Interest and the Nature of Learning

During the time I was writing The Happy Child, I was invited to give a lecture on learner-directed education at a large Midwestern University to an undergraduate class on Education Theory. I understood that the students would be education majors, no doubt intensely interested in the subject of my talk and I looked forward to seeing what young educators thought what I had to say. But, I learned just prior to the start of the class that, in fact, many of the students were taking the class to fulfill their humanities credit requirement and had no particular interest in the subject other than it was considered an easy class to pass.

This was a fascinating situation in which to find myself. I was now under the obligation to spend several hours talking to students about interest based learning who had no interest in what I had to say. I wasn’t even sure if I had anything to say to those who didn’t care what I said. Should I stimulate interest by being entertaining? Should I concede the point, recognize that I was in a lecture hall at a University where no one every asked if anyone was interested and lecture? Should I confront the fact of the situation by walking out or demanding participation?

But, like all moments, this moment as the talk began, was rich with its own content and curiosity. The class itself, with all of its complex dynamics, hierarchical structures, studied disinterest, and feigned curiosity, filled with students who were the product of years of being conditioned how to behave to get through their schooling, became the subject.

Despite the roles that we had taken on, I as the authority and teacher, and the students with their chosen characters, the class clowns, the perky honor rollers, the sullen non-participants and the vacant dreamers, we began to look at the nature of learning. Many of the class found that they, almost involuntarily, become quite interested in what was discussed. The questions of ‘interest’, ‘learning’, ‘experience’ and a number of other aspects of what we talked about that day surfaced as relevant to the ordinary student, not just to education theory, but to learning as a life long pursuit.

This is going to be an unusual class in this respect:the test is going to come first. The test is right now. Can you see what you are interested in? Can you look inside yourself, in this moment? What are your drives? What are your fears? The test is: who are you? That’s the end of the test. You don’t have to take notes there won’t be another test during this class.

Without knowing this question, “Who am I?”, How do I learn? How do I teach? Without knowing who you are, and how you came to sit in this class, in this college, in this town how do you know how to convey what you are to someone else? Does this interest you? Shall we go further?

Q:I’m interested.

Q:And I’m interested. I have children.

There is a little bit of interest. Now why do I care whether you are interested? I care because without interest learning doesn’t take place. I can be here pretending I’m conveying something and you can pretend you’re listening, but nothing really happens. On the other hand, if you’re interested in something, learning takes place regardless of any impediments. Does interest equal learning?

What does that have to do with how learning is constructed in our society? Is that the way we learn in society? Are you here because you’re interested? Or, after a number of years of being some place because you had to be there, are you here because you have to be here. You learned reading in second or third grade because that’s when you had to learn. You learned algebra in seventh grade, because that’s when we learn algebra. You sat in all of your classes through other grades because that was when they were taught. If there was no interest you didn’t learn much, or perhaps there was interest and you did learn.

Why do we construct education as if I have a funnel shoved into the top of your head and I am pouring in information regardless of your interest? Why isn’t it constructed the other way around, with the question, “What interests you?”

Does interest have something to do with what we are actually living? It is not abstracted. It is not outside of her experience. Does experience equals learning? We can memorize data as an abstraction. That’s how we learned our A, B, C’s. We memorized rote data. Then we learned the letters b, a, d, are tied into information that we call “bad”. Those are three data points combined into something we call information. Bad is information, as in, “You didn’t do your homework.”

Information is unintegrated until it becomes knowledge. Knowledge is what you feel when you’re bad, it isn’t just data or information. Data: ‘b’, ‘a’, ‘d’. Information, “Bad”. Knowledge, the total experience of being bad.

Some of you are writing this down. There must be an interest. And I told you at the outset that you need not take notes. So something else must be going on here. The interest level for some of you at least, must be higher than the information that you needn’t take notes.

