Does School Kill Interest?

Interest unlocks potential

Paul Thiebaut III
Mar 8 · 9 min read

The central problem with schools today is that they force students to find their own interests and motivations outside of the classroom. Schools predetermine so much of what students must learn and do that students hardly have time to discover what interests them, let alone develop those interests.

It may be hard to imagine how a school full of students pursuing their interests would work because of how used we are to watching students follow fixed schedules, adhere to strict instructions, and memorize the same kinds of knowledge and skills. Nonetheless, let’s look at some of the evidence supporting why schools should make cultivating interest their central aim.

We start with our journey with two successful educational programs that cultivate interest.

Genius Hour

Genius Hour, or my favorite name, the passion-driven classroom, is a program serving mostly middle and high school students. According its website, “Genius hour allows students to explore their own passions and encourages creativity in the classroom. It provides students a choice in what they learn during a set period of time during school.” Once a week for 60 minutes students are allowed to pursue their interests.

In just one hour a week, students put their imaginations to work, discover and develop their interests, and generate meaningful and useful creations. One high school student, Ava, pursued her interest in photography, which led to starting her own photography business. Another student leveraged his interest in farming and fishing to determine what to study in college.

What do teachers think about Genius Hour? Elizabeth Mulvahill, in her article, “What Is Genius Hour And How Can I Try It in My Classroom?”, described Genius Hour this way:

“Not only does Genius Hour create a pathway for intrinsic motivation, it encourages creativity. Generating questions and diving deeply into topics they are passionate about sets students up to be curious lifelong learners.”

Computer Clubhouse

Another educational program designed to leverage students’ interests is Computer Clubhouse. Its success in low-income communities has been so overwhelming that it has mushroomed into an international nonprofit. Its premise is simple.

Kids from the community can stroll in after school to work on any project they wish using Computer Clubhouse’s media technology. They can explore art, video, animation, music, and more. And, they do!

In his book, Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play, Mitchel Resnick, shares some of the clubhouse’s success stories. Maybe the most telling example was of a boy who came every day to work on challenging projects (what Resnick refers to as “hard fun”). His school teacher visited the clubhouse one day only to find her student hard at work. According to his teacher, the boy did not show much interest in school and had never worked so hard.

What about low-income kids who have already dropped out?

Young Mike Tyson (Dynamite Mike)

Have you heard of Mike Tyson? We know his success, but he wasn’t born knocking people out. Tyson randomly discovered boxing in juvenile hall. He was so interested in boxing that after the coach told Tyson he couldn’t box unless he stopped getting into trouble with other youth, Tyson improved his behavior. Upon getting out of juvenile hall, Tyson went to a coach who leveraged Iron Mike’s deep interest in boxing all the way to becoming a champion.

We have to question whether schools are setting up students for lifelong success or setting them back.

While no school would say so on its website, it can’t be denied that almost every type of school, from public schools to private schools for “gifted” children, follow a similar pattern. For the most part, students are required to learn similar subjects — even if they are given choice over how to learn those subjects and those subjects are “personalized” by helping them learn the content in unique ways.

What students learn in school is not up for debate, kind of like women’s right to vote before 1919.

This is why Elon Musk pulled his kids out of one of the top private schools in the country. In her blog post, Finally, Silicon Valley funds homeschooling: Elon Musk leads with Ad Astra, Penelope Trunk, describes Musk’s reasoning for homeschooling his two children. Musk said he wanted his children to be able to develop their abilities and aptitudes by pursuing types of learning they found interesting. Since pulling his kids from school, Musk has launched a school, Ad Astra, aimed, I believe, at building an educational model based on developing children’s interests.

Tutoring children in their interests

I’ve tutored children in their interests for 15 years. The aha moment for me in realizing the power of interests was working with a high school girl diagnosed with selective-mutism. This condition is characterized by little to no speech production. In plain English, children with selective-mutism hardly talk.

In our first one hour class, the girl produced fourteen sentences, seven in writing and seven in speech. While her mother was shocked, I was not. Who could resist talking about their favorite flower?!

Another preschool student I worked with who was diagnosed with autism had the “bad habit” of biting, hitting, and spitting on people. But, in every class with me the boy laughed, learned, verbalized, made eye contact, and collaborated. He really enjoyed using his body as a learning tool.

Another autistic preschool boy, after 10 months of working with me, was one and a half years ahead of his preschool peers. And, his grandpa told me that his grandson had become affectionate for the first time. His interests included trains and math.

