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Interest in Learning
Interest in Learning

by Kevin Clark, Head of School

When I was in fifth grade, I completely tanked my "public speaking" presentation. It was about carrots. This topic was one for which I simply had no "buy in." I remember sitting in the dining room of my childhood home at the dinner table, thinking of a topic for my presentation. I spied carrots. Leftover from dinner, they had not yet been cleared from the table. Right then and there, I chose "Carrots" -- elevating them to a topic of study with a capital "C" -- as my subject. I researched carrots. I made a tri-fold with which to present. And, I presented. To this day, I remember that I made some sort of analogy between "carotene" -- a mineral found in carrots -- and "kryptonite" except it was the opposite of an analogy because carotene is good for you and kryptonite is bad for Superman... and, well, the analogy and the whole presentation fell flat... flatter than the iPhone X. I still remember the faces looking at me, and all I wanted to do was fold up my trifold, but I had to answer questions, questions such as, "What made you choose this topic?" Oh, how special awkwardness can feel when you're ten.

When I was in graduate school, I nailed the written component of my comprehensive exams. Nailed it, I say. The writing prompt had to do with Stephen Krashen's theory of language acquisition and his hypothesis, I + 1, which holds that learners learn best when the "input" (I) is just a little more (+1) than what they could comfortably understand. Boy o' boy ... when we talked about this in class, I felt on fire. It just made so much intrinsic sense to me that I wanted to know more. You could almost hear my neurons firing in my brain. It interested me so much that I devoured the chapter about it in the textbook and sought other sources to learn more. I was teaching English at the time – to speakers of Arabic – and I reworked many of my classroom lessons to apply this hypothesis and check it out on a practical level. So, you can imagine how pleased I was to find the comprehensive writing prompt was right in my sweet spot. I... nailed... it.

Two stories: One of failure; and, one of success. And, I know today that the differentiating variable between these two outcomes was "learner interest." I was not interested at all in learning about carrots. I was hyperventilatingly-excited about language acquisition, in general, and Stephen Krashen's work in this area in particular. My interest level had a direct causal relationship to my failure/success.

On the surface, this seems an obvious truism: Learners will be more successful when they are interested in the subject they are learning. Think about the child who will not eat peas. When the peas are fed to the child on a spoon that is portrayed as a train chug-chuggin' toward the child's mouth, however, their interest in eating those peas changes. The child who struggles with abstract math problems quickly adds up the dollars they need when there is going to be a sidewalk bake sale at drop-off. In both cases, the child's interest level is piqued... as is their ability to learn. Given the face validity of this "tenet," the question becomes: What is the practical application of "interest" in the learning environment?

Here, at Aidan Montessori School, interest is one of the foundations of children's learning. In the Toddler and Primary classrooms, all of the materials are designed to capture children's interest. The materials' colors, textures and quality attract children and engage their interest. Teachers often give lessons to the children using quiet voices, using purposely few words, causing the children to focus on the object of interest: the learning material. In the Lower Elementary programs, teachers use "The Great Lessons," (The Formation of the Universe, The Coming of Humans, The Development of Numbers, etc.) to engage the children's interest dramatically, as lead-ins to "academic" studies. Once engaged, the children can explore the subtopics of these areas according to their interests in them. In Upper Elementary, the children's interests are exploited (in the best sense of the word!) in myriad ways... from goings-out to exhibitions and from cohort groups to the annual fair, children are constantly solicited for their interest, and those interest become the nucleus of their learning.

Just one of the tenets of the "Constructivist" approach to education is: "Education is facilitated by the interest level of the learner." Montessori education is the constructivist approach that most actively engages learner interest in order to rampantly enhance student learning. These are just a few examples of the purposefulness of the education that our children receive at Aidan. And, this is just one of the tenets of Montessori education.