Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The transformative Power of Interest : Annie Murphy Paul - Dan Pink and Carol Dweck

Annie Murphy Paul

‘If there is just one message I could share with parents, educators, and managers, it would be about the transformative power of interest.’ Annie Murphy Paul

The development of every student’s unique set of talents and gifts is the challenge for a 21stC of education and so far few schools have yet to appreciate this challenge. For schools a focus on developing students interests would seem not a serious enough task – hardly up there with the traditional learning disciplines or, the latest regression, the fetish with literacy and numeracy but they needn't be in conflict. Traditional learning areas will always be required for students to achieve in depth purposeful learning.

The biggest issue in education is lack of engagement of a number of learners – particularly the non-academic. The big challenge for many schools is to find ways to engage learners so they can leave equipped to face up whatever challenges an uncertain future presents them.

Jerome Bruner

Educationalist Jerome Bruner has written that ‘teaching is the canny art of intellectual temptation'  adding that ‘people get good at what they get good at.

Other educationalists have written that learning is the default mode of humans at birth – schools should do nothing to harm or distort this natural process. That something that starts so well should end up as turned off should worry all involved in schooling.
Daniel Pink
Daniel Pink, in his enlightening book ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, quotes psychologist Edward Deci : ‘Human beings have an “inherent tendency”  to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise their capacities to explore, and to learn. This drive to learn, writes Pink, is fragile and needs the right environment to survive.

It couldn’t be clearer than that.

Pink continues, ‘For  artist, scientists, inventors, schoolchildren and the rest of, intrinsic motivation - the drive to do something because it is interesting, challenging, and absorbing – is essential for high level creativity’. If there is anything fundamental about human nature, it’s the capacity for interest. Some things facilitate it. Some things undermine it. . Something politicians, principals, teachers and parents need to urgently consider.

Pink is convinced that it is our basic nature to be curious. He asks, ‘have you ever seen a sixth- month- old or a one-year-old who’s not curious and self-directed. I haven’t. That’s how we come out of the box. If at age fourteen or forty three, were passive and inert, that’s not because it is our nature. It’s because something has flipped our default settings.’

Developing a positive growth mind-set, according to psychologist Carol Dweck depends on our beliefs about ourselves and our abilities – how we interpret our experiences. With a growth mind-set, one that values effort, perseverance, passion, and what some call ‘grit’- learning is forever. Children are born with a growth mind-set, then – at some point in their lives – they don’t. At this point they join the so called ‘achievement tail’ – created by adults who ought to be creating the conditions to avoid this situation.

It wasn’t Pink’s book that set me thinking about the demeaning of the power of interest it was a blog, recently sent to me , written by Annie Murphy Paul, that resonated with my own thoughts.

In her blog she shares research about the science of interest, what interest is , how it develops, what makes things interesting,  and how we can cultivate it in ourselves and in others. Such researchers are finding that interest helps us think more clearly, understand more deeply, and remember more accurately. Interest has the power to transform struggling performers (our so called achievement tail), and to lift high achievers to a new level.

So what is interest?
Paul Silva

Interest is a predisposition to engage repeatedly with particular ideas, events over time. Paul Silva of University of North Carolina writes that ‘interest pulls us to the new, edgy, the exotic’. Interest he says ‘diversifies experiences’ and also focuses experience’. In a world too full of information, interests usefully narrow our choices: they lead us to pay attention to this not that.

Being interested in something provides a positive feeling of being energised and invigorated, captivated and enthralled- it , writes Annie Murphy Paul  ‘effectively turbocharges our thinking. When we are interested in what we are learning, we pay closer attention; we process the information more efficiently; we employ more effective learning strategies, such as engaging in critical thinking, making connections between old and new knowledge, and attending to deep structure instead of surface features. When we’re interested in a task, we work harder and persist longer, bringing more of our self-regulatory skills into play.’

With such obvious advantages it is difficult to understand why schooling doesn’t pay more attention to tapping into or developing student interests.

