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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Concentration of Purpose in Education

by George Radford.
Volume 3, 1892/93, pgs. 588-593

Sometimes in the streets are to be seen wonderful and edifying sights. I do not know why it so happened, but the above subject immediately called up before me the figure of a man playing five or six musical instruments with different parts of his body. This active, but not altogether successful, man may perhaps teach us something about "concentration."

Suppose that one of us were to take his place, we should probably commence by blowing the cymbals and clashing flute, beating the fiddle, and drawing a bow across the surface of the drum. This would not do, and we should have to be removed by the police. Children know the difficulty of concentrating their wills upon two or more actions by some of the games they play, where hands and feet and head are required to perform movements not in accord with the usual rhythm of their lives.

I have used this peculiar illustration to suggest that in teaching children we may, with valuable results, condescend to treat them by common-sense methods. We may find it worth while to remove the fiddle when they beat the drum, and hide the cymbals while they attempt the flute. The common-sense method of which I speak so airily is anything but an easy one. The difficulty of the problem is to find out what other forces are acting upon the mind of the child. Is he thinking of marbles, eccles-cakes, or boats when the master is trying to produce from him the declension of "Musa"; is she dressing her dolls, or having a tea-party in imagination, while the governess is asking for the rivers of England or the spelling of "concentration"? The new system of interesting children in their infant lessons seems to be invaluable from this point of view alone. It is scarcely conceivable that the small minds under discussion should really feel a deep interest in the elementary matters, which are apt to be in all cases bald and uninviting. But it is unfortunate--from the aspect of the speedy manufacture of "scholards" of a uniform pattern--that children differ among themselves so very much. One lad may take with something like avidity to the definitions and axioms of Euclid, another will hate--the majority have certainly hated--them with all his heart to the end of his life. I wonder at what age the successful but unscholarly merchant discontinues scowling at the very memory of the Pens Asinorum and its neighbour, even more despicable in his sight! The preliminary "crux" is here; the mother or father or dominie has to try to impart an interest to the uninteresting, and at the same time to insist upon application and work in spite of lack of interest. The position is, perhaps, saved by the fact that children can be made to take an interest in overcoming the difficulties which are before them. There is inherent in most of us the desire of fighting and beating, and most unalluring subjects are invested with a certain glamour when they loom before the child as citadels to be won. These fights are to be of short duration for the very young. Writers in the Review have from time to time urged this point of the unwisdom and cruelty of making these early races of the youngsters too long; the interest flags, the marbles appear, the mouth waters for the sweets, and concentration is no more. A change of the subject would have imparted fresh energy and inspired new zest.

I am not a believer in royal roads to learning, and I feel convinced that a child does better to go straight to memory for much of his early work than to reason-made-easy. The effort to commit the multiplication table to memory is a strenuous one, but it is more bracing than namby-pamby discussions about oranges and apples, which should only come in as illustrations to amuse or exercises to test the success of the tougher work. I do not wish to be misunderstood. All sorts of manual and semi-maunual instruction may be valuable, but nothing can do away with the necessity for, not be a substitute for the value of, the direct training of the memory.

The absence of concentration is the greatest enemy to the cultivation of the memory, or, to put it conversely, that which destroys the memory as an active agent is want of concentration. There is nothing so important in education, outside moral questions, as this. And mischief which may have been averted from juveniles by wise teaching may creep in later unless the risk is clearly pointed out to those bigger children who are developing into scholars, and who are beginning to think and act for themselves. While a child is learning "Gelert" [text was illegible] under the direct influence of a mother, or a schoolmistress, it does not feel tempted to let its thoughts stray to other more congenial topics. The story of the dog interests it, and it has an enthusiasm to make the story its own. But as years go on interests arise which no senior is as hand to put aside, and many a dreamy lad goes through his tasks with his brain really fixed upon none of them. He can still learn in a manner the lessons given him to learn; he may still remain at the top of the class, but his memory is receiving it death-blow as a phenomenal one, and he sinks into an inaccurate scholar, a student without unerring detail, a dreamer spinning clouds from clouds. He has lacked either sufficient communicativeness, or a discerning confidential pedagogue and friend. The things of which his mind was full ought either to have been poured out or drawn out. If he could have had them brought into the right channel and developed, a poet might have been born, or an engineer or lawyer made. But, fuming and smoking amidst a mixture of Greek verbs and Logarithms, a medley has been produced from which there results oftenest an ordinary disappointed man. If this is so, what big-hearted, sympathetic men we want among our teachers! If every lad in England came under the charge--personal and constant--of minds so active and all-embracing that they could love the binomial theorem, and go into ecstasies over a rondeau, could sing the sweet influences of the Pleiades, and teach their boys to bat and swim, how many would take a ten-fold interest in their lives and give a ten-fold better account of them! The best progress is made "one job at a time," and how can the immediate task be performed with the whole mind, if that mind is taken up night and day with some hidden aspiration, some engrossing idea, which appears unattainable? He who would teach concentration must begin by getting confidence; and that which leads to the immediate result of a successful education will, in after life, lead to a still better result. It will lead to a young man unburdening himself to himself, and looking straight into things one by one. And he who can deal without cloudiness with his own problems as they separately arise will be the best able to deal with such groups as may be forced upon him.

