Developing the Habit of Attention

In her book, ‘Towards a Philosophy of Education’, Charlotte Mason wrote, ‘[N]o intellectual habit is so valuable as that of attention; it is a mere habit but it is also the hall-mark of an educated person.’ Ms Mason, writing in the early 1900s, recognized that the ability to pay attention is a habit that can be formed in children by the regular practice of actively engaging their minds for a sustained period of time. By using knowledge a child ‘owns’ it and it becomes part of them. She considered this ability to focus at will to be of utmost value to any person.

Fast forward to April 2020. The Harvard Business Review, in an article entitled ‘Is it Even Possible to Focus on Anything Right Now?’ writes, ‘For most of us, distraction has become a habit, and the first step of habit change is awareness, because you can’t change a habit that you don’t realize you have.’ This attention deficiency might be more noticeable because of the pandemic, but it’s not new. In an earlier 2018 article entitled ‘To Control Your Life, Control What you Pay Attention To,’ the same publication wrote, ‘Focusing is hard — and blaming that on the constant distractions around us is easy. But trying to get rid of distractions isn’t enough to fix the problem. We also have to retrain our brains to concentrate…practicing attention management… will build your “attention muscle,” which will give you greater control over distractions.’

At Heritage, we agree with both Ms Mason and the Harvard Business Review. Attention, or concentration, is a habit that’s formed through practice. It is an especially important skill in this age of digital distractions, and the single most important skill a learner can possess. To cultivate this habit among our pupils we use methods like narration, where a teacher reads aloud from an engaging text, and then invites pupils to retell orally, point by point, what was just read aloud, having heard it only once. Picture Study uses similar skills. It involves looking with concentrated attention at a reproduction of a great painting. The painting is then turned over and its details are described from memory. And, there are Handicraft lessons each week for Infants and Juniors, where the ability to keep focused attention can be developed through activities like weaving on individual looms, sewing, knitting and more. It is only with sustained attention that we form a satisfying ‘relationship’ with, for example, an author, an artist or with materials like wool. It is only with sustained attention that a person can weave new information into the deeper schemas of understanding out of which real creativity arises.

The Boobybirds are in Lockdown

Our own Mrs Emma Robertson, Art and Handicraft teacher for the Junior School, has written a little booklet with her twin sister called ‘The Boobybirds are in Lockdown’ – a gentle and sensitive explanation of what is happening now, told through the eyes of boobybirds. Although written for children aged 4-7, it can be enjoyed by readers of all ages.

According to one parent, ‘It’s a delight; beautiful illustrations and a simple soothing explanation of this turbulent time’. Another parent writes, ‘It is glorious….made me laugh out loud and cry too. My daughter loved it.’

To order a copy, please send an email to emmarobertson442@gmail.com. The cost is £7 plus postage and packaging, and all profits will go to Great Ormond Street Children’s hospital.

Spring Term Starts with Learning at Home

The Spring term has started for our Seniors, who began at-home learning today, and our Infants and Juniors, who begin their lessons at home tomorrow. Although we are disappointed we couldn’t welcome them in person, as Mr Fletcher wrote in his message to parents following the announcement of a new national lockdown, ‘I am very grateful to be part of this wonderful community and am certain that we can work together creatively to make the coming half-term a positive one for our children.’

Mr Fletcher wrote the following words during the first national lockdown nine months ago, but they still hold true today:

‘One of our goals at Heritage is to cultivate “the life of the mind” or “an inner life”. It is a big idea. Seeing the goal of education in terms of obtaining qualifications, important as they are, is a shadow by comparison. Someone with a rich inner life possesses an imaginative capacity to go places, to discover delightful oases, to find inward re-creation and nourishment, to relish truth. Such a person also knows where to find the resources to live generously, even in a season of unusual pressure.

We can learn lessons from grandparents. Our wisest elders find satisfaction in quieter, more local pursuits, in part out of necessity, but also due to regular investment in wholesome interests. Many of our elders have understood the point I’m trying to make: the inner life really does matter. In order to flourish, the mind, like the body, needs a healthy diet of good food. When we partake of a good meal of mind food, we are satisfied by it.

