Talks to Teachers on Psychology



IN my last paper I treated of the native tendencies of the pupil to react in characteristically definite ways upon different stimuli or exciting circumstances; in fact, I treated of the pupil’s instincts. Now, some situations appeal to special instincts from the very outset, and others fail to do so until the proper connections have been organized in the course of the person’s training. We say of the former set of objects or situations that they are interesting in themselves and originally ; of the latter we say that they are natively uninteresting, and that interest in them has first to be acquired.

No topic has received more attention from pedagogical writers than that of interest. It is the natural sequel to the instincts we so lately discussed, and it is therefore well fitted to be the next subject which we take up.


Some objects, then, are natively interesting. In others interest is artificially acquired. The teacher must deal with both kinds of objects, and must know which the natively interesting ones are ; for, as we shall see immediately, other objects can artificially acquire an interest only through first becoming associated with some of these natively interesting things.

The native interests of children lie altogether in the sphere of sensation. Novel things to look at or novel sounds to hear, especially when they involve the spectacle of action of a violent sort, will always divert the attention from abstract conceptions of objects, verbally taken in. The grimace that Johnny is making, the spitballs that Tommy is ready to throw, the dog fight in the street, or the distant firebells ringing,— these are the rivals with which the teacher’s powers of being interesting have incessantly to cope. The child will always attend more to what a teacher does than to what the same teacher says : during the performance of experiments or while the teacher is drawing on the blackboard, the children are tranquil and absorbed. I have seen a roomful of college students suddenly become perfectly still, to look at their professor of physics tie a piece of string around a stick which he was going to use in an experiment, but immediately grow restless when he began to explain the experiment. A lady told me that one day, during a lesson, she was delighted at having captured so completely the attention of one of her young charges. He did not remove his eyes from her face ; but he said to her after the lesson was over, “ I looked at you all the time, and your upper jaw did not move once ! ” That was the only fact that he had taken in.

Living things, then, moving things, or things that savor of danger or of blood, that have a dramatic quality, — these are the objects natively interesting to childhood, to the exclusion of almost everything else; and the teacher of young children, until more artificial interests have grown up, will keep in touch with her pupils by constant appeal to such matters as these. Instruction must be carried on objectively, experimentally, anecdotally. The blackboarddrawing and story-telling must constantly come in. But of course these methods cover only the first steps, and carry one but a little way.

Can we now formulate any general principle by which the later and more artificial interests connect themselves with these early ones that the child brings with him to the school?

Fortunately, we can ; there is a very simple law that relates the acquired and the native interests with each other.

Any object not interesting in itself may become interesting through becoming associated with an object in which an interest already exists. The two associated objects grow, as it were, together ; the interesting portion sheds its quality over the whole; and thus things not interesting in their own right borrow an interest which becomesas real and as strong as that of any natively interesting thing. The odd circumstance is that the borrowing does not impoverish the source ; the objects taken together being more interesting, perhaps, than the originally interesting portion was by itself.

Any one will immediately understand this abstract statement by the most frequent of concrete examples, — the interest which things borrow from their connection with our own personal welfare. The most natively interesting object to a man is his own personal self and its fortunes. We accordingly see that the moment a thing becomes connected with the fortunes of the self, it instantly becomes an interesting thing. Lend the child his books, pencils, and other apparatus ; then give them to him, make them his own, and notice the new light with which they shine in his eyes at once. He takes a new kind of care of them altogether. In mature life, all the drudgery of a man’s business or profession, intolerable in itself, is shot through with engrossing significance, because he knows it to be associated with his personal fortunes. What more deadly uninteresting object can there be than a railroad time-table? Yet where will you find a more interesting object if you are going on a journey, and by its means can find your train ? At such times the time-table will absorb a man’s entire attention ; its interest being borrowed solely from its relation to his personal life. From all these facts there emerges a very simple abstract programme for the teacher to follow in keeping the attention of the child: Begin with the line of his native interests, and offer him objects that have some immediate connection with these. The kindergarten methods, the object-teaching routine, the blackboard and manual-training work, — all recognize this feature. Schools in which these methods preponderate are schools where discipline is easy, and where the voice of the master claiming order and attention in thundering tones need never be heard.

