Creative Education
2013. Vol.4, No.12B, 16-19
Published Online December 2013 in SciRes (
Open Access
The Heart of Learning
Allan M. MacKinnon
Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, Canada
Received October 17th, 2013; revised November 17th, 2013; accepted November 24th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Allan M. MacKinnon. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons
Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited. In accordance of the Creative Commons Attribution License all Copyrights ©
2013 are reserved for SCIRP and the owner of the intellectual property Allan M. MacKinnon. All Copyright ©
2013 are guarded by law and by SCIRP as a guardian.
This essay explores the central importance of human interest and aspiration in learning. In an age when
our educational institutions and ministries of education seem to be preoccupied with defining and meas-
uring the “outcomes” of schooling, there is a great need to reconsider what we are doing in curriculum
studies and refocus at least some of our energy on helping young people develop and sustain their inter-
ests. I use an autobiographical account of my interest in playing guitar and how this is related to my for-
mative school experiences to develop my argument. The article also reviews literature tracing educa-
tional research and writing that focuses on the role of interest in learning.
Keywords: Motivation; Curriculum Studies; Activity Theory; Student-Centered; Learning Theory
There is something about human character and spirit that lies
at the heart of learning, an emotive aspect of human nature and
development that brings one to put ones heart into something,
or to have ones heart set on something. The heart (core, center)
of the matter is the heart (passion) of learning, that is, the emo-
tive qualities associated with intrinsic motivation that make us
who we are. So the title of this essay is a pun with its double
meaning, the heart of learning. What I do not mean by the
heart of learning is “learning by heart”—our familiar colloqui-
alism for memorizing something—unless of course we are
talking about someone who memorizes, say, Marc Anthony’s
funeral speech from Julius Caesar to satiate a passion or obses-
sion for Shakespeare. Actually, I am writing about the role of
human interest in learning and what I wish to say is—the heart
of learning is human interest.
We need a deep personal construct psychology, or a theory of
being that would give new life to our understanding of learning,
knowledge and cognition by placing these concepts firmly in a
context of human agency vis-à-vis interest and aspiration. It is
the interests and aspirations of learners that determine the rela-
tionship they will have with whatever curriculum they encoun-
ter, whether in school or elsewhere. It is in the interest of learn-
ers that we should think again about what motivates learning,
how learners become motivated, and what sustains their moti-
vation. This essay is not so much a report of a research study as
it is a call to the educational research community, particularly
in the area of curriculum studies, to reconsider fundamental
notions about schooling and education. I explore my own story,
my own experience in the formative years at school that shapes
me and influences the way I am in the world to this day—the
way I see and understand the world, the way I see and under-
stand myself, and therefore how I find my place in the world.
The Challenge for Curriculum Studies
Suppose we were to heighten our awareness of the role of
human interest and aspiration in learning in order that we might
develop a different kind of window for looking out at the edu-
cational world? What would a school system or a ministry of
education look like, for instance, if it were built more upon the
interests of learners, and less upon what we expect them to
learn? What curriculum would we draw upon? Whose “cur-
riculum”? Surely we would ultimately have to turn the concept
of curriculum on its head such that the central driving force
would be the interests of learners rather than those of ministries
of education and political influences.
Learning as Purposive Activity
Let us consider first what goes into learning and then search
for a literature that illuminates the concept of human interest
and its role in learning. Learning is a purposive activity—it is
willful, deliberate and intentional, and it is manifest in a per-
son’s activity, behavior, outlook—in short, his or her way of
being in the world (Engeström, 1987, 1999; Lave & Wenger,
1991). This means that learning comes to bear in the context of
an agenda, that is, it happens when someone strives to achieve,
when somebody ‘reaches’ for something. As learning is pur-
posive, we cannot receive an education; we must take an educa-
tion. In order to flesh out and illustrate what this means, I de-
velop here an autobiographical account of my own life-long
interest in playing guitar. This interest is at the heart of my own
learning and development, my own identity I would say.
The Concept of Interest
I believe the typical attitude of educators toward students’
interests is one of casual indifference. By this I mean that many
Open Access 17
of us actually believe we can educate children along side their
interests at best, or worse, despi te their interests. I think this is
unfortunate; I believe that students’ interest is by far the single
most important ingredient of their education. In search for a
deeper appreciation of the concept of interest and its role in
learning, it is useful to review a brief history of the develop-
ment of the concept as an important construct in the field of
Herbart (1806/1965a, 1941/1965b) is cited as the first psy-
chologist to recognize the role of interest in learning (Hidi,
1990; Schiefel, 1991). He theorized that interest allows for
complete and accurate recognition of an object, that it leads to
meaningful learning and long-term storage of knowledge, and it
stimulates further learning. Schiefel (1991) notes that this early
work in psychology took hold in the work of a few German
psychologists, including Kerschensteiner (1922) and Lunk
(1926, 1927). Dewey (1913, 1916, 1938) is often cited as the
first ‘modern day’ psychologist/philosopher to write about the
role of interest in learning and education (Hidi, 1990; Schiefel,
1991). Hidi (1990) provides an extensive review of more recent
research and writing in this area, but comments as well on the
paucity of attention to the role of interest in learning.
