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HOW TO TEACH
BY GEORGE DRAYTON STRAYER AND NAOMI NORSWORTHY
The art of teaching is based primarily upon the science of psychology. In this book the authors have sought to make clear the principles of psychology which are involved in teaching, and to show definitely their application in the work of the classroom. The book has been written in language as free from technical terms as is possible.
In a discussion of the methods of teaching it is necessary to consider the ends or aims involved, as well as the process. The authors have, on this account, included a chapter on the work of the teacher, in which is discussed the aims of education. The success or failure of the work of a teacher is determined by the changes which are brought to pass in the children who are being taught. This book, therefore, includes a chapter on the measurement of the achievements of children. Throughout the book the discussion of the art of teaching is always modified by an acceptance upon the part of the writers of the social purpose of education. The treatment of each topic will be found to be based upon investigations and researches in the fields of psychology and education which involve the measurement of the achievements of children and of adults under varying conditions. Wherever possible, the relation between the principle of teaching laid down and the scientific inquiry upon which it is based is indicated.
Any careful study of the mental life and development of children reveals at the same time the unity and the diversity of the process involved. For the sake of definiteness and clearness, the authors have differentiated between types of mental activity and the corresponding types of classroom exercises. They have, at the same time, sought to make clear the interdependence of the various aspects of teaching method and the unity involved in mental development.
GEORGE DRAYTON STRAYER.
NOVEMBER 15, 1916.
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
I. THE WORK OF THE TEACHER
II. ORIGINAL NATURE, THE CAPITAL WITH WHICH TEACHERS WORK
III. ATTENTION AND INTEREST IN TEACHING
IV. THE FORMATION OF HABITS
V. HOW TO MEMORIZE
VI. THE TEACHER’S USE OF THE IMAGINATION
VII. HOW THINKING MAY BE STIMULATED
VIII. APPRECIATION, AN IMPORTANT ELEMENT IN EDUCATION
IX. THE MEANING OF PLAY IN EDUCATION
X. THE SIGNIFICANCE OF INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES FOR THE TEACHER
XI. THE DEVELOPMENT OF MORAL SOCIAL CONDUCT
XII. TRANSFER OF TRAINING
XIII. TYPES OF CLASSROOM EXERCISES
XIV. HOW TO STUDY
XV. MEASURING THE ACHIEVEMENTS OF CHILDREN
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I. THE WORK OF THE TEACHER
Education is a group enterprise. We establish schools in which we seek to develop whatever capacities or abilities the individual may possess in order that he may become intelligently active for the common good. Schools do not exist primarily for the individual, but, rather, for the group of which he is a member. Individual growth and development are significant in terms of their meaning for the welfare of the whole group. We believe that the greatest opportunity for the individual, as well as his greatest satisfaction, are secured only when he works with others for the common welfare. In the discussions which follow we are concerned not simply with the individual’s development, but also with the necessity for inhibitions. There are traits or activities which develop normally, but which are from the social point of view undesirable. It is quite as much the work of the teacher to know how to provide for the inhibition of the type of activity which is socially undesirable, or how to substitute for such reactions other forms of expression which are worthy, as it is to stimulate those types of activity which promise a contribution to the common good. It is assumed that the aim of education can be expressed most satisfactorily in terms of social efficiency.
An acceptance of the aim of education stated in terms of social efficiency leads us to discard other statements of aim which have been more or less current. Chief among these aims, or statements of aim, are the following: (1) culture; (2) the harmonious development of the capacities or abilities of the individual; (3) preparing an individual to make a living; (4) knowledge. We will examine these aims briefly before discussing at length the implications of the social aim.
Those who declare that it is the aim of education to develop men and women of culture vary in the content which they give to the term culture. It is conceivable that the person of culture is one who, by virtue of his education, has come to understand and appreciate the many aspects of the social environment in which he lives; that he is a man of intelligence, essentially reasonable; and that he is willing and able to devote himself to the common good. It is to be feared, however, that the term culture, as commonly used, is interpreted much more narrowly. For many people culture is synonymous with knowledge or information, and is not interpreted to involve preparation for active participation in the work of the world. Still others think of the person of culture as one who has a type or kind of training which separates him from the ordinary man. A more or less popular notion of the man of culture pictures him as one living apart from those who think through present-day problems and who devote themselves to their solution. It seems best, on account of this variation in interpretation, as well as on account of the unfortunate meaning sometimes attached to the term, to discard this statement of the aim of education.
The difficulty with a statement of aim in terms of the harmonious development of the abilities or capacities possessed by the individual is found in the lack of any criterion by which we may determine the desirability of any particular kind of development or action. We may well ask for what purpose are the capacities or abilities of the individual to be developed. It is possible to develop an ability or capacity for lying, for stealing, or for fighting without a just cause. What society has a right to expect and to demand of our schools is that they develop or nourish certain tendencies to behave, and that they strive earnestly to eliminate or to have inhibited other tendencies just as marked. Another difficulty with the statement of aim in terms of the harmonious development of the capacities is found in the difficulty of interpreting what is meant by harmonious development. Do we mean equal development of each and every capacity, or do we seek to develop each capacity to the maximum of the individual’s possibility of training? Are we to try to secure equal development in all directions? Of one thing we can be certain. We cannot secure equality in achievement among individuals who vary in capacity. One boy may make a good mechanic, another a successful business man, and still another a musician. It is only as we read into the statement of harmonious development meanings which do not appear upon the surface, that we can accept this statement as a satisfactory wording of the aim of education.
The narrow utilitarian statement of aim that asserts that the purpose of education is to enable people to make a living neglects to take account of the necessity for social cooeperation. The difficulty with this statement of aim is that it is too narrow. We do hope by means of education to help people to make a living, but we ought also to be concerned with the kind of a life they lead. They ought not to make a living by injuring or exploiting others. They ought to be able to enjoy the nobler pleasures as well as to make enough money to buy food, clothing, shelter, and the like. The bread-and-butter aim breaks down as does the all-around development aim because it fails to consider the individual in relation to the social group of which he is a member.
To declare that knowledge is the aim of education is to ignore the issue of the relative worth of that which we call knowledge. No one may know all. What, then, from among all of the facts or principles which are available are we to select and what are we to reject? The knowledge aim gives us no satisfactory answer. We are again thrown back upon the question of purpose. Knowledge we must have, but for the individual who is to live in our modern, industrial, democratic society some knowledges are more important than others. Society cannot afford to permit the school to do anything less than provide that equipment in knowledge, in skill, in ideal, or in appreciation which promises to develop an individual who will contribute to social progress, one who will find his own greatest satisfaction in working for the common good.
In seeking to relate the aim of education to the school activities of boys and girls, it is necessary to inquire concerning the ideals or purposes which actuate them in their regular school work. _Ideals of service_ may be gradually developed, and may eventually come to control in some measure the activities of boys and girls, but these ideals do not normally develop in a school situation in which competition is the dominating factor. We may discuss at great length the desirability of working for others, and we may teach many precepts which look in the direction of service, and still fail to achieve the purpose for which our schools exist. An overemphasis upon marks and distinctions, and a lack of attention to the opportunities which the school offers for helpfulness and cooeperation, have often resulted in the development of an individualistic attitude almost entirely opposed to the purpose or aim of education as we commonly accept it.
There is need for much reorganization in our schools in the light of our professed aim. There are only two places in our whole school system where children are commonly so seated that it is easy for them to work in cooeperation with each other. In the kindergarten, in the circle, or at the tables, children normally discuss the problems in which they are interested, and help each other in their work. In the seminar room for graduate students in a university, it is not uncommon to find men working together for the solution of problems in which they have a common interest. In most classrooms in elementary and in high schools, and even in colleges, boys and girls are seated in rows, the one back of the other, with little or no opportunity for communication or cooeperation. Indeed, helping one’s neighbor has often been declared against the rule by teachers. It is true that pupils must in many cases work as individuals for the sake of the attainment of skill, the acquirement of knowledge, or of methods of work, but a school which professes to develop ideals of service must provide on every possible occasion situations in which children work in cooeperation with each other, and in which they measure their success in terms of the contribution which they make toward the achievement of a common end.
The socially efficient individual must not only be actuated by ideals of service, but must in the responses which he makes to social demands be governed by his own careful thinking, or by his ability to distinguish from among those who would influence him one whose solution of the problem presented is based upon careful investigation or inquiry. Especially is it true in a democratic society that the measure of the success of our education is found in the degree to which we develop the scientific attitude. Even those who are actuated by noble motives may, if they trust to their emotions, to their prejudices, or to those superstitions which are commonly accepted, engage in activities which are positively harmful to the social group of which they are members. Our schools should strive to encourage the spirit of inquiry and investigation.
A large part of the work in most elementary schools and high schools consists in having boys and girls repeat what they have heard or read. It is true that such accumulation of facts may, in some cases, either at the time at which they are learned, or later, be used as the basis for thinking; but a teacher may feel satisfied that she has contributed largely toward the development of the scientific spirit upon the part of children only when this inquiring attitude is commonly found in her classroom. The association of ideas which will result from an honest attempt upon the part of boys and girls to find the solution of a real problem will furnish the very best possible basis for the recall of the facts or information which may be involved. The attempt to remember pages of history or of geography, or the facts of chemistry or of physics, however well they may be organized in the text-book, is usually successful only until the examination period is passed. Children who have engaged in this type of activity quite commonly show an appalling lack of knowledge of the subjects which they have studied a very short time after they have satisfied the examination requirement. The same amount of energy devoted to the solution of problems in which children may be normally interested may be expected not only to develop some appreciation of scientific method in the fields in which they have worked, but also to result in a control of knowledge or a memory of facts that will last over a longer period of time.
Recitations should be places where children meet for the discussion of problems which are vital to them. The question by the pupil should be as common as the question by the teacher. Laboratory periods should not consist of following directions, but rather in undertaking, in so far as it is possible, real experiments. We may not hope that an investigating or inquiring turn of mind encouraged in school will always be found operating in the solution of problems which occur outside of school, but the school which insists merely upon memory and upon following instructions may scarcely claim to have made any considerable contribution to the equipment of citizens of a democracy who should solve their common problems in terms of the evidence presented. The unthinking acceptance of the words of the book or the statement of the teacher prepares the way for the blind following of the boss, for faith in the demagogue, or even for acceptance of the statements of the quack.
