The Habit of Attention

Habits of the Mind

Have you ever experienced that scenario where you are speaking to someone, but you can see that they are doing something else at the same time? You might complain, but the other person insists that they are listening to you. I always say, at this moment, "No, you are hearing me, but listening requires you to pay attention." Of all of the habits of the mind that I feel strongly about, the habit of attention is the one which evokes the strongest feelings. It's not difficult to see why I'm so drawn to Charlotte Mason's ideas. Her methods, philosophy and curriculum ideas all revolve around habits and how much of a role they play in learning. Below is a link to the section from Volume 1 from which this is drawn: Home Education Series by Charlotte Mason (1: 135-149.) The beginning pages focus on the idea of habits of the mind and that parents (mothers, in particular) have a unique insight into the minds of their children that others will not have. Developing habits in children, while often difficult (especially at first), are necessary to allow them to have a life which moves with an easy flow to it. The parents may grow tired initially over managing various habits in their children, wondering if this is all on which they spend their time. Charlotte Mason advises parents to concentrate on just one habit at a time, while still keeping an eye on the ones already formed. Over time, he/she will become trained in the habit of training their children's habits. It is also important not to underestimate the power of the atmosphere of the home. In what way do we, the parents, model our own habits and the care we take of them? Charlotte Masons writes "...the child's most fixed and dominant habits are those which the mother takes no pains about, but which the child picks up for himself through the close observation of all that is said and done, felt and thought, in his home." (Mason 1: 137)

The Habit of Attention

The habit of attention is one mental habit which is affected by direct training and not just by the example made in the home atmosphere. Charlotte Mason writes that "...the highest intellectual gifts depend for their value upon the measure in which the owner has cultivated the habit of attention." (Mason 1: 137) A mind is never empty and has ideas and thoughts constantly flowing through it. Often one thought leads to another which leads to another and continues on this way for some time. Mason writes that this pattern follows a law, "...the law of association of ideas, by which any idea presented to the mind recalls some other idea which has been at any time associated with it..." (Mason 1: 138) To have this ability can be a great benefit in that it allows us to recall the past and connect them to the future, but to have this ability and have no control over them can be a huge detriment. The attention that wanders aimlessly can be brought under control, but this takes a concentrated effort on the part of this person. This concentrated effort is the result of the direct training of the habit of attention. Children are known for having active minds that wander over many different thoughts. Mason writes "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." The habit of attention can begin with infants and carry on with small children. We, as parents, often do this instinctively. We play with our babies such games as peek-a-boo which trains the baby to focus on our faces and then to stay attentive long enough to wonder where we have gone. We pop back up with a huge smile and engage them again. We spend time with our toddlers and small children by building blocks, examining nature, reading books, teaching them how to use a crayon or a fork. All of this models and trains the mind in paying attention. If we recognize this as more than just play, we can remember to push this training a little further, but in a gentle and natural way. Perhaps we could have the child build the towers in such a way as to create a building. When the child is ready for formal lessons, there begins a change in a focus on words and not just things. This transition can be difficult for children at first. Mason warns, "...never let the child dawdle over the copybook or sum, sit dreaming with his book before him." (Mason 1: 141) It would be better to put the lesson away and come back to it when the child's attention is refreshed. It is also important for the teacher to make lessons appealing to the child. This doesn't mean that all lessons must be fun, it means that the teacher should know what is meaningful (age appropriate) for their child and to vary the lessons so that the child has time to use their mind in multiple ways and/or to rest their mind when needed. The time spent at the table should be consistent and written out on a schedule so that the child knows what is expected of him/her. Lessons should be short, using twenty minutes for a child under eight as a guide. The schedule should reflect a variation in skills and work so that the child spends time thinking through one lesson, listens to a story or poem, draws or writes a narration and then spends time thinking through another lesson. Consequences and rewards should be natural extensions of the child's conduct. For example, if the child does their work well and finishes early, then the natural consequence is for the child to have extra free time available to them. In a family with more than one child, it may happen that one child who has worked hard receives the reward of going out early, while the other child, who may not have worked as hard, will need to stay inside longer in order to finish their work. The parent/teacher should stand firm in allowing the natural consequences to take place, despite the discomfort of seeing their child suffer from the consequence. Relenting in this scene may encourage the child who did not work diligently to repeat this behavior. This, in turn, can lead to a bad habit. It would seem natural for one to think that since the world is a competitive place in which to live then the educational environment should also be competitive. But, here is an opportunity to build depth and character instead. Mason writes, "But here is where the mother's work comes in. She can teach her child to be first without vanity and to be last without bitterness; that is, she can bring him up in such a hearty outgoing of love and sympathy that joy in his brother's success takes the sting out of his own failure, and regret for his brother's failure leaves no room for self glorification." (Mason 1: 144) A system of marks (or grading system) should focus on a child's efforts and habits and not their abilities. This gives every child confidence because they can succeed and removes an emulation that is based more on the desire to be the best rather than do their best.

She also writes:

...if a system of marks be used as a stimulus to attention and effort, the good marks should be given for conduct rather than for cleverness- that is , they should be within everybody's reach: every child may get his mark for punctuality, order, attention, diligence, obedience, gentleness; and therefore, marks of this kind may be given without danger of leaving a rankling sense of injustice in the breast of the child who fails. Emulation becomes suicidal when it is used as the incentive to intellectual effort, because the desire for knowledge subsides in proportion as the desire to excel becomes active. As a matter of fact, marks of any sort, even for conduct, distract the attention of children from their proper work, which is interesting enough to secure good behavior as well as attention (Mason 1: 144).

Listen to Part 3: What Are We Drawing the Students To?(short video) which further expands on the above paragraph:

Ambleside Schools International Charlotte Mason defines attention in the following, "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." (Mason 1: 145) The parent and/or teacher begins the training of this habit and then later, as the child matures, she is taught to use her own will to attend to the situation with attention. While they may struggle with this at first, the success they feel as they see the results from their own efforts will be very rewarding. The parent and/or teacher must vigilantly be on guard to a child's tendency towards inattention. It is much harder work to undo a bad habit versus attending to a good habit. (Piano lessons will be sure to teach this lesson.) She further writes, " of the most fertile causes of an overdone brain is a failure in the habit of attention. I suppose we are all ready to admit that is its not the things we do, but the things we fail to do, which fatigue us, with the sense of omission, with the worry of hurry in overtaking our tasks." (Mason 1: 146)

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