Teach with Attracted Attention

A few years ago, I was chatting with Jim Wilson about teaching. He gave me some great advice.

Jim said before he teaches or lectures, he always reviews his notes and material to make sure he is fresh on the material. He also said “It is important to always have one new thing to share on any lesson.” This can be a new story, fact, insight, quote, etc. He said that one new piece of knowledge would make the material fresh for him and get him excited about the lesson. This excitement for him would then cause the students to be excited about the lesson too. 

This advice agrees with John Milton Gregory’s Seven Laws of Teaching, specifically the Second Law, the Law of the Learner: “The learner is one who must attend with interest to the fact or truth to be learned.” Gregory explains how the student must pay attention to the lesson and material in order to learn. Attention can be forced or it can be attracted. 

Forced attention is when the teacher demands the student pay attention: if you don’t pay attention, then you will get in trouble, etc. This kind of forced attention will work for a time but because it is external to the material then that kind of attention will not last long. Once the fear of the threat is gone, then the interest will also fade. There are times when a teacher must use forced attention. Students sometimes need an external warning to get them to comply. This happens to everyone at some point in life. Just do the work and get it done.  

But the most powerful attention is attracted. Attracted attention draws students into the material because the material itself is worthy of attention. When this is achieved, the student’s interest will run on the power of the material itself rather than on some external forced compliance. We have all seen a child who is interested in a particular game or activity. Once the child has found something interesting in that thing, he can do it for a long time. Sometimes this interest can even overcome fatigue and hunger. This kind of attention is powerful. 

This is where Jim’s teaching advice is helpful. A good teacher should always be looking for ways to draw students into the material to promote attracted attention. The best way to do that is to show how interesting and exciting the material is in itself. This means the teacher needs to bring something new that he is excited about. Sometimes it is tempting to just teach the same material in the same way over again because the teacher is comfortable and familiar with that material. But then the teacher can lose the excitement in the material because it is exactly the same as what he did last time. 

Teaching is an imitative activity so the teacher needs to embody excitement in the material in order for the students to gain that excitement for themselves. A key part of the excitement of learning is discovery. Discovery is a powerful motivator in life. Think about mystery stories and problem solving. The moment of discovery is a powerful agent in life. If the teacher has something new that he has discovered about the lesson, then he will embody that excitement as he shares this new material with his students. This will show them how exciting it is to discover something new for themselves in the material. They will imitate the teacher and his excitement and this will draw them into the lesson. 

This is what Jim Wilson was getting at in his advice about bringing something new to each lesson. 

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