The ideal school situation is one in which the spirit of inquiry and investigation is constantly encouraged and in which children are developing ideals of service by virtue of their _activity_. A high school class in English literature in which children are at work in small groups, asking each other questions and helping each other in the solution of their problems, seems to the writer to afford unusual opportunity for the realization of the social aim of education. A first grade class in beginning reading, in which the stronger children seek to help those who are less able, involves something more significant in education than merely the command of the tool we call reading. A teacher of a class in physics who suggested to his pupils that they find out which was the more economical way to heat their homes,–with hot air, with steam, or with hot water,–evidently hoped to have them use whatever power of investigation they possessed, as well as to have them come to understand and to remember the principles of physics which were involved. In many schools the cooeperation of children in the preparation of school plays, or school festivals, in the writing and printing of school papers, in the participation in the school assembly, in the making of shelves, tables, or other school equipment, in the working for community betterment with respect to clean streets and the like, may be considered even more significant from the standpoint of the realization of the social aim of education than are the recitations in which they are commonly engaged.
We have emphasized thus far the meaning of the social aim of education in terms of methods of work upon the part of pupils. It is important to call attention to the fact that the materials or content of education are also determined by the same consideration of purposes. If we really accept the idea of participation upon the part of children in modern social life as the purpose of education, we must include in our courses of study only such subject matter as may be judged to contribute toward the realization of this aim. We must, of course, provide children with the tools of investigation or of inquiry; but their importance should not be overemphasized, and in their acquirement significant experiences with respect to life activities should dominate, rather than the mere acquisition of the tool. Beginning reading, for example, is important not merely from the standpoint of learning to read. The teaching of beginning reading should involve the enlarging and enriching of experience. Thought getting is of primary importance for little children who are to learn to read, and the recognition of symbols is important only in so far as they contribute to this end. The best reading books no longer print meaningless sentences for children to decipher. Mother Goose rhymes, popular stories and fables, language reading lessons, in which children relate their own experience for the teacher to print or write on the board, satisfy the demand for content and aid, by virtue of the interest which is advanced, in the mastering of the symbols.
It is, of course, necessary for one who would understand modern social conditions or problems, to know of the past out of which our modern life has developed. It is also necessary for one who would understand the problems of one community, or of one nation, to know, in so far as it is possible, of the experiences of other peoples. History and geography furnish a background, without which our current problems could not be reasonably attacked. Literature and science, the study of the fine arts, and of our social institutions, all become significant in proportion as they make possible contributions, by the individual who has been educated, to the common good.
Any proper interpretation of the social purpose of education leads inevitably to the conclusion that much that we have taught is of very little significance. Processes in arithmetic which are not used in modern life have little or no worth for the great majority of boys and girls. Partnership settlements involving time, exact interest, the extraction of cube and of square roots, partial payments, and many of the problems in mensuration, might well be omitted from all courses of study in arithmetic. Many of the unimportant dates in history and much of the locational geography should disappear in order that a better appreciation of the larger social movements can be secured, or in order that the laws which control in nature may be taught. In English, any attempt to realize the aim which we have in mind would lay greater stress upon the accomplishment of children in speaking and writing our language, and relatively less upon the rules of grammar.
It may well be asked how our conception of aim can be related to the present tendency to offer a variety of courses of instruction, or to provide different types of schools. The answer is found in an understanding and appreciation of the fact that children vary tremendously in ability, and that the largest contribution by each individual to the welfare of the whole group can be made only when each is trained in the field for which his capacity fits him. The movement for the development of vocational education means, above all else, an attempt to train all members of the group to the highest possible degree of efficiency, instead of offering a common education which, though liberal in its character, is actually neglected or refused by a large part of our population.
Our interest in the physical welfare of children is accounted for by the fact that no individual may make the most significant contribution to the common good who does not enjoy a maximum of physical efficiency. The current emphasis upon moral training can be understood when we accept that conception of morality which measures the individual in terms of his contribution to the welfare of others. However important it may be that individuals be restrained or that they inhibit those impulses which might lead to anti-social activity, of even greater importance must be the part actually played by each member of the social group in the development of the common welfare.
If we think of the problems of teaching in terms of habits to be fixed, we must ask ourselves are these habits desirable or necessary for an individual who is to work as a member of the social group. If we consider the problem of teaching from the standpoint of development in intelligence, we must constantly seek to present problems which are worth while, not simply from the standpoint of the curiosity which they arouse, but also on account of their relation to the life activities with which our modern world is concerned. We must seek to develop the power of appreciating that which is noble and beautiful primarily because the highest efficiency can be secured only by those who use their time in occupations which are truly recreative and not enervating.
As we seek to understand the problem of teaching as determined by the normal mental development of boys and girls, we must have in mind constantly the use to which their capacities and abilities are to be put. Any adequate recognition of the social purpose of education suggests the necessity for eliminating, as far as possible, that type of action which is socially undesirable, while we strive for the development of those capacities which mean at least the possibility of contribution to the common good. We study the principles of teaching in order that we may better adapt ourselves to the children’s possibilities of learning, but we must keep in mind constantly that kind of learning and those methods of work which look to the development of socially efficient boys and girls. We must seek to provide situations which are in themselves significant in our modern social life as the subject matter with which children may struggle in accomplishing their individual development. We need constantly to have in mind the ideal of school work which will value most highly opportunities for cooeperation and for contribution to the common good upon the part of children, which are in the last analysis entirely like the situations in which older people contribute to social progress. More and more we must seek to develop the type of pupil who knows the meaning of duty and who gladly recognizes his obligations to a social group which is growing larger with each new experience and each new opportunity.
1. Why would you not be satisfied with a statement of the aim of education which was expressed in terms of the harmonious development of an individual’s abilities and capacities?
2. Suggest any part of the courses of study now in force in your school system the omission of which would be in accordance with the social aim of education.
3. Name any subjects or parts of subjects which might be added for the sake of realizing the aim of education.
4. How may a teacher who insists upon having children ask permission before they move in the room interfere with the realization of the social aim of education?
5. Can you name any physical habits which may be considered socially undesirable? Desirable?
6. What is the significance of pupil participation in school government?
7. How does the teacher who stands behind his desk at the front of the room interfere with the development of the right social attitude upon the part of pupils?
8. Why is the desire to excel one’s own previous record preferable to striving for the highest mark?
9. In one elementary school, products of the school garden were sold and from the funds thus secured apparatus for the playground was bought. In another school, children sold the vegetables and kept the money. Which, in your judgment, was the most worth while from the standpoint of the social development of boys and girls?
10. A teacher of Latin had children collect words of Latin origin, references to Latin characters, and even advertisements in which Latin words or literary references were to be found. The children in the class were enthusiastic in making these collections, and considerable interest was added to the work in Latin. Are you able to discover in the exercise any other value?
11. Describe some teaching in which you have recently engaged, or which you have observed, in which the methods of work employed by teacher and pupils seemed to you to contribute to a realization of the social purpose of education.
12. How can a reading lesson in the sixth grade, or a history lesson in the high school, be conducted to make children feel that they are doing something for the whole group?
13. In what activities may children engage outside of school which may count toward the betterment of the community in which they live?
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II. ORIGINAL NATURE, THE CAPITAL WITH WHICH TEACHERS WORK
After deciding upon the aims of education, the goals towards which all teaching must strive, the fundamental question to be answered is, “What have we to work with?” “What is the makeup with which children start in life?” Given a certain nature, certain definite results are possible; but if the nature is different, the results must of necessity differ. The possibility of education or of teaching along any line depends upon the presence of an original nature which possesses corresponding abilities. The development of intellect, of character, of interest, or of any other trait depends absolutely upon the presence in human beings of capacity for growth or development. What the child inherits, his original nature, is the capital with which education must work; beyond the limits which are determined by inheritance education cannot go.
All original nature is in terms of a nervous system. What a child inherits is not ideas, or feelings, or habits, as such, but a nervous system whose correlate is human intelligence and emotion. Just what relationship exists between the action of the nervous system and consciousness or intellect or emotion is still an open question and need not be discussed here. One thing seems fairly certain, that the original of any individual is bound up in some way with the kind of nervous system he has inherited. What we have in common, as a human race, of imagination, or reason, or tact, or skill is correlated in some fashion to the inheritance of a human nervous system. What we have as individual abilities, which distinguish us from our fellows, depends primarily upon our family inheritance. Certain traits such as interest in people, and accuracy in perception of details, seem to be dependent upon the sex inheritance. All traits, whether racial, or family, or sex, are inherited in terms of a plastic nervous system.
The racial inheritance, the capital which all normal children bring into the world, is usually discussed under several heads: reflexes, physiological actions, impulsive actions, instincts, capacities, etc., the particular heads chosen varying with the author. They all depend for their existence upon the fact that certain bonds of connection are performed in the nervous system. Just what this connection is which is found between the nerve cells is still open to question. It may be chemical or it may be electrical. We know it is not a growing together of the neurones, but further than that nothing is definitely known. That there are very definite pathways of discharge developed by the laws of inner growth and independent of individual learning, there can be no doubt. This of course means that in the early days of a child’s life, and later in so far as he is governed by these inborn tendencies, his conduct is machine-like and blind–with no purpose and no consciousness controlling or initiating the responses. Only after experience and learning have had an opportunity to influence these responses can the child be held responsible for his conduct, for only then does his conduct become conscious instead of merely physiological.
There are many facts concerning the psychology of these inborn tendencies that are interesting and important from a purely theoretical point of view, but only those which are of primary importance in teaching will be considered here. A fact that is often overlooked by teachers is that these inborn tendencies to connections of various kinds exist in the intellectual and emotional fields just as truly as in the field of action or motor response. The capacity to think in terms of words and of generals; to understand relationships; to remember; to imagine; to be satisfied with thinking,–all these, as well as such special abilities as skill in music, in managing people or affairs, in tact, or in sympathy, are due to just the same factors as produce fear or curiosity. These former types of tendencies differ from the latter in complexity of situation and response, in definiteness of response, in variability amongst individuals of the same family, and in modifiability; but in the essential element they do not differ from the more evident inborn tendencies.
