Interest and Effort in Education/Chapter 4

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1397072Interest and Effort in Education — Chapter 41913John Dewey



The clew we have followed in our discussion of interest is its connection with an activity engaging a person in a whole-hearted way. Interest is not some one thing; it is a name for the fact that a course of action, an occupation, or pursuit absorbs the powers of an individual in a thoroughgoing way. But an activity cannot go on in a void. It requires material, subject-matter, conditions upon which to operate. On the other hand, it requires certain tendencies, habits, powers on the part of the self. Wherever there is genuine interest, there is an identification of these two things. The person acting finds his own well-being bound up with the development of an object to its own issue. If the activity goes a certain way, then a subject-matter is carried to a certain result, and a person achieves a certain satisfaction.

There is nothing new or striking in the conception of activity as an important educational principle. In the form of the idea of "self-activity" in particular, it has long been a name for the ultimate educational ideal. But activity has often been interpreted in too formal and too internal a sense, and hence has remained a barren ideal without influence on practice; sometimes it becomes a mere phrase, receiving the homage of the lips only. To make the idea of activity effective, we must take it broadly enough to cover all the doings that involve growth of power—especially of power to realize the meaning of what is done. This excludes action done under external constraint or dictation, for this has no significance for the mind of him who performs it. It excludes also mere random reaction to an excitation that is finished when the momentary act has ceased—which does not, in other words, carry the person acting into future broader fields. It also excludes action so habitual that it has become routine or mechanical. Unfortunately action from external constraint, for mere love of excitement and from mechanical force of habit are so common that these exceptions cover much ground. But the ground lying within these excepted fields is the ground where an educative process is not going on.

The kinds of activity remaining as true educative interests vary indefinitely with age, with individual native endowments, with prior experience, with social opportunities. It is out of the question to try to catalogue them. But we may discriminate some of their more general aspects, and thereby, perhaps, make the connection of interest with educational practice somewhat more concretely obvious. Since one of the main reasons for taking self-activity in a formal sense was ignoring the importance of the body and of bodily instinct, we may well begin with interest in activity in this most direct and literal sense.

1. It is an old story that the human young have to learn most of the things that the young of other animals do instinctively or else with a slight amount of trying. Reflection on this fact shows that in learning these things human offspring are brought to the need of learning other things, and also to acquiring a habit of learning—a love of learning. While these considerations are fairly familiar, we often overlook their bearing upon the fact of physical activities. It follows from them at once that in so far as a physical activity has to be learned, it is not merely physical, but is mental, intellectual, in quality. The first problem set the human young is learning to use the organs of sense—the eye, ear, touch, etc.—and of movement—the muscles—in connection with one another. Of course, some of the mastery achieved does not involve much mental experimentation, but is due to the ripening of physiological connections. But nevertheless there is a genuinely intellectual factor when the child learns that one kind of eye-activity means a certain kind of moving of the arm, clasping of the fingers, etc., and that this in turn entails a certain kind of exploring with the fingers, resulting in experience of smoothness, etc. In such cases, there is not simply an acquisition of a new physical capacity; there is also learning in the mental sense; something has been found out. The rapidity of mental development in the first year and a half of infancy, the whole-hearted intentness and absorption of the growing baby in his activities, the joy that accompanies his increase of ability to control his movements—all of these things are object-lessons, writ large, as to the nature of interest, and the intellectual significance of actions that (externally judged) are physical.

