Updated: Nov 24, 2020
In a recent survey conducted by ICSL, over 95% of school leaders rated "Developing Interests in Students" as one of their major challenges. The depleting levels of interest are observed in schools of all profiles situated across geographies, especially among older students.
This trend has a serious impact not only on the performance of students but also on the performance of teachers and the overall learning culture and environment of the school. Students not interested in learning often engage in non-meaningful activities both in school and at home. Parents too frequently voice their concern about their children not being interested in learning. And, rightly so, they expect schools to solve this problem.
Before going any further, I want to emphasize, that the scope of depleting interests is not restricted to academic subjects only. The number of students with interests in sports, arts, dramatics, music, and hobbies is also moving south. Students spend a significant amount of time on social media (Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, etc), mobile games, or media streaming services like Netflix or Amazon Prime.
It has become crucial for schools to implement strategies that build students' interests in learning.
It is more likely for a strategy to succeed if it has roots in scientific research-based arguments rather than it being based on an individual's intuition and personal bias. In this article, I plan to share:
research into how a person develops interests,
examples from my own life as a student and a teacher,
some strategic steps that schools can implement.
Psychology is one of my interests that I developed during the summer of 1993 at Tulane University while pursuing my doctorate in mathematics. At that time, I was curious to know why certain students in my calculus class were more motivated than others. I went to the library to find a good book that could provide some answers. This is how I discovered that Motivation theory was a major branch of psychology and hundreds of books had been written on the subject. I spent the next few days browsing through several books in an attempt to find a book that I could easily understand. I guess I was searching for "The Beginner's Guide to Motivation Theory". I don't recall the first book I read or any of the subsequent books I read. I do remember how my interest in motivation theory increased gradually and prompted me to learn more about it. At the end of the three-month summer, I developed the required understanding of how I could motivate more students to study mathematics. I read about the types of human motivation and how these were linked to Maslow's hierarchy of needs.
Take a minute to reflect on what your interests are and how did you develop those interests.
Research shows that there are three steps involved in the development of interests:
Step 1: Students experience INTEREST in an activity or an object
Step 2: Magnification of INTEREST
Step 3: Development of INTERESTS
Before elaborating on each step, we need to understand the difference between INTEREST and INTERESTS.
Channel-surfing is the act of flipping through various channels to find a program that catches your interest. Similarly, window-shopping is the act of glancing through the show windows of stores in a market or a mall until you see a product or a sign that ignites an interest in you. You go to a party where some people are praising a newly released movie. Even though you have not seen any trailer, song, or poster of the movie, you feel like watching it. It is not surprising to find people who would want to go to the USA because they have heard of the experiences of their friends or family members. Silvia  defines:
INTEREST is a positive feeling, mood, or attitude that lasts for a small duration and motivates you.
While channel-surfing you may stop at a particular channel to see a program that generated your interest. While window-shopping, you may want to enquire about the price of the product that you found attractive. At the party, you may feel like finding out if any theatre near your house was playing the movie that everyone was talking about. And, after hearing all the stories about life in the USA, you may try to find information on how to get a VISA. In all these cases, your INTEREST is motivating you to take some action.
All of us, experience INTEREST in various objects, events, or activities several times a day. INTEREST cultivates knowledge and diversifies experience at all stages of life. It may last for as short as a few minutes or as long as a few days. A little later, we will learn how INTEREST is generated?
Some of my INTERESTS are mathematics, psychology, spirituality, school education, entrepreneurship, teaching, research, and writing. These INTERESTS are a part of my personality. And, when engaged in these acts, I experience positive emotions. In comparison, I dislike shopping, crowded places, and travelling. I would engage in these only when it's necessary and while doing so, I have to make an effort of staying calm.
INTERESTS, according to Silvia  are one of the products of emotional interest. They are one of the aspects of a person's personality. These enduring intrinsic motives lend meaning and frivolity to personality while covertly building skills and expertise.
Not everything that generates INTEREST transforms into INTERESTS.
