THE LAW OF THE LEARNER
Passing from the teacher to the pupil, our next inquiry is for the LAW OF THE LEARNER. Here the search must be for those characteristics which differentiate the learner from other persons -- for the essential elements which make him a learner. Let us place before us a successful student, and note carefully his actions and qualities. His intent look and absorbed manner are signs of his interest and attention. 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.
The law thus stated may seem to be a truism, but it is as really profound as it is seemingly simple. The plainest proof of its truth lies in the readiness with which every one will admit it. Its real significance can be found by careful study.
Attention means the direction of the mind upon some object. The object may be external, as when one watches carefully the operation of a machine or listens intently to a piece of music; or it may be mental, as when one "calls to mind" some past experience, or "reflects" upon the meaning of some idea. The psychologist speaks of this direction of the mind as the act of bringing the object into the"focus" of consciousness. Consciousness is thus thought of as presenting a "focus" and a "margin." The focus is occupied by our awareness of the object that is being "attended" to, the margin by those sensations and feelings that are still within the range of consciousness, but which are vague, indistinct, and not clearly defined. 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. But one may attend with varying degrees of absorption or concentration. One may let one's mind flit from this object to that, following each passing stimulus for a moment or two until something else "catches the attention"; or one may hold oneself resolutely to a certain object and still be "aware" that other objects are tempting one in other directions; or one may become so completely absorbed in a given object that all other objects are practically nonexistent so far as consciousness is concerned. There are, then, three different kinds of attention, each of which is important from the point of view of teaching and learning.
(1) Attention of the "flitting" kind is often called" passive" attention, because it involves no effort of will. One simply follows the behest of the strongest stimulus; one is "passive" because one is letting the forces that play about him control the mental life. This is the primitive, instinctive, basic type of attention -- the attention of every one at some times during the day, especially when one is tired or when one is in a playful mood; but particularly the attention of the little child.
(2) But the essential characteristic of the human mind is that it can control, rather than be controlled by, the forces that surround it. It can rise above its immediate environment and look beyond the present into the future. It can even attend AWAY FROM objects that naturally attract attention and hold itself persistently and resolutely to tasks and duties that are not immediately attractive but which it recognizes as important and worthy and necessary. It 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 the objects that we are trying to fix in mind and remember permanently really attract us in their own right, so to speak -- 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; but it also grows out of active attention, out of effort and persistence. This third type of attention is consequently termed "secondary passive" attention.
It is obvious that attention of the secondary passive type is, from the learner's point of view, the most desirable to cultivate. It means economy of learning, it means pleasant learning, it means effective learning. But the general verdict of human experience is that these most desirable conditions are not easily fulfilled – if they were, indeed, there would be little need for either teachers or schools. 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. One cannot lay this down as an unvarying rule, for there are doubtless some worthy interests that are "grown into" with little effort -- almost by following the lines of least resistance. This is possible -- but it is also possible that a ship which is left to the mercy of every wind that blows MAY be wafted ultimately into some safe and profitable harbor. Human experience during the long ages has taught few lessons that are more dependable than that which predicates effort, sacrifice, and persistence as the chief ingredients of success, and this holds as generally of success in learning as it does of success in business, art, invention, and industry. The man who simply drifts into success in any field of human activity is almost as rare as the ship that drifts aimlessly into a safe harbor; 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.
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. Thousands if not millions of pupils under such treatment have never got beyond the stage of active attention; more than this, they have developed a distinct and permanent dislike for what they have tried to learn. The duty of the teacher is essentially not that of a driver or a taskmaster, but rather that of a counselor and guide. His aim must be to develop secondary passive attention. The best way to do this is to make the stages of advancement gradual, so that while the pupil must put forth effort in grasping each new step in the lesson or in the series of lessons, the completion of each step will also make the effort seem worthwhile.
Modern theories of teaching emphasize the importance of "problems" in insuring this progressive series of efforts, and there is much to commend in this movement. The theory is that, if you can interest the pupil in solving a problem, he will put forth the effort necessary to grasp the knowledge which is essential to the solution. Thus if the knowledge that one wishes to teach can be organized with reference to these problems, the learning, it is maintained, will really take care of itself.
