Interest Led Learning: Educational Theories Defined Part 4

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Ah, curricula and textbooks. They guide us, teach us, push us, inform us, and keep us in order.

We can define these as the process of learning, but what about interests? Does a child’s interest play a role in their education? And if so, how much do you let it lead them?

Interest Led Nest

As a person who was formally educated at a private school with traditional methods, I was taught to believe that learning and interests were to be kept separate.

It didn’t matter if you were reading an amazing book that was detailing the 1900s, capturing the culture and creating context, if it wasn’t on the syllabus – it was not to be brought to class.

I can remember thinking: what’s the point in being interested in things outside of “school” when I won’t have time for them anyway? The way I was taught was to listen carefully, take good notes, memorize the facts, pass the test, and then I was free to forget it in order to memorize the next thing.

I don’t remember anything I was taught in school about history. Not-one-thing. But I got an “A” in the class.

What about you?

What do you most remember from your formal education? Was it the 5th edition algebra book from 9th grade? The way the editor’s note in the beginning made you passionate to study the essential components of all the theorems? (I’m being sarcastic. I know, not a usual trait of mine.)

Or was it the science fair project you were allowed to do on your own? The one that you poured every extra moment into – searching the library (no Google when I was in school), testing your hypothesis one more time, and staying up late to design your poster board?

Interest Led Baseball

Maybe it was sports or animals, clubs or teams, reading or dreaming. The one thing that you didn’t mind spending all your time on.

Do you look back at the one thing that you spent your time on and call that your education? Or only the time you spent being lectured and taking tests?

Interest Led Learning is when anyone, regardless of age, knows what they want to learn and they spend themselves pursuing it. The dictionary defines interest as “the state of wanting to know or learn about something or someone.” For a parent, it’s taking the time to intentionally discern the interests of a child – or the interests of one’s self – and to plan learning and living to accommodate the interest.

Imagine education as a meal. The main dish is the educational theory that you feel satisfies your families needs. The traditional model views interests as the sides (and maybe the dessert too). Treating a person’s interests as 2nd in importance – you need to fill up on the “meat” first and then if you have room, you can pursue what interests you. But for the interest led learner, interests are the meal plan – everything a person eats from all the different categories gets filtered and selected with the interest in mind at the start.

Everyone agrees that interests are important – they are a part of our personalities, they direct the choosing of careers and hobbies, and they are the fuel for learning longer. An interest led learner holds up the key interest in a person’s life and says that everything they need to know and learn can be accomplished under the umbrella of their interest. Whereas, the traditional learner holds up the curricula, textbooks, and schedules as key and allows for interests if there is extra time.

Interest Led Ballet

To compare the different educational theories and see how each would incorporate interests,  let’s use Australia as an example of a child’s interest in 9th grade.

For an unschooling family, the child may go to the library, read fiction and non-fiction based in Australia, search the internet to find facts, and if the pocket allows – even take a trip to Australia. The unschooler operates from the mindset that interest is the driving force – dessert may indeed be the main dish.

For a Waldorf family, as a part of their model for high school – the child would have to first determine how Australia fits into their area of expertise. At this point, all learning focuses on developing them into a well-rounded student while providing them with an ideal. Within the Waldorf model: interests are allowed, skills are held in high regard, and a teacher/mentor who is an expert in the field of their interest is a must.  Source

For a TJEd family, using the 7 Keys of Great Teaching would be a must in following any interest. Allowing time for reading classics involving Australia or australians, finding a mentor who is Australian, focusing on the quality of their understanding and not the quantity would all top the list of a TJEd family. Source

Interest Led Reading

For a Unity Study (more to come in the educational theories series on this one) family, as described by Steve Lambert*: “You can start anywhere, and end up everywhere [with unit studies].” His daughter actually designed her own school year using Australia as her “unit study” by planning for each subject in advance.

  • Language arts: Reading books set in Australia or written by an Australian author
  • Science: Studying the Great Barrier reef, kangaroos, and the desert
  • History: Compare and contrast American history to Australian history within the same time periods

And the list went on.

Learning how to merge education and interest takes discipline, flexibility, creativity, and time. It can be applied to any curriculum, any educational theory or model. The only exception is in the Traditional Model of schooling – whether at a institution or at home – where the schedule and the textbooks are the only masters and the students are not allowed to deviate into other areas to develop their understanding further or when they are not allowed to stay on a subject longer because the schedule demands that they move on. For a traditional model family, interests may be a once a week or every Sunday dessert sort of thing. Interests may be separated from education and seen as hobbies or leisure activities.

Interest Led Reading 2

So here a list of what interest led learning looks like:

  • bringing together research and teaching
  • highlighting strengths and structuring time to build up a quality even more
  • meeting interest with quality sources – whether that means finding classics on the topic or mentors for the skill
  • daily seeking to understand a child’s interests, strengths, and weaknesses and tuning the information (whether that is formal schooling or life experience) to their key
  • providing the tools, supplies, and space for their knowledge and interest to take form
  • realizing there needs to be practice and patience for interest to grow

And what interest led learning is not:

  • a curriculum
  • a prescribed method (one-size-fits-all)
  • another term for unschooling
  • something that stops after graduation
  • doing a lot of crafts
  • without boundaries, goals, plans, or course material


Interest led learning gives the freedom to become an expert at whatever the child is naturally gifted in – or as Pablo Picasso said, “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”

There is great wisdom here for a parent/teacher. One of my tendencies is to be too efficient. I like to get things done quickly and neatly. I don’t like it when one of my children spends too much time on a project that I thought would only last a few moments. But I’ve seen as I learn along side them that interest and strength don’t always go hand in hand.

If you find yourself, like me, asking what are my child’s interests and how do I observe them? Then I recommend checking out How Am I Smart?: A Parent’s Guide to Multiple Intelligences* by Dr. Kathy Koch. In this book on the 8 Intelligences, she explains that talent and natural ability don’t always point to an interest. A person’s interest may in fact be in the area that they are weak in and need training. It’s important to value their interest in weak areas and encourage them to grow in it, rather than focusing only on the areas where they are naturally gifted.

For Further Reading on Interest Led Learning:

If you enjoyed this post, check out the other posts in the series by clicking here.

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