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Those Juniors, Part 8: Which Comes First?

by Eric B. Hare

Last week: A teacher and instructor must take great pains to avoid the “specter of crude humor” in his pupils. Students are grouped into two categories, and within these two there are many variations. One must approach his class in a way that will reach and touch all students.

"Attention may be described as a concentration of consciousness upon any idea.” “Interest is the pleasure-pain tone that accompanies attention.”* These are typical definitions to be found in psychology books, but ordinary individuals are very little the wiser after reading such definitions, and continue to confuse attention with interest in both their thinking and their speaking. What is attention? What is interest? Here is an analogy which will make it plain and enable you to differentiate between these words always—


Interest is to attention as thirst is to drinking. At once we recognize that thirst is the force that makes us drink, and drinking is the attitude whereby liquid is introduced into the body. Similarly, interest is the force—the thirst of the mind—and attention is the attitude whereby knowledge is introduced into the mind. Interest and attention are certainly not synonymous. We might give attention to something in which we are not interested, and we could be inattentive to something that was very interesting. However, it is plain that there is a relation between them and that there can be no learning without attention for—


Attention is to the mind as drinking is to the body. Let us, therefore, carefully note the different kinds of attention.

Involuntary or Spontaneous Attention

There are two kinds of attention which are effortless, that is, involuntary or spontaneous. We hear someone walk into the room; how natural to look up or turn around! We see someone dart in front of us; how eagerly we follow him with our eyes! We smell the toast burning; how quickly we shout for someone to attend to it! We feel something crawling on our necks and we scratch or yell in spite of ourselves. The attention we give to these things, which excite the primitive senses, we call—
  1. Primitive spontaneous attention.

On the other hand we might be so interested in a book, a piece of music, a picture, a study, that nothing would interrupt us. We would continue to give heed to the matter which was so interesting. Because this attention builds up the apperception of the mind, that is, adds more facts and more ideas to its store of knowledge, it is called—
  1. Apperceptive spontaneous attention.


Voluntary, or Forced, Attention

There is an attention which we give only with effort. The leader calls, “Atten-tion,” and we snap to attention, but there is nothing interesting about it. We have to make ourselves stand up straight and click our heels together. But how long could we stand in that position? The leader calls again, “Eyes right,” and we force ourselves to turn our heads toward the right. But how long could we force ourselves into this position before we were weary and restless? This attention is called voluntary, or forced, attention, and though the length of time during which we can force the attention increases with maturity, it is always short and is very hard work.

It is clear, then, that the attention we want to attract is the apperceptive spontaneous attention, which requires little effort (on the part of the pupil) and which is the attitude which results in feeding the mind with knowledge.

I can drop a coin or clap my hands; immediately all eyes will be on me (primitive spontaneous attention), but if what I do next is not interesting, it will do neither me nor my pupils any good to go on dropping coins or clapping my hands.

I can call, “Attention, boys! Quiet, boys!” and for a few seconds they respond (forced attention), but if what I say next or do next is not interesting, what profit will it be for me to keep on saying, “Attention!” “Attention!” “Quiet, boys!” “No speaking, boys!” So then, it is plainly evident that the spontaneous apperceptive attention which I want my pupils to have depends entirely upon interest.



When a reward is offered for learning the memory verses for a quarter, the interest shown in those memory verses is most likely mediate interest. The thing they really want is the reward; the interest in the memory verses is a means to an end. If in the course of the study of the memory verses it develops that in those verses is something the pupil wants, and instead of studying for the reward he studies for the verses themselves, then the interest in them is immediate interest, that is not a means to an end.

Most people study their Sabbath school lessons every day for the joy of learning something, for the comfort and delight there is in perceiving God’s voice in the Word of God. This is immediate interest—an interest in the lesson for the lesson’s sake. You know, however, that there are a few here and there who study their Sabbath school lessons every day to get a perfect-record ribbon. This is mediate interest, and what a fuss they make if it does not result in a ribbon.

In our Missionary Volunteer progressive work we offer tokens and insignia for certain classwork, and it is the joy and delight of Missionary Volunteer leaders to see the interest kindled with the tokens and insignia, then to see the student swallowed up in the nature classes and hobbies because of the study’s own interest. We should always keep in mind that the interest we are working for is the immediate interest—the interest in the thing itself for its own sake.

It is perfectly proper for us to use rewards with a view to developing this interest if we offer rewards to all reaching a certain standard. If we follow the worldly pattern of offering a prize to the highest one in the room or class, you will find that not only are envy and jealousy engendered, but rarely if ever is the interest changed from mediate to immediate.
Now that we know which interest and which attention we want, how can we go about attracting it?


Which Comes First—Interest or Attention?

In the minds of many this question is like the age-old problem, “Does the dog run because a tin can tied on his tail rattles, or does the tin can rattle because the dog runs?” Surely we give attention to the things in which we are interested, and we are usually interested in the things to which we pay attention. But which comes first? Following out our analogy, we see that it is natural to be thirsty first and then to drink, and so we find it to be true that if there is an interest, we can always get attention.

But if there is no interest, then what? Can attention ever beget interest? Let us see.

On the blackboard I write a period (.). Then I say, “Attention, class! All eyes this way! Everybody pay attention to this period!” The backs straighten, the eyes look—this is voluntary, or forced, attention. “Now, isn’t this period interesting, class?” All I get is a chorus of “No’s.”

Let me try again. I will stop suddenly in my class, pull out a drawer, frantically hunt for something, pull out another drawer, and finally locate a piece of chalk. Without a word I hold it up before the class, let it fall so that it breaks, pick it up, go to the board, and with resolution write a period (.), then stand there pointing to it. Of course, I have their eyes—they can’t help it; they are giving me their primitive spontaneous attention.

“Isn’t this period interesting, class?” I ask, but the answer is still “No.”

I try again. “Will you give me your attention for a moment, class? All eyes on this period which I have written on the board! No talking in the back seats, please! This is one of the most important marks of punctuation. It is used to mark the completion of a sentence or thought. Although it is but a mere dot fortunes have been made and lost by its misuse or its omission. It is told that a certain well-to-do man sent his broker to England to buy up certain valuable stocks. On his arrival the broker found the stocks so high that he hesitated to buy, so cabled his manager, quoting the price and asking whether he should buy. The manager cabled in reply, ‘No. Price too high.’ In some way the period was omitted, and the cable read, ‘No price too high.’ He bought the stocks, and the manager nearly went bankrupt. Now, class, was that interesting?” There is a chorus of “Yes, yes.”

Now, just what happened?

First came the response with forced voluntary attention, but before it had a chance to flag, I produced something that was interesting. One by one the class relaxed as the attention changed from forced voluntary into apperceptive spontaneous, and then it was interesting. What have we discovered then? That naturally interest begets attention and that only apperceptive spontaneous attention can produce interest.

(Next week: “Becoming Interesting.”)

John Adams, Primer on Teaching, pp. 32, 34.

Copyright © 1973 by Eric B. Hare. Used by permission.

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