It is my belief that one of the most important things we can do as teachers of children is teach them how to pay attention. Of course it would be nice if we could just get them to pay attention to us at the front of the class but sometimes it is worthwhile stepping back from the immediacy of the classroom and taking a broader view of our role as teachers. The philosopher Gillian Rose wrote in Love's Work that there are three things required to become a philosopher:
"First, infinite intellectual eros: endless curiosity about everything. Second the ability to pay attention: to be rapt by what is in front of you without seizing it yourself, the care of concentration - in the way you might look closely, without touching, at the green lacewing fly, overwintering silently on the kitchen wall. Third, acceptance of pathlessness (aporia): that there may be no solutions to questions, only the clarification of their statement. Eros, attention, acceptance”
There has been a lot spoken on rekindling curiosity in the classroom and I will, at some point, write more on aporia too but today my focus is on that central requirement: attention. Throughout my life I think it is my attention that has really shaped who I am today and, on numerous occasions, it has rescued me from depression and boredom and hardship.
What is it that I actually mean by attention? At its most basic level it is the ability to not just look but to take notice of what it is you are looking at. It is the difference between seeing a pigeon out of the corner of your eye and taking the time to notice the grey-blue tint of a pigeon's feathers which change as they move through the evening light. It is not seeking ownership of what you are watching, it is existing alongside it and learning from it.
As a child I loved to throw rocks into rivers to see how big a splash I could make but as I grew older I learned to sit by a river and watch the eddies form and flow away, and notice the minnows just below the surface and to dip my feet in, and feel the fresh, cold water between my toes. There will always be time in life to throw rocks into rivers but I think that as teachers (and parents and people ourselves) we need to also acknowledge that time spent listening and noticing is just as important as time spent talking and doing.
I truly believe that the ability to pay attention to the world is a form of resilience which our students can, and ought to, be taught. Education and attention go hand-in-hand. Not only does education require attention, it also builds and strengthens it. Bertrand Russell describes how knowledge has the ability to make the unpleasant less unpleasant and the pleasant more pleasant. He gives the example of eating an apricot, a pleasant experience made all the sweeter for knowing a little about the origin of the fruit, its etymology and its place in culinary history. For me it’s seen in the way a visit to any English church can be much improved when you know just a little about the different architectural styles or if you have a brief outline of the history of Christianity in England in your head. These are the gifts that allow boredom to give way to attention.
And attention gives life a richness and a joy that boredom saps away. The Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel gives us this advice for life: "everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed". As an RE teacher I hope to give my students the knowledge to be able to interact with religion, philosophy and ethics but also the ability to formulate questions and thoughts so that they can have interesting conversations and listen to the responses people give to a well considered question. We cannot expect children to be curious on a trip to a museum or a park or a place of worship if they do not know what it is they are looking at and which questions they need to ask. Curiosity breeds attention and attention nurtures curiosity.
Attention is not a straight-jacket. We would not expect all of our students to be able to sit in silence and read for an hour but that does not mean we do not encourage all of our students to read in some form because reading is good and educational. So is attention. Attention could just be a moment of quiet as a usually hyperactive child is transfixed by something beyond their control. It could be the rapt attention of listening to someone who interests you or in reading something you are engrossed by. For me attention is most acutely felt when I feel still and present in front of a familiar work of art or when I stop on my walk to work and notice a change in the foliage of a bank of trees or the flowers on a roadside verge. All the time my attention is fed by, and strengthened by my knowledge and my curiosity. That is why we need to not just demand attention in education but to encourage, nurture and teach it.
I could not bear to believe that I was teaching a generation of students who will stumble obliviously into the world wearing blinkers, armed only with the instrumental tools of ‘critical thought’, deconstruction and opinion-forming. I can only hope that, through my teaching and my attention to them, that I will be able to give them the gift of attention to everything and everyone else. Jonathan Meades, a great hero of mine and a long-time chronicler of the banal once said “I find everything fascinating and that is a gift. Everything looks fantastic if you look at it long enough”. I have spent my life up until this point finding out just how true that is.
Five Practical Ways to Teach Attention
- Encourage your form group to start making scrapbooks. Ask them to keep and cut out any images or quotes which they find themselves drawn to. It doesn't matter if all you see is Fortnite and YouTubers, it will allow them to build up a record of what it is that their attention is drawn by.
- Explicitly tell students how the knowledge you are teaching them will make their lives richer and keep them from boredom. When I'm teaching about religion I tell my students they will be able to step into any place of worship and immediately be able to orient themselves and feel comfortable because they will know about what is there and why.
- Attention thrives in nature. It is rare to have the opportunity to spend time amongst nature with your students but is there some way you could bring nature into the classroom? Could you have one day a week of still-life sketching in form? Could you grow tomatoes from seed in an empty orange juice carton on your window sill? Could you ask your students to bring back one (clean) leaf after break to spend a little time looking at and understanding.
- Encourage students to enjoy descriptive writing for what it is. I love Virginia Woolf's novels but I certainly didn't when I first read them and was told to deconstruct them in a search for meaning. Allow students to read beautiful descriptions of the world around them and relate it to their own lives.
- Pay attention yourself. Simone Weil describes attention as "the rarest and purest form of generosity". By being an attentive person you will naturally share that love of the world around you with your students. Attention is a gift you can give your students too. I find myself needing to step back every once in a while and remind myself that my students are worthy of my time, not because I am paid to be there or because I need them to succeed but (as my A-Level students well know) humans are worthy of being an end in themselves.