As an example of this "problem method" of teaching as exemplified in Sunday school work, one may take the general topic, the geography of Palestine. The traditional method of teaching would consider this topic as an information-unit. Palestine would be located with reference to its place on the globe, and with reference to the adjacent countries; its natural features would be described – its mountains, plains, seas, and rivers; the climate would be referred to and perhaps explained by the various factors of latitude, altitude, prevailing winds, neighborhood of bodies of water, deserts, etc.; the productions and the people would be considered in conclusion. But the problem method would start in another way. An effort might be made to interest the pupils in an imaginary journey to Palestine. How they would reach the country, how they would live and travel while there, how the people lived and worked and dressed-- all of these and many other subordinate problems would create what might be called a "natural" demand for the information which, under the older method, would be presented systematically and somewhat abstractly.
There is an important place for the problem method in teaching, but it is clear that it cannot entirely replace systematic and progressive study. Its value lies chiefly in bringing about an initial momentum for learning. The method should also be used as a stimulating variant, breaking the monotony of a too logical and abstract procedure. Most children, once they have gained a start in study, will be able and willing to work systematically. Everything depends upon the skill with which the teacher passes from step to step, linking the new with the old, and gradually building up a whole that is composed of well-articulated parts.
THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE LAW
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 dead as to attempt to teach a child who is wholly inattentive. All this may seem perhaps too obvious to need discussion, but a brief survey of the facts which underlie the law will make clear its force and authority.
Knowledge cannot be passed like a material substance from one mind to another, for thoughts are not objects which may be held and handled. Ideas can be communicated only by inducing in the receiving mind processes corresponding to those by which these ideas were first conceived. Ideas must be rethought, experience must be re-experienced. It is obvious, therefore, that something more is required than a mere presentation; the pupil must think. He must work with a fixed aim and purpose -- in other words, with attention. 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.
The notion that the mind is only a receptacle in which to stow other people's ideas is entirely incorrect. The nature of mind, as far as we can understand it, is that of a power, or force, actuated by motives. The striking clock may sound in the ear, and the passing object may paint its image in the eye, but the inattentive mind neither hears nor sees. Who has not read a whole page with the eyes, and at the bottom found himself unable to recall a single idea that it contained? The senses had done their work, but the mind had been busy with other thoughts.
The vigor of mental action, like that of muscular action, is proportioned to the stimulus which inspires it. 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 maximal effectiveness. Unexpected reserve powers come forth when the demand is strong enough. With growing interest, attention grows, and we are enabled to accomplish more.
SOURCES OF INTEREST
The sources of interest, which are the approaches to attention, are many. Each sense-organ is a gateway to the mind of the pupil. Infants are lured by a bit of bright ribbon, and will cease crying to gaze upon some strange object swung before their eyes. The orator's gesturing hand, his smiling or passionate look, his many-toned voice often do more to hold the attention of his auditors than the meaning of his speech. The mind attends to that which makes a powerful appeal to the senses.
The teacher may not have the orator's opportunity for free gesticulation and commanding use of the voice; but within narrower limits he has it in his power to use face, voice, and hand. A sudden pause, with lifted hand, will arrest confusion and cause the pupils to listen and give attention. The showing of a picture, or of some other illustrative material, will attract the most careless and awaken the most apathetic. The sudden raising or lowering of the voice arouses fresh attention. All of these have value.
But let it be remembered that these are only devices to be employed when necessary; your effort at all times should be to make your presentation so interesting that the attention of the pupils will follow it. Teach the pupils to concentrate; they will soon pass through the stage of ACTIVE ATTENTION and reach the effective stage of SECONDARY PASSIVE ATTENTION. Resort to artificial stimuli only as a last means to gain attention.
A source of genuine interest may be found in the relation of the lesson to something in the past of the learner, and a still richer one in the relation of the lesson to his future. We may add to these the sympathetic interest inspired by the teacher's delight in the
theme, and by the emulation of the pupil's fellow learners in the same field. All these touch the pupil's personality, for an appeal is made to enlightened self-interest.
