Read CHAPTER VI - ATTENTION of Spontaneous Activity in Education , free online book, by Maria Montessori, on ReadCentral.com.

The phenomenon to be expected from the little child, when he is placed in an environment favorable to his spiritual growth, is this: that suddenly the child will fix his attention upon an object, will use it for the purpose for which it was constructed, and will continue to repeat the same exercise indefinitely. One will repeat an exercise twenty times, another forty times, and yet another two hundred times; but this is the first phenomenon to be expected, as initiatory to those acts with which spiritual growth is bound up.

That which moves the child to this manifestation of activity is evidently a primitive internal impulse, almost a vague sense of spiritual hunger; and it is the impulse to satisfy this hunger which then actually directs the consciousness of the child to the determined object and leads it gradually to a primordial, but complex and repeated exercise of the intelligence in comparing, judging, deciding upon an act, and correcting an error. When the child, occupied with the solid insets, places and displaces the ten little cylinders in their respective places thirty or forty times consecutively; and, having made a mistake, sets himself a problem and solves it, he becomes more and more interested, and tries the experiment again and again; he prolongs a complex exercise of his psychical activities which makes way for an internal development.

It is probably the internal perception of this development which makes the exercise pleasing, and induces prolonged application to the same task. To quench thirst, it is not sufficient to see or to sip water; the thirsty man must drink his fill: that is to say, must take in the quantity his organism requires; so, to satisfy this kind of psychical hunger and thirst, it is not sufficient to see things cursorily, much less “to hear them described”; it is necessary to possess them and to use them to the full for the satisfaction of the needs of the inner life.

This fact stands revealed as the basis of all psychical construction, and the sole secret of education. The external object is the gymnasium on which the spirit exercises itself, and such “internal” exercises are primarily “in themselves” the end and aim of action. Hence the solid insets are not intended to give the child a knowledge of dimensions, nor are the plane insets designed to give him a conception of forms; the purpose of these, as of all the other objects, is to make the child exercise his activities. The fact that the child really acquires by these means definite knowledge, the recollection of which is vivid in proportion to the fixity and intensity of his attention, is a necessary result; and, indeed, it is precisely the sensory knowledge of dimensions, forms and colors, etc., thus acquired, which makes the continuation of such internal exercises in fields progressively vaster and higher, a possible achievement.

Hitherto, all psychologists have agreed that instability of attention is the characteristic of little children of three or four years old; attracted by everything they see, they pass from object to object, unable to concentrate on any; and generally the difficulty of fixing the attention of children is the stumbling-block of their education, William James speaks of “that extreme mobility of the attention with which we are all familiar in children, and which makes their first lessons such rough affairs.... The reflex and passive character of the attention ... which makes the child seem to belong less to himself than to every object which happens to catch his notice, is the first thing which the teacher must overcome.... The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again is the very root of judgment, character and will.... An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.”

Thus man, acting by himself alone, never successfully arrests and fixes that inquiring attention which wanders from object to object.

In fact, in our experiment the attention of the little child was not artificially maintained by a teacher; it was an object which fixed that attention, as if it corresponded to some internal impulse; an impulse which evidently was directed solely to the things “necessary” for its development. In the same manner, those complex coordinated movements achieved by a new-born infant in the act of sucking, are limited to the first and unconscious need of nutrition; they are not a conscious acquisition directed to a purpose.

Indeed, the conscious acquisition directed to a definite purpose would be impossible in the movements of a new-born infant’s mouth, as also in the first movements of the child’s spirit.

Therefore it is essential that the external stimulus which first presents itself should be verily the breast and the milk of the spirit, and then only shall we behold that surprising phenomenon of a little face concentrated in an intensity of attention.

Behold a child of three years old capable of repeating the same exercise fifty times in succession; many persons are moving about beside him; some one is playing the piano; children are singing in chorus; but nothing distracts the little child from his profound concentration. Just so does the suckling keep hold of the mother’s breast, uninterrupted by external incidents, and desists only when he is satisfied.

Only Nature accomplishes such miracles.

