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This is Interesting…

January 16, 2014

photo-1By Sarah Vander Schaaff

In the middle of a polar vortex, one should not illustrate the concept of a perimeter by saying to an eight-year old, “Imagine you are walking the perimeter of the dog park.”

Cold wind, frozen toes, the threat of stepping in….well, you get the idea. I was getting the look any parent who has helped a kid with homework knows well, the one that says: what good are you if you can’t telepathically understand my teacher’s intentions or remember things you learned when Reagan was president?

I had to think quickly.

“Forget the dog park,” I said, ready to pander to the aspirations of a soon-to-be tween.

“When you paint your room,” I began, “you’ll only paint the walls, right? Imagine the edges of the shape are the walls—you want to follow them with the paint—not think about the inside.”

We breezed through the rest of the page. The extra numbers and shapes thrown in to get us off the scent (dog park or paint, you pick) didn’t stand a chance.

Afterwards, I wiped the sweat off my face and got some water. I’d made it through this round, but fractions and multiplication loom ahead.

While my honorable goals as a parent are to help my children develop their full potentials and cultivate a love of learning, as a mere mortal I confess I also want to get through the hours between 3pm to 9pm without a major meltdown—mine or theirs.

It seems the key to helping my third grader with her homework is not necessarily to be an expert in a subject but to be skilled at relating whatever task is at hand to her interests.

Annie Murphy Paul’s blog post, “The Power of Interest” is a wonderful look into why this may be a good strategy. She refers to a University of North Carolina Professor Paul Silvia who says interest helps create an “approach urge” as opposed to the “avoid urge.”

If you’ve witnessed the avoid urge while sitting at the table with your offspring and their homework you know it is powerful. But its counterpoint, the approach urge, is said to be a state of engagement between the “cognitive” and the “affective” state.

Silvia, as Paul’s blog explains, says people find something of interest if it is: novelcomplex, and comprehensible.

I love that description because it captures the essence of what makes something interesting. It also helps me think about why something might fail to be of interest. What’s missing—the novelty, the complexity, the ability to be comprehensible?

When I introduced the concept of painting a room, my daughter’s face beamed. I’d connected the work to her growing interest in letting go of the recent past of “babyish” paint colors, toys, music and treatment. Perhaps it was the hook of something novel that suddenly made the concept of perimeters more comprehensible.


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