Once we accept the premise that individual interest facilitates
learning, we must consider how interest develops, how the
interest/learning relationship actually works, and how it could
best be utilized in schools. … In fact, it is remarkable how little
we know about how early interests begin and what they lead to.
(p. 553)
My Story
As a young boy I became intrigued with guitars at the age of
six or seven. It was 1961, a time of innovation and creation in
the early years of the electric guitar and I was consumed with
the looks and the sounds—the whole ethos and intrigue sur-
rounding the guitar. When I was in grade three I made a guitar
from cardboard with elastic strings, and on seeing this, my
mother bought me a ukulele. I learned to play and sing songs
like Old Black Joe,’ which I performed for my class at the
grade four Christmas party. I began to notice the relationship
between lyrics and musical tones and passages, as well as the
way an audience interacted with them. This first public per-
formance of strumming and singing was a milestone for me,
and I remembered it as such for many years to come.
The school in which I was enrolled had a school-wide as-
sembly every Friday morning—a practice that continued
throughout my attendance at the school from grade one to six.
At one of these assemblies when I was in Grade Two, an older
student mesmerized me by singing and playing electric guitar to
Sugar Time.Later, when I was in Grades Five and Six, I was
given extra jobs as a student monitor around the school for
various weekly routines. The assembly was one of these rou-
tines; for this I was in charge of operating the public address
system and stage lighting in the school auditorium. In this role
I also prepared the children who were about to perform in front
of their peers. The performance could be a dance, a piece on
the piano or violin, a song, a poem or short story that was read.
A sense of show business enshrouded me as though I were the
host of a variety show in the early days of television. Still
prominent in this whole gestalt, even today, is the memory of
the older boy singing, Sugar in the morning, sugar in the eve-
By grade six I had my first guitar and this was very signifi-
cant in my long journey of self-discovery. I also absorbed a
sense of show business vis-à-vis the school assembly, as I had
the experience of helping many of my school mates step in and
out of the spotlight on the school stage. By the time I was in
high school I was known to be a good guitar player, partly of
course because I also seemed to know how to work the stage.
I began playing with rock and country rock bands at the age
of fourteen; about the same time I began to teach guitar for a
local music conservatory. The guitar led me further and further
into other worlds, as I became fascinated with teaching the
guitar, how kids learn the guitar, how many different ways one
can play the guitar, put ones finger prints on it.I noticed
among my young students that only those who really wanted to
play would play proficiently, that those who struggled also
seemed to lack interest and motivation. To those who are pas-
sionate about guitar, playing it comes easily.
I continued to teach guitar while attending university and
eventually I became a school teacher and later a professor of
education. The whole while I continued to play guitar as much
as I could, continued to perform with bands, continued to write
and record music, still with the guitar as large as ever in my
mind. I still think, from time to time, about the older boy at the
school assembly singing Sugar Time,’ and the feeling of prep-
ping my fellow classmates for the stage and ensuring the sound
and lighting were working properly. Not only am I still pas-
sionate about guitars to this day, I see myself as a guitar player
just as I did back in elementary school.
Sustained Interest
What can we say about this guitar in a young boy’s mind?
And what of the relationship between the boy and the guitar?
My interest in the guitar certainly had its influence on my
learning and development. It is one of my ‘inputs’ of learning,
one of the ‘resources’ for my education. One might say this is
obvious; why single it out? Out of all of the things I would
learn about and all of the many and varied activities in my life,
why focus on a childhood interest? Wouldn’t an education lead
a person away from childhood interests, further and further
from them, rather than deeper and deeper into them?
What can be said about a boy and a guitar? I learn about my-
self through my engagement with the guitar and this provides
the foundation for much of my other learning because this is
how I know myself. This view of myself in the world lies at the
core of my education and development, my engagement. My
view of myself as a guitar player influences my academic and
teaching life, the way I interact with students and colleagues. I
am a guitar player first, then a husband, a father, a teacher, a
colleague. I carry myself as a guitar player, I go where guitar
players go. I speak like a guitar player, act like one. I am living
out my conception of myself in the world, at the very base of
which lies my childhood passion, ever evolving, one I have
lived out all of my life. It is the guitar that will bring me out
into the world, help me to stand tall at my horizon to look out at
my future and see opportunity.