If, then, psychical manifestations have their root in Nature, it was necessary, in order to understand and help Nature, to study it in its initial periods, those which are the simplest, and the only ones capable of revealing truths which would serve as guides for the interpretation of later and more complex manifestations. This, indeed, many psychologists have done; but, applying the analytical methods of experimental psychology, they did not start from that point whence the biological sciences derive their knowledge of life: that is, the liberty of the living creatures they desire to observe. If Fabre had not made use of insects, while leaving them free to carry out their natural manifestations, and observing them without allowing his presence to interfere in any way with their functions; if he had caught insects, had taken them into his study, and subjected them to experiment, he would not have been able to reveal the marvels of insect life.

If bacteriologists had not instituted, as a method of research, an environment similar to that which is natural to microbes, both as regards nutritive substances and conditions of temperature, etc., to the end that they “might live freely” and thus manifest their characteristics; if they had confined themselves to fixing the germs of a disease under the microscope, the science which to-day saves the lives of innumerable men and protects whole nations from epidemics would not exist.

Freedom to live is the true basis for every method of observation applied to living creatures.

Liberty is the experimental condition for studying the phenomena of the child’s attention. It will be enough to remember that the stimuli of infant attention, being mainly sensory, have a powerful physiological concomitant of “accommodation” in the organs of sense; an accommodation, physiologically incomplete in the young child, which requires to develop itself according to Nature. An object not adapted to become a useful stimulus to the powers of accommodation in process of development would not only be incapable of sustaining attention as a psychical fact, but would also, as a physiological fact, weary or actually injure the organs of accommodation such as the eye and ear. But the child who chooses the objects, and perseveres in their use with the utmost intensity of attention, as shown in the muscular contractions which give mimetic expression to his face, evidently experiences pleasure, and pleasure is an indication of healthy functional activity; it always accompanies exercises which are useful to the organs of the body.

Attention also requires a preparation of the ideative centers in relation to the external object for which it is to be demanded: in other words, an internal, psychical “adaptation.” The cerebral centers should be excited in their turn by an internal process, when an external stimulus acts. Thus, for instance, any one who is expecting a person, sees him arriving from a considerable distance; not only because the person presents himself to the senses, but because he was “expected.” The distant figure claimed attention because the cerebral centers were already excited to that end. By means of similar activities a hunter is conscious of the slightest sound made by game in woods. In short, two forces act upon the cerebral cell, as upon a closed door: the external sensory force which knocks, and the internal force which says: Open. If the internal force does not open, it is in vain that the external stimulus knocks at the door. And then the strongest stimuli may pass unheeded. The absent-minded man may step into a chasm. The man who is absorbed in a task may be deaf to a band playing in the street.

The central action that constitutes attention is the factor of the greatest psychological and philosophic value, and the one which has always represented the maximum among the practical values in pedagogy. The whole art of teachers has consisted, in substance, in preparing the attention of the child to make it expectant of their instruction, and in securing the cooperation of those internal forces which should “open the door” when they “knock.” And as the thing which is quite unknown, or that which is inaccessible to the understanding, can awaken no interest, the fundamentals of the art of teaching were to go gradually from the known to the unknown, from the easy to the difficult. It is the preexistent “known” which excites expectation and opens the door to the novel “unknown”; and it is the already present “easy work” which opens new ways for penetration, and puts the attention into a state of expectation.

Thus, according to the conceptions of pedagogy, it should be possible to “prepare good offices for oneself,” the cooperation of the psychical concomitants of the attention. Everything would depend on skilful manipulation between the known and the unknown and similar things: the clever teacher would be like the great military strategist, who prepares the plan of a battle upon a table; and man would be able to direct man, leading him wheresoever he pleases.

This, moreover, has long been the materialistic principle which governs psychology. According to Herbert Spencer, the mind is at first, as it were, an indifferent day, on which external impressions “rain,” leaving traces more or less profound. “Experiences” are, according to him and the English empiricists, the constructive factors of the mind even in its highest activities. Man is what experience has made him; hence, in education, by preparing a suitable structure of experiences, it is possible to build up the man. A conception not less materialistic than that which presented itself for a moment before the marvelous progress of organic chemistry, when the series of syntheses succeeded that of analyses. It was then believed that a species of albumen might be manufactured synthetically, and as albumen is the organic basis of the cells, and as the human ovum is nothing but a cell, man himself might one day be manufactured on the chemist’s table. The conception of man as the creator of man was quickly discredited in the material domain; but the psychical homunculus still persists among the practical conceptions of pedagogy.