Next, step by step, connect with these first objects and experiences the later objects and ideas which you wish to instill. Associate the new with the old in some natural and telling way, so that the interest, being shed along from point to point, finally suffuses the entire system of objects of thought.

This is the abstract statement; and, abstractly, nothing can be easier to understand. It is in the fulfillment of the rule that the difficulty lies ; for the difference between an interesting and a tedious teacher consists in little more than the inventiveness by which the one is able to mediate these associations and connections, and in the dullness in discovering such transitions which the other shows. One teacher’s mind will fairly coruscate with points of connection between the new lesson and the circumstances of the children’s other experience. Anecdotes and reminiscences will abound in her talk, and the shuttle of interest will shoot backward and forward, weaving the new and the old together in a lively and entertaining way. Another teacher has no such inventive fertility, and his lesson will always be a dead and heavy thing. This is the psychological meaning of the Herbartian principle of “preparation ” for each lesson, and of correlating the new with the old. It is the psychological meaning of that whole method of concentration in studies of which you have been recently hearing so much. When the geography and English and history and arithmetic simultaneously make cross-references to one another, you get an interesting set of processes all along the line.

If, then, you wish to insure the interest of your pupils, there is only one way to do it, and that is to make certain that they have something in their minds to attend with when you begin to talk. That something can consist in nothing but a previous lot of ideas already interesting in themselves, and of such a nature that the incoming novel objects which you present can dovetail into them and form with them some kind of a logically associated or systematic whole. Fortunately, almost any kind of a connection is sufficient to carry the interest along. What a help is our Philippine war at present in teaching geography ! But before the war you could ask the children if they ate pepper with their eggs, and where they supposed the pepper came from. Or ask them if glass is a stone, and if not, why not; and then tell them how stones are formed and glass manufactured. External links will serve as well as those that are deeper and more logical. But interest once shed upon a subject is liable to remain always with that subject. Our acquisitions become in a measure portions of our personal self; and little by little, as cross-associations multiply and habits of familiarity and practice grow, the entire system of our objects of thought consolidates, most of it becoming interesting for some purposes and in some degree.

An adult man’s interests are almost every one of them intensely artificial ; they have slowly been built up. The objects of professional interest are, most of them, in their original nature, repulsive ; but by their connection with such natively exciting objects as one’s personal fortune, one’s social responsibilities, and especially by the force of inveterate habit, they grow to be the only things for which, in middle life, a man profoundly cares. But in all these the spread and consolidation have followed nothing but the principles first laid down. If we could recall for a moment our whole individual history, we should see that our professional ideals and all the zeal they inspire are due to nothing but the slow accretion of one mental object to another, traceable backward from point to point till we reach the moment when, in the nursery or in the schoolroom, some little story told, some little object shown, some little operation witnessed, brought the first new object and new interest within our ken by associating it with some one of those primitively there. The interest now suffusing the whole system took its rise in that little event, so insignificant to us now as to be entirely forgotten. As the bees in swarming cling to one another in layers, till the few are reached whose feet grapple the bough from which the swarm depends, so with the objects of our thinking, — they hang to one another by associated links, but the original source of interest in all of them is the native interest which the earliest one once possessed.


Whoever treats of interest inevitably treats of attention ; for to say that an object is interesting is only another way of saying that it excites attention. But in addition to the attention which an object already interesting or an object just becoming interesting claims — passive attention or spontaneous attention, we may call it — there is a more deliberate attention, voluntary attention or attention with effort, as it is called, which we can give to objects less interesting or uninteresting in themselves. The distinction between active and passive attention is made in all books on psychology, and connects itself with the deeper aspects of the topic. From our present purely practical point of view, however, it is not necessary to be intricate, and passive attention to natively interesting material requires no further elucidation on this occasion. All that we need explicitly to note is that the more the passive attention is relied on, by keeping the material interesting, and the less the kind of attention requiring effort is appealed to, the more smoothly and pleasantly the class-room work goes on. I must say a few more words, however, about this latter process of voluntary and deliberate attention.

