Topical CM Series

Charlotte Mason's ideas are too important not to be understood and implemented in the 21st century, but her Victorian style of writing sometimes prevents parents from attempting to read her books. This is an imperfect attempt to make Charlotte's words accessible to modern parents. You may read these, print them out, share them freely--but they are copyrighted to me, so please don't post or publish them without asking.
~L. N. Laurio

The Charlotte Mason Series in Modern English Arranged Topically

The Habit of Attention

Volume 1, Home Education, pg 86-87

Habit of Attention

Winter walks, whether in town or in the country, afford many opportunities to develop the child's habit of paying attention. The French magician Robert Houdin said that he and his son used to play a game where they would pass by a shop only long enough to get one good look at the shop window. Then they'd go a few steps away and pull out paper and pencil and start listing to see who could remember more items from the shop window. Houdin was surprised at his son's quick memory. His son could often remember 40 objects, while Houdin could only remember 30. When they went back to check their lists, his son was rarely wrong. This is one idea you might try on your own winter walks.

Volume 1, Home Education, pg 137

I. The Habit of Attention

For now, let's focus on habits that need some direct training.

We'll start with the habit of focusing the attention, since the child's intelligence is a direct result of how well he can do this. To help understand why this habit is so important, consider a couple of rules about how the thought process works. First, think about how a trained professional works, such as a doctor or lawyer or teacher. He can listen to a long story, sift through the unnecessary stuff to find the bare facts, see the significance of each important aspect and he knows exactly what to ask to fill in any missing information. Now compare this to an uneducated person--his eye wanders and his replies don't address the heart of the matter. It's easy to see that a person's ability to pay attention is a good assessment of their competence.

Volume 1, Home Education, pg 229

I've already discussed how important it is that the child narrate after just one reading. If he can't, don't let him get the impression that he may, or must, re-read the passage. A look of slight regret over the gap in his knowledge because of the missed reading will be enough to convict him. The ability to read with focused total attention isn't learned if children are allowed to daydream during lessons. For this reason, reading lessons must be short. 10-15 minutes of fixed attention to one lesson is enough for children aged 9 and under. A lesson this long should be long enough to cover 2 or 3 pages in his book. The same time limit applies to children who aren't reading yet, and are listening as their lesson is read to them.

Volume 2, Parents and Children, pg 229

Lessons should have two goals. They should help a child develop the right mental habits, such as attention, accuracy, promptness, etc., and they should provide the nourishment of ideas that might bear fruit in his life.

Volume 3, School Education, pg 211

We've seen that both Ruskin and Wordsworth had the ability to work hard at focusing their attention, which is necessary in order for a person to be receptive. It made each of them productive in his own area. Anyone who wants to do a thing, whether it's baseball or portrait painting, has to learn the rules diligently and gain skill with practice and effort. It's true that work we love will override pain, but it's also true that we won't be able to enjoy any of the affinities that are waiting for us without strenuous effort and respect. You might think that a bird-watcher has chosen an easy hobby. But that's not true. A true bird lover is outside by 4 am to assist with the birds' uprising, or even out at Hyde Park at 2:30 am to try and catch a glimpse of a kingfisher! He lies in wait, hiding in secret places to watch the birds in their natural habitat. He travels to far locations to see new birds in other places in the world. He gives his attention, labor, love and reverence to the study of birds. He gains joy in this, so maybe his effort is unconscious, but the effort is still there.

Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 13

It's difficult to explain how I figured out how to solve the problem of getting students to focus their attention. Observing many children, things I read here and there, remembering my own childhood and considering my own current mind habits, has taught me that there are certain laws that relate to the mind. By adhering to those laws, the focused attention of children can be guaranteed all the time, regardless of their age or social class. And they can keep their attention focused even with distractions. It's not due to the winning ways of their charismatic teacher, since hundreds of different teachers working both in homes and PNEU elementary schools and junior high schools are able to secure the attention of students without really trying. And it isn't because their lessons are so entertaining. The students do find their lessons interesting and enjoyable, but they're interested in a lot of different subjects, and their attention doesn't wander during the dull parts.

Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 17

Some advanced psychologists agree. They declare that the key is 'not a group of mind faculties, but one single subjective activity, which is attention.' And, again, there is 'one common factor in all mind activity, and that's attention.' (I'm quoting from the Psychology article in the Encyclopedia Britannica.) I would add that attention is unfailing, prompt and steady--so long as the material set in front of students is suited to their intellectual requirements, and so long as the material is presented concisely, directly, and simply, as all good literature should be.

Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 18-19

The natural ability for making use of knowledge and digesting it is already sufficient. No external stimulus [reward, threat, entertainment] is needed to make a child learn. But some kind of moral motivation is needed to prompt students to pay attention. The moral motivation is knowing with certainty that he will be required to tell what he read.

Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 74-75

All school work should be done in such a way that students are aware of their responsibility in their own education. It's their job to know what's been taught. We all know from experience how we tend to skim halfheartedly over daily news when we know it will be repeated in a weekend edition. And if there's a monthly review, we only skim the weekend edition! These crutches make us feeble-minded, unable to remember and prone to wandering attention. In the same way, repeating and reviewing lessons shifts the responsibility of learning from the student to the teacher. It tells the child, 'I'll make sure you know it.' So students don't put forth any real effort to pay attention. And the same dry lessons are repeated again and again, and the children get bored and restless, and that's when they get into mischief.

Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 75-76

Another misconception we have concerns attention. We think that we have to capture children's feeble attention with persuasion, dramatic presentation, pictures and visual models. But the fact is, a teacher whose success depends on his charismatic personality is merely an actor who belongs up on a stage. We now know that attention is not one 'faculty' of the brain and it's not a definable power of the mind. It's the ability to turn on that power and concentrate [it's not something the brain has, but something it does]. By attempting to capture a child's attention with gimmicks, we waste our time. The ability to focus the attention is already there in a child, as much as he needs. It's like a forceful river just waiting to obey the child's own authority to turn on. Yet it's capable of stubbornly resisting attempts to be coerced that are imposed from without. What we need to do is to recognize attention as one of the appetites. Then we'll feed it with the best we have in books and knowledge. But paying attention is something that children have to do on their own. We can't do it for them. It's not for us to be the fountain of all knowledge--we don't know enough, we don't speak well enough, we're too vague and random to cope with the capability of creatures who are thirsty for knowledge. Instead of pretending to be the source of their education, we must realize that books, the very best books, are the source, and we must put that resource into their hands, and read them for ourselves, too.

Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 76-77

But, to get back to the topic of attention, it's more than a convenient, almost miraculous way of covering the material and getting the students to learn a surprising amount of knowledge, and to retain it. All of this is very good, but employing attention is even more than that. It's a foundational principle that's vital to education. In focusing his attention, the child takes on responsibility for himself. He uses the authority within himself in its highest function: as a self-commanding, self-compelling force. It's delightful to find that we can use an ability that we have within us, even if that ability is only being able to toss and catch a ball in a cup a hundred times as Jane Austen did to amuse her nieces and nephews. To make yourself pay attention, and make yourself know--this is a remarkable power to have! And children feel even more delight in being able to do this because they have the double satisfaction of enjoying the knowledge they gain from lessons, which satisfies their inborn curiosity.

Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 99-101

Good intellectual habits form themselves if the appropriate curriculum is followed in the right way. And the right way is this: children must do the work for themselves. They need to read the assigned pages and tell it back. In other words, they need to actively engage their minds with a concerted effort to 'own' the knowledge. We all know the tragic waste of the copious amount of reading we've done that was simply forgotten because we didn't actively work to know it while we read it. Yet this kind of effort is as natural as breathing, and, believe it or not, just as easy. The ability to focus the attention at will is the most valuable intellectual habit there is. It's also what distinguishes an educated person. With practice it can become second nature, and a good habit can overcome ten bad natures. Imagine how much our workload would be decreased if those who worked for us paid full attention to instructions so that they remembered the first time. Paying attention isn't the only habit that grows when one applies himself to learning. The habits of appropriate and prompt speaking, of obeying, of cheerful willingness, and an unbiased perspective all come naturally to a person educated this way. The habits of thinking right, making sound judgments, tidiness and order naturally follow when children have the self-respect that comes from the kind of education that respects who they are.

Physiologists say whatever thoughts become habit will make a mark on our brain tissue, although the mark may not be something we can visibly measure. Whether the mark is tangible or not, we do know for certain that one of the most fundamental jobs of education is to teach children the right ways of thinking so that their lives will result in good living, usefulness, clear thinking, enjoyment of beauty, and especially, a life lived for God. We can't understand how spirit, which is intangible and invisible, can influence a real, physical brain. But we know that it does happen every time we see a dark mood manifested in a scowling face. And we see it in--

'A sweet, appealing grace
Approval given with assuring looks.
There's comfort in the face of one
Who finds peace in the gospel books.'

We all know how forcing ourselves to smile can lift us out of a dark mood.

