Pursuing Passionate Interests Can “Spark” Success for Students

Search Institute recently released Teen Voice 2010, a national survey of 1,860 15-year-olds and in-depth interviews with 30 teens, sponsored by the Best Buy Children’s Foundation.  This report caught our attention because it highlights the positive effect of “sparks” – similar to what we at All Kinds of Minds call “affinities” – on teens’ well-being and success in school and beyond.  All Kinds of Minds has been talking about affinities for many years, but this study has done a great job exploring and articulating the value of kids’ pursuit of sparks, or passionate interests. 

The report focuses on three key strengths that influence successful teen development:

  • Sparks
  • Voice (confidence, skills, and opportunities to influence)
  • Relationships

Researchers described “sparks” to survey respondents as “interests or talents you have that you are really passionate about. When you are involved with those sparks, you have joy and energy. You are not bored, and you might lose track of time because you are so involved in what you are doing. A spark is a really important part of your life that gives you a sense of purpose or focus.”

The report explores the teens’ experiences with sparks and the people and places that help sparks grow. In this year’s study – the second of its kind – creative arts, sports, and technology topped the list of sparks.

According to the study, the power of sparks comes when three key elements (comprising the “Sparks Index”) are present:

  • You know your spark(s)
  • Your spark is important (evidenced by what you experience when doing your spark and by the amount of time you spend on it)
  • You take initiative to develop your spark(s)

While 80% of the teens in the survey indicated that they have at least one spark, only about half of them exhibited all three of these key elements. 

We know what you’re thinking: Of course it’s important for kids to identify and develop passionate interests!  But here are some key takeaways that really drive this point home:

  • Teens who exhibit strengths in sparks, voice, and relationships do the best of all on every academic, psychological, social-emotional, and behavioral outcome they studied.
  • Teens who score high on all three elements of the “Sparks Index” are more likely than their peers to work to master what they study, work up to their ability in school, and report having a high GPA.
  • 71% of respondents said pursuing their sparks has helped them to learn new things outside of school, and over half of respondents said that pursuing their sparks had given them new skills that would help them in a career. Thus, schools’ efforts to help students identify and pursue their affinities may be key strategies for boosting achievement as well as college and career readiness.
  • 76% of respondents who have a spark said that other people have “often” encouraged or supported them with their sparks, but only 32% of 15-year-olds “often” get encouragement and support to pursue their sparks from teachers.

Just think about the power teachers have to encourage their students’ pursuit of sparks!  All Kinds of Minds has long encouraged educators to leverage students’ affinities as well as their strengths.  In our recently published book, Schools for All Kinds of Minds, the authors note, “Affinities provide educators with a vehicle for personalizing a student’s educational experience and increasing motivation to engage in learning. Educators throughout the school have the privilege of not only helping students to identify areas of passion but also helping nurture those passions” (page 99).

The possibilities for helping students explore their affinities in the classroom are endless – having students research and give presentations related to their affinities, having students create a blog to write about their affinities, and encouraging students to connect their affinities to broader topics, to name just a few.  To learn more about how schools and parents can nurture children’s strengths and affinities, take a look at this article.

How have you used student affinities to make learning more relevant?  How have your students benefitted?  Share your ideas below, and check out the Teen Voice 2010 report and video!

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3 thoughts on “Pursuing Passionate Interests Can “Spark” Success for Students

  1. Yes. I think of interest as nature’s way of guiding a person (of any age) toward what they need to learn, and providing an excellent–often essential–vehicle for them to develop parts of the brain that need development.

    The article fudges a little on an important distinction between strengths and passions. Passions and interests might reflects some strengths, but they are often a little oblivious to weaknesses. So often when a person is motivated (see the work of Deborah Stipek at Stanford) to do something, they pursue it in spite of weaknesses and the activity that follows is the vehicle for strengthening weaknesses. This is especially true for learning disorders. I have seen so many students learn to read and write because they were motivated to learn something. It’s like they forgot they didn’t have all the capabilities.

  2. I work with homeschooled teens, and pursuing their “sparks” is an area where they excel. Those who follow an interest-based learning method, go so far beyond their “grade level” in multiple subject areas. And they retain what they learn. One young man I know loved metal detecting. He learned metallurgy, statistics, history, economics, report writing, and much more, just by pursuing this interest. He’s also made a tidy sum investing in precious metals, based on the understanding he gained by researching his finds. He was an extremely shy young man, however, when I asked him to speak to one of my science classes, he agreed, and was one of the most popular speakers i had. The 10-15 year old boys in my class were mesmerized and asked him dozens of questions. So, not only is pursuing your interests a valuable tool for learning, but sharing your passion with others can ignite the desire to learn in them.

  3. Ruth, great story. Thank you. I would add one more “takeaway” from the story: The shy young man became a popular public speaker–Passions are a little oblivious of strengths and are great vehicles for overcoming weaknesses. I think it is important that we get beneath questions of abilities and get to interests, passions, and drives–that is where each child’s genius lies. Enthusiasm is the fuel for learning, not ability. see http://rickackerly.com/2010/06/16/what-is-great-teaching/.
    Please tell another story. Schools can learn so much from home schooling. School people should study why people are home schooling to discover what they should be doing.

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