Fires in the Mind

Cultivating, and expanding, student ‘interests’

I received a reflective note about “student interests” from a student teacher named Douglas Hampton, who left an industry job in mid-career, to get a masters degree in teaching. As he gets to know his students this fall, he notices that many have only a limited idea of what the world of work might hold–and that it comes mostly from their environment or the media. “How do you expose students in a meaningful way to all the possible alternatives?” he asked.

For example, I am teaching math and economics and most of the curriculum feels distant to my students. The breadth of the subject is so extensive that teachers are limited in their ability to develop relevant connections to the real world. In geometry, there are a number of professional careers that extensively use this field of knowledge but my students do not appreciate it. Geometry is used by civil engineers, physicists, architects, surveyors, software engineers and graphic artists, but the students do not see the connections. . . . High school should be the place to investigate areas of interest, explore possibilities and develop good work habits. How do I allow my students to have the freedom to generate that spark that will ignite their interests? Math and economics by themselves do not capture the interest of most students.

I like that Douglas is talking about investigation and exploration in the same breath as he mentions “developing good work habits.” In the Practice Project that led to the book Fires in the Mind, students sometimes invited various highly accomplished adults into the classroom, interviewing them about “what it takes to get really good” in their fields. They might not have all wanted to be a top surgeon or auto mechanic, but the answers gave them material that we could then analyze, to think together about what are the common “habits of experts” and how they come about.

On Dan Meyer’s blog, he has another approach: get kids to speculate about the whys and hows of the world around them, using the language of math. He’s always suggesting ways to get kids themselves to puzzle through questions they generate when you bring in interesting photos, video clips, and the like to the classroom. Taking that tack is another fantastic way to get kids thinking about possible future careers. Whether it’s video game design, an election, or a construction project, once you get interested in the math and economics of how something works, you can start to talk about your own future place in that work, and what you might have to know and be able to do in order to take that place some day.

Finally, schools where students go out to do internships in the community are offering one of the most effective ways to broaden and create new learning from their interests. Watching, asking questions, and playing even a tiny role in the “real world” helps kids see first hand the work that goes on there, and how they might fit in. The best internship programs in schools bring students together once or twice weekly in a seminar where they reflect on what they’re seeing in the workplace, relate it to their academic learning, and think through the habits of mind and work that they require.

Do you have any examples to offer of how you cultivate student interests, or expand upon them? I’ll send a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind to the best comments that come in.


2 Responses to “Cultivating, and expanding, student ‘interests’”

  1. Noah W says:

    On my first day as a student teacher, we asked the students to respond in writing to a series of questions including: “where do you want to go to college?” and “what do you want to be when you grow up?”

    A number of the students did not have a strong sense of where they wanted to go or what they wanted to do, but the question still seemed to resonate with them. I started receiving a lot of questions like, “what’s the job called where you….?”

    The students that did have a good sense of their future plans were still interested in questions like, “what’s a good school for…?” and so forth.

    Although the spark seemed to go away once the activity was over, I found that I could still call back on their responses to motivate them later on. When one student – who had expressed a strong interest in attending Georgia Tech – asked me, “why do we have to do this?” with regard to an essay assignment, I was able to remind her, “you’ll have to write an essay to get into Georgia Tech, won’t you?” That seemed to satisfy her concern.

    I recognize that English is probably the field that affords the most flexibility for exploring these questions, but I still think there is a lesson to be learned here for other disciplines as well. The future professional basketball player could be interested in the physics of a jumpshot, while the future police officer should have a good understanding of government.

    As for the student that doesn’t know what they want to do? All the more reason for them to learn anything and everything, so they can be prepared for any path they may choose.

  2. David says:

    I really like this concept of cultivating and expanding student interests. I have been acting as a mentor for the last few months on a FIRST Robotics team at one of the local urban high-needs high schools in the district in which I am student teaching this semester. I can tell that many of the students involved are really learning and practicing skills that they truly enjoy and can help them to find future careers. I had a very similar experience working with students preparing for the metro area science fair – a decent number of students were really engaged in scientific discovery and investigation outside of the school setting. I am now convinced that programs like this offer something to certain groups of students that is not generally available at their home or in their communities.

    My concern is for the remainder of the students who are not participating in enrichment programs such as these. I know that the number of students in programs such as these is vastly outweighed by the number of students who do noting else academic outside of the required school hours – or even within the school hours. In the second chapter of the book, the premise seems to be that relationships and opportunity will help children to “catch the spark”. I see many caring teachers and lots of sparsely-attended after-school activities available at the high-needs urban school where I student teach. I also see hundreds of students who are not motivated academically and who do not see a bright future for themselves – students who have not yet “caught the spark”.

    The perspective of the book seems to be that merely offering the opportunities and establishing the relationships is enough to motivate a student to participate in school. In certain environments, there seem to be enough distractors from school that a certain number of the students will never engage in the school. The teachers and support staff can offer lots of enagageing lessons, after-school opportunities, and links to professionals in the community. This will help many students, and is a very important and valuable thing to do. I don’t believe that doing this perfectly will still spark every student to succeed at school.

    The book perhaps does not claim for this to be a perfect strategy, but it certainly does not discuss any of the failures. I would like to hear some of the interview responses from students who failed at school programs similar to ones outlined in the book. One fault that I have detected with Academia (those who teach and who have college degrees) is that we were the ones who succeeded at school. Some of us have colorful stories (as do many of the students in your book), but we were still able to succeed somehow. Those stories get told, while the stories of those who failed do not get told.

    I am sorry if I seem to be disagreeing with the methods proposed in the book. I do agree with the general ideas and think that the book presents many helpful techniques for engaging students. My primary concern is that we are never going to succeed to the point where every student “catches the spark” and every student succeeds at school. As much as we want to not leave any children behind, I am concerned that there will always be some who do get left behind. At some point the students have to make a choice for themselves to succeed or not to succeed, and some of the students will always choose to not succeed.

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