This period of growth occurs, of course, before children go to school; at least before they go to anything called school. But the amount and the mode of learning in this school of action is most significant in revealing the importance of types of occupation within the school involving the exercise of senses and movement. One of the reasons (as already indicated) for the slight advance made in putting in practice the doctrine of self-activity (with its recommendation of mental initiative and intellectual self-reliance, and its attacks upon the idea of pouring in and passive absorption) is precisely that it was supposed that self-activity could be secured purely internally, without the coöperation of bodily action through play, construction of objects, and manipulation of materials and tools. Only with children having specialized intellectual abilities is it possible to secure mental activity without participation of the organs of sense and the muscles. Yet how much of elementary schooling has consisted in the imposition of forms of discipline intended to repress all activity of the body! Under such a régime it is not surprising that children are found to be naturally averse to learning, or that intellectual activity is found to be so foreign to their nature that they have to be coerced or cunningly coaxed to engage in it! So educators blamed the children or the perverseness of human nature, instead of attacking the conditions which, by divorcing learning from use of the natural organs of action, made learning both difficult and onerous.

The teachings of Pestalozzi and of the sense-training and object-lesson schools in pedagogy were the first important influence in challenging the supremacy of a purely formal, because inner and abstract, conception of self-activity. But, unfortunately, the psychology of the times was still associated with a false physiology and a false philosophy of the relations of mind and body. The senses were supposed to be the inlets, the avenues, the gateways, of knowledge, or at least of the raw materials of knowledge. It was not known that the sense-organs are simply the pathways of stimuli to motor-responses, and that it is only through these motor-responses, and especially through consideration of the adapting of sense-stimulus and motor-response to each other that growth of knowledge occurs. The sense-qualities of color, sound, contact, etc., are important not in their mere reception and storage, but in their connection with the various forms of behavior that secure intelligent control. The baby would not arrive even at the knowledge of individual things,—hat, chair, orange, stone, tree,—were it not for the active responses through which various qualities are made mutually significant of one another, and thereby knit into coherent wholes. Even in the ordinary hard-and-fast school, where it is thought to be a main duty to suppress all forms of motor-activity, the physical activities that are still allowed under the circumstances, such as moving the eyes, lips, etc., in reading to one's self; the physical adjustments of reading aloud, figuring, writing, reciting, are much more important than is generally recognized in holding attention. The outlet in action is so scanty and so accidental, however, that much energy remains unutilized and hence ready to break forth in mischief or worse; while mind takes flights of uncontrolled fancy, day-dreaming and wandering to all sorts of subjects.

The next great advance in the development of a more real, less arbitrary conception of activity, came with Froebel and the kindergarten movement. Plays, games, occupations of a consecutive sort, requiring both construction and manipulation, were recognized, practically for the first time since Plato, as of essential educational importance. The place of the exercise of bodily functions in the growth of mind was practically acknowledged. But the use of the principle was still hampered and distorted by a false physiology and psychology. The direct contribution to growth made by the free and full control of bodily organs, of physical materials and appliances in the realization of purposes, was not understood. Hence the value of the physical side of play, games, occupations, the use of gifts, etc., was explained by recourse to indirect consideration—by symbolism. It was supposed that the educative development was not on account of what was directly done, but because of certain ultimate philosophical and spiritual principles which the activities somehow symbolically stood for. Save for the danger of introducing an element of unreality and so of sentimentality, this misinterpretation of the source of value in the kindergarten activities would not have been so serious had it not reacted very decisively upon the selection and organization of materials and activities. The disciples of Froebel were not free to take plays and modes of occupation upon their own merits; they had to select and arrange them in accordance with certain alleged principles of symbolism, as related to a supposed law of the unfolding of an enfolded Absolute Whole. Certain raw materials and lines of action shown by experience outside the school to be of great value were excluded because the principles of symbolic interpretation did not apply to them. These same principles led, moreover, to an exaggerated preference for geometrically abstract forms, and to insistence upon rigid adherence to a highly elaborate technique for dealing with them. Only within the last generation have the advances of science and philosophy brought about recognition of the direct value of actions and a freer utilization of play and occupational activities. Conceived in this freer and more scientific way, the principles of Froebel undoubtedly represent the greatest advance yet made in the recognition of the possibilities of bodily action in educative growth. The methods of Montessori are based on a like recognition, with the advantage of additional technical knowledge; and if the tendency to reduce them to isolated mechanical exercises (a tendency unfortunately attendant upon the spread of every definitely formulated system) can be resisted or overcome, they undoubtedly suggest further resources that can be utilized with younger children, or with older children whose sensori-motor development has been retarded.