No chemical synthesis could put into the cell, apparently nothing more than a simple clot of nucleated protoplasm, that activity sine matter, that potential vital force, that mysterious factor which causes a cell to develop into man.

And the elusive attention of children would seem to tell us that the psychical man is subject to analogous laws of auto-creation.

The most modern school of spiritualistic psychologists, to which William James belonged, recognized, in the concomitant of attention, a fact bound up with the nature of the subject, a “spiritual force,” one of the “mysterious factors of life.”

“... From whence his intellect Deduced its primal notices of thought, Man therefore knows not; or his appetites Their first affection; such In you as zeal In bees to gather honey.”

(Carey’s translation, Dante’s Purgatorio, Canto XVIII.)

There is in man a special attitude to external things, which forms part of his nature, and determines its character. The internal activities act as cause; they do not react and exist as the effect of external factors. Our attention is not arrested by all things indifferently, but by those which are congenial to our tastes. The things which are useful to our inner life are those which arouse our interest. Our internal world is created upon a selection from the external world, acquired for and in harmony with our internal activities. The painter will see a preponderance of colors in the world, the musician will be attracted by sounds. It is the quality of our attention which reveals ourselves, and we manifest ourselves externally by our aptitudes; it is not our attention which creates us. The individual character, the internal form, the difference between one man and another, are also obvious among men who have lived in the same environment, but who from that environment have taken only what was necessary for each. The “experiences” with which each constructs his ego in relation to the external world do not form a chaos, but are directed by his intimate individual aptitudes.

If there were any doubt as to the natural force which directs psychical formation, our experiences with little children would furnish a decisive proof. No teacher could procure such phenomena of attention by any artifices; they have evidently an internal origin. The power of concentration shown by little children from three to four years old have no counterpart save in the annals of genius. These little ones seem to reproduce the infancy of men possessing an extraordinary power of attention, such as Archimedes, who was slain while bending over his circles, from which rumors of the taking of Syracuse had failed to distract him; or Newton, who, absorbed in his studies, forgot to eat; or Vittorio Alfieri, who, when writing a poem, heard nothing of the noisy wedding procession which was passing with shouts and clamor before his windows.

Now, these characteristics of the attention of genius could not be evoked by an “interesting” teacher, however subtle his art; nor could any accumulation of passive experiences become such an accumulator of psychical energies.

If there be a spiritual force working within the child, by which he may open the door of his attention, the problem which necessarily presents itself is a problem of liberty, rather than a problem of pedagogic art effecting the construction of his mind. The bestowal of the nourishment suitable to psychical needs, by means of the external objects, and readiness to respect liberty of development in the most perfect manner possible, are the foundations which, from a logical point of view, should be laid down for the construction of a new pedagogy.

It is no longer a question of attempting to create the homunculus, like the chemists of the nineteenth century; but rather of taking the lantern of Diogenes and going in search of the man. A science should establish by means of experiments what is necessary to the primordial psychical requirements of the child; and then we shall witness the development of complex vital phenomena, in which the intelligence, the will, and the character develop together, just as the brain, the stomach, and the muscles of the rationally nourished child develop together.

Together with the first psychical exercises, the first coordinated cognitions will be fixed in the child’s mind, and the known will begin to exist in him, providing the first germs of an intellectual interest, supplementing his instinctive interest. When this takes place, a state of things begins to establish itself which has some analogy with that mechanism of attention which the pedagogists of to-day take as the basis of the art of teaching. The transition from the known to the unknown, from the simple to the complex, from the easy to the difficult, is reproduced, from a certain point of view; but with special characteristics.

The progression from the known to the unknown does not proceed from object to object, as would be assumed by the master who does not bring about the development of ideas from a center, but merely unites them in a chain, without any definite object, allowing the mind to wander aimlessly, though bound to himself. Here, on the other hand, the known establishes itself in the child as a complex system of ideas, which system was actively constructed by the child himself during a series of psychical processes, representing in themselves an internal formation, a psychical growth.

