Let’s say the history teacher, a descendant of the 1960s, is talking (of course) about the Vietnam War, and how Walter Cronkite won the Tet Offensive, even though the North lost it, and the student is perhaps paying some attention, but when the teacher shifts to an explanation of the hardships of war in the hot weather and the humidity, the student, effortlessly, may begin to remember what his grandfather told him about the cold at the Chosin Reservoir in 1950, and how easy it was to get frostbitten or even to freeze to death.
The teacher, quite understandably, so often has no idea that the student is no longer listening to, or learning from him, no matter how “great” the teacher is.
Those who say that teacher quality is the most important variable in student academic achievement seem to have forgotten the student’s role in student academic achievement. They have failed to think about, and they have not come to realize, the fact that the student is the sole proprietor of his/her own attention, and that her/his attention is the sine qua non for student academic achievement.
Again, the history teacher might be talking about the rise of organized labor in American life, and the student’s mind could easily slip away to the stories her aunt has told her about the difficult labor she had to go through with her first daughter.
Attention wanders, and in class wandering attention means the end of learning on the current topic for the time being, at least for that student, and for the “education” planned for that class period for any and all distracted students.
What can be done about this wayward-attention phenomenon? We might start by realizing that students own their attention and that we must negotiate with them successfully if we are to convince them to bring that attention to our offerings and to their duties as students. (Doesn’t that sound quaint?–Students have duties?)
With this in mind, we might spend more time explaining why what we are teaching in a given period on any given day is worth the attention we need from students. We can order them to pay attention (that doesn’t work), but we might be able to sell them on the chance that if they give their attention to what we are offering, it might prove to be worth their while.
We won’t sell the opportunity to every one, but some students might be grateful for the respect we pay to their ownership of their own minds and their own attention, and more of them might be willing to give us the benefit of the doubt and give our
presentations and plans their attention on a trial basis. (And some students will surely be influenced by the attention they see their peers giving to the work at hand…)
Then, if what we are teaching is as important and as interesting to us as we hope it will be to them, there is a chance (well-tested in experience) that they may indeed find it of interest to them as well, and they will be, in that subject perhaps, on their way to becoming educated, and more than that even, they might be on their way to deciding to teach themselves more about the subject as well. Thus are scholars born.
“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776-3371 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007
www.tcr.org; fitzhugh@tcr.org
Varsity Academics®