What Makes a New Subject Interesting?

I was cleaning out some old folders on my hard drive and came across this interesting USA Today poll result that I’d been keeping:

When children between the ages of 6-11 were asked, “What makes a new subject in school most interesting to me?”; the most common response was the Internet.

How do we explain these results?

Is there something intrinsically interesting in reading about a new topic on a web page versus a textbook page?

Is it more interesting to learn about a topic from web pages because they tend to use more media such as photos, graphics, and animations than a textbook or a standard teacher lecture?

Is the Internet the kids are referring to the Read Write Web where they interact with others and actively engage in conversations and building knowledge…say through a Wiki or blog?

Is it simply that kids love to be in control. Even at the youngest ages, (especially at the youngest ages) they like to manipulate things. Does sitting in front of a computer that is “their’s”, controlling the keyboard, the searching, and the finding, while maybe taking notes…feel especially empowering to them?

How would you explain the results of the survey?


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18 thoughts on “What Makes a New Subject Interesting?

  1. I think it may be that the Internet allows you to branch out from one topic into others quickly. That way even if your researching something you’re not interested in you can quickly see how it relates to something you are interested in and make a connection.
    To some extent the Internet forces this kind of thinking on you, or more politely enables you to expand your thoughts.

    Plus there’s more chance of things being visual and/or interactive on the internet. Although, based on the choices, I’m surprised the total for Internet isn’t higher.

    I have yet to find a decent text book. TV shows shown in school are often both boring and of poor quality. And finally, I think that there aren’t enough teachers out there really inspiring kids. There are lots of reasons for this and the way standards are being implemented doesn’t help. Maybe I’m just pessimistic.

  2. Tom,
    I think it is difficult to interpret these poll results with any kind of certainty. However, as you do, one can only hypothesize as to the major factors contributing to these results. I agree with most of your ideas with exception to the read-write web only because most children 6-11 years old are not really experiencing much of this in the classroom yet. I would add one though. In my experience students flock to the Internet because it has too often been the easy way out – not necessarily overtly, though… a kind of deception for all. It is fun. It is visual. It is interactive. It provides unique options for user control and manipulation. It provides multiple branches to follow. It provides media of all types. It provides endless resources. But, in the end, a great deal of time may be spent “grazing” instead of learning. I am not trying to be a pessimist here. I am a strong advocate of the power of the Internet in learning. I just want to stress the importance of teachers helping their students preserve and maximize learning while on line (information literacy). Learning should be mentally demanding and productive. Too often time spent on-line is not – it is fun and engaging. This is a challenge to prepare students to use the Internet in powerful rather than trivial ways. The potential is there, hands down, and it is being used in such ways by some teachers and their students…. just lots of room for growth.

  3. Pete,

    I think the answer to your questions are

    “Is it more interesting to learn about a topic from web pages because they tend to use more media such as photos, graphics, and animations than a textbook or a standard teacher lecture?” – – – Yes

    “Is the Internet the kids are referring to the Read Write Web where they interact with others and actively engage in conversations and building knowledge…say through a Wiki or blog?” – – – Yes

    “Is it simply that kids love to be in control.” – – – Yes

    Does sitting in front of a computer that is “their’s”, controlling the keyboard, the searching, and the finding, while maybe taking notes…feel especially empowering to them? – – – Yes

    However, I don’t think this means that students don’t want to, or worse can not, learn from a book. Textbooks are poorly written and organized – not to mention one looks like the next and they are cumbersome and daunting (and not daunting in a good way). There is a difference in the way the web is organized that turns over the reins of discovery to the learner – a textbook attempts to force you to think like its complier. The Internet allows students to develop a web of understanding through what Steve refers to as “grazing.” This more accurately stated would be the construction of meaning – seeing the big picture the interconnectedness of things, which is the exact opposite of the fractured nature of current curriculum’s.

    I would disagree with what I see as a basic premise in Steve’s comment . . . it is true, learning should be “mentally demanding and productive” -but- it should at the same time be fun and engaging. Learning IS fun and if the way the learning opportunities are designed fail to bring the two, rigor and fun, together and engage learners, then it will fail.