One often hears it said that genius is nothing but a power of sustained attention ; and the popular impression probably prevails that men of genius are remarkable for their voluntary powers in this direction. But a little introspective observation will show any one that voluntary attention cannot be continuously sustained ; that it comes in beats. When we are studying an uninteresting subject, if our mind tends to wander, we have to bring back our attention every now and then by using distinct pulses of effort which revivify the topic for a moment, the mind then running on for a certain number of seconds or minutes with spontaneous interest, until again some intercurrent idea captures it and takes it off. Then the processes of volitional recall must be repeated once more. Voluntary attention, in short, is only a momentary affair. The process, whatever it is, exhausts itself in the single act; and unless the matter is then taken in hand by some trace of interest inherent in the subject, the mind fails to follow it at all. The sustained attention of the genius, sticking to his subject for hours together, is for the most part of the passive sort. The minds of geniuses are full of copious and original associations. The subject of thought, once started, develops all sorts of fascinating consequences; the attention is led along one of these to another in the most interesting manner, and the attention never once tends to stray away. In a commonplace mind, on the other hand, a subject develops much less numerous associates ; it dies out, then, quickly ; and if the man is to keep up thinking of it at all, he must bring his attention back to it by a violent wrench. In him, therefore, the faculty of voluntary attention receives abundant opportunity for cultivation in daily life. It is your despised business man, your common man of affairs (so looked down on by the literary awarders of fame), whose virtue in this regard is likely to be most developed; for he has to listen to the concerns of so many uninteresting people, and transacts so much drudging detail, that the faculty in question is always kept in training. A genius, on the contrary, is the man in whom you are least likely to find the power of attending to anything insipid or distasteful in itself; he breaks his engagements, leaves his letters unanswered, neglects his family duties incorrigibly, because he is powerless to divert his attention from those more interesting trains of imagery with which his genius constantly occupies his mind.

Voluntary attention is thus an essentially instantaneous affair. You can claim it, for your purposes in the schoolroom, by commanding it in loud, imperious tones, and you can easily get it in this way. But unless the subject to which you thus recall their attention has inherent power to interest the pupils, you will have got it only for a brief moment, and their minds will soon be wandering again. To keep them where you have called them, you must make the subject too interesting for them to wander again. And for that there is one prescription: but the prescription, like all our prescriptions, is abstract, and to get practical results from it you must couple it with mother-wit.

The prescription is that the subject must be made to show new aspects of itself; to prompt new questions; in a word, to change. From an unchanging subject the attention inevitably wanders away. You can test this by the simplest possible case of sensorial attention. Try to attend steadfastly to a dot on the paper or on the wall. You presently find that one or the other of two things has happened : either your field of vision has become blurred, so that you now see nothing distinct at all; or else you have involuntarily ceased to look at the dot in question, and are looking at something else. But if you ask yourself successive questions about the dot, — how big it is, how far, of what shape, what shade of color, etc. ; in other words, if you turn it over, if you think of it in various ways and along with various kinds of associate, you can keep your mind on it for a comparatively long time. This is what the genius does, in whose hands a given topic coruscates and grows. And this is what the teacher must do for every topic, if he wishes to avoid too frequent appeals to voluntary attention of the coerced sort. In all respects, reliance upon such attention as this is a wasteful method, bringing bad temper and nervous wear and tear as well as imperfect results. The teacher who can get along by keeping spontaneous interest excited must be regarded as the teacher with most skill.

