How to Pay Attention – and why we all need to

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 in 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)

How to get kids’ attention

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).

Further Reading:

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

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