I watched several unschooling-themed sessions thanks to Freedom To Learn. They had some inspirational themes to them. One session focused on how to take your child’s interests and teach a vast variety of topics from that. Some of these subjects may be traditional school subject based e..g. Maths or Science. Others are aspects of personal growth, pursuing other interests or general learning. I am not yet implementing these as all of my kids are preschool age, but thought I’d start practising the ideas to improve my ability when the time is needed. I realised there were some common subject areas that different interests can cover, as well as opportunities unique and specific to the interest in question. I feel that listing the ideas down in a spider diagram and debating the topics with other caregivers can be useful in finding new opportunities to maximise your children’s learning. This process can be repeated several times for the different interests your child has.
The Science of A Person’s Interests
Definining interest has been widely debated in the scientific community. A personal interest, known as ‘individual interest’ has been found to be stable towards a particular subject area or object. It often develops slowly but lasts a long time. Personal interests are usually linked to increased knowledge, as well as positive emotions. There are also interests called ‘situational interest’ which are temporary positive feelings towards a subject or object as a result of a situation, task or exposure to an object. Both types of interests may contribute towards the other type of interest. See more information about individual and situational interests on the American Psychological Association website here and in the following book dedicated to understanding people’s interests and the impact on learning and development.
Why Is Being Interested So Important for Learning?
Since watching the Freedom to Learn webinars, it sparked an interest in me to research more about why interests are beneficial to learning. Both types of interest, personal and situational, discussed above are believed to improve learning.
If a moment happens that sparks interest, for example an exciting lecture about tsunamis, this can help the person stay engaged and increases attention. This situation may even spark a personal interest where the person may explore the topic further and seek to re-engage with the topic going forward. This is why interest, whether already personal or sparked by a situational interest, is strongly linked to educational achievement and future course selections and performance.
Having a personal interest helps someone engage and focus on a topic regardless of how exciting the lecture is presented. For example, if the above tsunamis talk was relatively boring in content and delivery, someone with a personal interest will still take enjoyment out of the information offered. A personal interest is less dependent on situational factors.
Our Influence as Parents
From the research above, it appears that personal interest is something that forms within the individual. Therefore, other than possibly genes and the exposure they will get to you pursuing your own personal interests, you will unlikely be able to influence your child’s personal interests by design. If you do try to force an interest, it can be too pressurised and is likely to reduce the personal interest element anyway. The best way we can help our children become interested is to offer exciting, funny or unique experiences to spark a situational interest. These situational interests may then help develop a personal interest in the future.
Therefore we can expect that offering situations can give rise to future personal interests in our children. The more personal interests they have, the easier they will find it to pay attention and be engaged in subjects regardless of who is teaching it or the standard of the subject’s delivery. That means offering many situations to our children throughout their time with us should increase their development of personal interests. Situations that create interest include those which are:
- Novel – new, original or unusual.
- Ambiguous – things that can be interpreted in more than one way, for example reading a story that says “the man hit the boy with the stick”. It could be read that the man used a stick to hit the boy; another time you could read it to mean the boy was holding a stick and the man hit the boy. This can add comedy or interest through searching for different ways to interpret the story or situation.
- Surprising – shock and wow factors help with gaining attention in a new suject. For example starting a science lesson with an experiment.
- Choice – when someone feels they can have a range of subjects or objects to choose from, they’re more likely to find something that is interesting to them.
- Physical Activity
- Social – for example group work can help increase interest as people take on different roles and can create new ideas on the topic being studied.
- Personalisation – learning adjusted to be in line with existing personal interest. For example teaching maths to musicians using mathematical concepts found within music. This is the main reason using the spider diagrams detailed later in this blog post is so valuable for assisting a child’s learning.
- Problems – solving problems can create questions and inspire curiosity towards a subject. In searching for the answer, a person can learn new information and process it with more interest as their learning is applied to the problem at hand.
- Valuable – if someone already has a personal interest in a subject, the opportunities need to be challenging to make the person feel the suject is still worthy of their interest.
- Enjoyable – this helps with any learning and can increase interest in the subject.
Ways Interests Can Be Disrupted
I was raised through formal schooling having been at nursery since 3 months old. I guess you could say my personal interests were either stifled by the schooling environment or that the influence of peer and family pressures made it difficult for me to really pursue my personal interests. Allowing a child to pursue an interest at their own leisure and pace will really benefit their growth in that interest in the many years ahead.
The use of our words can affect our intrinsic motivation for following an interest. You may have been really interested in something. When someone said how amazing you are, it may have instilled anxiety and a pressure to achieve. That can reduce the interest in that subject or object since it becomes more like work than pleasure. See more on intrinsic motivation and the use of words in my earlier blog posts.
Using Spider Diagrams to Develop An Individual Interest
Creating spider diagrams of your children’s personal interests can help create new opportunities for learning. In the spider diagrams, consider traditional subjects you’re aware of e.g. Maths, English, Science. Also consider general topics for learning e.g. family history and fun adventures. You could also include a section devoted to ‘new subjects linked to this interest’. I have chosen one interest for each of my children and prepared a spider diagram to show the kind of opportunities available to follow as my kids grow. It’s also helpful to see if you can work out why they are interested in that subject as that can help you work out new opportunities available. Considering other similar subjects can create situational interests and possibly develop into longer term personal interests.
1. Interest: Birds
Our son seems to be interested in birds because they fly.
Other new subjects to consider are those with a similar themed interest to flying: other flying animals such as butterflies and flying fish, flying modes of transport e.g. aeroplanes, and other manmade objects that fly such as drones or kites.
2. Interest: Building Towers
Our daughter and son seem to be interested in towers because it is hands on and they transform some basic things into more interesting looking designs.
Other new subjects to consider are those with a similar themed interest to towers and blocks: building sandscastle / sulptures, interesting tangents off a building type that has interested the child e.g. if they’re interested in the Eiffel Tower’s structure they may also develop an interest in learning French or in French paintings such as Monet.
3. Interest: Ballet Dancing
Both our daughters seem interested in ballet dancing, mainly because they like the music, the activity itself and dressing up.
Other new subjects to consider are those with a similar themed interest to ballet dancing: playing a musical instrument, fashion or other dance styles.
This link for a research paper published in 2016 is particularly useful for understanding interests and the links to learning.