2. In this discussion of physical activity I have had in mind for the most part that of the organs of the body, especially the hands, as employed directly with simple materials, or at most such simple appliances as a pencil, a brush, etc. A higher form of activity involving the sensori-motor apparatus of the body is found when the control over external objects is achieved by means of tools of some sort, or by the application of one material to another. The use of a saw, a gimlet, a plane, of modeling-sticks, etc., illustrate the intervention of tools. The use of a thread in sewing, the application of heat and moisture in cooking or other simple experimentations, illustrate the use of one thing (or mode of energy) to bring about a change in another thing. There is, of course, no sharp distinction, either in practice or in principle, between this form of activity and the more direct kind just discussed. The organs of the body—especially the hands—may be regarded as a kind of tools whose use is to be learned by trying and thinking. Tools may be regarded as a sort of extension of the bodily organs. But the growing use of the latter opens a new line of development so important in its consequences that it is worth while to give it distinctive recognition. It is the discovery and use of extra-organic tools which has made possible, both in the history of the race and of the individual, complicated activities of a long duration—that is, with results that are long postponed. And, as we have already seen, it is this prolongation and postponement which requires an increasing use of intelligence. The use of tools and appliances (in the broad sense) also demands a greater degree of technical skill than does mastery of the use of the natural organs—or rather, it involves the problem of a progressively more complicated use of the latter—and hence stimulates a new line of development.

Roughly speaking, the use of such intervening appliances marks off games and work on one side, from play on the other. For a time children are satisfied with such changes as they can bring about with their hands and by locomotion and transportation. Other changes which they cannot so effect they are satisfied to imagine, without an actual physical modification. Let us "play"—let us "make-believe" that things are so and so, suffices. One thing may be made to stand for another, irrespective of its actual fitness. Thus leaves become dishes, bright stones articles of food, splinters of wood knives and forks, when children are playing at setting a table. In free play things are plastic to alter their nature as mood or passing need dictates; chairs now serve as wagons, now as a train of cars, now as boats, etc. In games, however, there are rules to be followed; so that things have to be used in definite ways, since they are means for accomplishing definite ends, as a club is a bat for hitting a ball. In similar fashion, children as their powers mature want real dishes, real articles of food; and are better satisfied if they can actually make a fire and cook. They want to use the things that are fitted to their purposes and that will really accomplish certain results, instead of effecting them only in fancy. It will be found that the change comes with ability to carry a purpose in mind for a longer time. The little child is impatient, as we say, for immediate returns. He cannot wait to get the appropriate means and use them in the appropriate way to achieve the end: not because he is physically more impatient than older persons, but because an end that is not achieved almost at once gets away from his mind. To execute his purpose he makes his "means" realize his ideas at one stroke of the magic wand of imagination. But as ideas persist for a longer time they can be employed to effect an actual transformation of conditions—a process that almost always requires the intervention of tools, or the use of intervening appliances.

