Interest: the Primum Mobile?

"The Primum Mobile, the largest and swiftest sphere in Dante's cosmology, is the physical origin of life, motion, and time in the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic universe."

Image and caption from “Danteworlds,” a beautiful and deeply imaginative website at the University of Texas at Austin.

Sometimes I feel as if we’re all arguing about local traffic ordinances when we should be working together to craft a bicameral legislature and a three-branch system of government with the appropriate checks and balances. Or that we might really want to talk about varieties of representative government more generally–or is it more specifically? All the leadership training and experience I’ve had over the last six years has made me instinctively reach for that strategic layer–which also, and increasingly, feels like a foundation. Strange trick of perception there, depending on the cosmology perhaps.

So I hear and participate in lots of talk about educational innovation and, more urgently, educational reform. And I keep reaching for that foundational layer. Or is it the strategic layer? Either way, it’s a sine qua non: if we’re not talking about that layer, it really doesn’t matter much what else we are talking about. But finding that layer, that’s not so easy. It’s either dreamy or impractical or too complex or too obvious and simple. No wonder it’s so elusive.

Today, I want to entertain the idea that the strategic foundation for learning is interest, a particular kind of intrinsic motivation that manifests as openness to new ideas, a willingness to be in conversation, a genuine reaching-out to the unfamiliar and sometimes even the daunting or repellent. A penchant for wanting to know. A habit of inquiry. A disposition to wonder.

Thanks to Hillary Blakeley, our founding Graduate Fellow in the Academy for Teaching and Learning, and Ellen Filgo, Baylor’s E-Learning Librarian, I feel as if I’m standing on a hill overlooking a vast new land to explore, as they have brought me resources on curiosity and interest that even at the outset seem to me to be vital starting and ending points for thinking about learning.The in-betweens matter, of course; they’re crucial. But I’m suspecting that the idea and experience of interest–my own, my friends’, my colleagues’, my students’, especially as the experience (not necessarily the object) of interest is shared–is at the center of what I call real school.

The other day, Ellen sent me some links to Paul Silvia’s work on interest. Silvia, a cognitive psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, is already teaching me a ton. From him I’m learning that there’s a great deal of evidence to suggest that interest is not just a state of mind. Rather, interest is an emotion. I’m not joking when I say that this idea thrills me, and begins to radiate explanatory power through a lot of what I’ve been thinking and dreaming about for decades. It also resonates quite strongly with my favorite description of the poet John Donne, by another poet, T.S. Eliot:

For Donne, a thought was an experience. It modified his sensibility.

It sounds basic, obvious, simplistic even, to say that interest is at the heart of self-directed, intrinsically motivated learning. Yet Silvia, and much of the work he cites, demonstrates that interest is far from simple, and that acquiring the ability to make something interesting to oneself is one of the highest metacognitive capacities we can develop. My fascination continues as I learn about Silvia’s work on metrics for curiosity (now there’s an authentic assessment for liberal learning: has this curriculum made you more interested in the world around you, and if so, how?) and about his extensive writings on interest and aesthetics. I’m seeing that “interest” is not necessarily “passing” or “mild” or otherwise superficial. At its most intense, interest is directly linked to peak experience, to “flow.”

Yes, perhaps my greatest pedagogical interest will turn out to be the experience and sharing of interest itself. Perhaps my feedback loops, my recursions, my motherblogs, and all the rest are efforts to turn what JSB calls “curiosity amplifiers” into “interest engines” or even “interest viruses” that spread like wildfire through the learning community as the interest (or engagement) streams are made visible and themselves become an object of interest, or of meta-interest. And perhaps the fascinating spectacle of shared interests and the shared experience of interest will also inspire one of the other “knowledge emotions” Silvia studies, and I treasure beyond the telling (and suspect he does too): awe.

I’ll leave you with a great little nugget (that’s my word for those resonant passages) from Silvia’s 2006 book Exploring the Psychology of Interest, one that reminds me of Eliot’s description of Donne, and of W. H. Auden’s observation that a teacher must also be a clown:

People who must create feelings of interest–entertainers, teachers, writers, artists, magicians, and beleaguered babysitters, to name a few–need to know how to manipulate the emotions of other people. This requires understanding the dynamics of emotional experience.

A word to the Kindle tribe: I’m annoyed (to put it very mildly) that the Oxford University Press discounts the 59.95 print version by only 20% for the Kindle version. University presses ought to get wise about e-books, if only to build market share. Books like these could appeal to a much wider readership than psychology professionals. But against this vexing reality is the lovely surprise of the sample download (aren’t you downloading free samples for your Kindle app, on whatever devices you wish?), which is quite substantial and will no doubt lead to a sale in the near future.

Bonus round: Paul Silvia has made much of his scholarly work available on his website.

Easter egg: Today I learned that one of our new ATL Grad Fellows (and an alumna of our New Media Faculty Development Seminar), Megan Johnson, is a fan of Silvia’s work. Megan is herself a doctoral candidate in psychology, so of course I feel quite affirmed by her professional endorsement. 🙂 And I’m looking forward to some intensely interesting conversations to follow.

7 thoughts on “Interest: the Primum Mobile?

  1. Could we go so geekery-far as to say that an interest is a node that has links out to other nodes/interests? And we discover and augment shared interests by discovering the people who follow the same or similar links?

    I have a passion for encoding those nodes and links in something that machines can help us follow. The trick I can’t pull off is representing to real people why those encoded nodes and links could/should resonate on a human level.

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  4. @Patrick I’d go that far, absolutely.

    Perhaps the difficulty I keep having with the idea of the semantic web (a phrase that oversimplifies everything, I know) is that the mess of the non-semantic web has a powerfully implicit experiential component–particularly the experience of shared interest that’s demonstrated in a weird/wyrd way by search but also by the very idea and act (nice unity) of the hyperlink. Something about the directness, even the purity of the link just fascinates me. Not the connection, but the connecting–again, implicit, but chosen, not machine-generated (well, the latter may be less and less true as automation continues–but still).

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