The questions were, “Who am I?”, and “What am I interested in”? What is informing these questions is a world of data, information, and, possibly, knowledge. All the data we could ever want is available to us through the Internet, television, music, books, magazines, and so forth. We are taking in data all the time. Did you hear the Dow was down today? Or, was it up? That is supposed to be information, but we are so saturated with financial information that is may simply be data, but I do know that it is not knowledge for me. Ee sort our world with its endless information and data into knowledge. As potential teachers, as current students, knowledge has something to do with what we are doing, doesn’t it? How do I know what to scoop out of infinite information, if I don’t know who I am and what interests me? Will I teach knowledge or information, will I teach something simply because it was taught to me? Is that what I know? Is this something that I experienced? Is it something that I found myself? Is it something that the culture has expressed? Are we still interested in this?

long silence

Now, here’s an interesting situation. With that question there was a period of silence. There was an empty space. Perhaps that was uncomfortable for some. But in that space there was information. It has information as to what is happening inside of each of us. There is a tension of silence and the unknowing of what is expected. That’s information. It is also knowledge. And, “nothing” brackets “something”. Without nothing, you don’t have something. Without the absence you wouldn’t know something was there. If there was only something, it would be like an audio tone going on forever. There is no experience.

Q:I have a question about interest. You seem to be taking interest as a given,as opposed to something that grows, diminishes, that is not fixed. But you’re very reflections and comments sparked interest.

I need a volunteer who is not interested in this subject to find out if interest can be created by external stimulation.


Is there anyone here who would take the risk of suggesting in a public forum like this that he or she is really not interested in this, and yet are sitting here?

[ laughter].

It is an interesting question. Is there a technology called “educational technique ” with which I can go into a class where no one has any interest in what I am saying, and spark interest? Maybe that’s the key to education. Is it your interest that drives education? Or, is it the external that creates interest, by being interesting?

Q:I would say both. Because you can be in a classroom where this teacher is talking in a monotone, and therefore not as interesting as if they show some animation about the subject. If they try to evoke emotion it is more interesting. If they don’t seem interested why should you be interested?

Maybe this is a clue. Learning has something to do with relationship. That is, I can’t learn anything if I only exist within this discreet body. There’s nothing that can come in, there’s nothing that can go out. So, it has something to do with a transaction. Does that solve the problem of being interesting and being interested? There has to be an interesting object and an interested perceiver. I could be interested but if you’re not interesting, nothing happens.

Q:It may be more complex than that. I have had professors who were boring as hell, but I was still interested.

So “interest” can override, ” not interesting “? Could “not interested” be overridden by ” interesting “?

Q:I think so.

We still haven’t gotten our volunteer to admit they’re not interested.

Q: I will. I am reading your book Doing Nothing, and that’s why I came today even though I didn’t know you were going to talk about education. And the subject of education doesn’t interest me.

Okay, we have a live one here. So, you’re not interested in the topic?

Q: I am now. But I wasn’t when I walked in here. I was even wondering if I could sneak out once I heard about the subject. But I became interested!

We have an example of how ” not interested ” can be overridden by ” interesting “. These are going to be important areas to understand if you future teachers find yourself in front of a second grade class.

Q:Can you expand on relationship especially as it involves an ideal school, in comparison to our current public-schools.

How about relationship in this class where I’m on a raised platform. I must be significantly elevated above those below me who have chairs bolted into the floor so that they can’t move around. It’s surprising there aren’t seat belts with locks to keep you in your seats!


Isn’t this a little bit strange? It is for me. But, then I don’t spend a lot of time in formal classrooms. For me to come into this is a little bit of a culture shock. I’m used to entering into rooms where people can sit where they want, they can move chairs around, they can come and go. And, they’re only there if they’re interested.

It seems to me hierarchy obstructs understanding. Being elevated, in a power position as an authority, allows someone to transfer data or information to you, such as what I just said, ” hierarchy obstructs understanding “. That’s information. The experience though, cannot be conveyed by an authority to a listener. There is no way that I can give you my experience in the form of information. Nor can you give me your experienced as information. It doesn’t happen that way; it won’t go through the funnel. This is one of the problems of hierarchal education. It can’t convey the knowledge, it can only convey information. Your brain can only hold so much information. Computers can hold information so much better.