In the progress of education from infancy onwards, the two processes are going on of guidance and sympathy from the teacher, and an answering enthusiasm and simplicity from the scholar. How far the teacher ought to yield to a great distaste in the scholar for certain subjects it is impossible in general terms to say. But it is clear that, if that distaste is so extreme that the interest and intelligence seem almost dead upon that particular matter, it is wiser to forego instruction in it, if only for a time, until enthusiasms are satisfied in other directions, and the energies of the mind are brought into full play.

I should like to take a special instance. If the teacher sets out to teach history, it is quite possible for him to do an injury to his pupils at the same time. A certain number of dates are learnt; they may convey no adequate notion whatever to the mind as to the state of things at those times. A certain number of people are mentioned whose personalities are not so much obscure as absolutely misconceived. A certain number of places are spoken about, and no interest whatever is manifested in them beyond the bare recital of their names. How vague everything is! for the history is not given as a piece of literature to be enjoyed for its own sake. From beginning to end the whole is a puppet-show, and when a clever boy has mastered it all, he will, from his wonderful history of the world, produce, perhaps at some academy, a puppet philosophy of things!

It may not be possible to teach everything at once, but this absurd method of "pat-off," history-in-an-hour, William-the-Conqueror-as-seen-by-children style only leads to further misery. It does appear to me that we might learn from science something about these things. If we studied history and geography backwards, and always the two together, we should proceed more safely with our children. Or, if we must begin with early times (and the advantages of this system are great), cannot we use the comparative method, and give clearer views of such times by illustrations such as are before us now? And does not all this difficulty prove the wisdom of beginning with more of the sciences, the trees and birds, which ought to interest the young? These bring about interest, observation, and accuracy: they may almost be made to teach themselves if once set well a-going, for one lad would soon laugh the ignorance out of another lad if he mistook a sparrow's for a linnet's egg.

My store of words is running out, and this most interesting subject, for the suggestion of which many of us will be grateful, is not much cleared up. To come home to ourselves it would be our own concentration which would do most to teach it to the young. But now that we have thought about it, it might be quite possible to encourage the "one thing at a time" principle, even if we are only ancient hulks in this matter ourselves. This world of ours has much to answer for in dissipating our energies. Everything is so interesting, so lovely, and so attractive, that we are tempted to flit like bees from flower to flower, from science to art, from literature to travel, or the state of politics throughout the world. And even in these flittings we may determine "to make a good job of" each question as it comes before us. And the children become in turn our teachers. In deference to their questionings, the various things of the world open up before us for clear definition. Before their searching inquiries we cannot, and we ought not to wish to, do any slipshod work. Dictionaries at least should be at hand that we may not make Bardolph's answer continually: "accommodated; that is, when a man is, as they say, accommodated; or, when a man is,--being,--whereby,--he may be thought to be accommodated; which is an excellent thing." Let parents make up their minds to this one Socratic modesty and truthfulness--to confess candidly to their children ignorance and a desire to learn. Then will knowledge and system and pleasure come to both parents and children by leaps and bounds. In one sense it requires maturity to really enter upon study with rest: the presence of the younger inquirer is a charming companionship and fruitful in much to both. If our lads want to know something which is at the moment lying in an unformed state in our minds, we may seize the opportunity of making of this mass some useful product.

Beside example, we may do our best, as I have pointed out, to keep one subject before the mind at a time, and to encourage energy and perseverance in studying and discussing the one point to which we have narrowed the inquiry. More valuable, perhaps, than all is to be so at one with the little minds, that, if necessary, we may take from them for safe custody for the time being those other wants and aims and aspirations which impede the forced march necessary at a crisis of the campaign. If we are so sympathetic as to be able to relieve them of such other cares as prevent the focussing required--until these, too, come in their turn under discussion to be dealt with thoroughly and promptly--we shall have accomplished nearly all. As it "pays" even in examinations to finish one question before so much as looking at the next, so in all affairs of life it will be of untold value to the young to be brought up upon the ancient motto of St. Paul: "This one thing I do."

