Gaining Students’ Attention: William James Meets Chloe of the Swamp

2016 will mark the hundredth anniversary of the posthumous publication of William James’s Talks to Teachers on Psychology, and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals. I am jumping the celebratory gun in order to deal with the troublesome connection between the ability to pay attention and the related ability to do repetitive or otherwise “repulsive” work, as James calls it in the Talks.

This is an important issue to teachers because they are under the two seemingly competing pressures to give thorough, effective instruction and to make their lessons interesting. As much as one might like to think otherwise, effective instruction will necessarily entail some repetition, and so the problem is how to get students to attend to it when they have seen or done it before.

James helps us to understand how to approach and with some planning to solve the problem. In the Talks’ lecture on Attention he distinguishes between two kinds of attention: passive attention and voluntary attention. The first kind is the attention we pay without trying; the second requires effort and discipline. The first seems to sweep us away, hence our “passivity”; the second requires us to do the sweeping.

James notes that the simplest way to attend continually to something is to find continually new associations with it. This is what the “genius” does. The rest of us, not quite so fertile in our associative thinking, must take pains (as indeed must the genius in spheres outside his area of ingenuity). The newness must be of association to what is already known: as James says, “The absolutely new makes no appeal at all. The old in the new is what claims the attention—the old with a slightly new turn.”

A personal favorite illustration that the absolutely new makes no appeal at all was in my old Aunt Augusta (yes, I actually had one). Her son’s family took her to see Star Wars, then a new movie in general release. Old Aunt Augusta  said, “I couldn’t tell what was going on. All those lights! All that noise!” The truth is that young students can be as resistant to novelty as old Aunt Augusta. Examples are classes I have seen in their initial reaction to Picasso’s Guernica and their reaction after they have made some connections of it to material they are more familiar with. Or, for that matter, their initial bewilderment over a Wallace Stevens poem (like “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock”) and their interest if they have been able to anchor it in something they can hold on to (including the jingle that begins “Red sky at night, / sailor’s delight.”) Even a photo means more if there’s a way in. I have mentioned students’ reaction before the Harry Potter books to a picture of Professor James Murray: he was a weird old bearded man reading a book. Now, they say with varying degrees of delight, “He looks like Dumbledore.”

It is the teacher’s job to help make these associations in order to preserve students’ attention against its inevitable tendency to wander.  “The genius of the interesting teacher,” says James, “consists in sympathetic divination of the sort of material with which the pupil’s mind is likely to be already spontaneously engaged, and in the ingenuity which it discovers paths of connection from that material to the matters to be newly learned:” “If the topic be highly abstract, show its nature by concrete examples. If it be unfamiliar, trace some point of analogy in it with the known. If it be inhuman, make it figure as part of a story. If it be difficult, couple its acquisition with some prospect of personal gain. Above all things, make sure that it shall run through certain inner changes, since no unvarying object can possibly hold the mental field for long.”

But the teacher has another job as well: to get students to attend to things when even the power of calling up a variety of associations fails or is at an end. Since “most schoolroom work, till it has become habitual and automatic, is repulsive, and cannot be done without voluntarily jerking back the attention to it every now and then,” the teacher must vary the way in which material is reviewed: “The posture must be changed; places can be changed. Questions, after being answered singly, may occasionally be answered in concert. Elliptical questions may be asked, the pupil supplying the missing word. The teacher must pounce upon the most listless child and wake him up. The habit of prompt and ready response must be kept up. Recapitulations, illustrations, examples, novelty of order, and ruptures of routine,—all these are means for keeping the attention alive and contributing a little interest to a dull subject. Above all, the teacher must himself be alive and ready, and must use the contagion of his own example.”

Finally, a good teacher must take advantage of “borrowed interests.” If a student can no longer find an intrinsic or associated interest in scanning a poem, he can “borrow” an interest in gaining recognition, gaining the admiration of his classmates, getting a desired grade (by real work), gaining a teacher’s favor (the teacher must in such cases be real not virtual), and of course avoiding disfavor and punishment. In a culture where none of these interests exist or are taken seriously, they cannot be borrowed!

A number of these resources from the old Bag of Tricks came together yesterday in a field trip I took with my colleague the biology teacher and her Grade 10 students[1]. It may surprise people familiar with Hong Kong’s reputation as the Vertical City that its geography includes mangrove swamps, but that is so. One of the places where they enjoy the government’s protection is called Hong Kong Wetland Park. The park has a strong mission of education as well as of preservation, and so it has been made wonderfully available to students. For a fee of about US$50, twenty-seven students and three teachers had a day-long program of activity. The morning was given over to a tour of the swamp’s boardwalks, blinds and viewpoints conducted by a qualified naturalist. In the afternoon the students went to one of the visitor center’s laboratories to make tests of water samples drawn from two different locations in the swamp. In these they were assisted/supervised by three other trained young scientists. The students’ task was to test for eight physical and eight chemical parameters of the water. The leader of this activity asked them to decide whether there were any human or systemic errors in their work (there were), and was able to advise at least two students that their questions would make good topics for university-level research.

But in addition to all the new material about mangroves, the day helped give the students needed practice in some of the tedious pick-and-shovel work that inevitably attends laboratory science as it is really done. The change of scene worked to establish associated interest. The work with “new” people piqued curiosity and borrowed the interest of appearing to advantage in front of strangers. Having to take the tour in Hong Kong’s infamously bad summer weather (90 degrees, 85% humidity, and tropical sunshine) contributed to a sense of accomplishment (or relief) at the tour’s end. Certificates awarded on completion borrowed another interest. Finally, the biology teacher’s promise of extra ice cream for those who did certain things in the best time added a bit of excitement too.

Since we can’t always go trooping off to the neighborhood mangrove swamp to perk things up or turn out our pockets to buy ice cream, we also need to find ways of bringing into ordinary classrooms the ability to find associative and borrowed interest for the students to bring to what they learn. Otherwise, all we can do is coerce attention, and as James rightly points out, that is bound to fail: “You can claim [attention], for your purposes in the schoolroom, by commanding it in loud, imperious tones; and you can easily get it in this way. But, unless the subject to which you thus recall their attention has inherent power to interest the pupils, you will have got it for only a brief moment; and their minds will soon be wandering again.”



[1] She is also an experienced teacher trainer of long standing.

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