Attention: Core Values of Charlotte Mason

I hope you’re enjoying our series on the core values of Charlotte Mason. Today we want to focus our attention on attention! We will be piggybacking off the core value from last time—the value of knowledge—and digging into a way that we can guide our children in cultivating a habit of attention.

First, let’s review what we learned last time:

“As knowledge is not assimilated until it is reproduced, children should ‘tell back’ after a single reading or hearing: or should write on some part of what they have read.”

A Philosophy of Education, p. xxx

If you haven’t yet read the post on knowledge, I encourage you to do that here. But let’s continue that line of thought now and read the next statement Charlotte made:

“A single reading is insisted on, because children have naturally great power of attention; but this force is dissipated by the re-reading of passages, and also, by questioning, summarising, and the like.”

A Philosophy of Education, p. xxx

If you think back to your classroom experiences, or if you’ve been in a classroom of children lately, you’ve probably witnessed what Charlotte was talking about. Often the teacher will read something aloud, then ask a question about the text. She might call on Gavin over here to give the answer, probably because she noticed that he wasn’t paying attention. So Gavin “comes to,” realizes that the teacher called on him, and says, “What?” or “Could you repeat the question?” The teacher patiently repeats her question, knowing full well that Gavin wasn’t listening and won’t know the right answer; and when he sits there without responding or gives the incorrect answer, she sighs and says, “Let’s read it again.”

Does that scenario sound at all familiar? It is precisely the type of scenario that Charlotte wanted to put a stop to. Why? Because those methods are chipping away at all of the students’ powers of attention. The students who were paying attention are getting frustrated and bored, and Gavin knows that if he doesn’t pay attention, he can always get a replay; he’ll have another chance, so no big deal. None of the students are being challenged to turn the full gaze of their minds onto the subject at hand. 

Our job as teachers and parents is to help our students cultivate a habit of attention. Remember, habits are formed by doing the desired behavior over and over. The more often that dawdling and rereading scenario is repeated, the more quickly and deeply the students will develop a habit of inattention. Charlotte said, “Stop it. One reading and ask for a narration.”

“A second reading would be fatal because no one can give full attention to that which he has heard before and expects to hear again. Attention will go halt all its days if we accustom it to the crutch.”

A Philosophy of Education, p. 258

Some of us use that crutch of depending on repeats or reviews or summaries in the way we learn about things ourselves. And as a result, it’s becoming harder to keep our attention focused. The sad thing is that when we depend on those replays of the material, we are depending on someone else to make us learn. We are, in a sense, saying that it’s someone else’s responsibility to make sure we learn, rather than our own responsibility: if they don’t repeat it enough times, it’s their fault that we don’t know. 

And it’s the same for our students. We talked about the core value of self-education and how important that principle is in a Charlotte Mason approach. It is the student’s responsibility to do the learning. When we allow our students to think about other things during lesson time, when they know that we will read the passage again until they decide to pay attention, the responsibility for learning has shifted onto our shoulders. 

“All school work should be conducted in such a manner that children are aware of the responsibility of learning; it is their business to know that which has been taught. To this end the subject matter should not be repeated. We ourselves do not attend to the matters in our daily paper which we know we shall meet with again in a weekly review, nor to that if there is a monthly review in prospect; these repeated aids result in our being persons of wandering attention and feeble memory. To allow repetition of a lesson is to shift the responsibility for it from the shoulders of the pupil to those of the teacher who says, in effect,—“I’ll see that you know it,” so his pupils make no effort of attention. Thus the same stale stuff is repeated again and again and the children get bored and restive, ready for pranks by way of a change.”

A Philosophy of Education, pp. 74, 75

Now, let’s clarify. Charlotte was not saying we should never review. She built reviews into her lesson plans. Before reading today’s passage, she instructed us to help students pull from their memory what they learned in the previous reading. What Charlotte was criticizing was the habit of repeating the same passage in a lesson because a student wasn’t paying attention—like the Gavin scenario I described earlier. 

A single reading in the lesson should be the rule; Charlotte insisted on it. Now let’s take a step back and look at how that single reading works in the bigger picture. A single reading is not a trick that magically works in every situation. There are other supporting factors that we need to keep in mind. Let’s put that single reading into context.

First, that reading should be from a literary-style book. We’ve talked about this core value before. The book must be literary in style, and we must let it be the teacher without us waxing eloquent on the subject ourselves. Charlotte said,

“We know that young people are enormously interested in the subject and give concentrated attention if we give them the right books. We are aware that our own discursive talk is usually a waste of time and a strain on the scholars’ attention.”

