Making Learning Happen

horse_water-700x434Somewhat related to my long meditations on motivation is the idea that we can cause learning to happen volitionally.  I certainly recognize that anyone is able to choose to learn for themselves, but as I sit here in the last hour of a school day prior to a long weekend I am reminded again and again that you can lead a horse to water, but the drinking is very tenuous.

So can we cause another to learn?  Is it appropriate to herd souls into lined up seats and then, with the ringing of a bell, in essence say, “Now, learn this stuff?”  As one Freshman recently said to me, “Mr. E, you just sellin’ what I don’t want to buy.  You want me to read and I just don’t feel like it.”  Now in that moment there was certainly the need to press the ideals of discipline and self mastery, etc. to push the young man out of his laziness and into the light, but there is the rub again: if he does not want to do so, the best I can hope for is his faking it enough to pass the class.  But I don’t teach to such ends.

I wish to see my students learn.  I almost beg them to do so.  I prepare great lessons, based on lengthy contemplations, just the right questions to spark their minds, models of great Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, and all the humanity and grace I can muster for the classroom.  And many respond.  But others just sit there.  I seek their soul and it just can’t always be found.

Please don’t view this as a big bottle of whine.  I have been doing this long enough to have gotten past that; I just want to be faithful and find that this issue is at the heart of the temptation toward infidelity.  Just dial it in; they are not listening anyway.  Make a worksheet and call it learning.  Give them work time knowing they will be thinking about a lot of things, almost none of which resemble the work assigned.

I think the appropriate pedagogical approaches best suited to answering these things are found in conversation (two way discussion in the class) and writing.  I give mostly essay tests these days.  It is much harder to “fake” engagement in a written essay than when you are simply guessing the patterns of multiple choice or matching questions.  While some students can try to bloviate their way through a class discussion, and some quieter ones are just as engaged, or more so, this is where the experience of a teacher or tutor comes into play.

I think the best answer to this question is that the teacher must be engaged in the learning process, not simply pushing learning at the student but entering into it himself to have any hope that the student will enter in.  We must be students to be teachers.

What Does It Mean to “Attend”?

Starting to ruminate on a possible work focused on the term, “attention.”  A fundamental necessity of learning is for a mind to be able to focus attention on the thing being learned.  I am told more and more frequently that many of my students have a deficit when it comes to being able to attend to a lesson.

So what is a good working definition of “attention” and what are the constituent ideas compiling to form this act?

William James has so far given me the best that I can find but I am seeking more and even clearer definitions.

Attention “is the taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what may seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thoughts…It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.” (James, William. The Principles of Psychology. New York: Dover Publications, 1950).

I hope to unpack this definition in the future, but for now, the following are my initial observations:

  • James sees attention as an active taking possession of the mind, not something passive
  • He sees it as an act of judgment – choosing one thing out of many possible things to attend to
  • He sees it as well to be the purposeful ignoring or withdrawing from some things so that the thing needing attention is all that is being dealt with.





Late every school year things start to whirl out of control.  It is at such moments that many educators start to contemplate the issue of motivation.  I don’t know if any of the following is helpful, but it does help me to line it out…

The Problem:

In order for a student to learn, they must be attentive to the idea being acquired.  Many in our day find attending for an extended time difficult, and many just don’t see the point of learning.  So the problem is seeking to find a way to bring students to prolonged attention upon the lesson before the class.

Considerations and Factors:

  • Few children today are taught to attend either by their parents or their teachers.  This is a fundamental issue at the heart of the problem.
  • Many teachers today form lessons that are hard to attend to, in part due to a changing definition of education and in part because they themselves, working off the model of their own teachers, have a poor education themselves (I include myself in this group, so please don’t be offended, it might not apply to you).
  • Due to our move from normative education (which calls students to a high ideal) to something more akin to vocational training (which calls students to a good paycheck) it is harder to become passionate about education thereby be motivated to excel, because the ideals are gone.
  • At the center of motivation, at least as I understand it, is the heart.  It must be nourished on truth, goodness, and beauty so that it can properly order its affections and steer both the mind’s thoughts and the belly’s appetites toward a high calling (most notably “the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.,” see Phil. 3:14).

Possible Solutions:

To solve this problem of motivation, I see several suggested solutions in our current educational culture:

  1. Move the Standards of Excellence to the middle of the road so students find success redefined in much easier terms.
  2. Continue to press the “money” button as this is the only true motivation of the modern man – study or you won’t “get anywhere” in life.
  3. Carrot and Stick – modify the student’s behaviors by rewarding the grade hound and punishing the losers (ie. the low grade student).
  4. Let’s make learning fun – related to “1” above, this solution calls for us to use games, technology, parties, whatever is at hand and considered “motivating” at the moment to bring short term performance oriented results.
  5. Considering the problem above, one might simply work through the considerations and factors and seek to change some or all of those:
    • Teach the habits of mind that aid in attending – teach the memory, teach the tastes, teach the love of hard work, etc.
    • Focus on developing teachers who develop truly “interesting” or real lesson plans – have them teach from an overflowing and well educated heart, rather than the latest “book” (this will take generations to pull off).
    • Reorient education to norms again (this is why I tout Hick’s Norms and Nobility so much).  This is closely related to Adler’s call for the high school seminar – reorienting the classroom toward ideas away from “bare facts” or “skills” will do much to recover the student’s interest in the lessons taught.
    • But in the end, perhaps the most helpful thought I can share is the recognition that there is no silver bullet – no one “idea” will reform education.  The loss of true education in America was generations ago, and it was a loss of our collective soul, so you can’t simply write, read, preach, workshop, or pull things back into shape.  We must first recover our soul.  And that is a large task that requires supra human help.