    To suggest that if learning is fun it is some how substandard is to deny the fact that we has humans are just naturally curious and we search for meaning. Students don’t have to be forced to learn that which is engaging – the Internet does provide a place to effectively engage students in discovery and they already come to the classroom with this realization. Does the content you provide for them have to be on an actual pulp page or can it be on a digital reader or computer monitor?

    Learning is a social act and the Internet, especially Web 2.0 content, is a social environment, a place were people collaborate and real learning takes place. Students do this, even Disney has kids program that is wrapped around this idea. iCarly, a program of young adolescents who, when they are not in school, make web casts. Students understand the power of the Internet and technology as tools of learning and discovery . . . educators are the ones not following the relevant example.

    – Greg Thompson

  4. @ Greg: I agree wholeheartedly with your comments, Greg. Except, I never made the statement that learning could not be fun or engaging. “Fun”, or enjoyment from learning is a by-product of engaged, meaningful, relevant learning. That’s all I was saying. If engaged and meaningful learning is not at the forefront while on-line, then it can lead to a great deal of unproductive fun. The term “grazing” that I used has no guarantee of knowledge construction. Children do not construct knowledge by haphazardly skipping around from one subject and website to another with little purpose or poor information literacy. That is what I implied by “grazing”. Certainly the potential for finding a “web of understanding” is there if one skillfully grazes with a purpose. Sorry if I did not make my use of “grazing” clear. The Internet really opens doors to so many avenues of learning. But, as naive learners, children need a great deal of assistance in meeting learning goals. Just because children may be digitally savvy does not make them effective learners at school. Just because they enjoy being on-line does not mean that they are using their on-line time effectively. But yes – we all need to follow their unabashed proclivity to producing, sharing, collaborating, finding meaning and relevance, exploring, questioning… These wonderful qualities are often suppressed while “doing school”, and on-line learning potential is often limited by teachers and schools.

  5. Tom;
    Right now I’m teaching a graduate course for teachers and I haven’t assigned a textbook. I haven’t found one that is timely and worth the expense.

    I’ve pulled together research , articles, magazines that are on online; great blog discussions, videos, wikis, web sites, and exemplars of tech being used.

    I agree that there aren’t enough teachers inspiring our kids…so how would we go about teaching teachers how to be more inspiring? I believe it can be done.


  6. Steve,
    I agree, there is a lot of potential to use the technology for more substantive learning. Yes, I like your description of “grazing” and I agree that so many of our students are “doing school” or “playing school”. That needs to change regardless of the technology.

    It’s always good to remember that we are in the first 25 years of the personal computer and we are the generation of educators that are blazing the first path. We can’t draw on a century of experience to guide us. So, this is a fancy way of saying…we’re making this up as we go along.

    I bring this up in the spirit of compassion for teachers who are caught up in the cataclysmic shifts going on in the world, the shifts that they feel firsthand and unfiltered in their classrooms.


  7. Greg,
    Nice way to put it,

    “leaning is a social act and the Internet, especially Web 2.0 content, is a social environment, a place were people collaborate and real learning takes place.”


  8. @Pete: Certainly teachers cannot be held responsible for both understanding and navigating all of the shifts going on in the wold and in education. I have been there and know what an incredibly hard job teachers have just managing the day-to-day. However, they do bear some responsibility in growing professionally. And, the school “system” also needs to grow/shift to enable teachers to grow/shift along with the world. Scott Mcleaod has an interesting post with a rich discussion that wrestles with this in more detail.
    Thanks for the response.

  9. Steve,
    Compassion isn’t synonymous with permission to continue ineffective practices. I believe we can have compassion for the rigors of teaching and at the same time hold teachers accountable for change.

    In fact, they ARE accountable, as are administrators, students, parents, and the community. I’ve heard it put this way, “Who is accountable for the success of your marriage?” Is your wife 50% accountable and you 50%; or are you both 100% accountable?


  10. Well put. We can certainly have compassion and understanding while at the same time encouraging, exhorting, and expecting growth. But are expecting growth and requiring evidenced growth two different things? It seems to me we do more ‘expecting’ than we do requiring. BTW, I like to think that my wife is 100 % accountable. Does that mathematically get me off the hook?

