Developing the Habit of Attention

In her book, ‘Towards a Philosophy of Education’, Charlotte Mason wrote, ‘[N]o intellectual habit is so valuable as that of attention; it is a mere habit but it is also the hall-mark of an educated person.’ Ms Mason, writing in the early 1900s, recognized that the ability to pay attention is a habit that can be formed in children by the regular practice of actively engaging their minds for a sustained period of time. By using knowledge a child ‘owns’ it and it becomes part of them. She considered this ability to focus at will to be of utmost value to any person.

Fast forward to April 2020. The Harvard Business Review, in an article entitled ‘Is it Even Possible to Focus on Anything Right Now?’ writes, ‘For most of us, distraction has become a habit, and the first step of habit change is awareness, because you can’t change a habit that you don’t realize you have.’ This attention deficiency might be more noticeable because of the pandemic, but it’s not new. In an earlier 2018 article entitled ‘To Control Your Life, Control What you Pay Attention To,’ the same publication wrote, ‘Focusing is hard — and blaming that on the constant distractions around us is easy. But trying to get rid of distractions isn’t enough to fix the problem. We also have to retrain our brains to concentrate…practicing attention management… will build your “attention muscle,” which will give you greater control over distractions.’

At Heritage, we agree with both Ms Mason and the Harvard Business Review. Attention, or concentration, is a habit that’s formed through practice. It is an especially important skill in this age of digital distractions, and the single most important skill a learner can possess. To cultivate this habit among our pupils we use methods like narration, where a teacher reads aloud from an engaging text, and then invites pupils to retell orally, point by point, what was just read aloud, having heard it only once. Picture Study uses similar skills. It involves looking with concentrated attention at a reproduction of a great painting. The painting is then turned over and its details are described from memory. And, there are Handicraft lessons each week for Infants and Juniors, where the ability to keep focused attention can be developed through activities like weaving on individual looms, sewing, knitting and more. It is only with sustained attention that we form a satisfying ‘relationship’ with, for example, an author, an artist or with materials like wool. It is only with sustained attention that a person can weave new information into the deeper schemas of understanding out of which real creativity arises.