The Interesting Thing About Interests

Voices from the Field | Insights   02 September 2020
By Elliot Washor, Big Picture Learning


Take advantage of the interests young people show at the start, but never stop listening and looking for what might be driving them at a deeper level.

Elliot Washor
Co-Founder and Co-Director

What if a student doesn’t have any interests?

Even after three-plus decades of speaking about Big Picture Learning and student interests, I never stop hearing this question. And, I never get undone by it. Although, I think some people ask it to undo me. Or, more likely, to avoid honestly rethinking their practice (if an educator) or considering if their child’s education should mirror the one they had 30 years ago (if a parent).

Educators and parents both feel the need for change—but most are caught looking in the wrong places for answers. One place they rarely look is within the kids themselves.

They often opt for telling, instead of asking—frequently letting their interests get in the way of finding out what the young person is actually interested in or what their needs are. They jump into problem-solving mode without the child’s help.

And, sometimes what they’ve identified as a problem is actually a child simply looking for an affirmation about how they’re feeling. They just want someone to sit with that feeling with them.

Starting with the learner and their interests causes dynamic shifts in how we approach education and our engagement with students. When you start with interests, you don’t know what a child is going to say, so you have to listen.

This immediately changes the dynamic and the role of the teacher from one who knows content and answers to one who has to learn and find out. But, listening is not the only way we discover interests. Teachers need to observe students, and parents have to see what their children are doing. And, together, with the child, they need to design learning experiences that honor those interests.

Where you ask matters just as much as what you ask

There is loads of research on situated learning showing that you will get a completely different answer depending on where you ask a question. Asking in a student’s home, in a park, on the street, in an office, or in a classroom will conjure up all sorts of answers or sometimes no response at all.

One day, I visited a hospital for premature babies where one of our students was interning. Her advisor was having trouble developing a project that the student was interested in. I asked where she and the student were discussing possible projects, and the advisor replied, “Back at school.” 

I asked the student while she had an infant in her arms what she was interested in. She had an immediate and animated response: “I want to know how babies can eat and breathe at the same time.” So much struggle alleviated in such little time all because of where the question was asked.

Where you ask the question and what objects and people surround the student when you ask matters. This is why learning while situated in a place of interest is so important.

Interests are not careers

Interests are not careers and should not be used to direct students on specific career pathways. Instead, they should be harnessed as contexts for learning. 

In schools, most students assume when an adult asks them what they are interested in, that the question is about what they want to be when they grow up. What we need to be asking is what students are interested in now. 

Asking about and seeking to discover a student’s current interests is very different than inquiring about what job they want when they are older. It serves a very different purpose.

Even in schools seeking to be more innovative, students are asked or given an interest inventory to place them on a pathway that restricts them to a predefined box within which they are then measured to be on-track or off-track. At the end of the day, this does little in breaking away from the conventional structure of schooling.


History and people’s narratives of their childhood experiences tell us that quarantine, lockdown, isolation, and solitude can be key times for self-discovery and concentrated learning.

Elliott Washor
Co-Founder and Co-Director

When you ask a student, “What are you interested in now?” the purpose of that question is to engage them and show, without any additional words spoken, “I’m interested in you through your interests.”

This is powerful and goes a long way to create a bond. The student now believes “if you are interested in what I’m interested in, you are interested in me.” 

Now, we’re talking. And eventually, we will get to interests that may lead to not one but many career options. Learning and exploring interests is a journey that leads to the discovery of career endeavors. Learning and exploration come first.

Interests are shown as much as they are spoken

I remember working with an advisor who felt she was stuck with one student, Chris, and couldn’t uncover what he was interested in. I happened to be in the room before the start of the day when the student came over and showed her a sculpture of a sneaker he had made. 

Chris was telegraphing one of his interests right then and there, but the advisor missed it. We spoke about it and off Chris went in pursuit of those interests. This story showcases the power of observation. The advisor was singularly focused on listening for Chris’s interests, instead of also looking for what they were. It’s our responsibility to do both at the same time.

Interests are subtle as much as they are obvious

When Johnny started at a BPL school it appeared he had a great deal of interest in becoming a bike technician—he already had many mechanical skills. So, we set him up with an internship that matched, and he learned a great deal from his mentor. And, much of what he learned translated into broader academic and social-emotional skills.

A year went by, and he decided to pivot and pursue an unexpected internship working with EMT’s. The procedural nature of mechanics and his growing social-emotional skills strongly correlated to his success in this new role.

The next year, Johnny interned as a nurse. And, it became clear that from the very beginning it wasn’t the mechanical or procedural skills that were Johnny’s motivators. He was actually driven by an interest and desire to help people—be it repairing a bicycle or mending a wound. 

Johnny was all about caring for people. And, if he was set off on a career pathway based on a surface-level interest he exhibited at a single point in time, he would have gone deeper and deeper into developing a skillset in mechanics that led further and further away from his core interest in helping others.

Unless you took the time to get to know him and went on the years-long journey with him, your advice and guidance as an educator would have sent Johnny down a pathway that really wasn’t his interest at all.

Take advantage of the interests young people show at the start, but never stop listening and looking for what might be driving them at a deeper level.

Honoring interests during COVID-19

History and people’s narratives of their childhood experiences tell us that quarantine, lockdown, isolation, and solitude can be key times for self-discovery and concentrated learning. It is astonishing to me that schools haven’t tapped into these stories as inspiration for what they might discover about their own students during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Frida Kahlo was involved in a tragic bus accident at the age of 18 and had to convalesce for three months. It was during this time that she devoted herself to painting. Kahlo would be bedridden many times in her life, having to undergo multiple surgeries. These “set-backs” appear to have enhanced her creativity. 

Nikola Tesla had to interrupt his university studies when his father died, but he never returned to college because he suffered from hypersensitivity related to cholera. He was confined to bed for nine months, and when he emerged, he had figured out the secret of alternating current.

Andy Warhol also suffered from cholera, and it was when he was bedridden with this disease for three months that his mother taught him how to draw. 

Anton Gaudi was a sickly child who suffered from rheumatic fever, and he was unable to attend his classes. So, he spent his time in the local fields and in his father’s coppersmith workshop—where Gaudi claimed he learned all his art.

Chance the Rapper wrote his break-out album 10-day during the 10 days he had been suspended from high school.

For Henri Matisse, the last decade of his life was spent chair- and bed-ridden due to his duodenal cancer. He was unable to paint but as a consequence developed his famous paper cut-outs. 

Of course, you don’t need to be ill or injured to discover or practice your interest and talents. Edith Wharton and James Joyce did a lot of writing while in their beds. The point to capture here is how often our time away from school is when changes happen, interests are awoken, and new avenues are explored. As educators and parents, how are we making sure those interests are captured?

2020 has put a stop to many things, but the development of our childrens’ and students’ interests hasn’t skipped a beat. Make time for your children and students to pursue their interests and discover new ones alone, with you, and with their peers and families. Give them the simple tools to draw and write, to play, to make, and to reveal what they are thinking, what they care about, and who they are. 

Try it tonight (and the next) and see what interests emerge. This is a great time to feed the flame of a child’s interest, to revisit past passions, to watch new excitements emerge, and to take interest in their interests. I think it will be kinda interesting.

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