There seems to be no better name for the acts of using intermediate means, or appliances, to reach ends than work. When employed in this way, however, work must be distinguished from labor and from toil and drudgery. Labor means a form of work in which the direct result accomplished is of value only as a means of exchange for something else. It is an economic term, being applied to that form of work where the product is paid for, and the money paid is used for objects of more direct values. Toil implies unusual arduousness in a task, involving fatigue. Drudgery is an activity which in itself is quite disagreeable, performed under the constraint of some quite extraneous need. Play and work cannot, therefore, be distinguished from one another according to the presence or absence of direct interest in what is doing. A child engaged in making something with tools, say, a boat, may be just as immediately interested in what he is doing as if he were sailing the boat. He is not doing what he does for the mere sake of an external result—the boat—nor for the mere sake of sailing it later. The thought of the finished product and of the use to which it is to be put may come to his mind, but so as to enhance his immediate activity of construction In this case, his interest is free. He has a play-motive; his activity is essentially artistic in principle. What differentiates it from more spontaneous play is an intellectual quality; a remoter end in time serves to suggest and regulate a series of acts. Not to introduce an element of work in this sense when the child is ready for it is simply arbitrarily to arrest his development, and to force his activities to a level of sense-excitation after he is prepared to act upon the basis of an idea. A mode of activity that was quite normal in its own period becomes disintegrating when persisted in after a person is ripe for an activity involving more thought. We must also remember that the change from an activity with an end near by to one with an end farther off does not come all at once, nor at the same time with respect to all things. A child may be ready for occupation with tools like scissors, paint and brush, for setting a table, cooking, etc., while with respect to other activities he is still unable to plan and arrange ahead. Thus there is no ground for the assumption that children of kindergarten age are capable only of make-believe play, while children of the primary grades should be held to all work and no play. Only the false idea about symbolism leads to the former conclusion; and only a false identification of interest and play with trivial amusement leads to the latter conclusion. It has been said that man is man only as he plays; to say this involves some change from the meaning in which play has just been used. But in the broader sense of whole-hearted identification with what one is doing—in the sense of completeness of interest, it is so true that it should be a truism.

Work in the sense in which it has been defined covers all activities involving the use of intervening materials, appliances, and forms of skill consciously used in achieving results. It covers all forms of expression and construction with tools and materials, all forms of artistic and manual activity so far as they involve the conscious or thoughtful endeavor to achieve an end. They include, that is, painting, drawing, clay modeling, singing so far as there is any conscious attention to means—to the technique of execution. They comprehend the various forms of manual training, work with wood, metal, textiles, cooking, sewing, etc., so far as these involve an idea of the result to be accomplished (instead of working from dictation or an external model which does away with the need for thought). They cover also the manual side of scientific inquiry, the collection of materials for study, the management of apparatus, the sequence of acts required in carrying on and in recording experiments.

3. So far as this latter interest—the interest in discovery or in finding out what happens under given circumstances—gains in importance, there develops a third type of interest—the distinctively intellectual interest. Our wording should be carefully noted. The intellectual interest is not a new thing, now showing itself for the first time. Our discussion of the development of the so-called physical activities of a baby, and of the constructive work of children, youth, and adults has been intended to show that intelligence, in the form of clear perception of the result of an activity and search for and adaptation of means, should be an integral part of such activities. But it is possible for this intellectual interest to be subordinate, to be subsidiary, to the accomplishment of a process. But it is also possible for it to become a dominating interest, so that instead of thinking things out and discovering them for the sake of the successful achievement of an activity, we institute the activity for the sake of finding out something. Then the distinctively intellectual, or theoretical, interest shows itself.

As there is no sharp line of division in theory, so there is none in practice. Planning ahead, taking notice of what happens, relating this to what is attempted, are parts of all intelligent or purposive activities. It is the business of educators to see that the conditions of expression of the practical interests are such as to encourage the developing of these intellectual phases of an activity, and thereby evoke a gradual transition to the theoretical type. It is a commonplace that the fundamental principle of science is connected with the relation of cause and effect. Interest in this relation begins on the practical side. Some effect is aimed at, is desired and worked for, and attention is given to the conditions for producing it. At first the interest in the achievement of the end predominates; but in the degree in which this interest is bound up with thoughtful effort, interest in the end or effect is of necessity transferred to the interest in the means—the causes—which bring it about. Where work with tools, gardening, cooking, etc., is intelligently carried on, it is comparatively a simple matter to secure a transfer of interest from the practical side to experimentation for the sake of discovery. When any one becomes interested in a problem as a problem and in inquiry and learning for the sake of solving the problem, interest is distinctively intellectual.