How does the discussion so far relate to our students and their education? During any school day, a student may find several things "interesting". This may be a person, a conversation with friends, a story, a joke, an incident, a poster on the wall, a song sung in the morning assembly, a particular problem in the maths class, a story in the English class, an anecdote shared by the History teacher, a sporting activity during the games period, a flower in the school garden, etc. But, not all of these will transform into the student's INTERESTS that will become an aspect of his/her life and motivate the continuous development of knowledge, skills, and expertise.
The challenge we face is to figure out ways to develop INTERESTS in students. This brings our focus to the three steps I mentioned earlier.
Helping Students Experience the Emotion of Interest
According to Berger [1963, 1967], INTEREST in an object, person, or activity can be induced by the ideas, attitudes, and roles of the society of the student. This is a way for students to become 'socially accepted". The social construct of a student consists of his/her family, peers, cousins, relatives, or neighbours. Younger students tend to be more influenced by their parents and siblings. As they get older, peer influence becomes stronger.
About 20 years back, I recall meeting the father of a class 6 student. He was complaining that his daughter showed no interest in reading books. She was only interested in watching television. I asked him if his daughter ever saw him or his wife reading a book at home or talking about how much they enjoyed reading a particular book. He was honest in sharing that both he and his wife did not find the time to read books. But, he wanted his daughter to read books because that was important for her to get a good education.
Schools must make parents of young students aware of how their "objects of interest" may induce interest in their children.
At an approximate age of 12 years, children tend to get more influenced by their friends and peers than their parents. This translation of influence is more common in urban cities. During these years, they would feel interested in activities, objects, or people that their friends find interesting. Most of the middle school students in your school would sign up for any activity in which the 'cool' students were participating. To try this in your school, you need to identify the students in each class or section who are popular and 'cool'. If they decide to participate in a 'mental math quiz', you will see a lot more students getting interested in that activity.
INTEREST can also be experienced as a result of cultivating competence, self-determination, and relatedness [Deci & Ryan, 1985; Deci, 1992]. Let us understand what this means and how we can use this in our school.
Some students would have created their growth and development goals. Maybe they want to become a singer, scientist, horticulturist, a newsreader, or a painter. They would find any activity interesting if it helps them to achieve their goals.
This poses a big challenge for teachers. To generate the interest of students in their subject they will need to establish how the knowledge, skills, and competencies developed through studying the subject can benefit a broad range of development goals. Without establishing this co-relation, it will be tough to generate interest in most students.
School curriculums are created to prepare students for a wide variety of careers and professions. Each subject taught in schools has a relation to almost anything that a child may want to do in life. Some of these relations may be more obvious than others. For example, the importance of learning mathematics may be obvious for becoming an engineer, data analyst, forensic expert, or a banker. But, why should a student who wishes to be a lawyer or a judge learn mathematics? Well, both lawyers and judges must possess the skill of deductive reasoning to draw inferences from the evidence associated with a case. And, deductive reasoning is one of the core mathematical skills developed by studying school mathematics. Similarly, students who aspire to be painters must be explained how mathematics could help them develop proportional thinking, a skill that is essential for painters.
Teachers must identify ALL the skills and competencies that are developed by studying their subjects and relate these with the growth and development goals of students.
It is quite common for students to idealize sportspersons, actors, or musicians. A few students may also idealize philosophers, social activists, or national leaders. Such individuals are usually the "significant" members of society. Sometimes, students do not idealize a person but a group of individuals who exhibit a common trait, such as mountaineers, social workers, photographers, or authors. Research by Mead  and Shibutani , suggests that students can experience INTEREST in activities if they feel that the "individual" or the "reference group" they idealize would engage in these activities.
Schools, and teachers, must become aware of "individuals" and "groups" that students idealize. Such individuals or representatives of such groups should be invited to the school to interact with students and share the knowledge, skills, and competencies they use in their lives. For example, if a social activist engaged in creating awareness about climate change speaks to students in the "environment club" of the school on how physics, chemistry, geography, history, or mathematics make him/her understand the issues related to climate change, it is more likely that these students will develop an interest towards such subjects.
