Attention: Its Nature and Importance

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Originally posted in January 2010

Attention and observation are the primary habits we are going to work on in our upcoming school year. Therefore, I have to gather my wits (fewer than average, since I am sleep deprived) and summarize what this means so I can keep it mind. I was reminded by a passing comment I saw somewhere that John Milton Gregory’s The Seven Laws of Teaching had a chapter on attention, and so I reread that as well as Charlotte Mason’s section on the habit of attention in Home Education. Gregory wrote in 1884 and Miss Mason wrote her first education book, Home Education, in 1886. As a side note, in all the quotes the italics are original and bolding indicates my emphases.

First, before we even establish what attention is, both author’s statements about how vital attention is are striking:

“Interest and attention characterize the mental state of the true learner, and constitute the essential basis on which the process of learning rests. The law of the learner, then, may be stated as follows: The learner must attend with interest to the material to be learned” (Gregory p. 37).

Attention, says Charlotte Mason, is a habit, and one that is acquired “by direct training rather than by example” (p. 137). In fact, she goes so far as to state that “the highest intellectual gifts depend for their value upon the measure in which their owner has cultivated the habit of attention” (p. 137).

Further,

“It is impossible to overstate the importance of this habit of attention. It is, to quote words of weight, ‘within the reach of every one, and should be made the primary object of all mental discipline’; for whatever the natural gifts of the child, it is only in so far as the habit of attention is cultivated in him that he is able to make use of them” (Mason p. 146)

“However much teachers may neglect it in practice, they readily admit that without attention the pupil cannot learn. One may as well talk to the deaf or to the dead as to attempt to teach a child who is wholly inattentive” (Gregory p. 44)

So, what is attention, exactly?

“Attention means the direction of the mind upon some object. […] Attention, then, is not a constant and invariable condition. When we speak of concentrated or absorbed attention we mean that the object attended to is occupying the whole of consciousness” (Gregory p. 38)

Attention is hardly even an operation of the mind, but is simply the act by which the whole mental force is applied to the subject at hand. This act of bringing the whole mind to bear may be trained into a habit at the will of the parent or teacher, who attracts and holds the child’s attention by means of a sufficient motive” (Mason p. 145).

Attention is concentrated thinking upon a particular object or concept or listening intently to a conversation, reading, or presentation. It is effort. It is hard work. It should be required when it is needed, yet the student should not be overtaxed. So the teacher has to observe and exercise wisdom, guarding that her charges do not dawdle or “zone out” while also guarding that what she has required of them is within their capacities (not that it isn’t difficult for them, but that with application and effort, it is possible):

“Here is the secret of the weariness of the home schoolroom — the children are thinking all the time about something else than their lessons; or, rather, they are at the mercy of the thousand fancies that flit through their brains, each in the train of the last. […] Where is the harm? In this: not merely that the children are wasting time, though that is a pity; but that they are forming a desultory habit of mind, and reducing their own capacity for mental effort” (Mason p. 139).

I love the phrase “desultory habit of mind.” I picture a 1920’s flapper languidly draped over a sofa. Lady Bertram from Mansfield Park also comes to mind. “Never let the child dawdle” admonishes Miss Mason, and though it is a hard saying, who will argue that dawdling should be acceptable? After all, “it is not enough to look and listen. If the mind is only half aroused, the conceptions gained will be faint and fragmentary — as inaccurate and useless as they are fleeting. Teacher and textbook may be full of information but the learner will get from them only so much as his power of attention enables him to shape in his own mind” (Gregory p.44)

This is where the concept of a teacher as a “master” fits best: the goal isn’t to get through a textbook or a schedule, but to use those things as tools toward your goal. The students attend to the lesson and the teacher attends to her students.

It is the teacher’s duty, her job, to secure the attention of her pupils. After all, it is her job to see that they learn, and they will not learn without paying attention. This is work for teacher and student alike:

“When a child grows stupid over a lesson, it is time to put it away. Let him do another lesson as unlike the last as possible and then go back with freshened wits to his unfinished task. If mother or governess have been unwary enough to let the child ‘moon’ over a lesson, she must just exert her wits to pull him through; the lesson must be done, of course, but must be made bright and pleasant to the child” (Mason p. 141).

Now, I chafe at the idea of a teacher exerting herself to make lessons bright and pleasant. I imagine a spineless, prissy, sentimental Mommy with a sugary-sweet “Now, Johnny….” However, this is actually a straw-man I use to deflect the admonition to exert myself. How to make a dull lesson bright and pleasant eludes me, so rather than figuring out how it is done, I deny that it is necessary. Instead of enticing interest, I play drill sergeant and demand obedience. Gregory, however, nailed me:

“It would be folly, however, for the teacher to interpret this need of effort upon the part of the learner as meaning that the art of teaching consists only of setting tasks and driving pupils to the accomplishment of these tasks — for it is also agreed that the kind of effort that comes from the incitement of driving or the incentive of fear is quite unlikely to develop these permanent and abiding interests” (Gregory p. 41)

Further Reading:

Afterthoughts: Lessons from Charlotte: Paying Attention is a Mental Habit
Afterthoughts: Lessons From Charlotte: Habits of the Mind