The Habit of Attention: The Foundation of Education
"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient attention, than to any other talent." - Isaac Newton
Attention in the Early Years
Throughout her volumes, Charlotte Mason repeatedly emphasizes the importance of the habit of attention. In her sixth volume, A Philosophy of Education, she states, "...no intellectual habit is so valuable as that of attention" and goes on to say that it is the, "hall-mark of an educated person" (p. 100). Intentionally cultivating the habit of attention is not only important for school, but the it's a valuable (if not necessary) habit across all areas of life. How well we attend to something typically correlates to the quality of the outcome.
Let's look at some examples. The likelihood of getting in a car accident is much higher if our attention becomes diverted from the road; a surgeon can easily make a fatal error if he isn't paying careful attention; an artist cannot accurately create a lifelike portrait or beautiful landscape without the power of attention; a scientist may miss a groundbreaking discovery if he fails to pay attention; our ability to obey God can be greatly hindered if we do not pay close attention to His voice.
Intentionally cultivating the habit of attention is something we should take seriously. We can help instill this habit into our children from an early age. Charlotte Mason believed we can begin to train the habit of attention as early as infancy. She says "A baby, notwithstanding his wonderful powers of observation, has no power of attention; in a minute, the coveted plaything drops from listless little fingers, and the wandering glance lights upon some new joy. But even at this stage the habit of attention may be trained: the discarded plaything is picked up, and, with 'Pretty!' and dumb show, the mother keeps the infant's eyes fixed for fully a couple of minutes––and this is her first lesson in attention."¹ Whether we are aware of it or not, how we encourage our child(ren) to linger, observe, describe, and put forth effort can strengthen the habit of attention.
Taking the time to cultivate the habit of attention (along with habit of obedience and truthfulness) should be the primary focus of the early years of our children's lives. This is one of the reasons Charlotte Mason advocates delaying formal lessons until 6 or 7, because she believed the focus of those early years should be on laying a foundation of good habits that will not only set the trajectory for a child's academic career, but for his entire life. As Charlotte Mason so aptly puts it, "the habits of the child produce the character of the man."³
Attention in Academics
Once a child begins formal academics, one way Charlotte Mason encourages us to be considerate of the habit of attention is through short lessons. She states, "...the lessons are short, seldom more than twenty minutes in length for children under eight; and this, for two or three reasons. The sense that there is not much time for his sums or his reading, keeps the child's wits on the alert and helps to fix his attention."⁴ Keeping lessons short helps to guard against slipping, wandering attention - which can quickly morph into a habit of inattention.
She goes on to say, "Even the child who has gained the habit of attention to things, finds words a weariness. This is a turning point in the child's life, and the moment for mother's tact and vigilance. In the first place, never let the child dawdle over copybook or sum, sit dreaming with his book before him. 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."⁵ Less is more when it comes to oral lectures, and what Miss Mason calls, talky-talk of the teacher. We often feel the need to push through lessons for fear of "falling behind" even when it's clear that the student's attention is elsewhere. It's more important to consider our child(ren)'s ability to attend than it is to finish all the lessons by the end of the year.
In addition to short lessons, Miss Mason is quite adamant that students never be allowed more than a single reading when it comes to narration. She explains her reasoning this way, "If a child is not able to narrate what he has read once, let him not get the notion that he may, or that he must, read it again. A look of slight regret because there is a gap in his knowledge will convict him. The power of reading with perfect attention will not be gained by the child who is allowed to moon over his lessons."⁶ If we allow students to reread material they are expected to narrate, we're cultivating the habit of inattention. Children will quickly learn they don't need to pay full attention the first time if we allow them to reread. This can be hard to swallow because it removes responsibility (i.e., control) from our hands and puts the responsibility of learning where it ought to be - with the student.
While learning is solely the job of the student, the job of the teacher (or parent) is to present information that warrants full attention. As a result, "the selection of their first lesson-books is a matter of grave importance, because it rests with these to give children the idea that knowledge is supremely attractive and that reading is delightful. Once the habit of reading his lesson-book with delight is set up in a child, his education is––not completed, but––ensured; he will go on for himself in spite of the obstructions which school too commonly throws in his way."⁷ Providing rich material that is worthy of attention is critical. Children have a natural appetite for knowledge, but their appetite cannot be sustained on a meal of sawdust as Charlotte Mason calls it.
Attention in Life
Whether we realize it or not, the habit of attention (or lack thereof) affects all ages and stages of life. Do we give our children (or spouses!) our full attention when they're talking to us? Or are we distracted with dinner, laundry, technology and the like? Do we expect our children to give us their full attention when we call their name? Do we spend more time talking to the back of their head instead of their eyes? What we choose to give our attention speaks volumes about what we value.
Therefore, we ought to put serious thought into how we're cultivating or neglecting the habit of attention in our own lives, as well as the lives of our children. We're commanded to pay attention in the Bible on more than one occasion. How are we living that out in all the different facets of our daily lives - including schooling our children? In a world that places immense value on multitasking and productivity, it can feel as if we're swimming upstream to value quality over quantity when it comes to how well we attend to certain tasks.
At the end of the day, we cannot give our children something we don't have ourselves. If we don't see value in giving full attention, our children will mimic our halfhearted attention - regardless of context. Education is an atmosphere. Part of that atmosphere is how we value attention in our homes. Whether or not we value attention will translate practically in ways we may not even realize. So, let's take some time this week to evaluate whether we value attention in our homes. How are we modeling and intentionally instilling the habit of attention on a daily basis?
¹,²,³,⁴,⁵,⁶,⁷ Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p. 140, 138, 119, 143, 141, 230, 229.