What makes school interesting?
Kids are beginning to head back to school this week. Some are going for the first time, while others are returning to face the challenges of 3rd grade or sophomore year, college or law school. Some of these students are brimming with excitement and eagerness for learning. Others are bored to tears.
One of educators’ most difficult tasks is engaging students in learning. But how does one make knowledge—of irregular verbs or trig or the Civil War—interesting? Indeed, what does it mean that something is interesting? Is interest a universal emotion like fear or pride or happiness? Can it be nurtured and channeled in the classroom?
Scientists have shown surprisingly little interest in interest, given its obvious and fundamental connection to learning and education. That’s starting to change. In the past few years a handful of psychologists have started exploring interest in the laboratory, and they are starting to piece together a theory about this curious emotion.
One of the most striking features of interest is that it’s all over the map: One person’s passion for botany is another’s huge yawn, according to psychologist Paul Silvia, who has been exploring interest in his lab at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Interest also comes and goes; a book you found mesmerizing just a few years ago might leave you bored to tears if you tried to reread it today. Silvia and others have been trying to dissect this unpredictable mental state.
Much of the work involves exposing people to things in the real world that may or may not be interesting: contemporary poetry, abstract and classical artwork, and so forth. In one experiment, for example, Silvia had people read an abstract poem, but some were given a small hint about the poem’s meaning while the others were left on their own. When asked later to rate the poem, those who had been given the hint found the work much more interesting. In a similar experiment, students who had studied a little about art history found a modern art gallery much more engaging than did students with no exposure to art.
Silvia thinks he knows what’s going on in these simple experiments. All of the people in these studies are appraising their experience, trying to make sense of it; that’s basic human nature, we make such appraisals all the time. But they are sizing up the same experience very differently depending on the knowledge they bring to the event. All of them probably find the poem or artwork to be fresh, complex, and mysterious—so they are at least curious enough to look more. That’s the first requirement for interest. But only some find the experience also to be comprehensible. That is, they have just enough knowledge that they believe they can “cope” intellectually with this complex and unexpected event. It’s not totally beyond their ken. The combination of complexity and comprehensibility adds up to genuine interest, and genuine interest cannot exist without both.
At its best, genuine interest becomes fascination becomes absorption becomes enrapture. Psychologists call such intensity “being in the flow,” a state of mind so focused that not even time can intrude on the experience. This sounds awfully like bliss to me, but Silvia is careful to distinguish even intense interest from happiness. Interest motivates people to explore, to seek out novelty, where happiness serves to firm up existing attachments—whether to a favorite book or a favorite person.
Interest and happiness also have different sources. Silvia had people look at a variety of paintings, including serene landscapes by Claude Monet and the rather disturbing images of Francis Bacon. The subjects rated both their interest in the paintings and their enjoyment, and then Silvia surveyed the range of their emotional reactions to the different works. The paintings that made people happy were simple, positive and calm. But they were consistently more intrigued by the works that they perceived as complicated, strange and upsetting. Interest, in short, requires emotional and mental challenge.
So how do we stay challenged once we have begun to master a topic? Why not just move on to something else and learn a little bit about a lot of things? Well, it appears that interest in self-propelling. Intellectual challenge motivates people to become experts, and expertise in turn allows them to stay interested in every new bit of knowledge. And that’s called education.
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