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The Law of the Learner

Today we’re going to continue our look at the two books, The Seven Laws of Teaching by John Milton Gregory, and The Seven Laws of the Teacher by Howard Hendricks.

The second “law” we’re going to consider is “The Law of the Learner.” Basically, this law states that the most important thing you must capture in your children, your “students,” is their interested attention. Interested attention is a mental attitude that takes effort and exertion on the part of your children.

There are two ways you can capture the interest and attention of your children.

  1. You can compel it. Require it. Force it. Sometimes this is necessary. Yes, obedience is an important skill to teach. However, compelled interest, as Gregory states, is “easily exhausted.” True learning can never stop here.
  2. You can attract it. When you have attracted the attention of a child, his attention can endure.

Have you ever read a book that was incredibly boring? You can force your mind to pay attention for a short while, but will you be able to recall what you read later?

Have you ever read a book that you couldn’t put down? Did anyone have to set a timer and require you to read for 30 minutes? (More likely, you had to force yourself to put it away so you could start dinner!)

As a mother, sometimes you just have to start by gently compelling your children to pay attention. With young children, you might do this by requiring them to look you in the eye or repeat back to you what you said. However, as soon as you can, try to help them make the change to attraction and interested attention.

According to Gregory, there are many sources of interest to a student. Try to think how you learn best, as well as your children:

  1. Your five senses — How many senses can you involve in a lesson? Hearing, seeing, smelling, touching, and tasting will be more effective than just hearing alone.
  2. Variety — How can you attract attention by changing things? Vanilla ice cream is delicious, unless that’s the only flavor you ever eat. How can you add excitement through variety?
  3. Startling Questions — Ask questions that require thought to answer, rather than simple repetition of facts or a “yes” or “no.” Hendricks says, “Spend more time questioning answers than answering questions.”
  4. Connections to Life — Show your children how the lesson relates to something else in their lives that they’re interested in. My daughter has a natural interest in horses; how can I catch her interest in history by relating it to horses?

Gregory notes that attention span naturally increases as a child ages. Did you know that you can help the process along by nurturing longer attention spans? Can your child focus on something for 20 minutes? Could you work toward an attention span of 25 minutes? (What skills would help in this? Eye contact? Something to do with her hands?)

Attention spans are naturally longer when an appeal is made to the learner’s strongest sense. For instance, I am a visual learner, so I can pay attention longer when a book has pictures or I can highlight in the text. For my husband, who is an auditory learner, he pays attention longer when there is music playing in the background.

Gregory points out that the two hindrances to interested attention are apathy and distraction. What can you do to eliminate distractions? How are these two things an indicator of an undisciplined mind?

Some rules Gregory says to keep in mind:

  1. Don’t begin until you have their attention!
  2. Pause if you lose their attention (and figure out how to get it back again).
  3. Stop before their attention (or bodies) are exhausted.
  4. Fit the lesson to the child’s abilities.
  5. Arouse attention, but avoid distraction.
  6. Kindle interest in the subject itself.
  7. Know your child!

Howard Hendricks adds some brilliant points.

“Tell the learner nothing — and do nothing for him — that he can learn or do for himself.”

As you think of ways to attract your children’s attention, ask yourself what your objectives in teaching them are. Hendricks says that his three top objectives are to teach the student:

  1. How to think
  2. How to learn
  3. How to work

I think those are exactly what mine would be, too! He then notes that there are four basic skills which will help you accomplish those objectives:

  1. Reading
  2. Writing
  3. Listening
  4. Speaking

Hendricks writes,

“One day I said to one of my classes in seminary, ‘The problem with the average guy coming out of the university is that he can’t read, he can’t write, and he can’t think. And if you can’t read, write, or think, what can you do?'”

“‘Watch television,’ someone answered.”

So in conclusion, how can you capture the interested attention of your children so that you can teach them to think, learn, and work? At what age would you start? Is this really an academic subject — or is the ability to pay attention a skill that your children will need for everything else in life?

P.S. Read The Four Foundations of Lifelong Learning for practical ways to increase the attention span of children.

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