Let Us Attend
From the Winter 2017 Issue
Has it ever been harder to get and hold a student’s attention? It seems that we suffer from a cultural attention deficit disorder every bit as much as from the more well-known cultural amnesia. Excessive stimulation assaults our senses while fragmentation creates discord in our souls.
Yet, the most important skill our students need to practice, the skill on which everything depends, is the ability to pay attention. We can learn how to cultivate this faculty, or we can ensure that most of our teaching goes to waste.
It is a tall challenge, but not a new one. The Christian classical tradition offers us tremendous insight into how to coach disciples to use their God-given ability to attend. Attentiveness flourishes when these conditions are met: energy is excited to action and wonder, and wonder is sustained by hope, purpose, and harmony. Let’s look at them individually.
Attentiveness demands energy
Tired people find it hard to attend to anything, so we should respect the way the (non-physical) mind and the (physical) brain need each other. Food, sleep, and exercise are the common sense physical foundation for attentiveness.
Energy must be excited
Energy is excited to action when people encounter something they like or fear. Happily, students like quite a few things that aren’t hard to identify. They like honor and admiration; they like benefiting others and being well-treated themselves; they like remembering and hoping, relaxing and striving. Maybe above all, they like growing, overcoming obstacles, doing things they’re good at, remembering accomplishments, and being recognized by others.
They also love knowing things (something we teachers would be wise to remember!). They love to imitate and to watch others imitate (as in movies, play, stories, etc.). It excites them when they find similarities and differences between things. They constantly try to figure out how things are related to each other, such as what causes things, what things cause, how things work, which is better, which came first, and so on. These activities make up what we can call learning. In short, students love to hear “Well done,” and they yearn to grow. And they fear failure, shame, and sustained, inescapable discomfort.
If we offer our students these things they long for in meaningful, appropriate ways, their souls will respond with attention.
Wonder moves excited energy to attentiveness
Once their energy is aroused, we can direct it to attention through wonder. Children wonder by nature, so we don’t have to teach them how to do it. However, we do need to cultivate and train their wonder, making it more disciplined, self-sustaining, and confident.
Questions are the eyes of wonder, so you cultivate wonder when you teach your students how to ask truth-seeking questions in the following three ways.
First, teach them how to use common questions, like, “What would happen if…? What is that? Who are you? What should be done? How did that happen? How is this like that? How is it different?”
The Christian classical tradition has transmitted a collection of these common questions to us, calling them the common topics. By teaching these common topics, we show our students that they have permission to ask these good questions, and they learn how to ask them effectively through practice.
Second, teach them how to use special questions.
Each domain of knowledge (i.e. each science, classically speaking) has its own specific questions that lead to its own specific knowledge. For example, in humane letters, students compare characters, settings, and actions, while in chemistry they ask how chemicals react when combined. While common questions help students see similarities between sciences (e.g. both letters and chemistry ask about cause and effect), specific questions reveal how the sciences differ from and how they relate to each other (e.g. Letters explores human motivations while chemistry looks for physical causes, thus letters is a higher and less predictable order of learning, but is supported by chemistry).
Third, teach students how to explore their own particular questions, those by which they discover the personal value of the truth learned. But don’t get confused: these particular questions arise in the context of the science or art being studied. Until the desire is drowned in the waters of fear, distraction, confusion, or hopelessness, students do seek truth.
I remember that magic moment when, in 9th grade Algebra, my friend Chris simply could not grasp that a point could approach a line forever without touching it. He kept asking how. It mattered enormously to Chris (and to the rest of us) until the teacher said, “We need to move on,” at which point a class full of aroused minds went back to sleep.
That was a question particular to Chris, and that made it important to all of us. But it was also very much part of the art of Algebra (and geometry, philosophy, and theology). Particular questions are often unique and usually unpredictable, though they are subsets of the common and special questions. They can seem like distractions. But the master teacher sees them as the moment she lives for, not an obstacle to get past in order to “cover the curriculum.”
Hope is the life of wonder
If questions are the eyes of wonder, then hope is its life. We ask questions because we don’t have the answer now. Without hope, wonder, like a magic dragon, sadly slips into its cave.
Students need to hope that they can find answers, but we undermine that hope when we lead them down fruitless paths, fail to guide them on the right path (think, Chris), or rescue them too soon from a difficult path. Instead, we must help them identify and avoid fruitless paths, provide tools for exploration, and avoid rescuing them prematurely.
If we let them try to figure out how to multiply by three when they think three plus three equals five, they’ll be lost (though happily a path this short is easily retraceable; when they lose their way on the deeper journeys into the underworld of the soul, it’s harder to get back to the path). If we try to lead them down the paths of algebraic wisdom but don’t equip them to use variables, we have set them up for failure. If we bring their wonder to an end with a premature explanation, we undercut their hope that wonder can lead to discovery.
In our teaching, we must cultivate and sustain our students’ greatest hope: that truth can be discovered and is worth the price. We do so through the liberating arts of truth-perception taught classically.
Truth is the object of hopeful wonder
If questions are the eye of wonder, and hope is its life, then truth is its object. The soul hungers for truth like the body hungers for food. Consequently, we do not need to add value to learning any more than we need to make children value food. We simply need to help them succeed when they seek it.
However, if we substitute rocks for bread, inserting meaningless “comprehension” questions for real questions, we contradict our insistence that learning matters. The habit of answering stultifying questions that distract from truth-perception and encourage shallow reading cultivates cynicism, not learning.
If the student is not allowed to seek truth, he will lose his wonder and his hope, and he will express his lost hope in variations on despair like pragmatism, love of power, scoffing, and “making a difference.” On the other hand, Christian classical educators have been teaching students how to find truth for many centuries and have handed on a life both rich and nourishing. We see valuable differences when we feed our children real bread and equip them for their real journeys.
Harmony is the form of truth
Truth is harmony and harmony sustains attention through its variation and stability. But the fragmented mind is inattentive, and schools are masters of fragmentation.
The subject-driven curriculum, assessment that jangles with teaching, teaching that ignores the souls’ hungers, tension between governance, curriculum, teaching, and assessment, treating the child as less than the Divine Image--all these discords pull the child’s mind in multiple directions.
For example, a sincere student might want to learn from a text, but the assessor’s voice whispers distracting questions, dragging her mind from the truths in the text to the fear of a poor score. While the soul ought to be learning how to see all things as one in Christ, she instead darts between books and tests, lessons and anxieties, and conflicted priorities, anxious because parents, teachers, and school leaders have learned to accept discord over first things.
She is confused. She is fragmented. She surrenders.
But if we align our curriculum and order our instruction to truth, if we assess learning wisely, if we govern our schools to support truth-seeking, if we guide our communities toward a genuinely Logos-centered experience, then the souls of our students will love harmony and enter their particular quests with faith, hope, and love. They will find within themselves the resources for long, sustained, rewarding attention.
When we neglect the body’s needs, ignore the soul’s appetites, disappoint the mind’s wonder, undermine the child’s hope, and fragment the student’s experience, we fail to cultivate the very root of wisdom and virtue in our children: we make them inattentive.
But if we attend to their physical needs, arouse the soul through real promises, give eyes to their wonder, give life to their hope, point hope to truth, and sing one song, we will be the ones aroused to energetic attention, renewed wonder, and living hope. We will watch as they see and pay attention to the truth, and the truth will set them free.
Something profound lurks in the ancient call of St. John Chrysostom:
Wisdom! Let us attend!