  11. I think that among those questions, the “empowering” angle is where kids love the Internet the most.

    At such an early age, students can still find joy in playing with the fancy electronics. They are too young, yet, to take it for granted, and the sight and sound produced by a computer are thrilling — they made that little arrow move, and they have direct control of everything that happens.

    I find it interesting that students rate teachers, then, even higher than television. Teachers may or may not react to something a student does, but the computer is, in this regard and on the most basic level, infallible.

    Unless someone has already said this — I’ve just glanced at the comments — I propose that these two are ranked so high because of the interaction, and because of the sensory input each provides.

    Just a thought.


  12. I went back and took a look at the numbers again. I am not sure what the stated margin of error was, but assuming it is somewhere between 3% and 5% is there much statistical difference in the first three numbers?

    Culturally we look to the educator as a source of reliable information. We can talk to him/her, ask questions and get responses, even disagree with our educator.

    The Internet ranks slightly higher because of the empowerment it offers. Most students find researching something to be fun. If the proper scaffolding has been placed around the learning, letting them research and wander through information on the Internet, thereby creating an internalized understanding gives the learner the sense that they have learned, they have discovered, they have embarked on a journey and arrived somewhere . . . that is empowering.

    I am not sure that listening to a teacher as your sole source of information is as empowering. Socrates used to teach through the process of asking questions which forced his charges to have to engage their minds to discover thought, idea, concept . . . the lecture process is passive – even when taking notes most students do not attempt to take down what is key, rather they wait for an indicator from the educator that something is important. Therefore, the teacher aspect is much more passive and less empowering.

    Television, the least engaging of the top three is extremely passive – this may be why it didn’t rank any higher than it did. Television as a tool embedded in an a carefully designed learning architecture can be work as a source for sparking curiosity, but can never be as effective at passing on passive knowledge as a teacher (who at least responds to questions), and certainly not as engaging and empowering as the Internet.

    I am curious why gaming wasn’t included. There is some exciting things being done with epistemic games at the University of Wisconsin:


    – Greg


  13. Pete,

    I can think of the things I did that seemed to matter to my students.
    1. Being excited myself (about the subject, the day, the assignment)
    2. Taking their interests into account and integrating those interests into whatever we were doing
    3. Giving them options
    4. Caring about them as humans
    5. Getting them as involved as possible

    Things like that (and a lot of other little things) made a big difference. I think our relationship inspired them.

    What I wonder about are the teachers who seem to dislike both their subject and children in general. I can show them how to do certain things but if your heart’s not in it, your students will know. I’m just not sure teaching/coaching is what’s needed- I don’t know how to teach passion in any way that can be sustained.

  14. Tom;
    Teachers who dislike their subject and kids shouldn’t be teaching. For them, personally, it can’t be very rewarding or much fun. I would think that their lives would be “off-center”, and a bit empty. (spending so much time doing something they don’t like with people they don’t like).

    I believe it is possible to open people like this. I’ve see it done; but it’s far beyond what schools offer to their staffs.

    Fortunately, there aren’t too many teachers like this. Probably the same percentage as in any industry.

    Your description of what you did with your students is so great.



  15. Hi,
    I’ve been reflecting on this “energized” conversation.

    I think Scott is right that it is legitimate for leaders at all levels to set expectations for our teams. So, if we believe that the world of the 21st century is different than the last century, if we feel the kids have changed, that literacies have changed, and that the tools of work and learning have changed…I believe it is important to create the expectation that what goes on in classrooms should reflect the best of those changes, also.

    In addition, (not either/or) I believe we need to have revolutionary new staff development programs that focus on opening teachers so they are more present and connected to their students, so that we don’t let our personalities get in the way of their learning.

    These programs can re-inspire even the most jaded educators. In my experience, if you get just below the surface with most teachers…you’ll find a deep passion for service, professionalism, and doing what’s best for kids.

    It’s our job to create programs that are not just focused on technology, curriculum, and pedagogy; but focus on developing the human beings that spend most of their lives interacting with our children.


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