There are a few things we know for sure about individuals who perform really well in school, get really good at a sport, or become highly skilled musicians or artists. And if you think one of those things involves having a special gift, an innate talent, or an especially high IQ, you’d be wrong. The latest science suggests that the following concepts and questions factor heavily into whether a student builds skill and ultimately performs well in any given academic, athletic, or artistic domain:
- Do they have a growth mindset? That is, do they believe their brain is like a muscle that grows with effort? Do they then exert that effort as result?
- Do they demonstrate grit? Do they have goals that they are passionate about and they then put forth sustained effort to achieve?
- Do they engage in deliberate practice? Meaning, do they engage in focused practice sessions, pushing themselves out of their comfort zone, and getting real-time expert feedback to increase the pace of learning and development?
If you want to unlock the secret to getting your student or yourself to rapidly build skill and achieve success in multiple areas of life, these are extremely important concepts. But in reading a lot about them over the last ten years, it struck me that there was one mysterious underlying ingredient was necessary for the implementation of any of these ideas. That Ingredion was interest in a topic and the motivation to learn more and engage with it.
Why is being genuinely interested in a topic so important in understanding academic and other types of performance?
I think a silly, extreme example can illustrate the point. I love ice hockey. I’ve played competitively all of my life and I have a pretty high skill level. Why do I have friends who can’t even skate? Do they lack a growth mindset, grit, or the ability to practice skating, stickhandling, and shooting the right way? Of course not. These friends just never got interested in ice hockey, and therefore had no motivation to learn anything about it. But what if they had been exposed to the sport at an early age and watched it on TV, or better yet, gone to games to see their older siblings play the game? You might imagine this would make a big difference.
In this case, you can see how such a simple concept like interest in something can be so important. I believe that a lot of times, when parents and students think about school, they neglect the importance of finding ways to be interested in a topic as a first step to being able to demonstrate grit and engage in the right type of deliberate practice to do well in the class. Instead, they assume that, well, getting good grades is important. There’s no reason to think more deeply about the topic of school than that. You must get good grades to go to college. It’s an open and shut case. But if you are sitting in class and you truly aren’t interested in the topic, but the kid next to you is, you are at a severe disadvantage. They’ll be deeply engaged in the discussion, while you are having trouble paying attention.
Is there anything that can be done to address the issue of student interest and motivation?
What are some creative ways to increase interest and motivation in academic topics?
Let’s move beyond the obviously motivation of grades help you get into a great college. That’s a powerful motivator for sure. But if you actually care about a topic intrinsically, that’s going to be even better. I don’t profess to have a magic bullet but here are some creative ways to increase interest and motivation in various academic topics.
Watch TV with a little intentionality.
If you are in high school or college and taking a politics, history, or business class, and finding yourself bored, consider watching TV, but with a twist. Spending 30 minutes watching CNN can pique one’s interest in politics. The history channel has some legitimately entertaining shows likely to create at least some motivation to learn more about history, and one can easily see how a show like Shark Tank has the potential to get a person interested in entrepreneurship and business more generally. Or, consider NetFlix documentaries like The Crown. That is an engrossing show that has the potential to spark interest in British history. NetFlix has a variety of other documentaries on individuals from all facets of life, with the potential to create interest in a wide range of topics, from the sciences to art.
Listen to podcasts.
There are podcasts about a variety of topics that are seriously entertaining. A high school or college student that listens to the History of Rome or the Revolutions Podcast by Mike Duncan will almost certainly be both entertained, learn some serious history, and be more likely to show an interest in history or politics. The Freakonomics podcast might be a great way to introduce yourself or someone you care about to the power of economics thinking and models. The Planet Money and/or Motley Fool podcasts are surefire ways to generate interest in finance, business, and the broader economy.
Read historical fiction.
Historical fiction novels are another interesting way to fuse entertainment with actual learning in a way that might spark interest and motivation to learn more. My favorite historical fiction authors are James Michenor and Ken Follet. These novels mix real historical events with engaging stories and fictional characters that generally support and related to actual historical events. In the books by these particular authors, you end up learning so much about the history, politics, and even the economics of the setting, that you might as well be in school. But the stories are highly entertaining as well, so it does not feel like an academic endeavor.
Teach yourself, or your kids, block coding.
Math and science can be a hard nut to crack. You can read a biography or watch a documentary about Albert Einstein, and that might be interesting. But will that get you interested in your mathematics class? Well, maybe. know the world of new technologies revolves around high-quality STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). One way to spark more general interest in math and science indirectly is to focus on coding.
Why coding? Well, regardless of language, every modern machine, device, vehicle, and mechanical structure runs based on a set of instructions (aka, the code) that lets them know what to do. Even cutting edge Artificial Intelligence systems need written instructions to understand how the world works.
Coding is at the heart of the modern world and is an extremely valuable skill. While not everyone can master this skill, it helps to expose kids, or yourself to it. There are actually a wide array of kid-oriented coding platforms and apps.
If you’ve ever seen written code, you know it looks like a long string of letters, numbers, and symbols that don’t seem to have an end or a beginning. This is what specialists call text-based coding, where the programmer needs to write each line and test if everything holds together.
However, this can be somewhat boring, especially for younger kids. That’s why a few specialists got together and invented block coding. This is a platform where the users play with blocks of code (usually shaped like actual blocks) and use drag and drop to place them on a canvas.
A great program that uses this technology is Scratch, but there are other platforms to use a similar approach. To pique kids’ interest, block coding uses colorful and lively shapes (for the blocks of code) that teach them how the code works.
It’s hard to build skill in any domain, or perform well in any course, if you just aren’t interested in the material. Sometimes, the general motivation to get a good grade so you can get into an excellent college is enough. But in many cases, even kids who are influenced by that general motivation still struggle in courses that just don’t spark their passion. Perhaps the above ideas aren’t perfect. But the general notion of finding creative ways to spark your or your child’s interest in a subject is almost certainly worth thinking deeply about.