INTEREST VARIES WITH AGE
The sources of interest vary with the ages of the learners, with the advancing stages of growth and intelligence. This fact is important. The child of six, in general, feels no interest in and gives no attention to many themes which attract the youth of sixteen. Children and adults are often interested in the same scenes and objects, but usually not in the same phases of them. The child finds some striking fact of sense or some personal gratification an adequate stimulus to attention; the adult attends to the profounder relations, to the causes or the consequences. As children approach maturity, their interests tend to change from the concrete and more self-centered things to the abstract and ultimate.
Since attention follows interest, it is folly to attempt to gain attention without first stimulating interest. It is true that it is the duty of children to pay attention to the performance of their lessons; but the sense of duty must be felt by the child as well as by the teacher. In the very little child, this sense of duty may be represented in part by affection and sympathy, and through these he may be made to feel the claims of obligations which he cannot as yet fully understand. The little pupil may thus be led to feel an interest in things which the teacher loves and praises, before he has come fully to comprehend their importance. 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.
HINDRANCES TO ATTENTION
The two chief hindrances to attention are apathy and distraction. The former may be due to a lack of taste for the subject under consideration, or to weariness or some other physical condition. Distraction is the division of the attention among several objects, and is the foe of all learning. If the apathy or distraction comes from fatigue or illness, the wise teacher will not attempt to force the lesson.
RULES FOR TEACHERS
Out of this Law of the Learner emerge some of the most important rules of teaching.
(1) Never begin a class exercise until the attention of the class has been secured. Study for a moment the faces of the pupils to see if all are mentally, as well as bodily, present.
(2) Pause whenever the attention is interrupted or lost, and wait until it is completely regained.
(3) Never wholly exhaust the attention of your pupils. Stop as soon as signs of fatigue appear.
(4) Adapt the length of the class exercise to the ages of the pupils: the younger the pupils, the briefer the lesson.
(5) Arouse attention when necessary by variety in your presentation, but be careful to avoid distractions; keep the real lesson in view.
(6) Kindle and maintain the highest possible interest in the subject. Interest and attention react upon each other.
(7) Present those aspects of the lesson, and use such illustrations as will correspond to the ages and attainments of the pupils.
(8) Appeal whenever possible to the interests of your pupils.
(9) The favorite stories, songs, and subjects of the pupils are often keys to their interest and attention. Find out what these are, and make use of them.
(10) Look for sources of distraction, such as unusual noises, inside the classroom and out, and reduce them to a minimum.
(11) Prepare BEFOREHAND thought-provoking questions. Be sure that these are not beyond the ages and attainments of your pupils.
(12) Make your presentation as attractive as possible, using illustrations and all legitimate devices. Do not, however, let these devices be so prominent as themselves to become sources of distraction.
(13) Maintain and exhibit in yourself the closest attention to and most genuine interest in the lesson. True enthusiasm is contagious.
(14) Study the best use of the eye and the hand. Your pupils will respond to your earnest gaze and your lifted hand.
VIOLATIONS AND MISTAKES
The violations of the Law of the Learner are numerous and they constitute the most serious errors of many teachers.
(1) Recitations are commenced before the attention of the pupils has been gained, and continued after it has ceased to be given. One might as well begin before the pupils have entered the room, or continue after they have left.
(2) Pupils are urged to listen after their power of attention has been exhausted, and when fatigue has set in.
(3) Little or no effort is made to discover the tastes or experiences of the pupils, or to create a real interest in the subject. The teacher, himself feeling no great interest in his work, seeks to compel the attention which he is unable to attract, and awakens disgust instead of delight.
(4) Not a few teachers kill the power of attention in their pupils by failing to utilize any fresh inquiries or any new, interesting statements to stimulate interest in the subject. They drone on through their work, thinking of it themselves as routine. Naturally the pupils soon assume the same attitude.
What wonder that through these and other violations of this law of teaching our schoolrooms are often unattractive and their success so limited! And if obedience to these rules is so important in the public schools, where the attendance of children is compelled, and where the professional instructor teaches with full authority of the law, it is all the more necessary in the Sunday school, where attendance and teaching are voluntary. The Sunday school teacher who would win the richest and best results of teaching should give to this Law of the Learner his best thought and most thorough obedience. He should master the art of gaining and keeping attention, and of exciting genuine interest, and he will rejoice at the fruitfulness of his work.