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The Brilliant Report: The power of interest by Annie Murphy Paul

Seems obvious yes? If you’re interested, you’re more engaged. If you’re more engaged, you’re likely to learn more. This report suggests it’s more complicated than that, and that interest can actually help make learning more positive and more efficient, with deeper understanding and better connections to previous knowledge. There’s even evidence to indicate that learning difficulties can be overcome when the learner is engrossed.

The obvious example that springs to mind is young children obsessed with dinosaurs, rhyming off multisyllabic scientific names, theoretically far above their reading age.

There’s lots of good advice in the article about how educators can spark, harness and maintain interest, but this was the sentence that grabbed my attention.

In a world too full of information, interests usefully narrow our choices: they lead us to pay attention to this and not to that.

Makes sense. You scan through articles and linger over those that catch your eye. But what happens when you’re not especially interested in the first place, but still have to research a particular topic? What do you do when nothing is stimulating, when nothing catches your eye. If interest makes it easier to learn, surely that presupposes lack of interest makes it more difficult to learn.

Imagine looking through a load of books, or at search engine results, or perhaps you’re trying to gather information from a particular website. And nothing is jumping out at you. As an adult, you’d hopefully have the confidence to move onto something else, but what if you’re sitting in a class gazing at the materials your teacher or librarian has provided and there’s nothing, and I mean nothing, to captivate you.

What are the chances that you’re going to understand it, learn it, remember it? What are the chances that you’ll give up, start mucking about, not paying attention? What are the chances that your brain starts to associate being bored with the process of research, and not just the specific topics?

The article continues,

 … one reason that growing knowledge leads to growing interest is that new information increases the likelihood of conflict – of coming across a fact or idea that doesn’t fit with what we know already. We feel motivated to resolve this conflict, and we do so by learning more … A virtuous cycle is thus initiated: more learning leads to more questions, which in turn leads to more learning.

And I agree, so long as you’re already interested enough in the first place, and not disheartened by the research process.

To me, this is precisely why professionally qualified school librarians are an absolute essential in schools. The pupils are entitled to benefit from the advice and support of a person who understands the research process from start to finish, can seek out appropriate resources that can spark those questions, and work across the curriculum identifying connections.

Above all a person to collaborate with the other educators in the school to provide a collection of material that will fascinate and intrigue, to teach pupils and staff how to seek out reliable information for themselves, how to use it appropriately, and how to create their own, to demonstrate technologies that can achieve their aims in ways they find appealing, and to grab opportunities to maintain that support and advice whether the school is open or not.

Throughout, the article recommends making sure that students

have sufficient background knowledge to stimulate interest and avoid confusion … to cultivate interests that provide us with lasting intellectual stimulation and fulfillment

And a professionally run library is a pretty good place to cultivate those intellectually stimulating interests, and provide the background knowledge, through fiction, non-fiction, websites and DVDs, weekly clubs and annual events, detailed discussions and daft blethering. It saddens me that more people don’t know that, but it’s also part of my job to make sure that more people do.

And incidentally, The Brilliant Report is well named. I thoroughly recommend signing up to the newsletter.