Individuality and Opportunity in Learning
Why guitar? Why not baseball? What made my interest so
strong, so alive? What seed was planted in my mind and how
did this occur? Here we can theorize until we are blue in the
Open Access
face, still how interest develops must surely remain a mystery,
something like a miracle that happens somehow through our
interactions with our families, heritage, culture, and the various
situations in which we find ourselves. How interest happens is
illusive, yet we cannot deny the over-arching influence of our
passions and desires over what we become.
Having said that, we may consider another input of learning
as opportunity—opportunities in life to develop and pursue
interests and passions. These are the formative times in our
lives when we have the opportunity to develop interests in the
first place. Of course this depends on milieu, culture, economic
condition, the fashion of the times, and so on. Nevertheless, we
could in my example come to see the guitar as a tool and means
with which I interact with the milieu. The guitar not only medi-
ates my engagement in the world, it allows for the engagement
in the first place. In this way we begin to understand the guitar
and a young boy’s interest as ingredients of learning. Through
the guitar, I interact with the world. My passion for the guitar
develops and presents me to the world dialogically through the
opportunities at hand.
The opportunities at hand nourish our view of ourselves and
our deepening passions and forming identities. The more I be-
came known for playing the guitar, the more opportunities
came and the more I was occupied—preoccupied—with play-
ing the guitar, and the more I put my heart into it. We can begin
to see the individual’s relationship with society—the opportu-
nities at hand—as karaoke. Literally, the word means ‘empty
song.’ In karaoke, one can enter an empty song and fill it as its
singer. The technology of karaoke provides a musical structure
that is quite literally a song without a singer. Through karaoke,
people find out whether they are singers or not. The more they
feel like singers, the more they go to karaoke; the more they go,
the better they get and the better the response from the audience;
the better the response, the greater they feel and behave like a
singer, and so on in spirals of contingencies. The occasion to
‘enter the song’ is furnished by the individual’s developing
identity, which is in dialogical relationship with society.
When we think about a child’s developing identity, we can
see in my example that the guitar is at the center of a whole
world of influences. The very nature of rock and roll music
provides a template for social uprising and critique. It is a cul-
ture of rebellion, and the guitar especially is like a tool for the
working-class man to sing the blues, to express his opinion
about the way things are and the way they ought to be. The
guitar, together with the culture of rock and roll music, can
become a vehicle for transcending from the conditions of eve-
ryday life and the problems of society. In this sense, the guitar
is like the pen of the poet, which permits a certain element of
cheekiness and impertinence on the part of rock and roll musi-
cians, and hence some latitude for a young boy in expressing
himself as I did.
I suppose I would need a great deal more thought and analy-
sis in order to truly understand the role of the guitar in my mind
and heart and my learning. Of course, I was not alone in my
interests and motivations. There were and still are many, many
other people of all ages like myself who have a guitar stuck in
their minds, who anchor themselves in life with a guitar. We
would need to learn a great deal more to understand why this is
the case. But it is fascinating to think, in the example developed
here, that I was in fact profoundly influenced by my early
school experience, particularly my formative elementary school
days. As I look back on my early school experiences, these
profound influences seem to have had little to do with the cur-
riculum, or the intended outcomes of the school system in terms
of the way we understand them today.
A Theoretical Foundation for Interest
We cannot appreciate the importance and role of the guitar in
a child’s mind and education without turning to some kind of
personal construct theory or psychology. We need a dialogical
view of self and its social contingencies that is developmental
and multi-focal (Jonassen, 2000; Wertsch, 1998, 1991). We
also need a conception of education as an emotive process that,
for better or worse, follows in the wake of human interest, as-
piration and identity. The core of education for me is the ques-
tion of how one comes to know oneself. How do we, as social
entities, compose ourselves? How do we understand what and
who our influences are, and how is it that we come to see our-
selves in relation to these influences? Our interests tend to de-
fine us as well as our socio-cultural contingencies in the world;
they play a vital role in the kind of education we will ultimately
take for ourselves.
