A MATTER OF PERSONAL INTEREST: How do we help kids find what interests them?

September 5, 2017
by Peter Gow, ICG Executive Director (This post originally appeared in the ICG’s August 2017 newsletter.)

One of my personal projects over the years has been to figure out what gets kids interested in things. I don’t just mean the prized “developed interest” that supposedly plays well on a college application or even the “passion” that we progressive educators like to invoke when we wax poetic on what school and childhood should be.

What interests me is someone’s capacity to become interested in something, anything. It’s a demonstration of intellectual curiosity perhaps, but mostly it seems to be an alertness to the world’s possibilities that inclines some people—most young children, I would say, but fewer adults—to notice and want to explore things. When we don’t somehow squelch (which we so often do) this alertness as kids reach school age, I’ve observed that this capacity can become part of a child’s approach to schoolwork; the “best” students seem to have the disposition to find something a least a teeny bit interesting in even the most humdrum assignment, a spark of intellectual challenge that causes them to dig a little deeper. The result may look like “excellence” and earn an A, but for these students it’s more about the satisfaction of a challenge, however trivial, met.

I had plenty of parent/guardian conferences over the years in which I asked, “So, what is your child interested in?” and received a stricken response, “We don’t know.” I used to propose this twenty-dollar challenge: take your child to a newsstand and   give them 20 bucks to spend on some magazines that seem interesting to them on the condition that they’ll actually read them. Newsstands like that scarcely exist any more, and twenty dollars wouldn’t go very far in 2017, but I did have occasional reports of success. Later I built a website offering categorized ideas for trying to engage kids’ interests, but recent responsibilities have curtailed my contributions. (The website, THE INTERESTED CHILD, is still up, however.) I was also slightly squeamish about pandering to the anxieties of college-admission-obsessed adults.

I often look back to my early teaching days and to a meeting in which some of us were questioning the value of those field trips where hundreds of schoolchildren wriggle in the seats of a concert hall as the local symphony orchestra tries to excite them about classical music. Every teacher has a memory of a student or students doing something rude and embarrassing in such places, but our middle school director, a former Marine aviator who had become a brilliant classroom teacher and leader, said to us, “You know, lots of things we do are like making candles. You keep dipping the kids into the experience, and every time a little bit more sticks.” I’m not sure that symphonic music has stuck all that much, at least to me, but I like the point.

Because it’s the experience. I am the grandchild and child and now the parent of people who went through serial obsessive interests, from golf to learning multiple languages to canoeing to presidential biographies to model airplanes to cameras to tape recorders to birdwatching to printing presses, and I can safely state that none of us (I’ve had my own, as my credit card statements over the years show) have ever become experts at much, but we’ve had a lot of fun poking around. My grandfather used to quote Chesterton’s “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly,” which neatly sums up the proper philosophy of the intellectual explorer: it’s about the experience, not the result.

The other day I ran into a high schooler who reeled off a dozen or more current interests of his, from cooking to theater to parkour, and who kept using the word “impressive” to describe the ability to do these things well. The pressure of the “college process,” I think, was part of what brought the idea of impressiveness into the picture, but mostly he just thinks it would be cool, fun, neat, whatever, to be able to do all these things. Doing them well, impressively, is all about the college application. Doing them at all is the joy of it.

Next time I see this young man I will quote Chesterton at him, but in my heart I will be lamenting the idea that his fear of not being “impressive” in all these endeavors and thus weakening his college application might be legitimate. I will make it my work to help him present this kaleidoscope of interests as what I believe it is, an astonishing capacity for intellectual and emotional engagement. A college would be crazy not to want him.

The very first of our Principles of Independent Curriculum speaks of learning experiences and environments that are “responsive to the interests, capacities, and aspirations of the students being taught.” The hard part of this, I realize, is figuring out, and helping students figure out, what their interests are as a precondition to responding to them.

I believe that schools, educators, families, and the general media could do more in the area of helping children (and adults) take satisfaction in exploring a wide range of activities, ideas, and phenomena. I wish that we could and would all do more to encourage kids to try new things, to focus less on the developed and documented interest and more on developing a capacity for interest in the first place.

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