Just what these original tendencies are and just what the situations are to which they come as responses are both unknown except in a very few instances. The psychology of original nature has enumerated the so-called instincts and discussed a few of their characteristics, but has left almost untouched the inborn capacities that are more peculiarly human. Even the treatment of instincts has been misleading. For instance, instincts have been discussed under such heads as the “self-preservative instincts,” “the social instincts,” just as if the child had an inborn, mystical something that told him how to preserve his life, or become a social king. Original nature does not work in that way; it is only as the experience of the individual modifies the blind instinctive responses through learning that these results can just as easily come about unless the care of parents provides the right sort of surroundings. There is nothing in the child’s natural makeup that warns him against eating pins and buttons and poisonous berries, or encourages him to eat milk and eggs and cereal instead of cake and sweets. He will do one sort of thing just as easily as the other. All nature provides him with is a blind tendency to put all objects that attract his attention into his mouth. This response may preserve his life or destroy it, depending on the conditions in which he lives. The same thing is true of the “social instinct”–the child may become the most selfish egotist imaginable or the most self-sacrificing of men, according as his surroundings and training influence the original tendencies towards behavior to other people in one way or the other. Of course it is very evident that no one has ever consistently lived up to the idea indicated by such a treatment of original nature, but certain tendencies in education are traceable to such psychology. What the child has by nature is neither good nor bad, right nor wrong–it may become either according to the habits which grow out of these tendencies. A child’s inborn nature cannot determine the goal of his education. His nature has remained practically the same from the days of primitive man, while the goals of education have changed. What nature does provide is an immense number of definite responses to definite situations. These provide the capital which education and training may use as it will.
It is just because education does need to use these tendencies as capital that the lack of knowledge of just what the responses are is such a serious one. And yet the difficulties of determining just what original nature gives are so tremendous that the task seems a hopeless one to many investigators. The fact that in the human being these tendencies are so easily modified means that from the first they are being influenced and changed by the experiences of the child. Because of the quality of our inheritance the response to a situation is not a one-to-one affair, like a key in a lock, but all sorts of minor causes in the individual are operative in determining his response; and, on the other side, situations are so complex in themselves that they contain that which may call out several different instincts. For example, a child’s response to an animal will be influenced by his own physical condition, emotional attitude, and recent mental status and by the conditions of size and nearness of the animal, whether it is shaggy or not, moving or still, whether he is alone or with others, on the floor or in his chair, and the like. It will depend on just how these factors combine as to whether the response is one of fear, of curiosity, of manipulation, or of friendliness. When to these facts are added the fact that the age and previous habits of the child also influence his response, the immense complexity of the problem of discovering just what the situations are to which there are original tendencies to respond and just how these tendencies show themselves is evident. And yet this is what psychologists must finally do if the use by teachers of these tendencies is to be both economical and wise. Just as an illustration of the possibilities of analysis, Thorndike in his “Original Nature of Man” lists eleven different situations which call out an instinctive expression of fear and thirty-one different responses which may occur in that expression. Under fighting he says, “There seem, indeed, to be at least six separable sets of connections in the so-called ‘fighting instinct,'” in each of which the situation and the response differ from any other one.
Very few of the instincts are present at birth; most of them develop later in the child’s life. Pillsbury says, “One may recognize the food-taking instincts, the vocal protests at discomfort, but relatively few others.” This delay in the appearance of instincts and capacities is dependent upon the development of the nervous system. No one of them can appear until the connections between nerve centers are ready, making the path of discharge perfect. Just when these various nervous connections mature, and therefore just when the respective tendencies should appear, is largely unknown. In only a few of the most prominent and comparatively simple responses is it even approximately known. Holding the head up is accomplished about the fourth month, walking and talking somewhere near the twelfth, but the more complex the tendency and the more they involve intellectual factors, the greater is the uncertainty as to the time of development. We are told that fear is most prominent at about “three or four” years of age, spontaneous imitation “becomes very prominent the latter part of the first year,” the gang instinct is characteristic of the preadolescent period, desire for adventure shows itself in early adolescence, altruism “appears in the early teens,” and the sex instinct “after about a dozen years of life.” The child of from four to six is largely sensory, from seven to nine he is motor, from then to twelve the retentive powers are prominent. In the adolescent period he is capable of thinking logically and reasoning, while maturity finds him a man of responsibilities and affairs. Although there is some truth in the belief that certain tendencies are more prominent at certain periods in the development of the child than at others, still it must be borne in mind that just when these optimum periods occur is not known. Three of the most important reasons for this lack of knowledge are: first, the fact that all inborn tendencies mature gradually and do not burst into being; second, we do not know how transitory they are; and, third, the fact of the great influence of environment in stimulating or repressing such capacities.
Although the tendency to make collections is most prominent at nine, the beginnings of it may be found before the child is five. Moll finds that the sex instinct begins its development at about six years of age, despite the fact that it is always quoted as the adolescent instinct. Children in the kindergarten can think out their little problems purposively, even though reasoning is supposed to mark the high school pupil. The elements of most tendencies show themselves early in crude, almost unrecognizable, beginnings, and from these they grow gradually to maturity.
In the second place how quickly do these tendencies fade? How transitory are they? It has always been stated in general psychology that instincts are transitory, that therefore it was the business of teachers to strike while the iron was hot, to seize the wave of interest or response at its crest before the ebb had begun. There was supposed to be a “happy moment for fixing in children skill in drawing, for making collections in natural history,” for developing the appreciative emotions, for training the social instinct, or the memory or the imagination. Children are supposed to be interested and attracted by novelty, rhythm, and movement,–to be creatures of play and imagination and to become different merely as a matter of the transitoriness of these tendencies due to growth. When the activities of the adult and the child are analyzed to see what tendencies have really passed, are transitory, it is difficult to find any that have disappeared. True, they have changed their form, have been influenced by the third factor mentioned above, but change the surroundings a little and the tendency appears. Free the adult from the restraints of his ordinary life and turn him out for a holiday and the childish tendencies of interest in novelty and the mysterious, in physical prowess and adventure and play, all make their appearance. In how many adults does the collecting instinct still persist, and the instinct of personal rivalry? In how many has the crude desire for material ownership or the impulse to punish an affront by physical attack died out? Experimental evidence is even proving that the general plasticity of the nervous system, which has always been considered to be transitory, is of very, very much longer duration than has been supposed.
In illustration of the third fact, namely, the effect of environment to stimulate or repress, witness the “little mothers” of five and the wage earners of twelve who have assumed all the responsibilities with all that they entail of maturity. On the other side of the picture is the indulged petted child of fortune who never grows up because he has had everything done for him all his life, and therefore the tendencies which normally might be expected to pass and give place to others remain and those others never appear. That inborn tendencies do wax, reach a maximum, and wane is probably true, but the onset is much more gradual and the waning much less frequent than has been taken for granted. Our ignorance concerning all these matters outweighs our knowledge; only careful experimentation which allows for all the other factors involved can give a reliable answer.
One reason why the facts of delayedness and transitoriness in instincts have been so generally accepted without being thoroughly tested has been the belief in the recapitulation or repeating by the individual of racial development. So long as this was accepted as explaining the development of inborn tendencies and their order of appearance, transitoriness and delayedness must necessarily be postulated. This theory is being seriously questioned by psychologists of note, and even its strongest advocate, President Hall, finds many questions concerning it which cannot be answered.
The chief reasons for its acceptance were first, on logical grounds as an outgrowth of the doctrine of evolution, and second, because of an analogy with the growth of the physical body which was pushed to an extreme. On the physiological side, although there is some likeness between the human embryo and that of the lower animals, still the stages passed through by the two are not the same, being alike only in rough outline, and only in the case of a few of the bodily organs is the series of changes similar. In the case of the physical structure which should be recapitulated most closely, if behavior is to follow the same law,–namely, in that of the brain and nervous system,–there is least evidence of recapitulation. The brain of man does not follow in its development at all the same course taken in the development of brains in the lower animals. And, moreover, it is perfectly possible to explain any similarity or parallelism which does exist between the development of man’s embryo and that of lower animals by postulating a general order of development followed by nature as the easiest or most economical, traces of which must then be found in all animal life. When it comes to the actual test of the theory, that of finding actual cases of recapitulation in behavior, it fails. No one has been able to point out just when a child passes through any stage of racial development, and any attempt to do so has resulted in confusion. There is no clear-cut marking off into stages, but, instead, overlapping and coexistence of tendencies characterize the development of the child. The infant of a few days old may show the swimming movements, but at the same time he can support his own weight by clinging to a horizontal stick. Which stage is he recapitulating, that of the fishes or the monkeys? The nine-year-old boy loves to swim, climb trees, and hunt like a savage all at the same period, and, what is more, some of these same tendencies characterize the college man. The late maturing of the sex instinct, so old and strong in the race, and the early appearing of the tendencies towards vocalization and grasping, both of late date in the race, are facts that are hard to explain on the basis of the theory of recapitulation.
As has been already suggested, one of the most important characteristics of all these tendencies is their modifiability. The very ease with which they can be modified suggests that this is what has most often to be done with them. On examination of the lists of original tendencies there are none which can be kept and fixed in the form in which they first appear. Even the best of them are crude and impossible from the standpoint of civilized society. Take as an illustration mother-love; what are the original tendencies and behavior? “All women possess originally, from early childhood to death, some interest in human babies, and a responsiveness to the instinctive looks, calls, gestures, and cries of infancy and childhood, being satisfied by childish gurglings, smiles, and affectionate gestures, and moved to instinctive comforting acts of childish signs of pain, grief, and misery.” But the mother has to learn not to cuddle the baby and talk to it all the time it is awake and not to run to it and take it up at every cry, to steel her heart against the wheedling of the coaxing gurgles and even to allow the baby to hurt himself, all for his own good. This comes about only as original nature is modified in line with knowledge and ideals. The same need is evidenced by such a valuable tendency as curiosity. So far as original nature goes, the tendency to attend to novel objects, to human behavior, to explore with the eyes and manipulate with the hands, to enjoy having sensations of all kinds merely for their own sakes, make up what is known as the instinct of curiosity. But what a tremendous amount of modification is necessary before these crude responses result in the valuable scientific curiosity. Not blind following where instinct leads, but modification, must be the watchword.
