The Science of Interest

In a November 2013 School Library Journal article The Science of Interest: Pioneering research reveals a secret ingredient for real learning  the author Annie Paul defines interest as a psychological state of engagement, experienced both in the moment and what causes us “to engage with repeatedly with particular events, ideas or objects over time.” In my mind it is a call to question, to feel compelled to dig deep on a subject, and feel intellectual ownership of the topic. Interest equates with satisfaction.

Ms. Paul states “librarians are ideally positioned to become cultivators of student’s interests.” In our curated collections we can expose students to a wide variety of material on a range of topics. In doing so, we provide the mechanism that grabs a student’s attention, stimulates them, and keeps them coming back for more.  But what are the characteristics of something interesting? Working with young children I never lack for topics that can become an interest – from dancing, the universe, or sea turtles. But for material to be of interest, suggests the researcher Paul Silva, it has to be “novel, complex, and comprehensible.” A subject can be of interest when it’s new to a student or when it explores an aspect of something a student is knowledgeable about but has never considered.

It’s clear to see the connection in sparking an individual’s interest and our role as collection curators. We all rely on a range of resources that help us to get the best material in a variety of formats into our libraries. Ms. Paul goes on to say that librarians can develop student interest by “demonstrating their own passion for particular subjects.” While I do this through conversations and personal sharing with students, I have also highlighted the interests of adored teachers to help captivate students. Knitting, yoga, and gardening are all passions found throughout our faculty and keen observers in their classrooms have recognized these interests. In their discreet way, students have come to me wanting to find out more about topics they see their teachers so ensconced in learning!

Annie Paul also notes in her article that from all of this questioning students engage in while exploring their interest, they ask more questions as they learn. After reading this I am reminded to keep asking questions as a practice. Showing my student that I wonder about things, for example the next step for a character or why the setting in a story is Paris, helps to model questioning for them. And when questions are asked in the library they can be almost immediately answered with resources on the topic. As a librarian, seeing this in action puts me in a state of bliss! It is gratifying not only to see their interest sparked but to know that this particular experience of interest could be the start of a cycle. What more could a student explore? How knowledgeable about their interest could they become?

Finally, the author shares that “scientists have found that passionate interests can even allow students to overcome academic difficulties or perceptual difficulties.” I found this to be the most exciting information from the article because it hints at the power we have to unleash in our students. When librarians provide a nudge toward a topic or elicit interest through a well-planned and executed lesson we are making contributions to the development of a student’s academic interest. After reading the article I felt a renewed commitment to support students wherever they want to go in developing their interests (within reason). By doing so, I support their self-confidence and validate their sense of curiosity.

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