A Man is Easily Distracted

John Milton Gregory, discussing the “law of the learner,” describes two kinds of attention: active, “effortful” attention and what he calls secondary passive attention. You might think that he’d advocate the first kind. After all, students need to exert themselves if they’re going to learn, right? But, no, he says that the second kind, secondary passive attention, is what makes for the best kind of learning. To grasp this, you have to understand what exactly he’s describing.

Generally speaking we learn most easily and most economically when we are “absorbed” in our work, when the objects that we are trying to fix in mind and remember permanently really attract us in their own right, so to speak—when our learning is so fascinating that it simply “carries us with it.”

This secondary passive attention is powerful because it generates its own steam. The student who is attracted to and absorbed in the lesson is going to make the most progress in learning. Students can only sustain so much active attention; at some point, the teacher must take over the heavy lifting and “pull” the students along. That said, active attention does have its place:

Attention of this sort [secondary passive] frequently grows out of persistent effort—out of what we have just termed “active” attention. This attention resembles passive attention in that its object is always attractive in itself and demands little or not effort to be brought into the focus of consciousness; but it also grows out of active attention, out of effort and perseverance…

In other words, the student makes progress through hard work, but can only sustain hard work through something attractive—we might call this curiosity or inspiration or imagination. To guide the body, the head and the heart must work together. (If you’re thinking of The Abolition of Man, you’re not alone…)

A couple of practical applications spring to mind. First, if the student (reader, audience, etc.) is bored, it is at least partly the fault of the teacher (author, artist, etc.). Second, active attention is a skill that can be developed. So you might not like classical music, but if you do the hard work of listening to Beethoven, you may find that, at some point, you become absorbed in the music. But you have to actively listen to even have a chance of being absorbed. Third, so much of our computer technology is designed to eliminate that first step of active attention. The barrier to entry is so low it’s part of the floor. Without that active engagement, there’s no chance of secondary passive attention, only of passivity. Growing pains are good. Without them, technology becomes a crutch.