'The soul doesn't help the physical body any more than the physical body helps the soul.'

Both the soul and body are tools to help lay down the tracks of good habits that make life run more smoothly.

In the past, children have been abused and tormented by conscientious parents and over-zealous teachers who attempted to force good habits into children with severe punishment. And some adults exploited children for their own selfish gain. Now the pendulum is swinging the opposite way and parents are often too permissive. We've forgotten that people need good habits to live well, in the same way that trains need tracks to run on. It takes careful planning to lay railroad tracks, and it takes planning to develop good habits. Whether we plan or not, habits will be established one way or another. But if we don't resolve to make life easier by establishing good habits of thinking right and acting appropriately, then bad habits of faulty thinking and wrong behavior will establish themselves on their own. And, as a result, we'll avoid making decisions, which will cause us to procrastinate even more until we end up 'wasting our days crying over all the days we've wasted.' Most children are raised to have a minimum of decent, orderly habits that keep him from being a total misfit. Consider the amount of work it would take if every act of taking a bath, brushing teeth, sitting at the table, lifting fork and spoon to the mouth, had to be carefully planned and thought through just to decide what to do next to accomplish the task! Thankfully, that's not the case! But habit is like fire--it's a bad master, but an indispensable servant. A likely reason for our second guessing, hesitation and indecision is that we never learned good habits to begin with. Our lives weren't smoothed by those who should have laid down tracks of good habits when we were little so that our actions could run along them effortlessly.

Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 171-172

We insist on a single reading, because we are all naturally careless, and our tendency is to put off the effort at paying close attention as long as we think we'll have a second or third chance to get the information. But it doesn't take any extra work to pay attention. Complete and entire attention is a natural function of the mind. It takes no effort and causes no fatigue. In fact, the stress of mental labor we're sometimes aware of is when our attention wanders and we have to make ourselves bring it back. But the kind of attention that most teachers want is already in each of their students. They're born with it, and it's a tool to be used to educate them. It isn't something that school trains into them. Our business is to give students material written with good literary style, and make them certain that they won't have a second chance to go over a lesson.

A teacher's personality can be useful, but from an intellectual standpoint, not an emotional one. The teacher should look very interested. It's motivating for the students to think that their minds and their teacher's mind are working in harmony. But a sympathetic teacher who thinks that paying attention is hard work will overlook a student's wandering focus and distractedness a hundred times. And then the teacher has to finally draw in that child's attention, which is tiring for both him and the student. The teacher thinks he's being understanding, but he's actually doing a disservice to the student.

Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 244

I wonder if the habit of listening carefully with full attention might equalize children from uneducated homes, and children from privileged homes? At any rate, the work they turn in seems surprisingly equal. By the way, no subjects, passages or episodes are selected because the children have a special interest in them. The best available book is chosen and read through during the course of possibly two or three years.

Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 254-255

We of the PUS (Parents Union School) have discovered a great thirst for knowledge in children of every age and class. Children also have a remarkable ability to focus their attention, retain, and respond intellectually on the mental diet they consume. The first step is paying attention, and every child of any age, even mentally challenged children, seem to have an unlimited ability to pay attention. And they don't need grades, prizes, first place standing, praise, threats or blame to do it, either. When a teacher realizes this, great things will be possible, although at first, he may find it hard to believe, or even ludicrous.

Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 258

We've heard the story of how a young man once recited a complete pamphlet by Burke at a college supper. And those pamphlets aren't light reading! We admire that kind of feat, and think that such an accomplishment is out of our reach. But any fifteen-year old could do it if they were allowed to look at the pamphlet only once. Allowing a second look would be fatal, because nobody gives their full attention to something they expect to see or hear again. If we get used to the crutch of being able to go back to something, we lose the ability to pay attention--forever.

Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 259

But what about reason, judgment, imagination, discrimination, and those other 'faculties' that teachers have been working so hard to develop? They take care of themselves and work on the knowledge that's been received with attention, and cemented with narration.

Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 264

But perhaps if students get into the habit of covering more material quickly [as a result of focused attention and getting it the first time], then they'll have more time left to pursue the additional subjects that give him a more broad, balanced education.

Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 305

But I think teachers at the boarding schools would discover that students who have learned to read and think, and have kept the habit of almost perfect attention that all children are born with, will be able to complete more work in the Classics in their original languages in less time. Students' minds are more alert because they've gotten used to being busy with lots of different subjects.


Copyright © 2012-2021 Ambleside Online. All rights reserved.
Paraphrased by L. N. Laurio; Please direct comments or questions to AmblesideOnline.