If we take this seriously, we ought, for starters, to be attentive to our own needs, especially now. Hopefully this truth helps us to frame Learning at Home in the right way. Children too are hungry for knowledge and the curriculum is intended to be enjoyed, even to bring delight.

Teachers are working hard to prepare hearty meals of stimulating activities and readings for the weeks ahead. The good news is that satisfying mind food is available to us in greater abundance than ever, although in this age of information saturation we also need to be discerning.

The mind needs real food, not “twaddle” as Charlotte Mason used to say. She described the best books as “living” because they possess vitality, originality, and interesting ideas that grip you. Real things also feed the mind, so in addition to enjoying books, let’s try and be outdoors as much as possible and make time for activities such as baking, music and art or learning a new skill.

Of course, our primary concern in these anxious days is to support all those adversely affected by the coronavirus. At the same time, children happily remind us that life is irrepressible. Although it feels like our horizons have narrowed, it is not too much to hope that we and our children can yet glimpse expansive new vistas in the weeks ahead.’

The Book of Centuries: Reflections for the New Year

The celebration of a new year gives us an opportunity to mark another milestone in the timeline of history 𐆑 another 365 days completed. Charlotte Mason believed  that the chronology of history formed the framework for much of a child’s education. She wrote, ‘It is a great thing to possess a pageant of history in the background of one’s thoughts…The present becomes enriched for us with the wealth of all that has gone before.’

To help children understand this chronology, early Charlotte Mason educators used a ‘Book of Centuries’ 𐆑 essentially a timeline in a book in which each two-page spread covered one hundred years. One described it in this way: ‘Every child’s “Book of Centuries” should bear witness to “a liberal and generous diet of History.” The children should be free to enter on their pages events and drawings which have interested them in their wide general reading ….As time goes on the pages become fuller, and fascinating historical facts are discovered which shed light on contemporary and consecutive history in each century.’

Heritage pupils learn history in keeping with the same principles; through narration, in chronological order. They also keep a Book of Centuries 𐆑 for Juniors, a small binder divided  into the Ancient World, The Middle Ages and The Modern World 𐆑 to be filled by the pupil over time with written narrations, maps, and pictures. (Years 7 and 8 also keep a more traditional Book of Centuries as part of the Enrichment Programme.) Entries include authors, composers, scientists and artists as well as historical figures. All elements of learning therefore hang together with the timeline, allowing them to make their own connections and providing a visual ‘peg’ to hang their knowledge of history on. Pupils begin to see for themselves the progression of human society, and history becomes a captivating story to remember for a lifetime rather than dry, disconnected names and dates to memorize for an exam.

Again, Charlotte Mason: ‘Let a child have the meat he requires in his history readings, and in the literature which naturally gathers around this history, and imagination will bestir itself without any help of ours; the child will live out in detail a thousand scenes of which he only gets the merest hint.’

A Nativity Concert, Together but Apart

Although unable to gather together as normal for our annual Christmas Concert and Nativity, Heritage families were able to join each other virtually to view a pre-recorded version of the concert during a live Zoom session. Infants acted out the nativity story, with the Head Boy and Head Girl giving the Bible readings. Each class performed a Christmas song.

Nearly 200 families attended the event, which was hosted by Mr Fletcher. Some of our parents shared their thoughts:

The infants’ nativity play was wonderful 𐆑 beautifully acted and adorable costumes!  It was really inspiring to hear the carol singing.  The teachers had obviously done a great job of preparing them so well.
-Rosie Gathercole, Mother of Freddie (Y10)

What a lovely opportunity to see the whole school contributing towards a creative and musical telling of the Christmas story. We enjoyed every moment of the performance.
-Douglas and Katherine Leckie, parents of Eloise and Rose (UP), Arthur (Y3) and Eva (Y5)

Wow, what an evening.  After a term of keeping carefully distant it was such a joy to ‘enter’ school and see the children 𐆑 from the youngest baa-ing sheep to the oldest singers and beat-boxers, all playing their part. It was so special to see screens of children, teachers and grandparents, and together to celebrate making it through this term, our amazing school, and the birth of Jesus.
-Cat Meakin, mother of Benji (Y4) and Izzy (Y6)