On the other hand, there are equally few tendencies that could be spared, could be absolutely voted out without loss to the individual or the race. Bullying as an original tendency seems to add nothing to the possibilities of development, but every other inborn tendency has its value. Jealousy, anger, fighting, rivalry, possessiveness, fear, each has its quota to contribute to valuable manhood and womanhood. Again, not suppression but a wise control must be the attitude of the educator. Inhibition of certain phases or elements of some of the tendencies is necessary for the most valuable development of the individual, but the entire loss of any save one or two would be disastrous to some form of adult usefulness or enjoyment. The method by which valuable elements or phases of an original tendency are fixed and strengthened is the general method of habit formation and will be taken up under that head in Chapter IV. When the modification involves definite inhibition, there are three possible methods,–punishment, disuse, and substitution. As an example of the use of the three methods take the case of a child who develops a fear of the dark. In using the first method the child would be punished every time he exhibited fear of the dark. By using the second method he would never be allowed to go into a dark room, a light being left burning in his bedroom, etc., until the tendency to fear the dark had passed. In the third method the emotion of fear would be replaced by that of joy or satisfaction by making the bedtime the occasion for telling a favorite story or for being allowed to have the best-loved toy, or for being played with or cuddled. The situation of darkness might be met in still another way. If the child were old enough, the emotion of courage might replace that of fear by having him make believe he was a soldier or a policeman.
The method of punishment is the usual one, the one most teachers and parents use first. It relies for its effectiveness on the general law of the nervous system that pain tends to weaken the connections with whose activity it is associated. The method is weak in that pain is not a strong enough weapon to break the fundamental connections; it is not known how much of it is necessary to break even weaker ones; it is negative in its results–breaking one connection but replacing it by nothing else. The second method of inhibition is that of disuse. It is possible to inhibit by this means, because lack of use of connections in the nervous system results in atrophy. As a method it is valuable because it does not arouse resistance or anger. It is weak in that as neither the delayedness nor the transitoriness of instincts is known, when to begin to keep the situation from the child, and how long to keep it away in order to provide for the dying out of the connections, are not known. The method is negative and very unsure of results. The method of substitution depends for its use upon the presence in the individual of opposing tendencies and of different levels of development in the same tendency. Because of this fact a certain response to a situation may be inhibited by forming the habit of meeting the situation in another way or of replacing a lower phase of a tendency by a higher one. This method is difficult to handle because of the need of knowledge of the original tendencies of children in general which it implies as well as the knowledge of the capacities and development of the individual child with whom the work is being done. The amount of time and individual attention necessary adds another difficulty. However, it is by far the best method of the three, for it is sure, is economical, using the energy that is provided by nature, is educative, and is positive. To replace what is poor or harmful by something better is one of the greatest problems of human life–and this is the outcome of the method of substitution. All three methods have their place in a system of education, and certain of them are more in place at certain times than at others, but at all times if the method of substitution can be used it should be.
The instinct of physical activity is one of the most noticeable ones in babyhood. The young baby seems to be in constant movement. Even when asleep, the twitchings and squirmings may continue. This continued muscular activity is necessary because the motor nerves offer the only possible path of discharge at first. As higher centers in the brain are developed, the ingoing currents, aroused by all sense stimuli, find other connections, and ideas, images, trains of thoughts, are aroused, and so the energy is consumed; but at first all that these currents can do is to arouse physical activity. The strength of this instinct is but little diminished by the time the child comes to school. His natural inclination is to do things requiring movement of all the growing muscles. Inhibition, “sitting still,” “being quiet,” takes real effort on his part, and is extremely fatiguing. This instinct is extremely valuable in several ways: it gives the exercise necessary to a growing body, provides the experience of muscle movements necessary for control, and stimulates mental growth through the increase and variety of experiences it gives.
The tendency to enjoy mental activity, to be satisfied with it for its own sake, is peculiarly a human trait. This capacity shows itself in two important ways–in the interest in sensory stimuli, usually discussed under the head of curiosity, and in the delight in “being a cause” or mental control. The interest in tastes, sounds, sights, touches, etc., merely for their own sake, is very evident in a baby. He spends most of his waking time in just that enjoyment. Though more complex, it is still strong when the child enters school, and for years any object of sense which attracts his attention is material which arouses this instinct. The second form in which the instinct for mental ability shows itself is later in development and involves the secondary brain connections. It is the satisfaction aroused by results of which the individual is the cause. For example, the enjoyment of a child in seeing a ball swing or hearing a whistle blown would be a manifestation of curiosity, while the added interest which is always present when the child not only sees the ball swing but swings it, not only hears the whistle but blows it himself, is a result of the second tendency, that of joy in being a cause. As the child grows older the same tendency shows itself on a higher level when the materials dealt with, instead of being sensations or percepts, are images or ideas. The interest in following out a train of ideas to a logical conclusion, of building “castles in the air,” of making plans and getting results, all find their taproot in this instinctive tendency towards mental activity.
In close connection with the general tendency towards physical activity is the instinct of manipulation. From this crude root grows constructiveness and destructiveness. As it shows itself at first it has the elements of neither. The child inherits the tendency to respond by “many different arm, hand, and finger movements to many different objects”–poking, pulling, handling, tearing, piling, digging, and dropping objects. Just what habits of using tools, and the like, will grow out of this tendency will depend on the education and training it gets. The habits of constructiveness may be developed in different sorts of media. The order of their availability is roughly as follows: first, in the use of materials such as wood, clay, raffia, etc.; second, in the use of pencil and brush with color, etc.; third, in the use of words. We should therefore expect and provide for considerable development along manual lines before demanding much in the way of literary expression. Indeed, it may be argued that richness of experience in doing is prerequisite to verbal expression.
Acquisitiveness and collecting are two closely allied tendencies of great strength. Every child has a tendency to approach, grasp, and carry off any object not too large which attracts his attention, and to be satisfied by its mere possession. Blind hoarding and collecting of objects sometimes valueless in themselves results. This instinct is very much influenced in its manifestation by others which are present at the same time, such as the food-getting instinct, rivalry, love of approval, etc. The time at which the tendency to collect seems strongest is at about nine years, judged by the number of collections per child.
Rivalry as an instinct shows itself in increased vigor, in instinctive activity when others are engaged in the same activity, and in satisfaction when superiority is attained. There is probably no inborn tendency whereby these responses of increased vigor and satisfaction are aroused in connection with any kind of activity. We do not try to surpass others in the way we talk or in our moral habits or in our intellectual attainments, as a result of nature, but rather as a result of painstaking education. As an instinct, rivalry is aroused only in connection with other instinctive responses. In getting food, in securing attention or approval, in hunting and collecting, the activity would be increased by seeing another doing the same thing, and satisfaction would be aroused at success or annoyance at failure. The use of rivalry in other activities and at other levels comes as a result of experience.
The fighting responses are called out by a variety of situations. These situations are definite and the responses to them differ from each other. In each case the child tries by physical force of some kind, by scratching, kicking, biting, slapping, throwing, and the like, to change the situation into a more agreeable one. This is true whether he be trying to escape from the restraining arms of his mother or to compel another child to recognize his mastery. Original nature endows us with the pugnacious instinct on the physical level and in connection with situations which for various reasons annoy us. If this is to be raised in its manner of response from the physical to the intellectual level, if the occasions calling it out are to be changed from those that merely annoy one to those which involve the rights of others and matters of principle, it must be as a result of education. Nature provides only this crude root.
Imitation has long been discussed as one of the most important and influential of human instincts. It has been regarded as a big general tendency to attempt to do whatever one saw any one else doing. As such a tendency it does not exist. It is only in certain narrow lines that the tendency to imitate shows itself, such as smiling when smiled at, yelling when others yell, looking and listening, running, crouching, attacking, etc., when others do. To this extent and in similar situations the tendency to imitate seems to be truly an instinct. Imitating in other lines, such as writing as another writes, talking, dressing, acting like a friend, trying to use the methods used by others, etc., are a result of experience and education. The “spontaneous,” “dramatic,” and “voluntary” imitation discussed by some authors are the stages of development of _habits_ of imitation.
The desire to be with others of the same species, the satisfaction at company and the discomfort aroused by solitude, is one of the strongest roots of all social tendencies and customs. It manifests itself in young babies, and continues a strong force throughout life. As an instinct it has nothing to do with either being interested in taking one’s share in the duties or pleasures of the group or with being interested in people for their own sakes. It is merely that company makes one comfortable and solitude annoys one. Anything further must come as a result of experience.
Motherliness and kindliness have as their characteristic behavior tendencies to respond by instinctive comforting acts to signs of pain, grief, or misery shown by living things, especially, by children, and by the feeling of satisfaction and the sight of happiness in others. Of course very often these instinctive responses are interfered with by the presence of some other instinct, such as fighting, hunting, ownership, or scorn, but that such tendencies to respond in such situations are a part of the original equipment of man seems beyond dispute. They are possessed by both sexes and manifest themselves in very early childhood.
There are original tendencies to respond both in getting and in giving approval and scorn. By original nature, smiles, pats, admiration, and companionship from one to whom submission is given arouses intense satisfaction; and the withdrawal of such responses, and the expression of scorn or disapproval, excites great discomfort. Even the expression of approval or scorn from any one–a stranger or a servant–brings with it the responses of satisfaction or discomfort. Just as strongly marked are original tendencies which cause responses of approval and cause as a result of “relief from hunger, rescue from fear, gorgeous display, instinctive acts of strength, daring and victory,” and responses of scorn “to the observation of empty-handedness, deformity, physical meanness, pusillanimity, and defect.” The desire for approval is never outgrown–it is one of the governing forces in society. If it is to be shown or desired on any but this crude level of instinctive response, it can only come by education.
Children come to school with both an original nature determined by their human inheritance and by their more immediate family relationship, and with an education more significant, perhaps, than any which the school can provide. From earliest infancy up to the time of entering a kindergarten or a first grade, the original equipment in terms of instincts, capacities, and abilities has been utilized by the child and directed by his parents and associates in learning to walk and to talk, to conform to certain social standards or requirements, to accept certain rules or precepts, or to act in accordance with certain beliefs or superstitions. The problem which the teacher faces is that of directing and guiding an individual, who is at the same time both educated and in possession of tendencies and capacities which make possible further development.
Not infrequently the education which children have when they come to school may in some measure handicap the teacher. It is unfortunate, but true, that in some homes instinctive tendencies which should have been overcome have been magnified. The control of children is sometimes secured through the utilization of the instinct of fear. The fighting instinct may often have been overdeveloped in a home in which disagreement and nagging, even to the extent of physical violence, have taken the place of reason. Pride and jealousy may have taken deep root on account of the encouragement and approval which have been given by thoughtless adults.