A boy of class 10th had a crush on a Sikh girl who used to regularly visit the local Gurudwara on Sunday with her father. The boy would also go to the Gurudwara and engage in various Kar-Sewa activities, including cooking chapatis for langar, serving langar, and looking after the shoes of devotees. These activities, especially cooking the chapatis, required a lot of hard work and exposure to heat. Yet, he found Kar-Sewa interesting because he thought that this was the 'easiest' way to impress the girl and her father. This is an example of how "Cognitive Dissonance Theory" transforms an otherwise indifferent or repellant activity into an "interesting" activity.
According to Dewey , "anything indifferent or repellent becomes of interest when seen as a means to an end already commanding attention". For example, students are always interested in field trips, summer tours, or camping. If certain learning activities are the qualifying criteria for such trips, students will find these activities interesting.
Earlier, I had shared how my 'curiosity' generated my interest in Motivational Psychology. In fact, curiosity is one of the major inducers of interest. In fact, it is said that "a curious mind never ceases to learn." If teachers can generate curiosity in students, they can get them interested in various learning activities. So, let us look at how curiosity can be induced.
According to Berlyne's  classical analysis of curiosity, small "conflicts" between the existing and new create curiosity. If the conflict (or deviation) between the known and the unknown is large, it creates fear instead of curiosity.
Teachers must be skilled at creating small conflicts in the minds of students to fuel their curiosity.
There are four ways to create conflict. Berlyne calls these "collating variables" as they collate incoming perceptual inputs against existing information. These are:
Let's understand these variables and see how we can use them to create curiosity in students.
Novelty, as defined by Berlyne, is the conflict between present and past experiences and expectations. Teachers who present something 'new' and 'unexpected' in each of their interactions with students will be able to generate interest among students. Predictable lessons, both in terms of structure and content, are boring and will result in diminishing interest. Thus, while planning lessons, teachers must add something that is slightly but visibly different from previous lessons.
Complexity refers to the conflict caused by the perceptions and interpretations of the whole complex as well as the various part-whole relationships. Let me explain this a bit more. Suppose I am teaching triangles to middle school students. Now, triangles are a part of rectilinear shapes, which are a part of geometry, which is a part of mathematics. Studying triangles, helps me also learn a lot about other rectilinear shapes, as all such shapes can be triangulated. Now, students may think that triangles and hexagons have nothing in common, till I show them how these may be related. And, how studying triangles can help us learn about hexagons as well. Similarly, I would need to establish a relationship between triangles and geometry or mathematics as a whole. When students look at an activity as being part of a complex whole that they do not understand, curiosity builds up. And, that curiosity generates interest.
Uncertainty causes conflict in the mind when incomplete and ambiguous information creates doubt regarding actions that are incompatible with each other. When students can not determine with certainty their next actions, they get curious and want to find out what is the right thing to do. For example, in mathematics, when students get stuck while solving a problem, due to partial or ambiguous information, they get interested to learn. Thus, challenging problems act as an aid to generate curiosity and develop an interest in the problem.
Conflict also arises as a result of conflicting possibilities, each of which results from existing knowledge and understanding. For example, in mathematics, there are usually multiple ways to solve problems. The existence of these multiple ways (all of which may be mathematically sound) creates conflict, which induces curiosity, and thus develops interest. Thus, it is a bad pedagogical approach to expect students to follow a unique prescribed way of solving a problem in mathematics.
Magnification is the Key to Developing Interests
Every activity that creates an emotion of interest in us does not end up transforming into our interests. In this part, we will look at how INTEREST gets transformed into INTERESTS through the magnification process.