The finding of a seven year study by Judith Harackiewicz of the University of Wisconsin found ‘that interest is a more powerful predictor of future success than prior achievement or demographic variables’.  Murphy writes that ‘scientists have shown that passionate interests can even allow people to overcome academic difficulties or perceptual disabilities’. This is something that creative teachers have always known ‘Studies of prominent academics and Nobel Laureates who struggled with dyslexia’, writes Murphy, ‘found that they were able to persist in their efforts to read because they were motivated to explore an early and ardent interest’.
John Dewey

Such findings present a challenge to teachers and parents to promote interest. Murphy quotes John Dewey who wrote that interests operate by a process of “catch” and “hold”. First the individual’s interest must be captured, and then it must be maintained. Catching is about seizing attention and stimulating the imagination (Bruner’s ‘canny temptation’) .This can be done by making use of interests students bring with them ( all too often neglected by teachers) and by exposing students to a wide variety of topics – it is here that the various learning areas provide possibilities. Obviously different people find different things interesting- one reason to provide learners with a range of subject matter, in the hope something will resonate. This relates well to the multiple intelligences research of Howard Gardner.

Paul Silva’s research has shown that interesting things share a number of characteristics – material must be novel, complex and comprehensible. For teachers this means introducing students (or themselves) to something of interest, making sure things are not too hard nor too easy (Vygotsky’s ‘zone of proximal development’ – ZPD), so all students feel they able to comprehend and master challenges: as Bruner has written ‘this is the canny art’ of teaching.

Teachers can help comprehension by providing appropriate information maybe about a poem or, in the case of abstract art helping students interpret the work, the meaning of the title, the thoughts the artist had in mind and information about the artist and the context in which it was created.

Teachers also need to make sure students have sufficient background knowledge to stimulate interest and avoid confusion. The more we know about a domain the more interesting it gets. Silva’s research shows  that as new ideas are confronted this leads to a conflict with the learners ‘prior ideas’ which motivated the learner’s need to resolve the conflict, and we do so by learning more. ‘A virtuous circle is thus initiated: more learning leads to more questions, which in turn leads to more learning. Parents and educators can encourage the development of students’ interests by actively eliciting these queries, what researchers call “curiosity questions”’. Jerome Bruner states the obvious ‘we get good at what we get good at”.

It is obvious that to develop students’ interests requires a move away from standardised curricula, where teachers deliver learning to their students, to a more personalised approach.
Protect at all costs

Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham notes that teachers and parents are often ‘so eager to get to the answer that we do not devote sufficient time to developing the question’. Yet, continues Murphy, ‘it’s the questions that stimulate curiosity before it can get going. Instead of starting with the answer, begin by posing an genuinely interesting question – one that opens an information gap’.

One thing parents and teachers can do is to demonstrate their own passions and personal interests so as to pass on their own enthusiasms to their children/students.  An interesting research study by Benjamin Bloom of over a hundred and twenty adult
Ben. Bloom
gifted individuals in a wide range of fields from maths to sports achievements found that such individuals came from families that were involved in the particular areas. It was also found their schools either ignored their gifts ( unaware of the time they practised before or after school) , some schools made use , or celebrated, such gifts but sadly almost a third were put down because of their difference in ability by their peers. The other interesting finding was that almost all these high achievers had made their decisions to make their interests their career did so before the age of twelve.

When it comes to keeping interests alive Annie Murphy Paul writes, ‘it is about finding deeper meaning and purpose in the exercise of interest.’ This is not achieved by teachers stressing how valuable such learning will be in the future but by helping students’ generate their own connections and discover for themselves the relevance of interest for themselves.

The best thing teachers and parents can do, writes Murphy Paul, ‘is by supporting their feelings of competence and self-sufficiency, helping them to sustain their attention and motivation when they encounter challenging or confusing material. Weaker learners need may need more of this assistance to find and maintain their interests, while stronger learners can be pushed in the direction of increasing autonomy and self-direction. The goal is to cultivate interests that provide us with lasting intellectual stimulation and fulfilment, interests that we pursue over a lifetime with vigour and zest.’

If we want to develop the lifelong learners, the vision of the New Zealand Curriculum then schools need to focus on developing the transformational power of interests – using curriculum areas to a means to this end; to practise Jerome Bruner’s ‘canny art of intellectual temptation’.

So far few schools have shown the wit and intelligence to do just this. The first country to develop the talents and gifts of all its students will win the 21stC

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