Engaging interest, not just attention

ATTENTION !!! by fs999

I recently read something which hugely affected my view of education both now and in the future. It was not part of the contemporary movement towards creativity and innovation embodied by such thinkers as Ken Robinson and Stephen Heppell, and expounded across educational blogs such as this one. It was, in fact, a book I found in my Mother’s garage, published in the 60s and about the founding of a school in the 1920s.

The book was ‘Summerhill’, in which A.S. Neill writes of the philosophy of the controversial school he founded based on the values of self governance and genuine freedom. In this school lessons took place, but attendance was (and still is as far as I can ascertain) totally optional. Decisions in all matters of school life, including discipline, are undertaken by a truly democratic council of the entire school community, in which the head teacher’s vote has equal value to that of a four year old. However, this was not some experiment, but a long established school which still exists under this philosophy today.

This, of course, sounds hugely radical, but what really interested me was the justification and explanations provided in this book. From common sense, to thought provoking analogies, this is a book I will be ruminating on for some time and, despite some of the Freudian explanations appearing a little dated, I would recommend to anyone involved in education.

One of the things I found fascinating was the parallels to issues and ideas I have been engaging with as part of the work I have done on ‘negotiated learning’ and ‘learning agreement time’ in my current post. Something I have been mulling over around the recent discussions we have been having on this work is the issue of making sure children are engaged in meaningful activities during open ended, child centered learning time.

Writing of rewards and punishments, Neil writes:

“Rewards and punishment tend to pressure a child into interest. But true interest is the lifeforce of the whole personality, and such interest is completely spontaneous. It is possible to compel attention, for attention is an act of consciousness. It is possible to be attentive to an outline on the black board and at the same time be interested in pirates. Though one can compel attention, one cannot compel interest.”

This distinction between attention and interest clarified for me something I have been grappling with for some time. One of the criticisms I come across most often when discussing negotiated learning, or even more mainstream early years practice, is that when given freedom some children will choose to not engage with the prescribed learning. The idea of children being left free to not engage with the ‘meaningful’ tasks going on in the classroom is reprehensible to many key stage two teachers, used as we are to compelling the attention of the whole class. However, compelling their attention could actually mask whether the learning is matched to their interests. If they are sat giving the physical appearance of listening, or going through the motions of completing tasks, It is very easy to think the are engaging in learning when in fact they could very well be actually engaging with the ‘pirates’ Neil writes of.

In a freer environment, such as the hour of ‘Learning agreement time’ we run each morning, any disengagement is sorely obvious. To the casual observer this can look really bad, however, to the teacher with the children’s interests in mind a brief spell of disengagement can be a useful opportunity for assessing and adapting the learning opportunities.

To my mind, the answer is not that disengaged children need to be structured or compelled to attention. There seems little likelihood of significant learning happening when someone is compelled to attend to it with no real interest. Instead the opportunities provided for learning need to be better matched to their interests and level of development. Whether this is achieved by allowing children to disengage from aspects of education until they are developmentally ready to take them on of their own accord, as Neil suggests, is a hugely difficult notion in our standards driven school culture. However, I think the importance of engaging with children’s interests, and not merely forcing the engagement of their attention, is something all teachers should have at the forefront of their minds.

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10 thoughts on “Engaging interest, not just attention”

  1. That’s a blast from the past Oliver! That book was on the reading list when I did my ‘O’ Levels. It has always maintained it’s interest across the years. I think they were Ofsted-ed & came a cropper but then they would wouldn’t they – not being run of the mill. As you say, it is about the mind set to learning. Thanks for the memories! Julia

    1. Thanks Julia. I read up on the Ofsted thing, and apparently after threats of closure and protests, they had a successful Ofsted a few years ago. I read the report and there were some criticisms (as would be expected), but there were a lot of positives and the overall judgment was positive.

      It’s very interesting with me as a young teacher to see some of these ideas from some time ago. In many ways they seem more relevant now than some ‘contemporary’ educational thinking.

    1. Amazing that this was going on in the 1920’s!! I’m a passionate believer in the power of student voice in decision making and will certainly be looking up ‘Summerhill’. Thanks for the link to ‘Deschooling’ too… we’ve been pitching for some money to support trialling some ideas around an entire school culture based on ‘game dynamics’ to a couple of funders over the last year and our new student voice and collaboration software ‘every1speaks’ tries to support a culture of collaboration, collective ‘voice’ and valuing opinion.

      1. Thanks Peter.

        I have been interested in student choice in terms of learning for some time. I found reading Summerhill make me think about mechanisms for student voice more. I approached their ideas from the point of view of child led learning, but realized that they had come to the child led learning route through the idea of student voice and democracy. It made me think what a big part such things could play in what I see as my ideals for learning.

  2. Great post! I’m certainly going to look up ‘Summerhill’. I’m amazed this was going on in the 1920’s and has stood the test of time for 90 years! Thanks for the link to ‘De-schooling society’ too… it’s on the (ever expanding) reading list. I’m really passionate about student voice and believe the only way to keep interest is through shared ownership of decision making, Looking forward to your next post!

  3. Oliver, what an inspirational post. It is incredibly timely for me as a grade 5 teacher in the PYP (Primary Years Program) of the IB. We are now starting the process of the PY Exhibition, a totally free of choice 6 to 8 week project the students can engage in, a unit of inquiry that is the culmination of the program for these learners. The sadness of the situation is that even for some children who have been learning in a co-constructing way in a student centered learning environment, a few are so conditioned to going through the motions and ticking the boxes, that given the choice of inquiring into “what matters to me” — they simply don’t know what interests them, and come up blank. It is a very involved process to actually get then to arrive at issues and concepts that they truly want to explore. The more early opportunities we can give to learners to have a say in what they learn, the more they will truly grow into independent inquirers who don’t need to wait until someone cones along to hold their hand and not only show them the way but prop them up like crutches each step of the journey. Thank you for the thought provoking post, and I truly hope that after the week’s school break, my reluctant inquirer can find something she’s passionate about!

    1. Thanks for the comment Ana. You bring up an interesting point. When I first started working on ‘negotiated’ learning I also found it was hard to just let children have free reign- as they often had very few interests. What I realised was part of the role of the teacher in this more free environment was to give them experiences that might reveal interests to them. Sometimes this is about NOT allowing them to do anything they want, but structuring an experience for them to give them a taste of what something might be about, that they might find an interest in an experience with some depth. I have talked about my ideas on this here: http://www.oliverquinlan.com/blog/2011/01/15/changing-classroom-relationships/ .

      I would be interested in your thoughts on this, especially in light of your experiences of the PYP. I have to admit I know little about this programme, but it sounds very interesting.

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  5. I’ve just started my PGCE course and this is something I’ve found myself wondering about time to time. What I’ve noticed is that it not only applies to primary school children but to many adults as well. If you asked them what they are interested in, many aren’t capable of giving things that really interest on a deep level. It is more likely to be like rather than love of something.

    Having said all of this,
    I’m curious whether the whole engaging interest but not attention may be detrimental in the long run if applied too often. It allows children to really specialise and focus on developing a learning personality, but at the same time, I feel like they might end up becoming more disenchanted with things that they don’t really identify-connect to.

    Not sure if I’m being clear here. It would be interesting to hear how you have observed this over time. I’ll be looking through your blog. 🙂

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