4. Social interest, interest in persons, is a strong special interest, and also one which intertwines with those already named. Small children's concern with persons is remarkably intense. Their dependence upon others for support and guidance, if nothing else, provides a natural basis for attention to people and for a wish to enter into intimate connections with them. Then distinctively social instincts, such as sympathy, imitation, love of approval, etc., come in. Children's contact with other persons is continuous; and there are practically no activities of a child that are isolated. His own activities are so bound up with others, and what others do touches him so deeply and in so many ways, that it is only at rare moments, perhaps of a clash of wills, that a child draws a sharp line between other peoples' affairs as definitely theirs and his own as exclusively his. His father and mother, his brothers and sisters, his home, his friends are his; they belong to his idea of himself. If they were cut away from his thought of himself, and from his hopes, desires, plans, and experiences, the latter would lose pretty much all their contents. Because of limitations of experience and of intelligence, there are many affairs of others that a child cannot make his own; but within these limits a child's identification of his own concerns with those of others is naturally even more intense than that of grown persons. He has not come into business rivalries with them; the number of people whom he meets who are not sympathetic with his concerns is small; it is through entering into the actions of others, directly and imaginatively, that he finds the most significant and the most rewarding of all his experiences. In these regards, a child is likely to be more social in his interests than the average adult.

This social interest not only, then, interfuses and permeates his interest in his own actions and sufferings, but it also suffuses his interest in things. Adults are so accustomed to making a sharp distinction between their relations to things and to other persons; their pursuits in life are so largely specialized along the line of having to do with things just as things, that it is difficult for them, practically impossible, to realize the extent to which children are concerned with things only as they enter into and affect the concerns of persons, and the extent to which a personal-social interest radiates upon objects and gives them their meaning and worth. A moment's consideration of children's plays shows how largely they are sympathetic and dramatic reproductions of social activities; and thereby affords a clew to the extent in which interest in things is borrowed from their ideas of what people do to and with things. Much of the so-called animistic tendency of children, their tendency to personify natural objects and events, is at bottom nothing but an overflow of their social interests. It is not so much that they literally conceive things to be alive, as that things are of interest to them only when they are encompassed with the interests they see exemplified in persons; otherwise things are, at first, more or less matters of indifference to them.

No doubt some of the repulsiveness of purely abstract intellectual studies to many children is simply the reflex of the fact that the things—the facts and truths—presented to them have been isolated from their human context. This does not mean, of course, that a mythological or fanciful human character should be attributed to inanimate things; but it does mean that impersonal material should be presented so far as possible in the rôle it actually plays in life. Children generally begin the study of geography, for example, with a social interest so strong that it is fairly romantic. Their imaginations are fired by the thought of learning how strange and far-away peoples live and fare. Then they are fed on abstract definitions and classifications; or, what is almost as deadening, upon bare physical facts about the forms of land and water, the structure of continents, etc. Then there are complaints that children have so little interest in the study—simply because they have not been touched where they are at home. In such sciences as physics and chemistry there are enough facts and principles which are associated with human concerns to supply adequate material for thorough grounding in the methods of those sciences.

It is not necessary to do more than to allude to the close connection between social and moral interests.[1] In those cases where direct interest points one way and obligation another, no reinforcement of the demand of duty is as strong as that furnished by a realization of the interests of others that are bound up with it. The abstract idea of duty, like other abstract ideas, has naturally little motivating force. Social interests have a powerful hold, which, by association, is transferred to what is morally required. Thus a strong indirect interest resists the contrary pull of immediate inclination. The only other moral point that need be mentioned here is that the conception of interest as naturally a selfish or egoistic principle is wholly irreconcilable with the facts of the case. All interest is naturally in objects that carry an activity forward or in objects that mark its fulfillment; hence the character of the interest depends upon the nature of these objects. If they are low, or unworthy, or purely selfish, then so is the interest, but not otherwise. The strength of the interest in other persons and in their activities and aims is a natural resource for making activities broad, generous, and enlightened in scope; while the physical, manual, and scientific interests in their identification with objects make for a broadening of the self.

  1. See Moral Principles in Education, in this Series.