Activity Theory and Dialogism
Knowledge is always embedded in some kind of exchange,
some kind of relation, either mental or material (Lave &
Wenger, 1991; Wertsch, 1991). By material, I’m referring to
the body and its physical constituents and circumstance, draw-
ing attention to the notion that our knowledge is not only in our
minds, but also embedded in our movements, actions, activities,
mediated social practices and rituals (Jonassen, 2000; Lave &
Wenger, 1991). Part of our knowledge we also need to see as
being unmitigated, that is it grows inside our minds and bodies
without our being aware that it’s there. It turns out that some of
our learning is not intentional, that we know more than we can
tell, that we know how to do many things we are unable to de-
Together, personal construct theory, a dialogical view of self,
identity and agency, and a view of knowledge as mediated ac-
tivity in social practices, provide a way to see the role and im-
portance of interest in learning. Here, psychology, sociology
and philosophy come together in a contemporary notion that
illuminates the depth of interest and learning that is possible in
young minds and the over-arching power that their interests
wield in shaping their lives.
A Promising Turn in Policy
I think there are two main points I would like to make about
learning. The first is really a comment on human nature itself. It
seems as though we are under constant self-composition or self-
construction. We make ourselves up as we go. It is as though
every day brings a re-birthing of interest, a new act of reaching
for the next bit of information, the next fix of playing the guitar
or whatever it happens to be, as though a person is never really
fully developed. What we think as our identity seems to be in
flux, in constant motion, under continual assessment, as though
cognition itself is the act of reaching. This is like a stage in the
school auditorium during assembly. The educational point to be
made is that this is the assembly where learning happens. There
are many people in the wings, in our various individual assem-
blies, of course, but the second point about learning—the one
Open Access 19
that we just cannot seem to grasp publicly—is that each of us is
really our own director, determining the program as we go. The
assembly, whether it actually occurs in public or only in our
minds, helps us to see ourselves in relation to, and in terms of
our interests. We need some kind of reification of public inter-
est in our school system that would bring new ways of ad-
dressing the intellectual and emotional development of our
children. In short, we need to engage in our students, some-
times leading, sometimes following their interests, but always
focusing on identifying, sustaining, and developing genuine
interest in our classrooms.
The recent British Columbia Education Plan (BC Ministry of
Education, 2011) presents a Canadian example of a radical new
policy framework for the role of student interests and aspira-
tions in their learning. A short excerpt is illustrative and pro-
vides an appropriate optimistic note with which to end this
Under the Plan, teachers, students and parents will work to-
gether to make sure every student’s needs are met, passions are
explored and goals are achieved. This means student-centered
learning should be focused on the needs, strengths and aspira-
tions of each individual young person. Students will play an
active role in designing their own education and will be in-
creasingly accountable for their own learning success. It’s all
about putting students at the center of education. That means
giving teachers and schools the flexibility to make sure each
student is well served by their educational program. Each stu-
dent is unique and our education system will support each stu-
dent’s interests and ways of learning (p. 5).
Dewey, J. (1913). Interest and effort in education. Boston: Riverside.
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the
philosophy of education. New York: Macmillan.
Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Macmillan.
Engeström, Y. (1987). Learning by expanding: An activity theoretical
approach to developmental research. Helsinki: Orienta-Konsultit Oy.
Engeström, Y. (1999). Activity theory as individual and social trans-
formation. In Y. Engeström, R. Miettinen, & R. L. Punamäki (Eds.),
Perspectives on activity theory (pp. 19-38). Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
Herbart, J. F. (1965a). General pedagogy, derived from the goal of
education. In J. F. Herbart (Ed.), Pädagogische Schriften (Vol. 2, pp.
9-155). Düsseldorf: Küpper.
Herbart, J. F. (1965b). Lectures on pedagogy. In J. F. Herbart (Ed.),
Pädagogische Schriften (Vol. 3, pp. 157-300). Düsseldorf: Küpper.
Hidi, S. (1990). Interest and its contribution as a mental resource for
learning. Review of Educational Research, 60, 549-571.
Jonassen, D. H. (2000). Revisiting activity theory as a framework for
designing student- centered learning environments. In D. H. Jonassen,
& S. M. Land (Eds.), Theoretical foundations of learning environ-
ments (pp. 89-121). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Kerschensteiner, G. (1922). Theory of education. Leipzig: Teubner.
Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral
participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lunk, G. (1926). Interest: Vol. 1: Historical-critical part. Leipzig:
Lunk, G. (1927). Interest: Vol. 2: Philosophical-educational part. Leip-
zig: Klinkhardt.
Province of British Columbia, Ministry of Education (2011). BCs
Education Plan. Victoria, BC.
Schiefel, U. (1991). Interest, learning and motivation. Educational Psy-
chologist, 26, 299-323.
Wertsch, J. V. (1998). Mind as action. New York: Oxford University
Wertsch, J. V. (1991). Voices of the mid: Socio-cultural approach to
mediated action. Cambridge, MS: Harvard University Press.