By Mrs. Thomas


"A Bright girl, but she never sticks to anything."
"A clever boy, but has no application."
"Well meaning, but purposeless."

These and similar remarks are constantly made of the young people around us, and they all point to the same thing--i.e., deficiency in concentration of purpose. The difference between a child who succeeds and a child who fails is simply that the one does, and the other does not, possess the power of concentration. This quality is conspicuous by its absence in the majority of boys and girls--it is the one thing lacking in many a brilliant and talented mind; and yet it is the one thing most essential to success in life. Many a gifted lad has failed to do justice to his abilities either at school or home through this deficiency; many an intelligent girl has disappointed her friends by her aimlessness when thrown on her own resources. Take a not uncommon case.

A girl leaves the schoolroom, fired with zeal and full of pleasant sensible schemes. Mamma is to be relieved of household work and Dolly's lessons; papa will have a companion for his daily walks and botanising expeditions; Tom will teach her tennis, so that she may join the club next summer. The mind must not be neglected, so a list of solid books is made out, and a German play selected for daily translation. Music, of course, must be kept up, and the hour before breakfast is set aside for that--early rising being so healthy and invigorating! To ensure regularity, an imposing time-table is drawn up and hung in the bedroom. With what result? At the end of the month, mamma finds her jam-pots covered with dust, and her monthly bills in confusion; papa looks grimly at the smart new book which has lain unopened on his study-table ever since the first dozen specimens were gummed in; Dolly exults in the fact that sister never has time to hear her lessons; and Tom complains that Lily will not practise tennis regularly, though she is ready enough for a game with visitors. Moreover, it is wonderful how many good reasons arrive every day for omitting or curtailing the solid reading; and so far from enjoying the early morning hours at the piano, poor Lily can rarely be got down in time for prayers. How many girls must be forced to confess that this is no fancy picture!

A boy is left less to his own discretion, and is more tied down by rules and hours than a girl at the same age; yet with him, too, want of concentration is generally his bane, and if he is obliged to keep to work hours he does little good in them. Want of concentration in work keeps him back in the school class-room and college lecture hall; want of concentration in recreation makes him just fall short of a good cricketer, oarsman; sportsman, or artist as the case may be. More lives are wasted by this failing than by almost any other. Of two boys, one clever, brilliant but purposeless, the other dull but plodding and possessing concentration of purpose, the latter will invariably outstrip the former in the long run. Now, how is this concentration of purpose to be acquired?

Simply by habit, the foundation of which habit cannot be too early laid. Begin with small things. Do not allow you little ones to take out a dozen toys in the course of an afternoon, throwing them aside one after another. See that one game is continued for a reasonable time before another is begun. Suggest, if you will, enlargements and improvements, but do not let the butterfly fancy rove too quickly from object to object. Have the bricks been brought out? Encourage Willy to build two or three castles, a village and a church, before you allow him to set up his soldiers. Has Johnny asked for his scrap-book? Do not let him be tempted by the sight of his paint-box till a number of Christmas-cards have been pasted in, and even then propose that the paints should be employed to colour the prints in the scrap-book, so that the original purpose shall not be wholly abandoned. If Matty wishes to make her dolly a new frock, insist gently but firmly on that frock being finished before a bead necklace is undertaken. If a game of dolls is started, let each little mother put her child to bed tidily ere she departs on a voyage of discovery with her brother, or a gipsy fight in the empty garret. The task of instilling method and patience even in play will not be difficult, if loving imagination and tact go hand in hand with watchfulness and firmness. But the mother or teacher must be prepared to bestow much time and energy on this object, and must leave nothing to chance. Some may argue that "play should be play"--that children always do best when left to their own devices--that restraint and supervision may be overdone. I reply that in this matter a great deal more supervision is needed than is generally given, that restraint need not be made oppressive, and that if with our babies we wisely and gently forestall the work that must be done a few years later, we shall save ourselves and them much future trouble. Nay, I should go further and say that, unless the work is begun in infancy, there is little chance of future success.

Training, in fact, cannot be begun too early, and woe to that parent who attempts to put it off. It is cruel kindness to the child. While the tender mind is open to all impressions, while there is as yet no questioning or thought of rebellion, or weariness of brain and body to interfere, begin to inculcate the habits of method, of patience, of diligence, and of perseverance. Believe me, not time is more valuable than these earliest years, even though as yet your little darling seems scarcely more than a pet and a plaything on which to lavish your caresses. Is it not a notable fact that most stepmothers and guardians who take charge of a child as old as six or seven, find the task somewhat difficult even with lovable and docile children, simply because there has been no mother's watchful care, and so these first precious years have been wasted? Bad habits, even at that early age, have taken deep root, and the work of training has to be begun from the beginning--with this difference, that there is sturdy childhood instead of pliant infancy to work upon.