To bring about such a progress we must offer the child a systematic, complex material, corresponding to his natural instincts. Thus, for instance, by means of our sensory apparatus we offer the child a series of objects capable of drawing his instinctive attention to colors, forms, and sounds, to tactile and baric qualities, etc., and the child, by means of the characteristically prolonged exercises with each object, begins to organize his psychical personality, but at the same time acquires a clear and orderly knowledge of things.

Thenceforth all external objects, for the reason that they have forms, dimensions, colors, qualities of smoothness, weight, hardness, etc., are no longer foreign to the mind. There is something in the consciousness of the child which prepares him to expect these things, and invites him to receive them with interest.

When the child has added a cognition to the primitive impulse which directs his attention to external things, he has acquired other relations with the world, other forms of interest; these are no longer merely those primitive ones which are bound up with a species of primordial instinct, but have become a discerning interest, based upon the conquests of the intelligence.

It is true that all these new conquests are fundamentally and profoundly based upon the psychical needs of the individual; but the intellectual element has now been added, transforming an impulse into a conscious and voluntary quest.

The old pedagogic conception, which assumed that to call the attention of the child to the unknown it is necessary to connect it with the known, because it is thus that his interest may be won for the new knowledge to be imparted, grasped but a single detail of the complex phenomenon we now witness after our experiments.

If the known is to represent a new source of interest directed towards the unknown, it is essential that it should itself have been acquired in accordance with the tendency of nature; then preceding knowledge will lend interest to objects of ever-increasing complexity and of lofty significance. The culture thus created ensures the possibility of an indefinite continuation in the successive evolution of such formative phenomena.

Moreover, this culture itself creates order in the mind: when the teacher, giving her plain and simple lesson, says: This is long, this is short, this is red, this is yellow, etc., she fixes with a single word the clearly marked order of the sensations, classifies, and “catalogues” them. And each impression is perfectly distinct from the other, and has its own determined place in the mind, which may be recalled by a word; thenceforth, new acquisitions will not be thrown aside or mixed together chaotically, but will be duly deposited in their proper places, side by side with previous acquisitions of the same kind, like books in a well-arranged library.

Thus the mind not only has within itself the propulsive force required to increase its knowledge, but also an established order, which will be steadily maintained throughout its successive and illimitable enrichment by new material; and as it grows and gains strength, it retains its “equilibrium.” These continual exercises in comparison, judgment, and choice carried out among the objects, further tend to place the internal acquisitions so logically into relation one with another, that the results are a singular facility and accuracy of reasoning power, and a remarkable quickness of comprehension: the law of “the minimum of effort” is truly carried out as it is everywhere where order and activity reign.

The internal coordination, like physiological adaptation, establishes itself as a result of the spontaneity of the exercises; the free development of a personality which grows and organizes itself is that which determines such an internal condition, just as in the body of the embryo the heart, in process of development, makes a place for itself in the space of the diastinum between the lungs, and the diaphragm assumes its arched form as a result of pulmonary dilation.

The teacher directs these phenomena; but, in so doing, she is careful to avoid calling the child’s attention to herself, since the whole future depends upon his concentration. Her art consists in understanding and in avoiding interference with natural phenomena.

That which has been clearly demonstrated as regards the nutrition of the new-born infant and the first coordinated activities of the spirit will be repeated at every period of life, with the necessary modifications induced by the increased complexity of the phenomena.

Continuing the parallel with physical nutrition, let us consider the growing infant which has cut its teeth, developed its gastric juice, and so gradually requires a more complicated diet, until we come to the adult man, nourishing himself by means of all the complications of modern kitchen and table; to keep himself in health, he should eat only the things which correspond to the intimate needs of his organism; and if he introduces over-rich or unusual, unsuitable or poisonous substances, the result will be impoverishment, self-poisoning, a “malady.” Now it was the study of the child’s nutrition during the period of suckling and during the first years of life which created alimentary hygiene, not only for the child but for the adult, and pointed out the perils to which all were alike exposed during the epoch when infantile hygiene was unknown.

There is a singular parallel in psychical life: the man will have an infinitely more complex life than the child; but for him, too, there should always be a correspondence between the needs of his nature and the manner in which his spirit is nourished. A rule of internal life will always promote the health of the man.