According to some earlier theories [ William McDougall (1908/1960), Shand (1914)], the human instinct of curiosity creates the emotion of "wonder". Both curiosity and wonder together generate interest, which is developed into INTERESTS by simple repetition. This theory would aptly explain how the intrinsic instinct of curiosity in a student can develop his interests. This is how Ramanujan, the legendary mathematician would have developed interests in number theory. As teachers, we may often come across students who are extremely curious about a subject. If we are able to constructively nurture their curiosity, they will end up developing interests in that subject.
But, most of the students we encounter exhibit low levels of curiosity towards learning the curriculum subjects. How can we develop their interests in Mathematics, Physics, English, or Music?
The most detailed model of magnification is Silvan Tomkins's [1976, 1979, 1987, 1991] "script theory" of personality. Script theory is concerned with how immediate emotional experiences (INTEREST) develop (and fail to develop) into integrated guiding motives and ideas (INTERESTS). According to this theory, every emotional experience of a person is a 'scene' of life. Some scenes (emotional experiences) exist as disjoint experiences while others get connected to previous scenes. Some disjoint scenes are extremely powerful and intense, while others are not.
A 'script' is a series of emotional experiences that have a motivational effect. Sometimes, an independent extremely powerful and intense scene may itself become a script. However, most often, several scenes that generate similar emotions combine to create a script.
Magnification is the cognitive process through which scenes attach to each other for creating scripts.
As a class 10 student, I used to enjoy proving trigonometric identities. They were like puzzles, where I was expected to play around with the trigonometric expression to the left of the equality sign (the LHS) and generate the trigonometric expression to the right of the equality sign (RHS). Throughout my engagement with the LHS, I knew that it can be written as the RHS. I just had to figure out the fastest way to do it. This was just like a Rubik cube. You knew it could be fixed, and the challenge was to find the fastest way to do it.
After I managed to prove all the trigonometric identities in the NCERT textbook, my craving to play this game was still there. That is when I picked the book by S. L. Loney. And, without bothering whether the identity was expected to come in the Board exam, I just went ahead and began solving all the problems it had. Let me tell you, it was a lot of fun. In fact, every time I cracked one of those identities in time, I felt very happy.
In my case, the happiness experienced in solving one identity was a 'scene', and the combination of all such scenes became the script, that motivated me to crack more identities.
L. Carlson & Carlson  state that positive and negative emotions are magnified in slightly different ways. Positive affects, such as joy and interest, are magnified when they represent SMALL deviations from a core idea or theme. In my case, each trigonometric identity was slightly different from the ones I had solved previously. This deviation caused the script to develop. Negative emotions, such as anger, fear, shame, disgust get magnified through the construction of analogs that represent thematic unity. Magnification of fear into math phobia is extremely common in school students. The script of math phobia is so strong that the student would do 'anything possible' to avoid interacting with mathematics for a long part of his/her life, even after school.
Prenzel's  theory of interest development explains why a person seeks to repeatedly engage in activities that generate interest.
During an activity, a person may experience cognitive conflict if the activity violates aspects of existing knowledge, create uncertainties, pose novelties, or remain complex and not fully understood. This conflict motivates the second engagement with the activity. In the second encounter, if a new conflict is created, a third engagement will occur. If no new conflict is created, the engagements would stop.
Two factors increase the likelihood of repeated cognitive conflicts, and thus, repeated engagement with the activity.
The first factor is the person's knowledge level. People with richer, more detailed knowledge have more raw material for conflict to occur. The second factor is that activity (or object) of engagement must possess the scope of producing cognitive conflict. For example, concrete ideas, activities, or objects have a lower scope of causing on-going cognitive conflict as compared to abstract or broad level activities, ideas or objects.
Teachers can use 'Rich Tasks" to generate repeated interest in students. Rich tasks are those that have very low entry barriers but a very high ceiling of performance. As the student moves to the next level of engagement, the task becomes more challenging. And, this gradual increase in the cognitive demand of the task creates the required cognitive conflict.
Strategies to Develop Interests
Now, it's time to identify some strategies that teachers can use to help students experience interest and magnify these experiences to develop interests. These strategies are broad and teachers may need to tweak them to make them subject-specific and age-appropriate.