The teacher does not attack the problem of education with a clean slate, but rather it is his to discover what results have already been achieved in the education of the child, whether they be good or bad, for it is in the light of original nature or original tendencies to behave, and in the light of the education already secured, that the teacher must work.
When one realizes the great variety or differences in ability or capacity, as determined by heredity, and when there is added to this difference in original nature the fact of variety in training which children have experienced prior to their school life, he cannot fail to emphasize the necessity for individualizing children. While it is true that we may assume that all children will take delight in achievement, it may be necessary with one child to stir as much as possible the spirit of rivalry, to give as far as one can the delight which comes from success, while for another child in the same class one may need to minimize success on account of a spirit of arrogance which has been developed before school life began. It is possible to conceive of a situation in which some children need to be encouraged to fight, even to the extent of engaging in physical combat, in order to develop a kind of courage which will accept physical discomfort rather than give up a principle or ideal. In the same group there may be children for whom the teacher must work primarily in terms of developing, in so far as he can, the willingness to reason or discuss the issue which may have aroused the fighting instinct.
For all children in elementary and in high schools the possibility of utilizing their original nature for the sake of that development which will result in action which is socially desirable is still present. The problem which the teacher faces will be more or less difficult in proportion as the child’s endowment by original nature is large or small, and as previous education has been successful or unsuccessful. The skillful teacher is the one who will constantly seek to utilize to the full those instincts or capacities which seem most potent. This utilization, as has already been pointed out, does not mean a blind following of the instinctive tendencies, but often the substitution of a higher form of action for a lower, which may seem to be related to the instinct in question. It is probably wise to encourage collections of stamps, of pictures, of different kinds of wood, and the like, upon the part of children in the elementary school, provided always that the teacher has in mind the possibility of leading these children, through their interest in objects, to desire to collect ideas. Indeed, a teacher might measure her success in utilizing the collecting instinct in proportion as children become relatively less interested in things collected, and more interested in the ideas suggested by them, or in the mastery of fields of knowledge or investigation in which objects have very little significance. The desire for physical activity upon the part of children is originally satisfied by very crude performances. Development is measured not simply in an increase in manual dexterity, but also in terms of the higher satisfaction which may come from producing articles which have artistic merit, or engaging in games of skill which make for the highest physical efficiency.
During the whole period of childhood and adolescence we may never assume that the results of previous education, whether they be favorable or unsatisfactory, are permanent. Whether we succeed or not in achieving the ends which we desire, the fact of modifiability, of docility, and of plasticity remains. The teacher who seeks to understand the individuals with whom he works, both in terms of their original nature and in terms of their previous education, and who at the same time seeks to substitute for a lower phase of an instinctive tendency a higher one, or who tries to have his pupils respond to a situation by inhibiting a particular tendency by forming the habit of meeting the situation in another way, need not despair of results which are socially desirable.
1. May a teacher ever expect the children in his class to be equal in achievement? Why?
2. Why is it not possible to educate children satisfactorily by following where instincts lead?
3. Which of the instincts seem most strong in the children in your class?
4. Can you give any example of an instinctive tendency which you think should have been outgrown but which seems to persist among your pupils?
5. Give examples of the inhibition of undesirable actions based upon instinctive tendencies by means of (1) punishment, (2) disuse, (3) substitution.
6. How can you use the tendency to enjoy mental activity?
7. Why does building a boat make a stronger appeal to a boy than engaging in manual training exercises which might involve the same amount of activity?
8. Cite examples of collections made by boys and girls in which the ideas associated with the objects collected may be more important than the objects themselves.
9. In what degree are we justified in speaking of the social instinct? The instinct to imitate?
10. How can you use the fighting instinct in your work with children?
11. What can teachers do to influence the education which children have received or are getting outside of school?
12. What differences in action among the children in your class do you attribute to differences in original nature? What to differences in education?
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III. ATTENTION AND INTEREST IN TEACHING
Attention is a function of consciousness. Wherever consciousness is, attention must perforce be present. One cannot exist without the other. According to most psychologists, the term attention is used to describe the form consciousness takes, to refer to the fact that consciousness is selective. It simply means that consciousness is always focal and marginal–that some ideas, facts, or feelings stand out in greater prominence than do others, and that the presence of this “perspective” in consciousness is a matter of mechanical adjustment. James describes consciousness by likening it to a series of waves, each having a crest and sides which correspond to the focus and margin of attention. The form of the wave changes from a high sharp crest with almost straight sides in pointed, concentrated attention, to a series of mere undulations, when crests are difficult to distinguish, in so-called states of dispersed attention. The latter states are rare in normal individuals, although they may be rather frequent in certain types of low-grade mental defectives. This of course means that states of “inattention” do not exist in normal people. So long as consciousness is present one must be attending to something. The “day dream” is often accompanied by concentrated attention. Only when we are truly thinking of nothing, and that can only be as unconsciousness approaches, is attention absent. What is true of attention is also true of interest, for interest is coming more and more to be considered the “feeling side” of attention, or the affective accompaniment of attention. The kind of interest may vary, but some kind is always present. The place the interest occupies may also vary: sometimes the affective state itself is so strong that it forces itself into the focal point and becomes the object of attention. The chief fact of importance, however, is that attention and interest are inseparable and both are coexistent with consciousness.
This selective action of consciousness is mechanical, due to the inborn tendencies toward attention possessed by human beings. The situations which by their very nature occupy the focal point in consciousness are color and brightness, novelty, sudden changes and sharp contrasts, rhythm and cadence, movement, and all other situations to which there are other instinctive responses, such as hunting, collecting, curiosity, manipulation, etc. In other words, children are born with tendencies to attend to an enormous number of situations because of the number of instinctive responses they possess. So great is this number that psychologists used to talk about the omnivorousness of children’s attention, believing that they attended to everything. Such a general attention seems not to be true. However, it is because so many situations have the power to force consciousness to a crest that human beings have developed the intellectual power that puts them so far above other animals. That these situations do attract attention is shown by the fact that individuals respond by movements which enable them to be more deeply impressed or impressed for a longer time by the situations in question. For example, a baby will focus his eyes upon a bright object and then move eyes and head to follow it if it moves from his field of vision. Just what the situations are, then, which will arouse responses of attention in any given individual will depend in the first place upon his age, sex, and maturity, and in the second place upon his experience. The process of learning very quickly modifies the inborn tendencies to attention by adding new situations which demand it. It is the things we learn to attend to that make us human rather than merely animal.
The fact of attention or selection must of necessity involve also inhibition or neglect. The very fact of the selection of certain objects and qualities means the neglect of others. This fact of neglect is at first just as mechanical as that of attention, but experiences teach us to neglect some situations which by original nature attracted attention. From the standpoint of education what we neglect is quite as important as what is selected for attention.
The breadth of a person’s attention, _i.e.,_ the number of lines along which attention is possible, must vary with age and experience. The younger or the more immature an individual is, the greater the number of different lines to which attention is given. It is the little child whose attention seems omnivorous, and it is the old person for whom situations worthy of attention have narrowed down to a few lines. This must of necessity be so, due to the interrelation of attention and neglect. The very fact of continuing to give attention along one line means less and less ability and desire to attend along other lines.
The question as to how many things, whether objects or ideas, can be attended to at the same time, has aroused considerable discussion. Most people think that they are attending to several things, if not to many, at the same second of consciousness. Experiments show that if four or five unrelated objects, words, or letters be shown to adults for less than one quarter of a second, they can be apprehended, but the probability is that they are photographed, so to speak, on the eye and counted afterwards. It is the general belief of psychologists at present that the mind attends to only one thing at a time, that only one idea or object can occupy the focal point in consciousness.
The apparent contradiction between ordinary experience and psychological experience along this line is due to three facts which are often overlooked. In the first place, the complexity of the idea or thing that can be attended to as a unit varies tremendously. Differences in people account for part of this variation, but training and experience account for still more. Our ideas become more and more complex as experience and familiarity build them up. Qualities which to a little child demand separate acts of attention are with the adult merged into his perception of the object. Just as simple words, although composed of separate letters, are perceived as units, so with training, more complex units may be found which can be attended to as wholes. So (to the ignorant or the uninstructed) what is apparently attending to more than one thing at a time may be explained by the complexity of the unit which is receiving the attention.
In the second place _doing_ more than one thing at a time does not imply attending to more than one thing at a time. An activity which is habitual or mechanical does not need attention, but can be carried on by the control exercised by the fringe of consciousness. Attention may be needed to start the activity or if a difficulty of any kind should arise, but that is all. For the rest of the time it can be devoted to anything else. The great speed with which attention can flash from one thing to another and back again must be taken into consideration in all this discussion. So far as attention goes, one can _do_ as many things at a time as he can make mechanical plus one unfamiliar one. Thus a woman can rock the baby’s cradle, croon a lullaby, knit, and at the same time be thinking of illustrations for her paper at the Woman’s Club, because only one of these activities needs attention. When no one of the activities is automatic and the individual must depend on the rapid change of attention from one to the other to keep them going, the results obtained are likely to be poor and the fatigue is great. The attempt to take notes while listening to a lecture is of this order, and hence the unsatisfactoriness of the results.
The third fact which helps to explain the apparent contradiction under discussion is closely related to this one. It is possible when engaged with one object to have several questions or topics close by in the fringe of consciousness so that one or the other may flash to the focal point as the development of the train of thought demands. The individual is apparently considering many questions at the same time, when in reality it is the readiness of these associations plus the oscillations of attention that account for the activity. The ability to do this sort of thing depends partly on the individual,–some people will always be “people of one idea,”–but training and experience increase the power. The child who in the primary can be given only one thing to look for when he goes on his excursion may grow into the youth who can carry half a dozen different questions in his mind to which he is looking for answers.
