Potato 1

Every day this week, my students will spend a few minutes in class describing the same… potato.

I decided it was only fair that I do the exercise along with them. So, Monday:

It sits in my palm like a baseball, but weighs slightly more. I can feel it tugging groundwards. Large for a red potato, it is covered with eyes, mostly on one half. On the very end, six eyes are arranged in a triangle pattern, like the tip of an arrow. I said it’s a red potato, but it’s more brown than red, whether with dirt or natural coloring, it’s hard to tell. The skin feels like the bottom of a foot, not rough so much as calloused. A tap on the skin tells me the interior is tight and full, not hollow nor squishy. Holding it to my nose, I smell old water, like what you might find in a tire swing. If I found this buried in the dirt somewhere, I wouldn’t immediately think, “Delicious!”

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.