Interest in Learning

by Erin Campbell, PhD

“The secret of success is found to lie in the right use of imagination in awakening 
interest, and in the stimulation of seeds of interest already sown.”          
                                                                                                     -  Maria Montessori 
Montessori education encourages children to engage in learning about things that are interesting to them.  The activities, materials, and lessons in Montessori education have been developed to appeal to a child’s interest.  Maria Montessori spent years developing educational materials that appeal to interests of children.  Such materials often correspond to interests that she observed were common to children at certain ages.  After creating a material, she would observe how children interacted with it.  Materials that did not capture a child’s interest were revised or ultimately rejected.  Lessons were also developed with care to appeal to the child.   
Many research studies have examined the impact of interest in learning.  These studies have shown that interest positively influences learning in a range of school subjects, including math, science, and reading.  One of these studies evaluated fifth- and sixth- grade students’ interest using an open-ended questionnaire.  Reading passages were then developed based on their reported interests. The students were asked to read the passages, half of which contained scenarios of particular interest to the student, half of which were not identified as being of interest.  The students then answered questions and asked to recall as much about the passage as they could.  The findings indicated that students had more detailed recall without errors and provided additional relevant information when reading passages embedded with topics of interest. 
In the area of math, studies using problems with interesting context have found a significant positive effect of interest in math performance.  Using topics of interest, a 
study of fifth- and sixth-grade students showed that better understanding of fractions was achieved.  For example, a problem using interesting topics such as favorite candy, birthdays, and friends would be, “If Joyce gives you three Mars candy bars on your birthday, and tells you that you can only cut them in half to share, how many friends can you share with?”  Pre- and post-tests results in this study showed better understanding of fractions by students when the material was of personal interest.  In another study, students were asked to make up their own problems and also asked to discuss those problems with their classmates.  These students advanced dramatically, from the 30th to the 70th percentile in mathematics performance.  In Elementary classrooms at LMS, children often make up their own problems, and are frequently found discussing those problems with others – a natural occurrence in Montessori education.

 In so many ways, Montessori education aims to stimulate interest in children.  Children are encouraged to pursue issues that interest them, and learning occurs in the context of these interests.  For example, a child who is interested in dogs can learn about biology; learn how to research and write reports; practice spelling and penmanship; and examine dogs in a historical context.  Children in the Lower Elementary program at LMS spend hours working on projects about countries that they find interesting, and present their findings to their classmates.  Ultimately, as sixth-graders (or seniors), children extensively research and subsequently report on a personally interesting topic of their choice – the Senior Project.   
Montessori education also capitalizes on what is termed a “sensitive period”, a time when a child is particularly attracted to an aspect of their environment.  For example, children go through a phase when tend to be very interested in doing adult activities – sweeping, cleaning, setting the table, caring for plants, and so on.  During this time, children are provided with an abundance of interesting and stimulating input.  Activities that capitalize on this interest are included in the “Practical Life” curriculum in the Children’s House.  As young children participate in these activities, they learn to carry out steps in a sequence, to do work thoroughly and thus gain a sense of satisfaction.   
Language activities are also intended to be very interesting.  A child in the Children’s House who is in a “sensitive period” for the beginning stages of reading will spend much time with the Moveable Alphabet, forming words and eventually phrases.  Elementary children label things around them (nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.), act out interesting sentences and make up their own interesting sentences as they learn grammar.   
Another way the Montessori education taps into the interest of the students is through the lessons given by their teachers.  Teachers learn every lesson for the level at which they will work, and put great effort into being able to give these lessons in a captivating way. When giving lessons in the Children’s House, teachers use few words, focusing children on the relevant aspects of the activity they will carry out with the materials.  The Elementary curriculum is presented to make connections across disciplines in what is called “Cosmic Education”.  It is a way to show children how everything in the universe is interrelated and interdependent.  The stories that are part of this curriculum are grand and impressive, and also give children a framework for many future lessons. 
Children in Montessori schools learn because they are interested in what they are learning about – they are not merely memorizing information to achieve grades or pass tests.  LMS is a school that provides an atmosphere to create personal interest in topics, and to capitalize on the interests of the children, thereby enhancing learning. 
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