Interest Versus Effort (page 2)
Maria's teacher assigns a chapter on the human digestive system from a biology book. The material is difficult and, for Maria, boring. Maria particularly dislikes memorizing the many technical terms in the chapter. In spite of her boredom, Maria works hard. Each day she sits diligently in class and fills out worksheets covering the material in the book, and each evening she studies the chapter so that she will pass the test she will have to take.
In contrast, Yukari is working on a project she developed herself out of her personal interest in dieting and nutrition. She is curious about why some people are overweight and others are slim. She wants to know how the human digestive system works so that she can figure out how what one eats affects one's weight. In her search for relevant information, she consults many sources, including a chapter on the human digestive system from a biology book. Like Maria, she reads the chapter about how the human digestive system works, but her learning is motivated by an interest in understanding dieting and nutrition. She seeks out information that is relevant to her project, as if she were on some sort of treasure hunt. In short, Maria learns through effort, whereas Yukari learns through interest.
Who will learn more effectively and more deeply? Which form of learning is better—learning based on effort or learning based on interest? Nearly a century ago, the great educational philosopher John Dewey addressed this issue in his little classic, Interest and Effort in Education (Dewey, 1913). According to Dewey, the interest-based learning of Yukari is more beneficial than the effort-based learning of Maria. Dewey argues that "the great fallacy of the so-called effort theory is that" it equates "certain external activities" with "the exercise and training of mind" (p. 7). Thus, although Maria engages in learning-like behaviors, such behavior does not guarantee that she is actually learning much.
Dewey (1913) clearly distinguished between two litigants in what he called "the educational lawsuit of interest versus effort" (p. 1). The justification for an effort-based approach to schooling is that "life is full of things not interesting that have to be faced" (p. 3), so teachers should not spoil the student by creating a situation in which "everything is made play, amusement...everything is sugar coated for the child" (p. 4). "Life is not merely...a continual satisfaction of personal interests," so students need "training in devoting [themselves] to uninteresting work" (pp. 3-4). To do otherwise "eats out the fiber of character" and creates a "spoiled child who does only what he likes" (pp. 4-5).
In contrast, the case for interest is that willing attention is more effective for learning than forced effort. Interest causes students to pay attention and actively learn: "If we can secure interest in a given set of facts or ideas we may be perfectly sure that the pupil will direct his energies toward mastering them" (Dewey, 1913, p. 1). Dewey argues that "it is absurd to suppose that a child gets more intellectual or mental discipline when he goes at a matter unwillingly than when he goes out of the fullness of his heart" (pp. 1-2). The effort-based approach to school results in a "character dull, mechanical, unalert, because the vital juice of spontaneous interest has been squeezed out" (p. 3). The educational implications are clear:
The debate about effort versus interest has important educational implications: Our whole policy of compulsory education rises or falls with our ability to make school life an interesting and absorbing experience to the child. In one sense there is no such thing as compulsory education. We can have compulsory physical attendance at school; but education comes only through willing attention to and participation in school activities. It follows that the teacher must select these activities with reference to the child's interests, powers, and capabilities. (p. ix)
In short, Dewey emphasizes the need to ensure that the student is cognitively active—rather than only physically active—during learning.
Regrettably Dewey's essay, although emphasizing the importance of interest in learning, is based solely on logical arguments rather than psychological theory and empirical research. What is interest, and how does it motivate students to learn? Although researchers have begun to make modest progress since Dewey's day, there is still a lack of agreement on how to answer these questions (Renninger, Hidi, &: Krapp, 1992) An important first step involves a distinction between two types of interest—individual interest and situational interest. Individual interest is a characteristic of the person and is based on a person's dispositions or preferred activities; situational interest is a characteristic of the environment such as the task's interestingness. In both cases, however, interest arises out of the interaction between the person and the situation.
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