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"There can be no other form of teaching" than that which builds on interest
One of the pleasures of the holiday break between semesters is that I get a little extra time to think and read (and bake, yum!). In my potching around, I picked up a book of Vygostky’s early lectures* that he gave before he developed his seminal ideas that shaped his theory of learning. The book was a gift from my beloved adviser, Pat Ashton, (many!) years ago. As I flipped through its pages, I came across my highlighted notes on Vygotsky’s thoughts on the development of attention. Attention is key to learning, as cognitive psychologists have shown, with their fancy, computer-like models of cognition. Where a student’s attention is, is where their mind is.
We know this intuitively too, as we see kids with ADHD struggle with distraction and learning, or even our own minds when we try to meditate or focus on something. The state of flow is all about a kind of sustained attention and engagement in a task. So attention is really, really important in learning.
And so what does Vygotsky say about attention? I think it’s critical for those of us interested in transforming schools. He writes:
The child’s interest, as the most frequent form of manifestation of involuntary attention, thus, assumes extraordinary pedagogical importance. The child’s attention is directed and guided nearly entirely by interest.
He then goes on to say that
From this point of view, teaching in general is possible only inasmuch as it relies on the child’s own interests. There can be no other form of teaching.
I am tearing up as I type that. We know this! That’s why some of the best teachers out there do everything in their power to entertain their students and get them engaged, dressing up, playing songs, bringing games into the classroom. I am not saying this is wrong (though it IS exhausting, our poor, poor teachers), but these actions are necessary because our current school approach is at heart, BORING, to most kids, so teachers feel compelled to dress it up. If I serve my two sons overcooked, soggy, frozen broccoli, they won’t eat it unless I flavor it up with butter and garlic salt. But the other day, I sliced a fresh carrot—the one with the greens still attached. I washed and peeled it, then cut it into thin, crunchy strips. I gave it to my youngest son, and together, we marveled at its taste.
Most schooling is dressing up soggy veggies that barely nourish, when at heart, kids crave fresh, real food…and real learning. We are born primed to learn. Ready to learn. And interested in learning.
And as Vygostky points out—it starts with interest—children’s specific, personal interests. (But it doesn’t end there! That is why I’m not a fan of the unschooling movement…more on that in another newsletter.)
Ok, Vygotsky wrote a while ago—why should we care about what he says? Well, because it’s true and has been substantiated by research. Lots of it.* A recent MEGA meta-analysis of motivation interventions shows that motivation is a “key process or mechanism for enhancing student learning outcomes.” Interest can “motivate the academically unmotivated”* and be a protective factor in preventing school drop out, especially for students at risk.
What really lit a fire in me to talk about interest in this second installment of our newsletter is an article a friend sent me. Her friend’s son had struggled so much in school, but after being pulled out to be homeschooled, he excelled. His mom recognized that interest was a key factor in her son’s success (and lack of it, when he was in school).
In the article, she writes:
He was just bored. His interest wasn’t being cultivated." “I stopped with all the worksheets and the need to do complete subjects and just let him look at whatever pictures and magazines he wanted. He was always very interested in flying and things that went fast.
The article continues:
Kemiko allowed his education to begin with what he liked.
The son, Anthony, comments:
I always knew I was smart and could do the work. It was just finding what interests me and applying my efforts toward that.
Now, I have a lot of concerns about homeschooling—it’s a luxury few families can afford. But even more than this, not all parents have the means or ability to educate their kids well. I’m a teacher, and I wouldn’t have been able to give my kids what their best teachers have given them.
It goes back to interest. As Katie, one of my doc students noted in her dissertation research,* interest exposure is so important to the development of interest, particularly for those students who come from impoverished backgrounds where they don’t have access to the resources of more privileged, affluent families. To me, that is why public schools are so important—they can be the great equalizer, opening up the world and knowledge to all kids, regardless of background.
Great teachers do that for their students. My son’s modeling and simulation teacher inspired a deep love for video game design beyond his initial interest in coding. My art history teacher changed the way I see physically see the world. And inspired a lifelong love of art.
I retain my hope in the power of public schools. That is why I am writing this newsletter. I am so, so grateful and excited to have you along on this journey.
I would love to hear your thoughts. My main goal in writing this is to form community around school transformation, so let the conversation begin.
I tried writing this without footnotes, but the academic in me just couldn’t do it. I haven’t figured out how to do footnotes in Substack though, so I’m using an asterisk. Notes are in order of appearance. Feel free to ignore this section! Or explore further if you want to do a deep dive…
Vygotsky, L. S. (1997). Educational psychology (T. R. Silverman, Trans.; (original work published in 1926) ed.). St. Lucie Press. (I quoted from pp. 120-121)
Hidi, S. (2006). Interest: A unique motivational variable. Educational Research Review, 1(2), 69-82.
Lazowski, R. A., & Hulleman, C. S. (2016). Motivation interventions in education: A meta-analytic review. Review of Educational Research, 86(2), 602-640. (quote from p. 625)
Hidi, S., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2000). Motivating the academically unmotivated: A critical issue for the 21st century. Review of Educational Research, 70(2), 151–179.
Philp, Katherine, "How Do After-school Staff Use Social Networks to Support At-risk Youth? A Social Capital Analysis" (2019). Electronic Theses and Dissertations, 2004-2019. 6559. https://stars.library.ucf.edu/etd/6559
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