When I was in college, a popular education book described a teaching strategy that encouraged children to connect what they’ve learned to what they already know. This is a lower-level thinking skill, but it helps children to understand and remember new information. I learned about three different types of connections that they could make, and had an arsenal of worksheets to help them document these connections. A good portion of each lesson was devoted to sharing these connections, which Charlotte Mason called “mental associations.”
Secretly, these connections drove me crazy. If I read a phrase like, “Don’t let the bedbugs bite,” ten hands shot in the air to share what they knew about the phrase. I DID NOT want to hear what they had learned about bed bugs! Eventually I came up with this game-changing statement: “If you have a connection, think about it- and now put down your hand.”
Nothing can derail a lesson faster than students sharing their connections.
Following our trains of thought is what makes inattention. I unknowingly encouraged my students to distract themselves when I asked them to make connections. Even when I figured out that they took away precious time from our lesson, I never taught them to manage those associations. Teaching children to manage these connections is a crucial step in teaching children how to pay attention.
A Good Servant, and a Bad Master
The fact that children can direct the course of a lesson with their associative thoughts is timeless. Charlotte Mason said:
“You talk to a child about glass–you wish to provoke a proper curiosity as to how glass is made, and what are its uses. Not a bit of it; he wanders off to Cinderella’s glass slipper; then he tells you about his godmother who gave him a boat; then about the ship in which Uncle Harry went to America; then he wonders why you do not wear spectacles, leaving you to guess that Uncle Harry does so. But the child’s ramblings are not whimsical; they follow a law, the law of association of ideas, by which any idea presented to the mind recalls some other idea which has been at any time associated with it–as glass and Cinderella’s slipper; and that, again some idea associated with it. Now this law of association of ideas is a good servant and a bad master. To have this aid in recalling the events of the past, the engagements of the present, is an infinite boon; but to be at the mercy of associations, to have no power to think what we choose when we choose, but only as something ‘puts it into our head,’ is to be no better than an imbecile.” Home Education
Charlotte Mason used the phrase, “a good servant, but a bad master” several times in her works. These associations do serve purpose. They aid in helping children remember content, and move it to long-term memory so that it isn’t quickly forgotten. As soon as associations take over, though, the child’s ability to attend is in trouble. When these thoughts become the master, they lead the child away from what is important, and down a winding path that leads to a dead end.
Teaching Children to Fix Their Thoughts
Like I’ve written about before, we have to teach children how to pay attention. We teach them that when their thoughts start to wonder, they need to redirect them to the task or information at hand. This is not just because it wastes time in a lesson. Redirecting our thoughts is an important habit to use throughout life. It is helps us with social skills, work productivity, and the ability to continually learn.
Charlotte Mason said:
“Wandering Attention.–A vigorous effort of will should enable us at any time to fix our thoughts. Yes; but a vigorous self-compelling will is the flower of a developed character; and while the child has no character to speak of, but only natural disposition, who is to keep humming-tops out of a geography lesson, or a doll’s sofa out of a French verb? Here is the secret of the weariness of the home schoolroom–the children are thinking all the time about something else than their lessons; or rather, they are at the mercy of the thousand fancies that flit through their brains, each in the train of the last. “Oh, Miss Smith,” said a little girl to her governess, “there are so many things more interesting than lessons to think about!”
Where is the harm? In this: not merely that the children are wasting time, though that is a pity; but that they are forming a desultory habit of mind, and reducing their own capacity for mental effort.”
We all know adults who have this “desultory habit of mind.” It drives me crazy trying to talk to someone who gets so caught up in tangents that I’m not sure what we’re actually talking about. I can’t judge, though, because even though I can keep a conversation on track, my focus has been all over the place since sitting down to write this post. I’ve checked my email, browsed on Instagram, and cleaned a cluttered room in the last hour.
A Mental Image
When I started teaching at an Ambleside School, I learned the art of direct instruction regarding habits of attention. I asked the students to imagine that their thoughts were walking away, and that they needed to reach out and grab them. This gave them the idea that they were in control of their thoughts, and that they needed to make a distinct effort to stay focused.
This is a habit that needs modeling. I guess I can add this to the list of habits I need to improve on in the New Year! (That’s my word of the year- read more here if you want to- or you can just stay focused 🙂 Redirecting my thoughts out loud can help show my children how to dismiss those associations and focus on the task or idea.
Now that I’m aware that these connections tend to pull our attention away, I’ve worked on redirecting my daughter when she shares her connections. The fact that she’s making them can help her, but teaching her how to manage them is key.