The Pain of Piano Lessons: Can You Force Kids to Develop Interests?

Personal interests don't have to arise "naturally" but are often triggered by external events

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In recent years researchers have begun to build a science of interest, investigating what interest is, how interest develops, what makes things interesting, and how we can cultivate interest in ourselves and others. Interest has the power to transform struggling performers, and to lift high achievers to a new plane.

Interest is a psychological state of engagement, experienced in the moment, and also a predisposition to engage repeatedly with particular ideas, events or objects over time. Paul Silvia of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro speculates that interest acts as an “approach urge” that pushes back against the “avoid urges” that would keep us in the realm of the safe and familiar. Interest pulls us toward the new, the edgy, the exotic. As Silvia puts it, interest “diversifies experience.” But interest also focuses experience. In a world too full of information, interests usefully narrow our choices: they lead us to pay attention to this and not to that.

Interest is a powerful motivator. In fact, scientists have shown that passionate interests can even allow people to overcome academic difficulties or perceptual disabilities. One study found that students who scored poorly on achievement tests but had well-developed interests in reading or mathematics were more likely to engage with the meaning of textual passages or math problems than were peers with high scores but no such interests. Another study, of prominent academics and Nobel laureates who struggled with dyslexia, found that they were able to persist in their efforts to read because they were motivated to explore an early and ardent interest.

Does interest have to arise naturally in children? Some educators have questions or qualms about meddling in what they feel should be a natural, organic and student-led process. But it is possible to elicit interest that didn’t exist before. As researcher Suzanne Hidi notes, “Teachers often think that students either have, or do not have, interest, and might not recognize that they could make a significant contribution to the development of students’ academic interest.”

In fact, research suggests that well-developed personal interests always begin with an external “trigger” — seeing a play, reading a book, hearing someone talk — and that well-designed environments can make such a triggering more likely.

(MORE: The Key to Smarter Kids: Talk to Them)

Some argue that students’ interests should emerge organically and authentically from their own investigations of the world. The educational philosopher John Dewey warned teachers against artificially “making things interesting,” and a long line of research has shown that providing “extrinsic,” or external, rewards for an activity can undermine students’ “intrinsic,” or internal, motivation to engage in that activity.

But research also shows that, done carefully, the deliberate elicitation of interest has many positive effects, and does not produce the negative results that educators may fear. Especially for academically unmotivated students, it’s imperative that the adults in their lives create environments that allow them to find and develop their interests. And parents and educators can promote the development of kids’ interests by demonstrating their own passion for particular subjects. A study of 257 professional musicians, for example, found that the most important characteristics of the musicians’ first teachers (and, of course, parents are often kids’ first teachers) was the ability to communicate well — to be friendly, chatty and encouraging — and the ability to pass on their own love of music, through modeling and playing well.

(MORE: Overpracticing Makes Perfect)

Two more thoughts on intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation: although research has convincingly established the value of intrinsic interest, in the real world most of us are driven by a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. High-achieving students learn for learning’s sake, but also to get A’s; successful businesspeople are driven to create useful products or productive organizations, but also to enjoy financial rewards. There’s nothing wrong with this mingling of motives.

Second, when intrinsic motivation is entirely absent, there’s nothing to undermine with an external incentive. Parents and teachers are sometimes reluctant to offer a reward to a young person for doing something he or she “should” like for its own sake — a monetary bonus for reading a book, for example. But if the kid shows no interest in reading the book in the first place, there’s no intrinsic motivation to undercut. And if the student does read the book in order to get the money — and discovers that reading is actually pretty fun — that’s a win for everybody.

In short, while motivation is more complex than we sometimes assume, there is clearly a role for parents and educators to nudge young people’s interests along.

This article is from the Brilliant Report, a weekly newsletter written by Annie Murphy Paul.