Train your little child from the first and in the smallest matters to concentration of purpose, and both you and the child will reap the benefit. Do not be afraid of harassing the wee mind or quenching the bright spirit. The habit of concentration will soon become second nature, while play will only be the sweeter and merrier for it. It is an undeniable fact that children really appreciate method, and enjoy the sense of "something attempted, something done," when once the habit has been insisted upon. A child who can point to some definite result of an hour's occupation, a "Tower of Babel" on the rug, or a dissected picture put up, will be far brighter than one who has turned out the whole toy-box and varied his play every half-hour.

Begin your training with play, and continue with lessons. Concentration of thought is essential to concentration of purpose, and, indeed, is part of it. It has equally to be taught. The average child hates nothing so much as being asked to concentrate his mind; in fact, he rarely does so unless he is forced. The teacher must not be deceived by an industrious exterior. Your pupil may write a page of his copy without once looking up, may add up long columns of figures and learn several verses of poetry at a sitting, while all the time his mind may be roving in a hundred directions. He will be placidly content as long as his work lies in the old grooves, but try to force his mind to work and he is perplexed and worried. Test him. Instead of asking questions which he can answer mechanically, having learnt the lessons almost by heart, make him narrate the substance. He will probably fail utterly, for his mind cannot concentrate itself on the subject sufficiently to put it in his own words. Instead of a copy, make him write an account of some even in English history, an event which he knows well. He will sigh and fidget, and nibble his pen in despair. On the other hand, give him a list of questions on the same event, and he will answer them freely and cheerfully, for you have then removed the necessity for him to use his own mind. I am convinced that the reason why so few boys and girls can write good essays, is not that they fail in powers of narration, but of concentration. Take another simple example. William I. Came to the throne in 1066, William II. in 1087--how long did the former reign? Your pupil stand with knitted brow and earnestly moving lips, till you lose patience, and spare him the painful necessity of concentrating his thoughts by telling him how to work the sum. Do you imagine he has been thinking all this time? By no means. He has been merely repeating your question over and over, unable to fix his thoughts sufficiently to find out how to solve the problem. A wise teacher, noticing these facts, will do all in her power to make the child acquire concentration. She will give him constant tests, and with firm patience will gradually teach him how to think. She will encourage him by getting him to take delight in a completed and unaided task, and also by letting him show father and mother the difficult sum worked "all by myself," or the essay finished in a given time. Here again concentration of purpose may be taught by refusing to allow a new book or piece of music to be begun till justice has been done to the old one. The acquiring of this quality is more important than any book knowledge. With young children it should not be so much a question of what they learn as how they learn; and if the wavering mind once learns to fix itself on the object set before it, all learning will become easy, and we shall not have to complain of idleness and aimless ways hereafter.

As your child leaves the nursery the need for watchfulness increases, since there are so many interesting occupations open to it that their very variety tends to promote instability. A plot of ground is generally the first thing demanded. Grant it, with the warning that it will be taken away if not rightly used. Visit it constantly yourself, and award praise or disapproval according to the presence or absence of weeds. If the interest flags, revive it with judicious presents of seeds or plants, and help the little gardener to arrange them in the very prettiest order. Perhaps the gardening craze may subside on the introduction of tame rabbits. Suggest then that one corner of the plot be devoted to the rearing of lettuces for the pets, and that a kitchen and flower portion should rival each other in utility and beauty. Allow the purchase (say) of a new cricketing set only if the rabbits have been well cared for, and take it away if the hutches are left dirty during the cricket season.

In all occupations take a personal interest yourself, let your child see that you enter into all his pursuits, and encourage him by all possible means to persevere with what he has undertaken, trying to make him regard this not as a burden, but as a duty and pleasure combined.

So with books. It is a sensible plan to make a rule that your voracious young reader shall finish one work before he begins another, and you should see that he does not gallop it through too quickly. It is surprising how easy it will be to him to persevere with what many children would call "a dull book" when once it has become a habit with him to finish what he begins. The habit of dipping into books is fatal to concentration of purpose in study.

But, lastly, if we would teach our children concentration of purpose, we must get them to regard it in the right light as a Christian duty. "In singleness of heart, fearing God. And whatever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men" (Col. Iii. 22, 23).

Any useful object, either for ourselves or for others, once undertaken belongs to God; and surely, when viewed in that solemn light, dawdling and idleness and frivolity become no longer "little sins," "Unstable as water, though shalt not excel." If we wish our children to excel in virtue and in usefulness, we must teach them patiently, watchfully, prayerfully, by example and by precept, from their earliest years and in the smallest particulars, Concentration of Purpose.