By concentration of attention is meant the depth of the attention, and this is measured by the ease with which a person’s attention can be called off the topic with which he is concerned. The concentration may be so great that the individual is oblivious to all that goes on about him. He may forget engagements and meals because of his absorption. Sometimes even physical pain is not strong enough to distract attention. On the other hand, the concentration may be so slight that every passing sense impression, every irrelevant association called up by the topic, takes the attention away from the subject. The depth of concentration depends upon four factors. Certain mental and physical conditions have a great deal to do with the concentration of attention, and these will be discussed later. Individual differences also account for the presence or absence of power of concentration–some people concentrate naturally, others never get very deeply into any topic. Maturity is another factor that is influential. A little child cannot have great concentration, simply because he has not had experience enough to give him many associations with which to work. His attention is easily distracted. Although apparently absorbed in play, he hears what goes on about him and notices many things which adults suppose he does not see. This same lack of power shows itself in any one’s attention when a new subject is taken up if he has few associations with it. Of course this means that other things being equal the older one is, up to maturity at least, the greater one’s power of concentration. Little children have very little power, adolescents a great deal, but it is the adult who excels in concentration. Although this is true, the fourth factor, that of training in concentration, does much toward increasing the power before full maturity is reached. One can learn to concentrate just as he can learn to do anything else. Habits of concentration, of ignoring distinctions and interruptions, of putting all one’s power into the work in hand, are just as possible as habits of neatness. The laws of habit formation apply in the field of attention just as truly as in every other field of mental life. Laboratory experiments prove the large influence which training has on concentration and the great improvement that can be made. It is true that few people do show much concentration of attention when they wish. This is true of adults as well as of children. They have formed habits of working at half speed, with little concentration and no real absorption in the topic. This method of work is both wasteful of time and energy and injurious to the mental stability and development of the individual. Half-speed work due to lack of concentration often means that a student will stay with a topic and fuss over it for hours instead of working hard and then dropping it. Teachers often do this sort of thing with their school work. Not only are the results less satisfactory, because the individual never gets deeply enough into the topic to really get what is there, but the effect on him is bad. It is like “constant dripping wears away the stone.” Children must be taught to “work when they work and play when they play,” if they are to have habits of concentration as adults.
The length of time which it is possible to attend to the same object or idea may be reckoned in seconds. It is impossible to hold the attention on an object for any appreciable length of time. In order to hold the attention the object must change. The simple experiment of trying to pay attention to a blot of ink or the idea of bravery proves that change is necessary if the attention is not to wander. What happens is that either the attention goes to something else, or that you begin thinking about the thing in question. Of course, the minute you begin thinking, new associations, images, memories, come flocking in, and the attention occupies itself with each in turn. All may concern the idea with which you started out, but the very fact that these have been added to the mental content of the instant makes the percept of ink blot or the concept of bravery different from the bare thing with which the attention began. If this change and fluctuation of the mental state does not take place, the attention flits to something else. The length of time that the attention may be engaged with a topic will depend, then, upon the number of associations connected with it. The more one knows about a topic, the longer he can attend to it. If it is a new topic, the more suggestive it is in calling up past experience or in offering incentive for experiment or application, the longer can attention stay with it. Such a topic is usually called “interesting,” but upon analysis it seems that this means that for one of the above reasons it develops or changes and therefore holds the attention. This duration of attention will vary in length from a few seconds to hours. The child who is given a problem which means almost nothing, which presents a blank wall when he tries to attend to it, which offers no suggestions for solution, is an illustration of the first. Attention to such a problem is impossible; his attention must wander. The genius who, working with his favorite subject, finds a multitude of trains of thought called up by each idea, and who therefore spends hours on one topic with no vacillation of attention, is an illustration of the second.
Attention has been classified according to the kind of feeling which accompanies the activity. Sometimes attention comes spontaneously, freely, and the emotional tone is that accompanying successful activity. On the other hand, sometimes it has to be forced and is accompanied by feelings of strain and annoyance. The first type is called Free attention; the second is Forced attention.
Free attention is given when the object of attention satisfies a need; when the situation attended to provides the necessary material for some self-activity. The activity of the individual at that second needs something that the situation in question gives, and hence free, spontaneous attention results. Forced attention is given when there is a lack of just such feeling of need in connection with the object of attention. It does not satisfy the individual–it is distinct from his desires at the time. He attends only because of fear of the results if he does not, and hence the condition is one of strain. All play takes free attention. Work which holds the worker because it is satisfying also takes free attention. Work which has in it the element of drudgery needs forced attention. The girl making clothes for her doll, the boy building his shack in the woods, the inventor working over his machine, the student absorbed in his history lesson,–all these are freely attending to the thing in hand. The girl running her seam and hating it, the, boy building the chicken coop while wishing to be at the ball game, the inventor working over his machine when his thoughts and desires are with his sick wife, the student trying to study his history when the debate in the civics club is filling his mind,–these are cases when forced attention would probably be necessary.
It is very evident that there is no one situation which will necessarily take either free or forced attention because the determining factor is not in the situation _per se_, but in the relation it bears to the mind engaged with it. Sometimes the same object will call forth forced attention from one person and free from another. Further, the same object may at one time demand free attention and at another time forced attention from the same person, depending on the operation of other factors. It is also true that attention which was at first forced may change into free as the activity is persevered in.
Although these two types of attention are discussed as if they were entirely separated from each other, as if one occurred in this situation and the other in that, still as a matter of fact the actual conditions involve an interplay between the two. It is seldom true that free attention is given for any great length of time without flashes of forced attention being scattered through it. Often the forced attention may be needed for certain parts of the work, although as a whole it may take free attention. The same thing is true of occasions when forced attention is used. There are periods in the activity when free attention will carry the worker on. Every activity, then, is likely to be complex so far as the kind of attention used, but it is also characterized by the predominance of one or the other type.
The question as to the conditions which call out each type of attention is an important one. As has already been said, free attention is given when the situation attended to satisfies a need. Physiologically stated, free attention is given when a neurone series which is ready to act is called into activity. The situations which do this, other things being equal, will be those which appeal to some instinctive tendency or capacity, or to the self-activity or the personal experience of the individual and which therefore are in accord with his stage of development and his experience. Forced attention is necessary when the neurone tracts used by the attention are for some reason unready to act. Situations to which attention is given through fear of punishment, or when the activity involves a choice of ideal ends as opposed to personal desires, or when some instinctive tendency must be inhibited or its free activity is blocked or interfered with, or when the laws of growth and experience are violated, take forced attention. Of course fatigue, disease, and monotony are frequent breeders of forced attention.
From the above discussion it must be evident that one of the chief characteristics of free attention is its unity. The mental activity of the person is all directed along one line, that which leads to the satisfying of the need. It is unified by the appeal the situation makes. As a result of such a state the attention is likely to be concentrated, and can be sustained over a long period. Of course this means that the work accomplished under such conditions will be greater in amount, more thorough, and more accurate than could be true were there less unity in the process. The opposite in all respects is true of forced attention. It is present when there is divided interest. The topic does not appeal to the need of the individual. He attends to it because he must. Part of his full power of attention is given to keeping himself to the work, leaving only a part to be given to the work itself. If there is any other object in the field of attention which is particularly attractive, as there usually is, that claims its share, and the attention is still further divided. Divided attention cannot be concentrated; it cannot last long. The very strain and effort involved makes it extremely fatiguing. The results of work done under such conditions must be poor. There can be but little thoroughness, for the worker will do just as much as he must to pass muster, and no more. Inaccuracy and superficiality will characterize such work. Just as training in giving concentrated attention results in power along that line, so frequent necessity for forced attention develops habits of divided attention which in time will hinder the development of any concentration.
From a psychological viewpoint there can be no question but what free attention is the end to be sought by workers of all kinds. It is an absolutely false notion that things are easy when free attention is present. It is only when free attention is present that results worth mentioning are accomplished. It is only under such conditions that the worker is willing to try and try again, and put up with disappointment and failure, to use his ingenuity and skill to the utmost, to go out of his way for material or suggestions; in other words, to put himself into his work in such a way that it is truly educational. On the other hand, forced attention has its own value and could not be dispensed with in the development of a human being. Its value is that of means to end–not that of an end in itself. It is only as it leads into free attention that forced attention is truly valuable. In that place the part it plays is tremendous because things are as they are. There will always be materials which will not appeal to a need in some individual because of lack of capacity or experience; there will always be parts of various activities and processes which seem unnecessary and a waste of time to some worker; there will always be choices to be made between instinctive desires and ideal needs, and in each case forced attention is the only means, perhaps, by which the necessary conditions can be acquired that make possible free attention. It is evident, therefore, that forced attention should be called into play only when needed. When needed, it should be demanded rigorously, but the sooner the individual in question can pass from it to the other type, the better. This is true in all fields whether intellectual or moral.
A second classification of attention has been suggested according to the answer to the question as to why attention is given. Sometimes attention is given simply because the material itself demands it; sometimes for some ulterior reason. The former type is called immediate or intrinsic attention; the latter is called derived, mediate, or extrinsic attention. The former is given to the situation for its own sake; the latter because of something attached to it. Forced attention is always derived; free attention may be either immediate or derived. It is immediate and derived free attention that needs further discussion.
It should be borne in mind that there is no sharp line of division between immediate and derived attention. Sometimes it is perfectly evident that the attention is given for the sake of the material–at other times there can be no doubt but that it is the something beyond the material that holds the attention. But in big, complex situations it is not so evident. For instance, the musician composing just for the love of it is an example of immediate attention, while the small boy working his arithmetic examples with great care in order to beat his seatmate is surely giving derived attention. But under some conditions the motives are mixed and the attention may fluctuate from the value of the material itself to the values to be derived from it. However this may be, at the two extremes there is a clear-cut difference between these two types of attention. The value of rewards and incentives depends on the psychology of derived free attention, while that of punishment and deterrents is wrapped up with derived forced attention.
Immediate free attention is the more valuable of the two types because it is the most highly unified and most strongly dynamic of all the attention types. The big accomplishments of human lives have been brought to pass through this kind of attention. It is the kind the little child gives to his play–the activity itself is worth while. So with the artist, the inventor, the poet, the teacher, the physician, the architect, the banker–to be engaged in that particular activity satisfies. But this is not true of all artists, bankers, etc., nor with the others all the time. Even for the child at play, sometimes conditions arise when the particular part of the activity does not seem worth while in itself; then if it is to be continued, another kind of attention must be brought in–derived attention. This illustration shows the place of derived attention as a means to an end–the same part played by forced attention in its relation to free. Derived attention must needs be characteristic of much of the activity of human beings. People have few well-developed capacities, and there are many kinds of things they are required to do. If these are to be done with free attention, heartily, it will only be because of some value that is worth while that is attached to the necessary activity. As activities grow complex and as the results of activities grow remote, the need for something to carry over the attention to the parts of the activity that are seen to be worth while in the first place, or to the results in the second, grows imperative. This need is filled by derived attention, and here it shows its value as means to an end, but it is only when the need for this carrier disappears, and the activity as a whole for itself seems worth while, that the best results are obtained.
