The Spark of Lifelong Learning

Annie Murphy Paul in the School Library Journal article “The Science of Interest” has identified a “force” that teachers can use to their advantage while working with students in the classroom.  As researcher Joseph Mazer states, “Teachers can utilize explanatory summaries to highlight relationships among lecture content, use clear transitions to help students follow the lesson content, and implement visual materials to make abstract and unengaging material concrete and stimulating—building cognitive interest.”  He also found that students who are emotionally and cognitively interested in a course are more likely to be engaged in the learning process.

Please enjoy reading The Spark of Lifelong Learning”

“Scientists have recently made a remarkable discovery,” says author/journalist Annie Murphy Paul in this article in School Library Journal. “They have identified a force, commonly found in classrooms and libraries, that makes people think more clearly, understand more deeply, and remember more accurately. This force has the power to transform struggling students, and to lift high-achieving students to a new plane.” What is it? Interest! In Dewey’s words 100 years ago, it means “being engaged, engrossed, or entirely taken up” with something. “Interest pulls us toward the new, the edgy, the exotic,” says Paul. “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 also makes us better learners. We pay closer attention, think more critically, use self-monitoring strategies, make stronger connections between old and new knowledge, look below the surface, work harder, remember more clearly, and persist longer. Interest can even help students overcome academic difficulties and perceptual disabilities.

But the sad news is that students’ level of interest declines steadily through school, bottoming out in early high school – just as they are called upon to make some crucial life decisions. Is it possible to spark interest in the surly adolescent? Definitely, says Paul. Research tells us that interest “always begins with an external ‘trigger,’ and that well-designed environments can make such a triggering more likely.” But should parents and educators be giving kids something that ideally should come from within? We shouldn’t spoon-feed them, says Paul, or depend on extrinsic rewards. Rather, the role of wise teachers and librarians is to skillfully elicit interest by exposing children to a wide variety of subject matter that’s novel, complex, and comprehensible, hooking them by linking prior knowledge to challenging new material. “A virtuous cycle is thus initiated,” says Paul: “more learning leads to more questions, which in turn leads to more learning.” A key factor is teachers’ and librarians’ own passion for particular subjects, communicated in a friendly, chatty, encouraging way.

pencils and hands

Once captured, what leads students to maintain a new interest? One thing not to do is tell students how useful and important it will be in their adult lives. A better approach, says Paul, is to encourage kids “to generate their own connections and discover for themselves the relevance of academic subject matter to their lives.” It’s also important to build students’ feelings of competence and self-efficacy, which will help them sustain their attention and motivation when they come across challenging or confusing material. Paul describes how Suzanne Hidi of the University of Toronto “jigsawed” a museum visit, telling each student to become an expert in a particular exhibit and then use what they learned to help the class complete a collaborative challenge. Librarians can use this approach with the library’s resources. “The goal in each case,” concludes Paul, “is to produce young adults with interests that provide them with lasting intellectual stimulation and fulfillment, interests that they pursue over a lifetime with vigor and zest.”

“The Science of Interest” by Annie Murphy Paul in School Library Journal, November 2013 (Vol. 59, #11, p. 24-27),

Paul can be reached at

Donald Kavanagh

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