Turning to attention, the primitive fact of correspondence between nature and stimulus which is the fundamental of life should prevail, however modified, when dealing with older children, and should remain the basis of education.

I am prepared for the objections of “experts.” Children must be accustomed to pay attention to everything, even to things which are distasteful to them, because practical life demands such efforts.

The objection is based on a prejudice analogous to that which at one time made good fathers of families say: “Children should be accustomed to eat everything.” In just the same way, moral training is put outside its rightful sphere a fatal confusion. When ideas of this order, now happily obsolete, obtained, fathers would allow their children to fast all day, if they refused a dish they disliked at the mid-day meal, forbidding them anything but the rejected portion, which became ever colder and more disgusting, until at last hunger weakened the child’s will and destroyed his caprice, and the plateful of cold food was swallowed. Thus, argued such a father, in the various circumstances in which he may be placed throughout his life, my son will be ready to eat whatever comes to hand, and will not be greedy and capricious. In those days also, sweets were forbidden to children (whose organisms require sugar, because the muscles consume a great deal of this during growth), in order to teach them to overcome greediness, and an easy and convenient method of correcting naughty children was to “send them to bed without any supper.”

Very similar methods are now adopted by those who insist that children should pay attention to things they dislike, in order to accustom them to the necessities of life. But as in the case of psychical nourishment hunger is never brought to bear upon the “cold and distasteful viands,” the indigestible and heavy food weakens and poisons the unwilling recipient.

Not thus shall we prepare the robust spirit, ready for all the difficult eventualities of life. The boy who swallowed the cold soup and went fasting to bed was the one whose body developed badly, who was too weak to resist infection when he encountered it, and fell ill; and morally it was he who, having a store of unsatisfied appetites within him, looked upon it as the greatest joy of his liberty, when he became an adult, to eat and drink to excess. How unlike was he to the boy of to-day, who, rationally fed and made robust of body, becomes the abstemious man, who eats to live in health, and combats alcoholism and excessive and injurious feeding; the modern man, who can defend himself by so many means against infectious diseases, and who is so ready for effort that, without any compulsion, he braves the arduous exertion of sport, and attempts and carries out great enterprises, such as the discovery of the Poles and the ascent of lofty mountains.

So, too, the man capable of braving the icy wastes of moral conflict, of undertaking spiritual ascents, will be he whose will is strong, whose spirit is well balanced, whose decisions are prompt and stedfast.

And the more a man’s inner life shall have grown normally, organizing itself in accordance with the provident laws of nature, and forming an individuality, the more richly will he be endowed with a strong will and a well-balanced mind. To be ready for a struggle, it is not necessary to have struggled from one’s birth, but it is necessary to be strong. He who is strong is ready; no hero was a hero before he had performed his heroic deed. The trials life has in store for us are unforeseen, unexpected; no one can prepare us directly to meet them; it is only a vigorous soul that can be prepared for everything.

When a living being is in process of evolution, it is essential to provide for the special requirements of the moment, in order to ensure its normal development. The foetus must be nourished with blood; the new-born infant with milk. If during its intra-uterine life the foetus should lack blood rich in albuminous substances and oxygen, or if poisonous substances should be introduced into its tissues, the living being will not develop normally, and no after-care will strengthen the man evolved from this impoverished source. Should the infant lack sufficient milk, the mal-nutrition of the initial stage of life condemns him to a permanent state of inferiority. The suckling “prepares himself to walk” by lying stretched out, and spending long, quiet hours in sleep. It is by sucking that the babe begins his teething. So, too, the fledgling in the nest does not prepare for flight by flying, but remains motionless in the little warm shell where its food is provided. The preparations for life are indirect.

The prelude to such phenomena of Nature as the majestic flight of birds, the ferocity of wild beasts, the song of the nightingale, the variegated beauty of the butterfly’s wings, is the preparation in the secret places of a nest or a den, or in the motionless intimacy of the cocoon. Omnipotent Nature asks only peace for the creature in process of formation. All the rest she gives herself.

Then the childish spirit should also find a warm nest where its nutrition is secure, and after this we should await the revelations of its development.

It is essential, therefore, to offer objects which correspond to its formative tendencies, in order to obtain the result which education makes its goal: the development of the latent forces in man with the minimum of strain and all possible fulness.