Does Interest Have To Arise “Naturally”?

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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?

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6 Responses to “Does Interest Have To Arise “Naturally”?”

  1. Annie,

    I agree with most of your observations here (e.g. the real world is a complex place filled with intrinsic and extrinsic motivators), but I think there are two questions that need to accompany this line of exploration.

    1) I think it’s less about what is possible and more about the risks involved. The more we attempt to micro-manage the interests of students in order to get a prescribed outcome, the greater the risk that we do negatively affect a student’s relationship with certainly material (e.g. they learn to hate math). If we limit our micro-managing to a certain level (e.g. we never threaten any level of punishment, such as a bad grade, on a student if they do not obey), then there is the distinct chance that students will not do what we want them to. Where you draw the line on this issue is a very complex argument.

    2) There is evidence through environments such as Sudbury Valley that students will choose to learn the truly important subjects (every student at Sudbury Valley learns how to read. 100%). Beyond these truly important subjects, which students will choose to learn in a healthy environment, you have to question whether your opinion of what is important is 100% accurate.

    Imagine is adults had spent a lot of time trying to convince Maya Angelou that math was very important, and, in doing so, had led her to believe that poetry was not as important. Had she been dissuaded from exploring poetry as she had in favor of math, the world would have lost an important contribution to our culture, and probably would have gained a mathematician that was good but not great.

    I’m just not sure why we want to manipulate students to go in one direction vs. another. Every time we do this an opportunity is lost for a student to explore something on their own volition. A student may read a book because we’ve paid them to, but they will get less out of that book (they just want to finish it and get the dollar) than they would get out of an activity of their own choosing. What we are saying is that reading the book is more important to this student than what they would have chosen on their own volition, but the fact is that we have very little evidence to back up that claim.

    I just don’t think we can claim with any great confidence that any specific child should learn any subject that they would not eventually choose to learn on their own.

    If that is the case then why take the risk of trying to manipulate students in one direction vs. another?

  2. Absolutely true. Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations work side by side. It is not either or. I have also seen students who started with an intrinsic motivation, but that petered off after a while. So it cuts both ways.

  3. Annie, I think it’s important to make a distinction between a) exposing kids to things and telling them these things are important, and b) trying to coerce them to be interested.

    As you said, a child might become interested in playing violin because of a concert you took them to, or a book you got them, or music lessons. In that case, you’ve exposed them to the instrument and gave them the opportunity to become interested. But not everyone who’s been exposed will become intrinsically interested, and maybe that’s OK. When I took violin as a child, most of the other students quit after 2-3 years. I was one of fewer than 5 advanced students. The teacher was nice and the method was Suzuki, which requires intense commitment on the part of the students and the parents, so all the students were given heavy exposure and taught that it was important to play the violin. And even with that, some stuck with it and others decided it wasn’t worth it. Those who didn’t, probably went on to do other things that were a better fit for them.

    Also, yes, kids probably *are* more likely to become intrinsically interested in something when their parents and teachers communicate that it’s important. That’s probably one reason why urban schools that insist their students *will* go to college end up sending so many of their students to college.

    That doesn’t necessarily mean you can *make* someone interested in something, though. Even if you expose kids to something and tell them it’s important, some of them just won’t care because it just won’t be a great fit. Maybe violin just doesn’t do anything for them. Maybe they’ve discovered a love of dance, and want to put their time and energy into that instead. Maybe violin is so hard for them it takes the fun out of learning the instrument. Maybe they think we don’t *really* care about violin, and are just saying it’s important to try to make *them* care. That would turn most adults off, but for some reason we think kids can’t see through these transparent attempts to manipulate them. Finally, maybe kids are just sick of being told what they should do and care about, and would like to at least have the freedom to choose something as personal as what interests them.

    Sometimes kids are interested in things that don’t have a lot of value, and don’t care about things that do. But I think a lot of the time, we don’t trust them enough to *let* them choose, and we don’t see the real value in things they’ve chosen (e.g. video games, which researchers like Daphne Bavelier have discovered improve various visual and executive function abilities, but are still widely denigrated by parents & teachers). I wonder if the less we trust kids, the *more* likely they are to become interested in things we find worthless, simply out of rebellion or self-assertion. What do you think?

    So, the examples you’re giving are dead on, but I still can’t support your conclusion. :)

  4. Nathan A says:


    An example discussed in my Learning Theories class this week pointed out how leisurely reading is more enticing and memorable than scholarly reading. Both should be interesting to the reader but the delivery is very different. Textbooks require little imagination and even less personal involvement. The discovery and unpredictability of the characters and storyline of a novel keeps us hooked. Ironically, you don’t need to retain or apply the information from the novel as you would with the textbook. Instructors are then burdened with the responsibility of taking monotonously written text and making it interesting.

    Getting learners of any age interested in things is a crucial first step. Once I have someone’s attention I am not sure what the next step should be for smoothest transition. I currently train adults on a workflow system so I immediately move to application. Yet, I take for granted certain basic computer skills which distracts from the end goal while I pause to explain basic tasks. In a classroom environment, using time reiterating rudimentary skills seems downright counter-productive.

    Incorrectly assuming your audience has mastered basic skills is equally unsafe. In the first weeks of the year in primary school, the review of concepts seemed so tedious to me. I sympathize with instructors now who were caught in the conundrum of alienating those of us who had mastered the building blocks or losing the students who had not. Is there a way to review skills without it being an exercise in tedium? To specify that question, can an instructor combine end goal vision with building block skills and introduce new material all at the same time?

    It must sound like I’m asking teachers to perform magic. But I’m really wondering if they simply need better (more interesting) material and some updated tools.

  5. Gerrit Geurs says:

    The question of interest is one that I have had to tackle from multiple angles in my classroom. I teach in a project-based-learning environment, and in order for the project unit to be successful, student interest is a must. Interest is what keeps students engaged so that group conflicts and management issues are minimal, moves the class forward in exploring class content, and motivates them to complete the project assignment.

    I appreciate your even-handed treatment of both aspects of interest, whether to elicit and invoke it, or let it emerge on its own. However, what I have observed in my classroom leads me to disagree with the import that you place on extrinsic motivation and how it can take the place of intrinsic motivation without undermining it.

    A project unit I develop may have authenticity, academic rigor, applied learning, active exploration, adult connections, and assessment practices (commonly known as the “6 A’s”), but if I have to resort to pedagogical manipulation in order to inspire a student to tackle a project, the results will be less than desirable and I will soon have to try again to extrinsically motivate him.

    What I find is the better approach, which you touch on only briefly, is the idea of leveraging a student’s interests to engage him. When the student can see how course content can connect to his already existing world, things become much easier.

    Thank you for your thoughtful critique on interest and intrinsic/extrinsic motivations. I’m interested to know what others have to say on this topic.

  6. As a social studies teacher, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to engage students with the content outlined in my curriculum. Giving students choices and oppportunities to explore their interests is a highly effective practice.

    Since I stopped using textbooks and started including (mostly) narrative nonfiction and deep discussion about text, students have flourished. It is true that some students appear to have no intrinsic motivation, but they come around a bit more when they see motivation and engagement among their peers.

    One of my favorite things to observe is the building of interest throughout a unit. Many of my students groaned when I assigned Girls of Atomic City for a U.S. History unit, but after reading the first chapter they were hooked. They started asking questions and sharing reactions before class even got started. Some had even done some research. With some choices and quality material, generating a genuine interest in a topic is possible.

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