1. Positive teacher-student relationships
Students interact with teachers before they interact with the subject matter knowledge. If the teacher's outlook, attitude, or behaviour generates negative emotions (fear, anxiety, shame, disgust, etc) in students, it is impossible for students to be interested in any activity that the teacher suggests.
2. Address existing curiosities of students
Curiosity is the human instinct that generates interest. Teachers must use students' existing curiosities to generate interest in their subjects. Language teachers must choose writing assignments or topics of debate that address the existing curiosities of students. Similarly, music teachers should help students learn to play or sing music that students would find interesting.
3. Actively promote and nurture interest clubs
We have seen how social constructs help to develop interests. Though most schools offer interest clubs, they fail to use these clubs to the fullest potential. First, it is important for the school to offer clubs for all subjects and activities such as the Horticulture club, Philanthropy club, Engineer's Club, Dance club, Mathematics club, or Sanskrit Club. Second, these clubs should be run by student councils with members from different grades. They should also be given the responsibility of choosing their teacher mentor. Third, the school should enable students to nurture these clubs to organize different activities, events, and programs for members, non-members, parents, and teachers.
4. Identify the key skills and competencies for each subject
Mathematics is not restricted to learning about integers, triangles, or differentiation. Through these topics, students get to develop certain key skills and competencies that they can use in all aspects of their lives. At the core of studying mathematics is the development of mathematical thinking. Similarly, language is important to develop communication skills. Reading, writing, speaking, listening are activities that help improve communication skills. Painting teaches students to innovate, think creatively and a sense of abstractness. Teachers need to generate students' curiosity in these core skills and competencies to be able to regularly generate their interest in various activities. Teachers must develop a deeper understanding of their subjects that goes beyond the topics in the syllabi or the examination patterns.
5. Deliver amazing lessons consistently
Amitab Bachchan has been credited for making "Kaun Banega Crorepati" as one of the most popular TV shows of our times across people of all age groups from rural to urban India. How did he do that? AB makes every episode of KBC amazing with the content between questions (the core content of the show) and his behaviour. In every episode, there is something that wonders you. If teachers plan every lecture, demonstration, or activity with students like AB, they will be able to generate interest in students. This requires teachers to plan each interaction with students in detail. The beginning and end of the class are extremely crucial. The beginning makes you draw student interest in the content for that lecture and the end gives them a reason to look forward to the next lecture.
6. Challenge their cognition
Challenges breed curiosity. In fact, learning can never happen if we only focus on making education easy for children. The curriculum, content, learning processes and assessment must provide students with the right amount of challenging situations. Spoon-feeding may result in boosting their performance in exams with the least amount of effort, but in the long run, it will prove to be detrimental in developing their interests in the subject.
7. Educate parents
Schools need to educate parents on the process of how interests are developed because of two reasons. First, they must learn to appreciate and nurture the curiosity instinct of their child at home. If parents do not provide the right environment to the child at home, it is highly likely that the child will attend school with the same mindset. Children cannot be expected to switch their curiosity button only in the school. Second, parents can help reduce the effort of the teachers and the schools by supporting the initiatives taken by the school.
8. Create and fuel the cognitive conflict consistently
Teachers must learn how to progress through the curriculum in a manner that creates and fuels the right amount of conflict in the child's mind on a consistent basis. This conflict can arise because of any one or more of the collative variables discussed above.
Silvia, P. J. (2001). Interest and interests: The psychology of constructive capriciousness. Review of General Psychology, 5, 270-290. Click To Download
About the Author
Dr. Atul Nischal is the Founder of the International Council for School Leadership (ICSL) and serves as the Program Director of ReSET, the 3 week online certificate program for educators.
ICSL is a not-for-profit organization on a mission to inspire, empower, and enable school leaders and educators. You can support us by becoming a member, participating in our programs (Friday@5, ReSET), and spreading the word amongst all educators in your network. Your support is very critical for our mission.