Q: How can we decipher what we want to learn about ? How do you choose?

Let’s look at how we have been trained to choose first. Then we can look to see if there’s another method. I was taught to choose by being put on old yellow school bus and sent to first grade where I ran into Mrs. King, a giantess at least 10 ft. tall. She was a no-nonsense first grade teacher!

What did I learn about that? I learn that I was interested in what Mrs. King was interested in, or I was in big trouble. So, what was a motivator? Fear!

Look at this in relation to your whole life. What is it that has motivated your interest? Is it something that has come from within you, or the fear of what happens if you don’t perform some behaviour? What happens if you don’t show up for this class? What happens if you don’t graduate from this university? What happens if … this is fear. It’s not curiosity. It’s not creativity. It’s not open. It’s fear.

Out of fear, we look at the vast field of information, and say, ” What do I need to learn to survive? ” What do I need to survive? As a male, I must be able to fend off the males and attract the females. I must be able to attract enough money to buy security and stay at a certain level of society. There are certain drives within us for security.

I start looking for information that will support those drives so that I can face my parents, my teachers, my boss, or whoever I perceive can have an impact on my survival. That’s what I use to choose my learning.

Q:It seems to me that there are more motivating factors besides fear. What about curiosity?

What would you say curiosity is looking for?

Q: Better survival?

We’re back to fear again. Perhaps you are suggesting that there is curiosity that is not fear-based. It has an innate drive for …what? What about pleasure? I want to feel good and not feel bad. We are sorting our information in the environment by it feeling good or it feeling bad. If it feels good, I want it. If it feels bad, I don’t. Is that what we’re learning? To feel better because of the way I sort information? The search for pleasure and the avoidance of pain is fear-based, because there’s the fear of not having pleasure. It’s not the joy of discovering pleasure spontaneously. It is the fear that I won’t have the pleasure whenever I want it.

There is also the whole area of societal influences. Getting an “A” feels good because Mom and Dad are going to like it, the teacher likes me, I’ll get through this class into the next class, next career, whatever it is. That’s an abstracted feeling good. That’s information. I know informationally that I’m going to survive. But, it’s not knowledge. It has nothing to do with what I feel. It has to do with the feeling that has been implanted by a social context. It is a lot like feeling, but perhaps we’ve lost what we feel like so long ago that feeling as information seems like feeling!

Oh, and by the way, “Who am I”? Has anyone figured that out? Who are you? What can you feel? Are you simply a conglomeration of these social contexts masquerading as feeling? Are you driven to experience pleasure and avoid pain out of fear. Is that it? Is it just the mind, thought, looking at the environment, taking in the data, forming it into information so that I can survive? Is that what my life is, first survive, and then dominate. Take more and more, because there’s never enough, unless you have everything, you don’t really know that you are going to survive. Maybe there’s somebody else out there who has more. They can use their stuff against me. Is that what this life is about?

Q:This goes back to our inability to share our experience with someone else.

I cannot convey to you an experience, my knowledge, through information. The description through words of my history in first grade conveys information to you but not the actual experience.

Q: We can explain to people how we felt and our thoughts at the time so that they would understand the experience.

Is it possible that we are attempting to convey experience by a means that doesn’t have the possibility of success? Is it possible we’re using the wrong tool?

Q: I don’t understand what you mean.

That is exactly my point!


I’m tried to convey something and it didn’t mean anything to you. Is there some other means? Is there something else by which human beings can communicate with each other so that the experiences of life that are not just collections of data? Is there a way to actually convey knowledge? Is there anything else we can utilize whereby my experience can be yours? Or, do we all live in isolated pods of experience and we can never touch each other in that realm? We’re in an area without a clear answer. Does that make us uncomfortable? If it seems there is no answer, what happens?

