February 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

The Learning Spark: How Interest Fuels Cognition | Editorial

It’s important to get fresh perspective on essential things. Recently, I’ve reconsidered that element of human experience called interest, thanks to Annie Murphy Paul and Mimi Ito. Murphy Paul is a journalist covering cognitive science and Ito, a cultural anthropologist, is a proponent of the Connected Learning concept, but their ideas both relate to the power of interest, and the impact on kids when it is fostered.

In short, interest isn’t a byproduct of learning. It’s the fuel, Murphy Paul told a riveted audience at the recent SLJ Summit in Austin. “As for its effects on cognition,” she writes in our cover story (“The Science of Interest” ), “interest effectively turbocharges our thinking. When we’re interested in what we’re learning, we pay closer attention; we process the information more efficiently; and we employ more effective learning strategies….” Further, scientists have found that passionate interests can enable students to overcome academic or perceptual difficulties.

Interest is essential to Connected Learning, Ito said in her October 16 keynote at the Digital Shift virtual event sponsored by Library Journal and SLJ. The critical space and the opportunity for libraries, she maintains, is where kids’ academic pursuits, peer culture, and interests interconnect.

When it comes to offering interesting things to children, or allowing them the freedom to explore, to cultivate curiosity on their own, how are we doing? Not too well, as a society, especially among the poor and the underserved. Beyond the digital divide, there’s the growing gap in vocabulary development and its lifelong impact. These are both critical problems to address.

Ito has alerted me to another inequity in our culture: the enrichment gap. She presented a chilling graph that speaks for itself (below). Duncan and Murnane’s data ends at 2006, but it seems likely that the situation is even more extreme now, given the economic downturn and emphasis on standardized testing. As our schools offer fewer and fewer of the supposed extras (physical education, music, dance, etc.), parents have to step into the gap to pay for such activities—not to mention have the luxury of time and attention to facilitate classes and other enrichment opportunities. If we can’t offer things to excite them, we compromise kids’ very ability to effectively develop interests.

Librarians and libraries, Ito and Murphy Paul agree, play a key role in addressing the problem, being what Murphy Paul refers to as “interest-evokers.” They occupy that space where informal and formal learning meet—and know how to engage young minds.

This isn’t just for kids, either, says Poppy Johnson, a public librarian friend of mine. The ability to engage in and to effectively pursue an interest fuels learning that can enrich and sustain us throughout our lives. The spark can just keep burning.

Rebecca T. Miller

This article was published in School Library Journal's November 2013 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller (rmiller@mediasourceinc.com) is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.