Only recently have developmental researchers begun to take seriously the idea that interest is a crucial component of the learning process. When babies are given objects to play with, they spend more time and, more important, use a wider variety of gestures to explore an object for which they have shown a prior interest. In another study, children who got to read stories about domains in which they had demonstrated a sustained interest actually learned more about and from the story. Teachers often try to elicit interest in academic tasks by making sure stories and activities relate to things that are, in general, child-friendly (a story about a kid who gets hooked on drugs for the preteen, a math activity that involves counting koala bears instead of colored rods for first-graders). But scholars who focus on interest are talking about something that goes beyond making a topic lively or superficially relevant to children. Research has shown that from a very early age, children often show intense and sustained interest in one activity or domain (bridges, puzzles, or bugs, for example). And it's also becoming clear that children actually behave in smarter ways when they are using the materials or engaging in the activities that most interest them. In one elegant demonstration of this, Suzanne Hidi gave toddlers objects to play with. Some of the children were given objects in which they had shown a prior interest (cars, dolls, various puzzles), while others were given objects in which they had shown no particular prior interest. When the toddlers were allowed to play with things in which they had a prior interest, they played for longer and used a wider range of gestures. So, it's not just nice to let a kid learn what she is drawn to. It's the best way to help her develop her intellect and make use of her intellectual potential.
Unfortunately, Stevie didn't find it easy to focus on the things that interested him. But it wasn't because he had a hard time focusing. It was because everyone around him was telling him he should do better in school, read more, apply himself, and talk more. His teachers and his parents wanted him to excel at things that didn't interest him and disregarded the activities and materials that did interest him. If a child seems highly motivated and intelligent in some domain, trying to push him to be well rounded or to excel in a more obviously marketable or appealing arena probably won't do any good and might just keep him from pursuing the activities in which he really does shine. In Stevie's case, his stubbornness was his best friend and his worst enemy. He began to act as if he didn't care what teachers said about him. He began to channel his resistance into rebellion and a determination not to follow the conventional path the adults in his life preferred. By the time he was seven, his parents were extremely alarmed that he hadn't learned to read. His mother gave him a dictionary for his birthday, even though he showed a clear disinterest in reading and writing. "For our little scholar," her card read. Then she transferred him to a stricter school, a school he hated.