We realize there is this vast soup of information. We’ve been trained to scoop it out into bites that will allow us to survive, feel good, or at least not feel bad and that seems to be much of what our life is about. I can have an experience. I can send information about it to other people. I can describe it to you, and you can have something that you will call an experience, but it will be described by how you capture the data, how you interpret it.

Now, we’re asking the question, “Is there anything else? ” And, when I asked that question it is not immediately clear to me that I have an answer to fill in. There is that discomfort in not knowing. There’s something that is very interesting about reaching the frontier of what we know. It’s a doorway to something else. I’ve gotten to the end of my knowledge base, the area in which I know I can survive, feel good, and there is a doorway to the unknown where I don’t know if I’m going to survive or feel good. And yet, that question takes me through that door. Do I go through the door? Do you go through that door with me? And, if we both go through together, from the known, this information that we scooped out, into the unknown, where we don’t have information, do we go into something that is mutual?

If I’m defined by my information, my conditioning, my knowledge, and so are you, and those two data collections can never touch each other, and we both leave those collections for what we are calling the ” unknown”, do we step into a world of common ground?

Q: How do I take that question into public education as a teacher with a curriculum I must follow?

Socrates said that the only thing he knew was that he did not know. I don’t even know that. How do we take deep questioning into a public education context? The same question exists there, that exists here. Is there interest? What we doing here? What is learning? What is the nature of information? Why are we learning information?

The drive of questioning is a key element of education,learning is not just the acquisition of information. What if you convey your own drive of curiosity in that public classroom? Information is readily available, isn’t it? We can find the response to the questions through a lot of different means, through a mentor, teacher, a computer, a book.

What is important is that there is a question. This is different than the notion that there is information in the teacher, which the student is motivated to extract due to fear of failure.

Is there any one here who is willing to admit that they’re not interested in what we are discussing? We need to have an experimental subject.

Q:When we left the subject of relationship, I guess I lost interest.

Where did you go? When we lose interest in what we’re supposed to be interested in, which we’ve learned to hide because we can still stare ahead with our eyes wide, with our smile on our face, as if we’re still there, and we go someplace else. We can go someplace in our mind where we’re actually having fun. Where did you go?

Q: I was actually thinking about my much younger sister and based on this discussion I wonder if my advice to her truly helps her, or whether she needs to discover on her own.

There is a drive in us that has as part of its purpose to bring us in into contact with what is vital in our life. And that vitality often has to be kept secret because it is not socially acceptable. It’s not OK to go off someplace when you supposed to be listening very intently to a very interesting talk such as this. But actually, what you went to is what you are interested in.

Does it do somebody good to be advised by a figure of great admiration? Is that helping or hurting? What is your sister’s experience of what’s happening? You’re the older brother, you’re everything! Is your sister interested in your liking her? This is very important for those here who are going to be teachers. Understand that the learner is in a different context than the teacher. How can you create a space with another individual that is essentially egalitarian, but that recognizes that you may have greater knowledge, greater wisdom, greater experience that might be useful … but, might not!

Q:Without direction won’t there be boredom?

Do you think there is any value in boredom?

Q: Creative ideas can come out of boredom.

So much of our culture and so much of our education is an attempt to fill up space. But that space, if it is not filled up by the teacher , becomes boring. But boring, not in a negative way, but in the way in which you are describing which is full of the potential for creativity and the mind to wander about within its own structures in a kind of exploration. I hope I’m providing sufficient boredom in this class today for that to happen. If not, we can certainly ratchet that up. [Laughter] So that acknowledgement of the inner world that you are talking about, of the student, the child, and the ability of that child to generate entire universes then within the mind is often lost. By the time we become college students, it is seen as a vast area of negativity. You shouldn’t be doing that. You should be paying attention. They don’t give tests on mind wandering, do they? And do you know what the best mind wanderers become? Inventors. Entrepreneurs. Creators.

Shall we spend the next hour being bored? Of course, the paradox of boredom is that if we pay attention to it, it is a fascinating and creative quality which is not at all boring.