Attention: Types & Motivations

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Originally posted in January 2010

So we have established that attention is a necessary prerequisite to learning. How, then, do we secure attention from our students? I made up a summary list from both Home Education and The Seven Laws of Teaching:

  • Hold the student accountable to his work without allowing him to redo it.

  • Expect a very little “perfect” work rather than sheets of sloppy work.

  • Give adequate but not overly much time for the work to be accomplished

    • let the child have any spare time he gains by accomplishing his work quickly & well to play outside (10+ minutes) or draw pictures along the edges of his paper.

    • have pleasant times after schoolwork that the student will have to forego if he has to use that extra time to finish his work.

  • Be wary in using competition, rewards, and grades to compel attention. Do not encourage envy, jealousness, pride, and the like; use the occasions to teach the children to be first without vainglory and second or last without bitterness. If grades are used, give them for conduct (which is achieved by self-control) rather than cleverness (which the bright and the slow cannot help).

  • Appeal to the student’s senses.

  • Relate the subject to what the student already knows, to what the student is already interested in, to the student’s past life, or to the student’s future life.

Securing interest to secure attention is the primary tactic Mr. Gregory develops, for he claims “since attention follows interest, it is folly to attempt to gain attention without first stimulating interest” (Gregory p. 47):

“The pupil’s mind may not at once respond to the command of the teacher, nor to the call of a cold sense of duty. It is only when we begin our work “with a will” — that is, with interest in our work — that we are working with maximum effectiveness. Unexpected reserve powers come forth when the demand is strong enough. With growing interest, attention grows, and we are enable to accomplish more” (Gregory p. 45)

Interest, Gregory shows, is the key to achieving the most potent attention. He divides attention into three types:

1. “Attention of the flitting kind is often called passive attention, because it involves no effort of the will.”

2. The mind “can hold momentary fancy in leash and work resolutely and persistently toward a remote goal. This distinctively human type of attention is called active attention because its first condition is an effort of the will, a determination to do what should be done in spite of allurements to do something else that is pleasanter and more attractive.”

3. “But attention of this effortful, active sort is not always or often the most economical and effective for learning. Generally speaking we learn most easily and most economically when we are absorbed in our work […] when our learning is so fascinating that it simply carries us with it. Attention of this sort frequently grows out of persistent effort — out of what we have just termed active attention. This attention resembles passive attention in that its object is always attractive in itself and demands little or no effort to be brought into the focus of consciousness […] [It] is consequently termed secondary passive attention”

So, flitting, passive attention is not sufficient, yet active attention is not actually the ideal we are after. Our end goal is that our students achieve such an absorbed interest in the subject at hand that attention is no longer difficult. However, such interest is generally the product of much active, willed attention. So we work at compelling attention while keeping in mind that it is not an end to itself, but hopefully working toward secondary passive attention; that is, fascination:

“It seems to be generally true that these sustained and abiding interests are to be purchased only at a price — and the price is strenuous effort […] certainly those who know well and know thoroughly have paid the price of mental toil and mental effort for their mastery — and mental toil and mental effort are only other words for active attention” (Gregory p. 41)

Both Gregory and Mason wrote about how age and maturity impacts the effort of attention:

“A vigorous effort of will should enable us at any time to fix our thoughts. Yes; but a vigorous self-compelling will is the flower of a devleoped character; and while the child has […] only natural disposition, who is to keep humming tops out of a geography lesson[?]” (Mason p. 139).

“But it cannot be too much borne in mind that attention is to a great extent the product of the educated mind; that is, one can only attend in proportion as one has the intellectual power of developing the topic” (Mason p. 146)

“The power of attention increases with the mental development, and is proportioned to the years of the child. Very short lessons will exhaust the attention of little children. Little and often should be the rule for teaching these little people. Prolonged attention belongs to more mature minds” (Gregory p. 47).

So, younger children are to be kept under the observing, watching supervision of a teacher so that they grow in habits of attention and application. The teacher exerts herself as needed to secure these habits, but with the aim of growing the students’ own powers, not becoming a crutch for them:

“As the child gets older, he is taught to bring his own will to bear; to make himself attend in spite of the most inviting suggestions from without. He should be taught to feel a certain triumph in compelling himself to fix his thoughts.” (Mason p. 145).

And so attention becomes both an object in our lessons and a means for our lessons.

“It appears […] that any object or idea which is regarded with attention makes the sort of impression on the brain which is said to fix it in the memory. […] You want the child to remember? Then secure his whole attention, the fixed gaze of his mind, as it were, upon the fact to be remembered; then he will have it” “We want to have the power of recalling at will; and for this something more is necessary than an occasional act of attention producing a solitary impression. Supposing, for instance, that by good teaching you secure the child’s attention to the verb avoir, he will remember it; […] But one verb is nothing; you want the child to learn French, and for this you must not only fix his attention on each new lesson, but each must be so linked into the last that it is impossible for him to recall one without the other following in its train” (Mason p. 156-157).


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