Why Interest-Based Learning? What the Literature Says

Why interest-based learning?

“Because interest is a powerful motivator, children entertain themselves with activities that interest them, and they learn about their world by doing so” (Edward Deci, 1992)

Studies into the role of interest in learning have demonstrated evidence of gains in attention, persistence, deeper processing of content, and enhanced metacognition for typically achieving students.

There is some evidence that contexts designed around student interest enhance the learning and development of students with learning disabilities. In her extensive study of successful adults with dyslexia, Rosalie Fink found that these individuals learned to read by pursuing topics of interest. The chosen topic of interest motivated them to tackle, persevere at, and conquer their greatest enemy, reading. For some, the topic of interest became a lifelong hobby. For others, the topic of interest that compelled them to learn to read was directly related to their future life work. Regardless of outcome, these individual with dyslexia demonstrated successful compensatory abilities toward reading around topics of genuine interest in which they learned related vocabulary and concepts and developed a deep understanding of the content. A passionate domain interest motivated these individuals with dyslexia to put forth effort and persist in the reading of text in face of their disability. This engagement in the reading process led to cognitive gains. See Dr. Fink’s book “Why Jane and John Couldn’t Read – and How They Learned: A new look at striving readers” (2006).

In his powerful self-narrative “Michael’s challenge: Overcoming illiteracy,” New Zealander Michael Marquet tells of his passionate interest that spurred engagement in gardening and led him, in face of a severe speech, language, reading, and writing disability, to pursue a career in Horticulture. An apprenticeship at the Botanic Gardens compelled him to repeatedly apply for acceptance in the National Horticulture Apprenticeship program. After 4 years of annual application and rejection, he was admitted to the program upon his fifth try at age 20. He also secured tutoring services in order to pass the National Horticulture Trade certification exam, which he passed on his second try. Mr. Marquet’s dedication to pursue a career in Horticulture despite numerous challenges and rejections demonstrated the powerful effects of genuine interest to facilitate engagement. This engagement was reflected in extraordinary persistence, effort, problem-solving, initiative, and planning that led to compensatory learning, mastery learning of a specific domain, and ultimately, career satisfaction.

Why strengths?

“It is no longer reducible to coincidence that so many inventors, artists, architects, computer designers, radiologists, and financiers have a childhood history of dyslexia." (Maryanne Wolf, researcher in dyslexia and mother of a dyslexic child, 2007, p. 22)

"In my experience, individuals with learning disabilities are extremely talented in one or more of the following areas: music, art, dance, sports, drama, and mechanical skills. I believe it is very important for the educational system to try to develop these talents and to recognize these abilities when they exist.” (Linda Siegel, researcher in dyslexia and learning disabilities, 1999, p. 171)

Given the nature of the questions that needed to be answered, research has focused less on the strengths of individuals with dyslexia and learning disabilities than on defining the disorders and how to remediate them. But, the self stories and anecdotal reports of individuals with dyslexia and LD have described the strengths and proclivities. Indeed, dyslexic Malcolm Alexander’s story expounds on his success as a sculptor because of his gifts. He says, “Well, you know as a kid I was pretty good at art. I always played with clay when the other kids were making model airplanes. I made the pilot and put them in the planes that they made. So I decided, “Well, why not go to art school?”

Professionals in the field of learning disabilities refer to the “peaks and valleys” profile characteristic of a learning disability that reflects relative cognitive strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, for many of these individuals, particularly as they move through the elementary and secondary grades, the valleys are attended to in lieu of the peaks (i.e., strengths).

Concerning the peaks, persons with dyslexia have been identified to evidence cognitive strengths in visual capacities and flexible thinking. Thomas West, dyslexic, distinguished a number of positive traits associated with learning difficulties in the areas of creativity and visual thinking in his book “In the Mind’s Eye” (1991). These included: “talents in spatial, mechanical, and related right hemisphere skills…; love of construction toys, models, and craft work; love of and great skill at drawing; and especially good musical ear; and an especially good ability to visualize and manipulate images in the mind.” (p. 93)

Dalton and colleagues (1995) demonstrated the benefits of alternative forms of knowledge representation that were realized for a fourth grade boy with a language-learning disability. “Joseph” was able to score 30 and 40 percentage points higher when his understanding of electricity concepts was assessed using visual information versus verbal. And, on the hands-on task, he received a perfect score.

In their study of dyslexia and creativity, Everatt and colleagues (1999) found that dyslexic college students outperformed non-dyslexic students on tasks that required novel and innovative ways of thinking. Dyslexics also reported more innovative thinking when compared to the non-dyslexic group. These results were not evident in children suggesting the dyslexics, in part, developed these skills. The authors hypothesized that the need to be flexible in dealing in a world of literacy fostered the development of creativity.

Malcolm Alexander has advice for dyslexics on strengths:

“I have a slogan: Find the thing that you do best and forget about the rest. And I would say, ‘Young man, within you is a gift. It’s never been given to anyone else. It’s your gift. But it’s up to you to find it. And if you search for it and find it…If you find it, God will test you to see if you’re worthy of that gift. And if you are, he’ll help you. And you will give to the world something wonderful that it’s never had before and it’ll be your gift.”

For more information, read the article, Successful Careers: The Secrets of Adults with Dyslexia by Rosalie Fink, attached below.

Successful Careers: The Secrets of Adults with Dyslexia - Rosalie Fink114.52 KB