There is a very great difference between the kinds of motives or values chosen for derived attention, and their value varies in accordance with the following principles. Incentives should be closely connected naturally with the subject to which they are attached. They should be suited to the development of the child and be natural rather than artificial. Their appeal should be permanent, _i.e._, should persist in the same situation outside of school. They should really stimulate those to whom they are offered. They should not be too attractive in themselves. Applying these principles it would seem that derived interests that have their source in instincts, in special capacities, or in correlation of subjects are of the best type, while such extremely artificial incentives as prizes, half holidays, etc., are among the poorest.
The value of derived attention is that it gets the work done or the habit formed. Of course the hope is always there that it will pass over into the immediate type, but if it does not, at least results are obtained. It has already been shown that results may also be obtained by the use of forced attention, which is also derived. Both derived free attention and forced attention are means to an end. The question as to the comparative value of the two must be answered in favor of the derived free attention. The chief reasons for this conclusion are as follows. First, derived free attention is likely to be more unified than forced attention. Second, it arouses greater self-activity on the part of the worker. Third, the emotional tone is that of being satisfied instead of strain. Fourth, it is more likely to lead to the immediate attention which is its end. Despite these advantages of derived free attention over forced attention, it still has some of the same disadvantages that forced attention has. The chief of these is that it also may result in division of energy. If the means for gaining the attention is nothing but sugar coating, if it results in the mere entertainment of the worker, there is every likelihood that the attention will be divided between the two. The other disadvantage is that because of the attractiveness of the means used to gain attention it may be given just so long as the incentive remains, and no longer. These difficulties may be largely overcome, however, by the application of the principles governing good incentives. This must mean that the choice of types of attention and therefore the provision of situations calling them out should be in this order: immediate free attention, derived free attention, forced attention. All three are necessary in the education of any child, but each should be used in its proper place.
The conditions which insure the best attention of whatever type have to do with both physical and mental adjustments. On the physical side there is need for the adaptation of the sense organ and the body to the situation. For this adaptation to be effective the environmental conditions must be controlled by the laws of hygiene. A certain amount of bodily freedom yields better results than rigidity because the latter draws energy from the task in hand for purposes of inhibition. On the mental side there is need for preparation in terms of readiness of the nerve tracts to be used. James calls this “ideational” preparation. This simply means that one can attend better if he knows something of what he is to attend to. Experimental evidence proves without doubt that if the subject knows that he is to see a color, instead of a word, his perception of it is much more rapid and accurate than if he does not have this preparation. This same result is obtained in much more complex sensory situations, and it also holds when the situation is intellectual. Contrary to expectation, great quietness is not the best condition for the maximum of attention; a certain amount of distraction is beneficial.
The problem of interest and of attention, from the point of view of teaching, is not simply to secure attention, but rather to have the attention fixed upon those activities which are most desirable from the standpoint of realizing the aim or purpose of education. As has already been suggested, children are constantly attending to something. They instinctively respond to the very great variety of stimuli with which they come in contact. Our schools seek to provide experiences which are valuable. In school work when we are successful children attend to those stimuli which promise most for the formation of habits, or the growth in understanding and appreciation which will fit them for participation in our social life. We seek constantly in our work as teachers to secure either free or forced attention to the particular part of our courses of study or to the particular experiences which are allotted to the grade or class which we teach. One of the very greatest difficulties in securing attention upon the part of a class is found in the variety of experiences which they have already enjoyed, and the differences in the strength of the appeal which the particular situation may make upon the several members of the group. In class teaching we have constantly to vary our appeal and to differentiate our work to suit the individual differences represented in the class, if we would succeed in holding the attention of even the majority of the children.
Boys and girls do their best work only when they concentrate their attention upon the work to be done. One of the greatest fallacies that has ever crept into our educational thought is that which suggests that there is great value in having people work in fields in which they are not interested, and in which they do not freely give their attention. Any one who is familiar with children, or with grown-ups, must know that it is only when interest is at a maximum that the effort put forth approaches the limit of capacity set by the individual’s ability. Boys concentrate their attention upon baseball or upon fishing to a degree which demands of them a maximum of effort. A boy may spend hours at a time seeking to perfect himself in pitching, batting, or fielding. He may be uncomfortable a large part of the time, he may suffer considerable pain, and yet continue in his practice by virtue of his great enthusiasm for perfecting himself in the game. Interest of a not dissimilar sort leads a man who desires position, or power, or wealth, to concentrate his attention upon the particular field of his endeavor to the exclusion of almost everything else. Indeed, men almost literally kill themselves in the effort which they make to achieve these social distinctions or rewards. We may not hope always to secure so high a degree of concentration of attention or of effort, but it is only as we approach a situation in which children are interested, and in which they freely give their attention to the subject in hand, that we can claim to be most successful in our teaching.
The teacher who is able in beginning reading to discover to children the tool which will enable them to get the familiar story or rhyme from the book may hope to get a quality of attention which could never be brought about by forcing them to attend to formal phonetic drill. The teacher of biology who has been able to awaken enthusiasm for the investigation of plant and animal life, and who has allowed children to conduct their own investigations and to carry out their own experiments, may hope for a type of attention which is never present in the carrying out of the directions of the laboratory manual or in naming or classifying plants or animals merely as a matter of memory. Children who are at work producing a school play will accomplish more in the study of the history in which they seek to discover a dramatic situation, by virtue of the concentration of attention given, than they would in reciting many lessons in which they seek to remember the paragraphs or pages which they have read. The boy who gives his attention to the production of a story for his school paper will work harder than one who is asked to write a composition covering two pages. Children who are allowed to prepare for the entertainment of the members of their class a story with which they alone are familiar will give a quality of attention to the work in hand which is never secured when all of the members of the class are asked to reproduce a story which the teacher has read.
It is necessary at times to have children give forced attention. There are some things to be accomplished that must be done, regardless of our success in securing free attention. It is entirely conceivable that some boy or girl may not want to learn his multiplication tables, or his words in spelling, or his conjugation or declension in French, and that all that the teacher has done may fail to arouse any great amount of interest or enthusiasm for the work in question. In these cases, and in many others which might be cited, the necessity for the particular habit may be so great as to demand that every pupil do the work or form the habit in question. In these cases we may not infrequently hope that after having given forced attention to the work of the school, children may in time come to understand the importance of the experiences which they are having, or even become interested in the work for its own sake. It is not infrequently true that after a period of forced attention there follows a time during which, on account of the value which children are able to understand as attached to or belonging to the particular exercise, they give free derived attention. Many boys and girls have worked through their courses in science or in modern languages because they believed that these subjects would prove valuable not only in preparing them for college, but in giving them a wider outlook on life. Their attention was of the free derived type. Later on some of these same pupils have become tremendously enthusiastic in their work in the fields in question, and have found such great satisfaction in the work itself, that their attention might properly be characterized as free immediate attention.
The importance of making children conscious of their power of concentrating their attention needs to be kept constantly in mind. Exercises in which children are asked to do as much as they can in a period of five or ten minutes may be used to teach children what concentration of attention is and of the economy involved in work done under these conditions. The trouble with a great many adults, as well as with children, is that they have never learned what it is to work up to the maximum of their capacity. All too frequently in our attempts to teach children in classes we neglect to provide even a sufficient amount of work to demand of the more able members of the group any considerable amount of continued, concentrated attention.
We seek in our work as teachers not only to secure a maximum of attention to the fields of work in which children are engaged, but also to arouse interests and enthusiasms which will last after school days are over. We think of interest often, and properly too, as the means employed to secure a maximum of attention, and, in consequence, a maximum of accomplishment. It is worth while to think often in our work in terms of interest as the end to be secured. Children should become sufficiently interested in some of the subjects that we teach to care to be students in these fields, or to find enjoyment in further work or activity along these lines, either as a matter of recreation or, not infrequently, as a means of discovering their true vocation in life. That teacher who has aroused sufficient interest in music to enable the student of musical ability to venture all of the hard work which may be necessary in order to become a skillful musician, has made possibly his greatest contribution by arousing interest or creating enthusiasm. The teacher whose enthusiasm in science has led a boy to desire to continue in this field, even to the extent of influencing him to undertake work in an engineering school, may be satisfied, not so much in the accomplishment of his pupil in the field of science, as in the enthusiasm which has carried him forward to more significant work. Even for children who go no farther than the elementary school, interest in history, or geography, in nature study, or in literature, may mean throughout the life of the individuals taught a better use of leisure time and an enjoyment of the nobler pleasures.
Successful teaching in any part of our school system demands an adjustment in the amount of work to be done, to the abilities, and even to the interest of individual children. Much may be accomplished by the organization of special classes or groups in large school systems, but even under the most favorable conditions children cannot be expected to work up to the maximum of their capacity except as teachers recognize these differences in interest and in ability, and make assignments and conduct exercises which take account of these differences.
1. Why do all children attend when the teacher raps on the desk, when she writes on the board, when some one opens the door and comes into the room?
2. Some teachers are constantly rapping with their pencils and raising their voices in order to attract attention. What possible weakness is indicated by this procedure?
3. Why do adults attend to fewer things than do children?
4. In what sense is it possible to attend to two things at the same time?
5. Why are children less able to concentrate their attention than are most adults?
6. Will a boy or girl in your class be more or less easily distracted as he gives free attention or forced attention to the work in hand?
7. What educational value is attached to an exercise which requires that a boy sit at his desk and work, even upon something in which he is not very much interested, for twenty minutes?
8. In what sense is it true that we form the habit of concentrating our attention?
9. Why is it wrong to extend a lesson beyond the period during which children are able to concentrate their attention upon the work in hand, or beyond the period during which they do concentrate their attention?
10. How is it possible to extend the period devoted to a lesson in reading, or in geography, or in Latin, beyond the time required to read a story or draw a map, or translate a paragraph?
11. Why is it possible to have longer recitation periods in the upper grades and in the high school than in the primary school?
