The Importance of Engaging Students’ Interest in their Learning
by Akua Peprah
A mentor is more effective in teaching when he/she manages to incorporate students' interests in the lectures.
Curiosity and thus learning thrive when connected to and/or emergent from contexts which are familiar and meaningful to the learner.
From Teaching to Mentoring, Herman and Mandell
After reading this quote in From Teaching to Mentoring by Lee Herman and Alan Mandell, I was immediately struck by the truth in those words. I remember the countless times I felt disengaged from my classes when I could not connect the lessons to any of my interests. This is not to say that I did not select classes based on my interests or curiosity in the course; yet, somehow by mid semester I no longer saw the connection I once had with the class. Did I suddenly lose interest? Or had I imagined an entirely different class? Was the professor not engaging enough or was it the course material? These are a few of the questions that come to my mind when reflecting on my classes at the end of the semester. With my new role as a tutor and a mentor in the Teaching and Learning Initiative (TLI) and the Mentoring and Student Teaching program (MAST), I am using these questions and concerns to create an engaging learning environment for my tutees. I want our lessons to be dictated by their interests and passions. In this essay I will explore the importance of engaging students' interests in their learning and how I have tried to incorporate my tutees' interests into our lessons. TLI and MAST are both tutoring programs that address different demographics; the former involves adult learners whilst the latter involves high school students. However, both programs give tutees the utmost flexibility in the learning process. With the TLI Computing Program, there is a curriculum that guides the entire course; however, each partnership has the opportunity to explore the interests of their tutees. For instance, my tutee Gina expressed very early in our sessions together her interest in learning how to upload documents online so although this was not part of the curriculum, we were still able to cover this topic. Similarly, the MAST program has a very flexible structure that gives both tutors and tutees the power to explore writing however they please. The only requirement is a final research paper at the end of the program to show that students did indeed learn research skills and improved their writing. Thus, I was able to explore Anne's, my tutee's, interests through dialogues and free writing assignments. These two programs are exceptional in empowering the learner and giving the learner a true sense of agency in his or her education; however, most students in traditional classroom settings do not have this luxury of exploring their own interests.
After interviewing Cindy, a first year high school Mathematics teacher, I learned about the barriers that teachers face in trying to incorporate students' interests in their lessons. One main challenge was the rigidity and scope of the curriculum. There simply wasn't enough time to explore students' interests as well as cover all the material for the course. She also feared that if she incorporated students' interests in her lessons she may stray from the traditional education model which could adversely affect students in standardized tests. Nonetheless, Cindy recognizes the importance of giving students agency in their learning and the importance of incorporating their ideas in her lessons. This tension between Cindy's educational beliefs and the education system is not peculiar to just her. Many teachers have expressed these same concerns with the growing reliance on standardized testing in our education system. If teachers recognize these tensions why are they still ongoing? Why aren't we listening to our students when clearly their input aids their learning?
Ann Haas Dyson explores this concept of student-driven teaching in her research on "permeable" curriculum, a term she uses to describe a curriculum that bridges teachers and students' worlds in the classroom. Dyson's research is based primarily on her observations of six children in a first grade classroom in an urban primary school in the East San Francisco Bay Area. In this classroom the teacher Louise includes a "daily composing period" where each student composes an original work through pictures or text from a prompt given by Louise. Some students collaborated with one another whilst others worked alone. At the end of the composing period each student had the opportunity to share their work. In Dyson's example, these first grade students had to respond to a field trip to a local aquarium through their own work. One of the students, Jameel drew from his interest in singing and fishes and composed a story of a singing fish with his own original song. This was a huge success in class with all the other students clamoring to write their own songs.
Louise does not let her students' new interest in songwriting die out but allows them to explore this concept in greater detail. She invites the music teacher to teach them about music composition, they read books that contained tunes and they studied the local symphony and local rappers. This is a clear example of the teacher placing the power of learning into the hands of students. Through the simple exercise of individual composing, Louise was able to interact with her students in their own world, using their interests to guide the class. Is it generally easier for teachers in lower grades to incorporate their students' ideas in their lessons than for high school teachers? Or is Louise just an exceptional teacher? Dyson's conclusions do not answer these questions as her research was more to show how Louise was able to permeate the worlds of her students. Yet, the conclusion remains the same, students are more engaged in their learning when their interests are piqued and when they have a say in what they learn.
Louise used a method as simple as "daily composing" in order to interact with her students. I use free writing exercises with my MAST tutee, Anne to learn more about her world and what is important to her. In this way, Anne not only gets to practice her writing but also to explore an area she is interested in. In implementing this free writing exercise with my TLI tutee, where writing is not an objective of the program, we exchange emails based on prompts from each other and also include attachments of photos that contribute to the prompt. This form of interaction has been somewhat successful..., however; the busy schedule of Gina prevents her on some occasions to contribute to this exercise. The underlying theme that I see running through these different methods of permeating the worlds of students is establishing dialogues between students and teachers. This can take shape in any form from composing songs to writing emails; teachers should give students a medium where they can express themselves. Teachers must try to take some time of their busy classroom lessons to truly interact with their students; perhaps on a one on one level or in a group setting. Though this might be difficult with curriculums so packed, I believe it is very necessary for the well being (and academic development?) of students. When students have the opportunity to decide what they want to learn, they take control of their education and explore the academic areas they are interested in. Thus, allowing students to choose what they want to learn through group projects, research papers or even free writing exercises allow students to play a role in creating their own courses and discovering their own interests. It also gives them more agency in their learning and in their future academic endeavors. Finally, teachers must use the moments or the opportunities like "the singing fish" that arise to pursue these interests of students.
Dyson, Anne H. "Negotiating a Permeable Curriculum: On Literacy, Diversity and the Interplay of Children's and Teacher's World." ERIC. 8 Apr. 2009 <www.eric.ed.gov>.
Herman, Lee. From teaching to mentoring principle and practice, dialogue and life in adult education. London: RoutledgeFalmer, 2004.
 Lee Herman, From teaching to mentoring principle and practice, dialogue and life in adult education. (London: RoutledgeFalmer, 2004) 27.
 Pseudonym for my TLI partner.
 Pseudonym for my MAST tutee.
 Pseudonym for the first year high school Mathematics teacher.
 Dyson 8.
 Dyson 23.