I went on to formalize my method, called Thiebaut Method Tutoring, and in 2009 founded an early education tutoring nonprofit for underserved preschoolers that prepares them for kindergarten by tutoring them in their intrinsic motivations. Every cohort who has entered kindergarten outperforms their peers locally and statewide.

Where to get your facts about interest

Two research volumes that bring together powerful research on the impact of interest on student achievement and well-being are Handbook of Motivation at School and Handbook of Competence and Motivation. One of the central theories covered in both texts is Self-Determination Theory, or SDT. Here is a short video about SDT if you are not familiar with the theory.

Self-Determination Theory

What Self-Determination Theory (SDT) shows is that when children are intrinsically motivated by the activities they engage in, their achievement, understanding, well-being, and interest jumps up. From preschool students to college students, hundreds of studies have found the same results, which boils down to this:

Students who are intrinsically motivated to learn try harder, learn more, perform better, and feel better than students who feel forced or pressured to learn.

Not surprisingly, SDT starts with curiosity and interests — what people are naturally drawn to know about and learn. In a foundational study, when a group of preschool students was given a reward for drawing, they actually lost motivation to engage in the learning activity later on. A group of their peers who were just left to draw without any reward remained motivated to learn to draw. This finding in 1973 has been repeated again and again at all grade levels.

A great book that covers a lot of related research on interest and motivation is Alfie Kohn’s book, Punished By Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes.

Benefits of interest to learning

In their book, The Power of Interest for Motivation and Engagement, interest researchers, K. Ann Renninger and Suzanne E. Hidi, present their Four Phase Model of Interest Development (To learn more about the model, read Braus’ Medium article, “How Build Interest in Anyone About Anything”).

In the process of presenting their model, the researchers summarize the benefits of interest in terms of learning:

“Interest has been found to positively affect learning outcomes as well as learning processes. Support for people to develop interest enables them to make personal connections to their learning and improves their performance. It engages them in developing conceptual understanding, leads to subsequent course enrollment, and provides them with knowledge that they can do the work of the discipline. When individuals have an interest in a task to be accomplished or subject matter to be learned, they have focused attention, goals, and learning strategies; they are more likely to feel self-efficacious, and be able to self-regulate. Depending on how developed their interests are, they persevere to understand more. They can be expected to expend effort without it feeling effortful, seek feedback, make an effort to find additional resources, and create opportunities for themselves that allow them to more fully engage their interests.” (p.33)

Interest bleeds into real life, too.

Interest in the real world

We all have interests and most of us have experienced not only how good it feels to pursue our interests, but how much we learn and grow in the process. Most of us belong to groups based on our interests and have at least a few friends who share our interests. And, for those “lucky” enough, some people have turned their interests into careers by starting companies or landing “dream jobs” that require doing what they love.

In the real world, pursuing interests is something people prioritize in their free time and even get paid to do at work.

Believe it or not, most people who have achieved extraordinary feats, like founding Apple Computer, discovering E=MC², and securing civil rights for black Americans in the 1950s and 1960s, were pursuing their interests. It was their interests that drove extraordinary people like Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Martin Luther King Jr. to devote their lives to their work. Although, they may tell you they never worked a day in their life!

Companies understand the power of interest

Google is famous for its 20% Time, which gives its employees one day a week to work on projects they are passionate about. Gmail and Google News are just two of the nearly 50% of Google products that have been developed during 20% Time.

Linkedin has caught on, too. It has a similar program to 20% Time called InCubator, and has taken one step further. It has another program, REACH, that hires people without college degrees who are passionate and can demonstrate competency. That’s right, Linkedin matches people with their interests. So long dating!

To anyone interested in interest

The first place to start is one of the most reputed universities in the world, Stanford. Did you know that the most popular course teaches students how to discover their interests?

The Designing Your Life course helps some of the nation’s formally highest achieving K-12 students explore what to do with their lives. Doing well in school and going to great colleges does not guarantee you will figure out what you want to do with your life, which is a pretty big deal. This suggests school may be a little out of tune.

Now, for interest advocacy

We should take notice of the power of interest and ask why schools don’t prioritize them more often and how they can. We should ask teachers and principles how to find ways to prioritize interest in the classroom (like Genius Hour) and how to create community around interest (like Computer Clubhouse). We should look at our children as the holders of potential that interest has the key to unlock (like Steve Jobs and company). Finally, we should look at education as the locksmith who can unlock all of our children’s true potential.

Alas, with interest unlocking so many people’s potential, I reveal my deeply held secret: the central aim of schools should be to cultivate interest.

Paul Thiebaut III

Written by

Founder & CEO Thiebaut Method Tutoring — Preschool Teacher — Curriculum & Instruction Designer — Education Scientist —

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