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Attention

( Originally Published 1899 )

THE reason that a certain experience means one thing to one child and another to a second is due in large measure, as has been explained, to the differences in their previous experiences and education. If a rabbit is brought into the room, one child will flee. from it, while another will immediately fondle it; one will notice its color, an-other its fur, another its ears, another its tail, another its teeth, another its eyes, another the way it runs. If a doll is brought in, one will speak of its clothes, another of its face, another of its hands, another of its hair, another of the material of which it is made. If you pronounce the word corn to the children, one will think of canned corn, another of popcorn, another of corn growing in the field, another of corn meal, another of sweet corn, another of Kaffir corn, another of broom corn, another of the corn on father's big toe; still others may think of a grain of corn, its shape, its color, its size, its use, etc.

An additional reason for this great variety in the things first noticed and first mentioned by them will be found, if you carry the experiments far enough, in the fact that they are the ones in which for the time at least the children are most interested. This interest is caused by the pleasure which is given the child at the time or which it has experienced in the past. The pleasure may be enhanced by the familiarity or the novelty of the object, or of some element or elements in it. It may be sensuous or intellectual, real or imagined. It is this which gives it value. Any-thing has value for us which has power to con-tribute to our enjoyment. The fur of the rabbit is soft to the touch, and so delights the child; the snow-white of its tail in contrast with the brownish gray of its body pleases the eye, and so he becomes interested in its Color. The bright ribbons on the doll stimulate the optic nerve, and interest is quickened at once. The mention of corn calls up the roasting ears at yesterday's dinner, because of the enjoyment they furnished. It must be remembered that the term pleasure is applied to every kind of feeling, whatever its source, which is in harmony with our being. Its opposite term, pain, is applied to feelings not in harmony with it. Interest may arise from the latter as well as from pleasure, and so value may be either positive or negative. Value may be natural or acquired that is, it may belong to the object itself or it may be due to the particular meaning it has for us. Two knives may be exactly alike, but one is a present from mother, and therefore is worth a thousand times as much as the other. A lock of hair may be soft and silken, and as such please all who look at it, but to the one who recognizes it as the dear curls of a loved baby it has value and interest which is beyond computation. A lump of silver ore lying on the mountain side is nothing but an ordinary stone to us, but it sets the imagination of an experienced miner on fire. The more knowledge one may have about an object the greater will be the variety of interest it arouses.

The reason a child picks out one object from among several is found, then, in the interest it arouses in him, or in the value it has for him be-cause of its ability to arouse pleasure. It is for the same reason that he selects and exalts above the others some particular element in an object, as, for instance, its color, its shape, its texture, its taste, its odor, its utility, its past associations. The following laws may easily be verified:

The mind attaches most value to that which gives it most pleasure, antipicated or realized.

Whatever gives or promises pleasure or pain to the child awakens interest.

The element in an experience which possesses the most value to the child comes at once into prominence in consciousness, the others taking a subordinate place in apperception or dropping out of notice entirely.

The first may be called the law of value; the second, the law of interest; the third, the law of disengagement or of dissociation. If it were not for these laws, everything would mean practically the same thing to us, and differentiation would be a very laborious and unsatisfactory process. Without interest, knowledge would be shorn of much of its charm and life of all its zest. It breaks up monotony, and constantly incites the mind to new adjustments. These laws lie at the basis of educational principles, and no method of instruction can wisely ignore them.

As stated before, a variety of elements, of sensations, always lie in mass in consciousness. Some force is necessary to push or pull one of them into prominence. If one of the stimuli have sufficient value in the way of intensity or quality or pitch to arouse interest, pain or pleasure, consciousness immediately apprehends it, and it becomes the object of attention. This is the reason we increase the volume of the voice or change its quality in order to attract the attention of one who is adsorbed in something else. A very small child soon learns the philosophy of such a course, and so cries louder or with a different tone in case mother does not promptly respond.

When the mind is concentrated upon some particular element in an experience, it is said to be giving attention. This is essential to all apperception, to all knowledge. The reason for the selection of a particular element to the exclusion of others has already been sufficiently explained. The isolation from the others must be so complete that it will not be confused with them. That being secured, the self must be brought to bear upon that element by adjusting all of its powers to it so as to find its meaning. There is very great difference in merely looking at a thing to the exclusion of other things, and in turning the whole of one's activities upon it in order to interpret it. There will be no meaning in it until the mind discovers correspondence between the new elements and those with which it is already familiar. It is for this reason that rapidity in adjustment should be sought constantly. Many children wear their eyes out staring at a thing, imagining that they are giving attention. If they are not at the same time actively engaged in fitting themselves to it, as it were, there is little hope of their becoming any the wiser. A further word in the way of illustration may be in place. A child was given a key. He immediately toddled to the door and tried to insert it in the keyhole. Had he not brought to bear upon it his past knowledge and discovered identity or likeness, such a movement would have had no significance whatever. I gave a word, felicific, to a class of young men and women not long since. It had no meaning to them, in spite of all their efforts to " remember." I suggested a division of the word, and lo! one of them saw at once his old friends felix and felicity, and another recognized in fie the essence of fiction, and they were not Latin students either. A little practice following enabled them to adjust their knowledge of words to the interpretation of many strangers with surprising facility. I stepped off the train once at midnight in a blinding storm and started to find a hotel I had been told was not far away. I soon discovered that I was lost, when a flash of lightning, though lasting but an instant, revealed a score of objects to me. Almost before it was gone I had brought to bear upon them all the description given me, and had located the hotel so accurately that I was able to go directly to its door.

Accuracy is as important in the adjustment as rapidity. In one sense, we may say that there is really no adjustment that is not accurate. If the process lack intelligence and self-control, flurry, confusion, and waste must result. There is a kind of superficial adjustment which comes so easily and so quickly that the deeper meanings are entirely overlooked. Dr. Baldwin very aptly calls such attention liquid attention, for it as quickly loses the effect of the new knowledge as water loses the form of the vessel from which it has been poured.

Follow up all of this with a variety of tests and experiments, and discover how and why children differ in the rapidity and accuracy of their adjustment to common things. Find how easily they are deceived and how quickly they learn to adjust themselves with greater ease.

Apperception is not complete, however, until this adjustment has resulted in uniting or identifying the new element with others already familiar to the mind. The disengagement which took it away from its companion elements in consciousness makes possible its association and alliance with others of its own kind and name. The recognition of some such relationship is, of course, essential to the adjustment already described, but the final stage reacts, intensifies, and reaffirms the identification and assimilation, so that the meaning takes definite form as an idea. The idea may be simple or complex, depending upon the number of elements which the mind may relate and combine with it. Practice enables the child to hold in mind an increasing number of relations, and his attention becomes " many-sided "—that is, he is able to apprehend and give meaning at once to many elements in an experience.

Hold some strange object before the class for an instant, then discover how many things each pupil can name in writing about it. Find out, if possible, why some of them saw so little in it. Their own explanations may be of value in adapting means and methods to their needs.

The term relation has been used several times, and its meaning ought not to be misunderstood. It is simply the connection which the mind gives objects because of the discovery of common or like elements. It is that which enables a child to connect or to see the whole in the part, the cause in the effect, the class in the individual, the resemblance or contrast of one object with another in color, or form, or size, or texture. It leads to all identification and differentiation. By it knowledge rises from the individual to the class, the relation, the common element, becoming more ideal and more universal with each succeeding experience.

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