A Philosophy of Education, p. 171

If you are using a literary-style book and your student is struggling, check the reading level of the book. It might be that a different literary-style book will be better fitted to your student.

“Give children the sort of knowledge that they are fitted to assimilate, served in a literary medium, and they will pay great attention.”

A Philosophy of Education, p. 257

Second, that single reading from a literary-style book and its narration should be done in the context of a short lesson, especially for younger children and for inexperienced narrators. For example, here is the time limit she gave for children under nine years old:

“I have already spoken of the importance of a single reading. If a child is not able to narrate what he has read once, let him not get the notion that he may, or that he must, read it again. A look of slight regret because there is a gap in his knowledge will convict him. The power of reading with perfect attention will not be gained by the child who is allowed to moon over his lessons. For this reason, reading lessons must be short; ten minutes or a quarter of an hour of fixed attention is enough for children of the ages we have in view, and a lesson of this length will enable a child to cover two or three pages of his book. The same rule as to the length of a lesson applies to children whose lessons are read to them because they are not yet able to read for themselves.”

Home Education, p. 229, 230

If you have the right book, but your student is struggling, check the length of the passage that you are reading. A shorter passage makes it easier to pay full attention. You can read several short passages during a lesson time, asking for a narration after each one.

The third factor we need to discuss in relation to a single reading is how to handle independent readers. If we assign a student to read on his own, how can we make sure he isn’t re-reading the passage? Well, Charlotte had two ideas to give us, and both require a long view of time. The best way to set up a student for success in independent reading is to train him in the habit of attention from the start. Our reading-together lessons are a training ground to help him develop the habit of turning the full gaze of his mind onto a single reading. So keep that long-range view in mind. But we also need to make sure that we are valuing quality over quantity. Reading for instruction, with focused concentration to assimilate everything you can from the passage, is the goal. And often that requires slow reading.

“He should be trained from the first to think that one reading of any lesson is enough to enable him to narrate what he has read, and will thus get the habit of slow, careful reading, intelligent even when it is silent, because he reads with an eye to the full meaning of every clause.”

Home Education, p. 227

If your student is struggling with a book, check how fast he is reading. It may be that the pressure to complete the assignment in a given time is pushing him to read faster than he can attend. We must be content to encourage careful reading, even if that means it takes longer to get through a book than we had originally planned. The schedule is not the goal; focused attention on a single careful reading is the goal.

“The simplest way of dealing with a paragraph or a chapter is to require the child to narrate its contents after a single attentive reading,—one reading, however slow, should be made a condition; for we are all too apt to make sure we shall have another opportunity of finding out ‘what ’tis all about.’”

School Education, p. 179

Why are we making such a big deal about the habit of attention? It’s just one habit out of dozens that we could cultivate in our children, and plenty of people today don’t have it. What makes attention so important?

Here’s what Charlotte thought:

“It is impossible to overstate the importance of this habit of attention. It is, to quote words of weight, ‘within the reach of every one, and should be made the primary object of all mental discipline’; for whatever the natural gifts of the child, it is only so far as the habit of attention is cultivated in him that he is able to make use of them.”

Home Education, p. 146

What natural gifts does your child have? Perhaps one is a whiz at math, another is musically talented, yet another may be able to read people easily and can tell who needs some encouragement. The habit of attention will set your child up for success in all of those areas and many more. 

Think about it. If that child doesn’t have the habit of turning the full gaze of his mind on a subject, he will not be able to go as far in his math studies as he could with that power of attention. The habit of attention will help a musical child to learn more, practice longer, and advance farther than he could if he just depended on his natural talent. It is the habit of attention that paves the way for greater growth in every child’s unique talents and in life.

And one way we can help them cultivate that habit is by insisting on a single reading followed by a narration every time. A single reading—no matter how short, no matter how slow. They have one opportunity to find out all they can. 

That’s how to encourage full attention, and that’s a core value of Charlotte Mason.

One comment

  1. I am so happy to find this information here.
    Attention is something that I’ve tried to instill in my children, and this perspective on how to do so is new to me. I’ve seen my eldest do bible study in this manner, as was suggested in one of his study books. It was after about a year of that practice he really started to excel in his music studies, which has always been his favorite subject.
    I look forward to putting this to use with the rest of our family. Thank you so much, and God bless you all!

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