Recently, I wrote a blog post on the interest development theory of human motivation. This theory is particularly interesting, because it puts most of its stress on the role interest plays in creating and sustaining motivation. But it does not seem to be a well-known theory (especially compared to the much more popular self-determination theory). One possible reason for that may be that when teachers, coaches, and others learn about theories of motivation, there is a belief that one should focus on factors you (the teacher or coach) can affect, like how much autonomy you give students, or what kind of incentives you use. By contrast, many people believe that interest in fixed: you either have it or you don’t; since it can’t be created, people may fear that focusing on interest as a motivator means that you focus on something you can’t affect in students.
Proponents of interest development theory seem to want to change that. Some, like Hidi and Renninger, suggest that interest can actually be affected by teachers, and that it isn’t as simple as “students have it or they don’t.” They suggest the “have it or you don’t” misconceptions “owe their origin to vocational interest research that shows the stability of existing interests.” In other words, some studies show that if John is interested in pastel painting this year, it is almost certain that he retains an interest next year and does not suddenly “switch” his interest to jazz drumming. But, as they point out, these studies don’t track how interests were either created or discovered.
Another contributor to the “you have it or you don’t” idea is that many studies show that “both the affective and cognitive components of interest have biological roots.” When we think biology, we think “fixed.” But other studies show that “interest is the outcome of an interaction between a person and a particular content.” That means that the potential for interest may be in the person, but the development of interest is contextual and often depends on factors outside the person.
So can interest be created, or is it fixed? When one develops an interest, was that interest created or was it discovered? (more…)
In a course I teach on theories of learning and motivation (and how assessment relates to each), I have my students go over several theories of human motivation – from expectancy value theory to the currently popular self-determination theory. A recent discussion with a colleague who specializes in academic motivation, Dr. Jessica Chittum, who told me about a theory I’d never heard of before: interest development theory. It is a theory that, unlike others, puts the idea that interest is a determining factor of motivation seriously. Interestingly, its proponents also seem to suggest that interest is something malleable, rather than fixed – that interest can be created.
After further research, I decided I want to give my class some info on the theory. Only problem is that unlike some other seemingly more publicized/established theories of motivation, there doesn’t seem to exist a good accessible summary. So, I wrote one. I am no expert on theories of motivation, but hopefully, this will help people who are searching for some information on the interest development theory of motivation.
There are many theories about what motivates people and what motivation consists of. But few of those theories put the concept of interest at their center. That seems odd, because when we think about what motivates us, what it takes to motivate us will look different depending on our interest level in that thing. Motivating you to pay attention to your favorite hobby probably involves different techniques than motivating you to pay attention to a fantastically boring lecture. Why? Well, because when we have interest, it somehow makes doing a thing easier and more rewarding.
What is interest? The common dictionary definition is that interest is the state of wanting to focus on something, a sort of impulse to attend to something rather than another. And that is sort of how theorists – like psychologist William James – have described it:
Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind- without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos (Principles of Psychology).
There are two different conceptions of interest. Individual interest is a person’s enduring preference for certain topics, subject areas, or activities. Situational interest is a less enduring interest that is brought about by situational stimuli. (more…)
Economics is premised on a tautology – a helpful one, but a tautology nonetheless. People are motivated by incentives. What is an incentive? Anything that motivates. How do we explain why Susie did x, y, z, or anything else? She must have had incentives. What are they? Could be anything that motivates her. See, a tautology.
Recently, Daniel Pink has written a book called Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us to discuss exactly that: what are the best incentives to action? Geared primarily towards the business world, Pink uses several studies to show that the best incentives are autonomy, mastery, and doing better by ourselves and the world.
As many of the amazon reviewers who gave Drive a low review mention, though, this conclusion is based on only a few very artificial studies. The motivational picture may well be more complicated, and maybe even more when we talk about school rather than business and children rather than adults.
Pink suggests that we went through several stages of motivation through human history. Motivation 1.0 was when motivation to work was based on basic human survival. Motivation 2.0 was the “carrot and stick approach” of rewarding externally by material goods, money, etc. Pink suggests that we are now entering motivation 3.0, where we need to realize that workers are best motivated by intrinsic rewards: the pleasure of doing the job well, the pleasure of being autonomous, and the pleasure of mastering things.
Now, let’s talk about school and kids. I think it goes without saying (even though I will say it) that the best moments of student performance happen when we have tapped into a student’s intrinsic motivations as defined above. Students do best what they derive satisfaction from doing. But here is the problem: there are many situations in school where students have to do what they do not like doing. It is an unavoidable part of the school day (wrongly lamented by progressive types who would rather see kids only do what they want to do). It can be assumed that most often, workers work in fields that they at least semi-enjoy (of course this is not always the case, but it is likely the majority). Kids, on the other hand, are compelled by the state and their parents to take biology, algebra, and civics. Thus, kids will very probably experience more situations where intrinsic motivation may either be hard to come by or impossible. (Some educationists suggest that intrinsic motivation is always possible and maybe it is if one has unlimited time to try and find it. Teachers, of course, are constrained by time and class size, so it may not always be feasible to help students find intrinsic motivation.) (more…)