12. Give examples from your class work of free attention; of forced attention; of free derived attention.
13. In what sense is it true that we work hardest when we give free attention?
14. In what sense is it true that we work hardest when we give forced attention?
15. Can you give any example of superficiality or inaccuracy which has resulted from divided attention, upon the part of any member of one of your classes?
16. Does free attention imply lack of effort?
17. Name incidents which you think might properly be offered boys and girls in order to secure free derived attention.
18. Can you cite any example in your teaching in which children have progressed from forced to free attention?
19. What interests have been developed in your classes which you think may make possible the giving of free attention in the field in question, even after school days are over?
20. How can you teach children what it is to concentrate their attention and the value of concentrated attention?
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IV. THE FORMATION OF HABITS
Habit in its simplest form is the tendency to do, think, or act as one has done, thought, or acted in the past. It is the tendency to repeat activities of all kinds. It is the tendency which makes one inclined to do the familiar action rather than a new one. In a broader sense, habit formation means learning. It is a statement of the fact that conduct _is_ modifiable and that such modifications may become permanent.
The fact of learning depends physiologically on the plasticity of the nervous system. The neurones, particularly those concerned with intellectual life, are not only sensitive to nerve currents but are modified by them. The point where the greatest change seems to take place is at the synapses, but what this modification is, no one knows. There are several theories offered as explanations of what happens, but no one of them has been generally accepted, although the theory of chemical change seems to be receiving the strongest support at present. There can be no disagreement, however, as to the effects of this change, whatever it may be. Currents originally passing with difficulty over a certain conduction unit later pass with greater and greater ease. The resistance which seems at first to be present gradually disappears, and to that extent is the conduct modified. This same element of plasticity accounts for the breaking of habits. In this case the action is double, for it implies the disuse of certain connections which have been made and the forming of others; for the breaking of a bad habit means the beginning of a good one.
The plasticity of neurone groups seems to vary in two respects–as to modifiability and as to power to hold modifications. The neurone groups controlling the reflex and physiological operations are least easily modified, while those controlling the higher mental processes are most easily modified. The neurone groups controlling the instincts hold a middle place. So far as permanence goes, connections between sensorimotor neurone groups seem to hold modifications longer than do connections between either associative-motor or associative-association.
It is probably because of this fact that habit in the minds of so many people refers to some physical activity. Of course this is a misconception. Wherever the nervous system is employed, habits are formed. There are intellectual, moral, emotional, temperamental habits, just as truly as physical habits. In the intellectual field every operation that involves association or memory also involves habits. Good temper, or the reverse, truthfulness, patriotism, thoughtfulness for others, open-mindedness, are as much matters of learning and of habit as talking or skating or sewing. Habit is found in all three lines of mental development: intellect, character, and skill.
Not only does the law of habit operate in all fields of mental activity, but the characteristics which mark its operation are the same. Two of these are important. In the first place, habit formation results in a lessening of attention to the process. Any process that is habitual can be taken care of by a minimum of attention. In other words, it need no longer be in the focal point, but can be relegated to the fringe. At the beginning of the modification of the neurone tract focal attention is often necessary, but as it progresses less and less attention is needed until the activity becomes automatic, apparently running by itself. Not all habits reach this stage of perfection, but this is the general tendency. This lessening of the need for attention means that less energy is used by the activity, and the individual doing the work is less likely to be fatigued. In the second place, habit tends to make the process more and more sure in its results. As the resistance is removed from the synapses, and the one particular series of units come to act more and more as a unit, the current shoots along the path with no sidetracking, and the act is performed or the thought reached unwaveringly with very little chance of error. If the habit being formed is that of writing, the appropriate movements are made with no hesitation, and the chances that certain ones will be made the first time increase in probability. This means a saving of time and an increase in confidence as to the results.
A consideration of these characteristics of habits makes clear its dangers as well as its values. The fact that habit is based on actual changes which take place in the nervous system, that its foundation is physical, emphasizes its binding power. Most people in talking and thinking of habit regard it as something primarily mental in nature and therefore believe all that is necessary to break any habit is the sufficient exercise of will power. But will power, however strong, cannot break actual physical connections, and it is such connections that bind us to a certain line of activity instead of any other, when once the habit is formed. It is just as logical to expect a car which is started on its own track to suddenly go off on to another track where there is no switch, as to expect a nerve current traveling along its habitual conduction unit to run off on some other line of nervous discharge. Habit once formed binds that particular line of thought to action, either good or bad. Of course habits may be broken, but it is a work of time and must result from definite physical changes. Every habit formed lessens the likelihood of any other response coming in that particular situation. Every interest formed, every act of skill perfected, every method of work adopted, every principle or ideal accepted, limits the recognition of any other possible line of action in that situation. Habit binds to one particular response and at the same time blinds the individual to any other alternative. The danger of this is obvious. If the habits formed are bad or wasteful ones, the individual is handicapped in his growth until new ones can be formed. On the other hand, habit makes for limitation.
Despite these dangers, habit is of inestimable value in the development of both the individual and the human race. It is through it that all learning is possible. It makes possible the preservation of our social inheritance. As James says, “Habit is the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent.” Because of its power of limitation it is sometimes considered the foe of independence and originality, but in reality it is the only road to progress. Other things being equal, the more good habits a person has, the greater the probability of his doing original work. The genius in science or in art or in statesmanship is the man who has made habitual many of the activities demanded by his particular field and who therefore has time and energy left for the kind of work that demands thinking. Habit won’t make a genius, but all men of exceptional ability excel others in the number and quality of their habits in the field in which they show power. As the little child differs from the adult in the number and quality of his habits, so the ordinary layman differs from the expert. It is scarcity, not abundance, of habits that forces a man into a rut and keeps him mediocre. Just as the three year old, having taken four or five times as long as the adult to dress himself, is tired out at the end of the task, so the amateur in literature or music or morals as compared with the expert. The more habits any one has in any line, the better for him, both from the standpoint of efficiency and productivity, provided that the habits are good and that among them is found the habit of breaking habits.
The two great laws of habit formation are the laws of exercise and effect. These laws apply in all cases of habit formation, whether they be the purposeless habits of children or the purposive habits of maturity. The law of exercise says that the oftener and the more emphatically a certain response is connected with a certain situation, the more likely is it to be made to that situation. The two factors of repetition and intensity are involved. It is a common observance that the oftener one does a thing, other things being equal, the better he does it, whether it be good or bad. Drill is the usual method adopted by all classes of people for habit formation. It is because of the recognition of the value of repetition that the old maxim of “Practice makes Perfect” has been so blindly adhered to. Practice may make perfect, but it also may make imperfect. All that practice can do is to make more sure and automatic the activity, whatever it is. It cannot alone make for improvement. A child becomes more and more proficient in bad writing or posture, in incorrect work in arithmetic and spelling, with practice just as truly as under other conditions he improves in the same activities. Evidence from school experiments, which shows that as many as 40 per cent of the children examined did poorer work along such lines in a second test than in the first which had been given several months earlier, bears witness to the inability of mere repetition to get “perfect” results. To get such results the repetition must be only of the improvements. There must be a constant variation towards the ideal, and a selection of just those variations for practice, if perfect as well as invariable results are to be obtained.
The amount of repetition necessary in the formation of any given habit is not known. It will, of course, vary with the habit and with the individual, but experimental psychology will some day have something to offer along this line. We could make a great saving if we knew, even approximately, the amount of practice necessary under the best conditions to form some of the more simple and elementary habits, such as learning the facts of multiplication.
One other fact in connection with repetition should be noted, namely, that the exercise given any connection by the learner, freely, of his own initiative counts more than that given under purposive learning. This method of learning is valuable in that it is incidental and often saves energy and possible imitation on the part of the child, but it has certain drawbacks. Habits formed this way are ingrained to such an extent that they are very difficult to modify. They were not consciously attended to when they were formed, and hence it is difficult later to raise them to the focal point. Hence it is best whenever habits are partial and will need to be modified later, or when the habits must later be rationalized, or when bad habits must be broken, to have the process focalized in attention. The methods of gaining attention have already been discussed.
In the second place, if the habit being formed is connected with an instinct, the element of intensity is added. This, of course, means that a connection already made and one which is strongly ready to act is made to give its support to the new connection being formed. Of course the instinct chosen for this purpose must be in accord with the particular habit and with the nature of the learner. They may vary from the purely personal and physical up to those which have to do with groups and intellectual reactions. The added impetus of the instinct hastens the speed of the direction or supervision. The psychology of the value of self-activity is operative. It should be borne in mind, however, that the two kinds of exercise must be of the same degree of accuracy if this better result in self-initiated practice is to be obtained.
Not only is it true that repetition makes for automaticity, but intensity is also an aid. Connections which are made emphatically as well as often tend to become permanent. This is particularly true of mental habits. There are two factors of importance which make for intensity in habit formation. First, the focalization of attention on the connections being made adds intensity. Bagley in his discussion of this topic makes “focalization in attention” a necessity in all habits. Although habits may be formed without such concentration, still it is true that if attention is given to the process, time is saved; for the added intensity secured increases the speed of learning. In certain types of habits, however, when incidental learning plays a large part, much skill may be acquired without focalization of attention in the process. Much of the learning of little children is of this type. Their habits of language, ways of doing things, mannerisms, and emotional attitudes often come as a result of suggestion and imitation rather than as a result of definite formation of the new habit.
The second great law of habit formation is the law of effect. This law says that any connection whose activity is accompanied by or followed by satisfaction tends thereby to be strengthened. If the accompanying emotional tone is annoyance, the connection is weakened. This law that satisfaction stamps connections in, and annoyance inhibits connections, is one of the greatest if not the greatest law of human life. Whatever gives satisfaction, that mankind continues to do. He learns only that which results in some kind of satisfaction. Because of the working of this law animals learn to do their tricks, the baby learns to talk, the child learns to tell the truth, the adult learns to work with the fourth dimension. Repetition by itself is a wasteful method of habit formation. The law of effect must work as well as the law of exercise, if the results are to be satisfactory. As has already been pointed out, it is not the practice alone that makes perfect, but the _stressing_ of improvements, and that fixing is made possible only by satisfaction. Pleasure, in the broad sense, must be the accompaniment or the result of any connection that is to become habitual. This satisfaction may be of many different sorts, physical, emotional, or intellectual. It may be occasioned by a reward or recognition from without or by appreciation arising from self-criticism. In some form or other it must be present.