the students, and we all recognize them for what they are: inspired teaching. However, the tragedy is that even if a teacher can inspire the students’ attentions, they often do not even consider to the next three phases of developing 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.
Simon Sinek’s book Start With Why swept marketing and business leadership circles because he proposed that marketers and leaders should emphasize why a product is valuable and why a company does what it does. Teachers also need to follow Sinek’s recommendation because the “Why?” of a lesson is the most important part. If the student has to ask “Why are we learning this?”, the teacher has already failed.
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.
Two things make establishing agency very difficult:
- 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.
- 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.
Without the step of Agency, a student’s interest can never move beyond situational interest and become personal.
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.
This is the longest phase of interest development and it is often severely foreshortened by teachers and parents who are impatient. A good teacher is patient and sees that students energies, interest, and learning ebbs and flows in fits and starts. To that ebb and flow the teacher provides constant encouragement.
Throughout this process, but especially during the encouragement phase, growth mindset and improvement message language is critical. If ever as a learner walks the road to developing a personal interest, if it enters their mind that they can never get the power that this subject matter will afford them, they will abandon the road all together and focus their limited energies and time on the agencies they can accomplish, such as becoming cool or getting over 100 likes on each of their Instagram posts.
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.
If a teacher identifies a student with a lot of preparation and an established personal interest in, say, reading, and that already developed interest is not challenged with difficult books, then that same interest can whither and not go forward into a fully developed and independent personal interest.
Likewise if a teacher walks a group of students through this interest development process and at the end when all the students have mastered the simpler tasks of the discipline, unless those students are challenged at that point to take their knowledge and ability further, that will just be “a great class” they once took, rather than a lifelong interest.
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.
In this phase the learner’s interest is already a fully fledged and independent personal interest. The teacher and the learner become peers in commitment and interest. The only difference is the teacher has more life experience, more subject matter experience, or special coaching training to further challenge and grow the learner. Similar to an idealized grad student advisor relationship, or the relationship between a principle investigator and their researchers, or the relationship between two collaborating experts.
This phase is still very important since a deep and personal interest without support from other people with that same interest, even a deeply held personal interest can wither.
If you follow these five phases of interest development, and chunk and scaffold material for interest, Hidi’s research suggests that you will find a greater number of your students develop a strong and personal interest in what you are teaching.
Give it a try :D