Attention: A Discipline and a Ministry

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Attention: A Discipline and a Ministry

By Bret Billman

A brief way to define classical education is “the cultivation of wisdom and virtue.” This year, we’d like to think more about how our students can grow in virtue, and we’re starting with the virtue of attention.

In the 2017 Circe Magazine article “Let Us Attend,” Andrew Kern explains the significance of attention:


Has it ever been harder to get and hold a student’s attention? It seems that we suffer from a cultural attention deficit disorder every bit as much as from the more well-known cultural amnesia. Excessive stimulation assaults our senses while fragmentation creates discord in our souls.

Yet, the most important skill our students need to practice, the skill on which everything depends, is the ability to pay attention. We can learn how to cultivate this faculty, or we can ensure that most of our teaching goes to waste. (emphasis mine)


Kern isn’t alone in this assessment. Doug Lemov, author or Teach Like a Champion, believes that “no matter how great the lesson, if students aren’t alert, sitting up, and actively listening, teaching them is like pouring water into a leaky bucket.” We use the classic book The Seven Laws of Teaching as a professional development tool at Providence, and the second law is to gain and hold the pupil’s attention. It’s clearly important, and one that, well, deserves our attention.


I don’t think the question before us is merely “How do we help our children become more attentive?” but “How do we ALL become more attentive?” If we’re honest with ourselves, we adults may struggle with attentiveness as much as our children do. Maybe more so.


In morning chapel last week, I explained certain techniques that students can and should use in the classroom, especially to help students listen well. But for the purposes of this article, I’d like to focus on disciplines of attention — the broader habits and practices that help us to become more attentive. Here are three ways to think about such disciplines.


The first is to realize that by attending a classical, collaborative school like Providence, you are already doing a great deal to cultivate attention. This is not a shameless plug for our school, but simply to point out that you may be working on this virtue more than you realize. In fact, one of the goals of a classical curriculum is to build the “muscles” of attention. For example:

  • Grammar school Writing With Ease narration and dictation assignments, and note-taking in humanities, are attention workouts. I am not sure if I can think of a better way to practice the skill of attention than through dictation, where grammar school students write precisely what they hear, complete with proper punctuation and spelling. When this practice extends to multiple sentences, and when they are only allowed to hear the reading two or three times, then it seems to me you have something like CrossFit for attention: bursts of high-intensity training over a broad amount of time. For secondary students, note-taking in humanities exercises similar muscles.
  • I really like this year’s emphasis on nature journals. Students carefully draw an object from nature, like this succulent plant. To draw well means to see well, and this practice at Providence helps students to be attentive to details.

  • Reading poetry, at any level, is an exercise in being attentive to the nuances of language.

These are three examples of many. Ideally, every subject contains assignments that exercise the attention muscles, where students can become absorbed in learning in deep ways. It’s not easy. But maybe it’s helpful to know that if you are a co-teacher, you are not only leading academics, but training your child in virtues, like attention. Attention takes effort, and there’s a natural tendency in all of us to fight against it and desire something easier. But take heart: we have seen a great deal of growth in attentiveness among our students over the course of the last few years. This is surely the result of your work at home.


A second way to cultivate attention is really an extension of the first one: enjoy activities outside of school that demand attention. There are many, many activities that are not only fun, but that also build the skill of attention. Here are three examples:

  • Hunting, fishing, and other outdoor activities. These kinds of outdoor activities demand an attention to detail, and a great deal of patience. Or maybe develop an interest in birding, or insect collecting, astronomy, or…
  • Cooking. A lot of kids enjoy cooking, and it’s a great way to learn to be attentive. The lack of attention, in fact, can be pretty problematic!
  • Reading together. Reading, I think, forces us to “give in” to the author’s language and pacing. When we read, we have to temporarily forget other aspects of life, and attend to the book. Reading can help build attentiveness, but it’s not high-intensity. If narration/dictation is to CrossFit, then reading is to a long walk.  


Finally, if we want to increase attentiveness, then we should probably limit activities that hinder attentiveness. For our family, and many others, certain kinds of technology are often the biggest culprits. They cause the “excessive stimulation” that Mr. Kern identified as characteristic of our culture.

  • Texting, Tweeting, status updating, and Instagramming tends to distract us from the present.
  • It could be argued that television (do we even call it that anymore? Is it just called “Netflix” now?) “cultivates” attention in a similar way to reading. We “attend” closely to the moving images, don’t we? But it’s not quite the same. We are more passive when watching shows, which is why we’re more likely to become a zombie when watching television than when reading or listening to a book. But further, it’s harder to be attentive to less flashy things (like school, books, Scripture) when we’re accustomed to television. In terms of instant gratification, few things can compete. So we’re easily frustrated by things that take effort and patience — TV demands neither.
  • And the internet likely hinders our ability to think in a deep and prolonged way. We scan headlines instead of reading them. There is always something else to click, something else competing for the precious little attention that we can give at the moment. A great book on this topic is The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. While there are great benefits to the internet of course, Carr shows how these benefits come at the cost of our ability to sustain attention.


Look, we don’t have this all figured out in our household. We haven’t tamed the technological beast. (And nor is such screen-based technology always a beast.) But I feel the threat of technology to other values that we hold dear, and for that reason I appreciated the insight within Andy Crouch’s new book, The Tech-Wise Family. This is a very practical guide for families, where Crouch elaborates upon his “Ten Tech-Wise Commandments.” These include:


#2: We want to create more than we consume. So we fill the center of our home with things that reward skill and active engagement.

#3: We are designed for rhythm and rest. So one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year, we turn off our devices and worship, feast, play, and rest together.

#6: We use screens for a purpose, and we use them together, rather than using them aimlessly and alone.

#7 Car time is conversation time.

#5 is likely the most challenging: “We aim for ‘no screens before double digits’ at school and at home,” meaning that they don’t allow screen time (at all) until the child reaches 10 years old. The point, though, is not do everything exactly as the Crouch family does it, but to think of “tech-wise” guidelines for your family with the goal of encouraging wisdom and virtue.


I struggle with attentiveness. In a way, this discipline has become harder as I’ve gotten older. Too often, I’m lost in a fog of distraction. But it’s an area where improvement is necessary, because being attentive, as I see it, means being alive to the “right now,” and to other people who are close to us. Being attentive is a way that we serve others. Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls this the “ministry of listening”:


Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear. So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him. … [H]e who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either … Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and his own follies.

                                                                             –From Life Together, pp. 97-98

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