Does Interest Have To Arise “Naturally”?
My recent post on the power of interest to spur academic achievement sparked a conversation with readers that I hope we can keep going. While I think we can all agree on the value of interest, some educators have questions or qualms about meddling in what they feel should be a natural, organic, and student-led process. So let me share my views on the subject, and then I’d love to hear yours.
First, is it even possible to elicit interest in another person? The answer is yes. As researcher Suzanne Hidi notes, “Teachers often think that students either have, or do not have, interest, and might not recognize that they could make a significant contribution to the development of students’ academic interest.”
In fact, research suggests that well-developed personal interests always begin with an external “trigger”—seeing a play, reading a book, hearing someone talk—and that well-designed environments can make such a triggering more likely.
Second, shouldn’t students’ interests emerge organically and authentically from their own investigations of the world? The educational philosopher John Dewey warned teachers against artificially “making things interesting,” and a long line of research has shown that providing “extrinsic,” or external, rewards for an activity can undermine students’ “intrinsic,” or internal, motivation to engage in that activity.
But research also shows that, done carefully, the deliberate elicitation of interest has many positive effects, and does not produce the negative results that educators may fear. Especially for academically unmotivated students, it’s imperative that the adults in their lives create environments that allow them to find and develop their interests.
Two more thoughts on intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation: Although research has convincingly established the value of intrinsic interest, in the real world most of us are driven by a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. High-achieving students learn for learning’s sake, but also to get A’s; successful businesspeople are driven to create useful products or productive organizations, but also to enjoy financial rewards. There’s nothing wrong with this mingling of motives.
Second, when intrinsic motivation is entirely absent, there’s nothing to undermine with an external incentive. Parents and teachers are sometimes reluctant to offer a reward to a young person for doing something he or she “should” like for its own sake—a monetary bonus for reading a book, for example. But if the kid shows no interest in reading the book in the first place, there’s no intrinsic motivation to undercut. And if the student does read the book in order to get the money—and discovers that reading is actually pretty fun—that’s a win for everybody.
In short, while motivation is more complex than we sometimes assume, there is clearly a role for parents and educators to nudge young people’s interests along.
Brilliant readers, what do you think?