There is, however, in all schoolroom work a large mass of material that must be dull and unexciting, and to which it is impossible in any continuous way to contribute an interest associatively derived. There are, therefore, certain external methods, which every teacher knows, of voluntarily arousing the attention from time to time and keeping it upon the subject. Mr. Fitch has a lecture on the art of securing attention, and he briefly passes these methods in review: The posture must be changed ; places can be changed. Questions, after being answered singly, may occasionally be answered in concert; elliptical questions may be asked, the pupil supplying the missing word. The teacher must pounce upon the most listless child, and wake him. The habit of prompt and ready response must be kept up; recapitulations, illustrations, examples, novelty of order, and ruptures of routine, — all these are means for keeping the attention alive and contributing a little interest to a dull subject. Above all, the teacher must himself be alive and ready, and must use the contagion of his own example.

But when all is said and done, the fact remains that some teachers have a naturally inspiring presence and can make their exercises interesting, while others simply cannot. Here psychology and general pedagogy confess their failure, and hand things over to the deeper springs of human personality to conduct the task.

A brief reference to the physiological theory of the attentive process may serve still further to elucidate these practical remarks, and confirm them by showing them from a slightly different point of view.

What is the attentive process psychologically considered ? Attention to an object is what takes place whenever that object most completely occupies the mind. For simplicity’s sake, suppose the object to be an object of sensation, — a figure approaching us at a distance on the road. It is far off, barely perceptible, and hardly moving ; we do not know with certainty whether it is a man or not. Such an object as this, if carelessly looked at, may hardly catch our attention at all; the optical impression may affect solely the marginal consciousness, whilst the mental focus keeps engaged with rival things. We may indeed not “ see ” it till some one points it out. But if so, how does he point it out ? By his finger, and by describing its appearance, — by creating a premonitory image of where to look, and of what to expect to see. This premonitory image is already an excitement of the same nerve centres that are to be concerned with the impression. The impression comes and excites them still further; and now the object enters the focus of the field, consciousness being sustained both by impression and by preliminary idea. But the maximum of attention to it is not yet reached. Although we see it, we may not care for it; it may suggest nothing important to us ; and a rival stream of objects or of thoughts may quickly take our mind away. If, however, our companion defines it in a significant way, arouses in the mind a set of experiences to be apprehended from it, — names it as an enemy or as a messenger of important tidings, — the residual and marginal ideas now aroused, so far from being its rivals, become its associates and allies ; they shoot together into one system with it ; they converge upon it; they keep it steadily in focus ; the mind attends to it with maximum power.

The attentive process, therefore, at its maximum may be physiologically symbolized by a brain-cell played on in two ways, — from without and from within. Incoming currents from the periphery arouse it, and collateral currents from the centres of memory and imagination reinforce these.

In this process, the incoming impression is the newer element, the ideas which reinforce and sustain it are among the older possessions of the mind. And the maximum of attention may then be said to be found whenever we have a systematic harmony or unification between the novel and the old. It is an odd circumstance that neither the old nor the new, by itself, is interesting : the absolutely old is insipid ; the absolutely new makes no appeal at all. The old in the new is what claims the attention, — the old with a slightly new turn. No one wants to hear a lecture on a subject completely disconnected with his previous knowledge, but all of us enjoy lectures on subjects of which we know a little already; just as in the fashions, every year must bring its slight modification of last year’s suit, but an abrupt jump from the fashion of one decade into that of another would be distasteful to the eye.

The genius of the interesting teacher consists in sympathetic divination of the sort of material with which the pupil’s mind is likely to be already spontaneously engaged, and in the ingenuity which discovers paths of connection from that material to the matters to be newly learned. The principle is easy to grasp, but the accomplishment is difficult in the extreme. And a knowledge of such psychology as this which I am recalling can no more make a good teacher than a knowledge of the laws of perspective can make a landscape painter of effective skill.

A certain doubt may now occur to some of you. Awhile ago, apropos of the pugnacious instinct, I spoke of our modern pedagogy as being possibly too “soft.” You may perhaps here face me with my own words, and ask whether the exclusive effort on the teacher’s part to keep the pupil’s spontaneous interest going, and to avoid the more strenuous path of voluntary attention to repulsive work, does not savor also of sentimentalism. The greater part of schoolroom work, you say, must in the nature of things be repulsive. To face uninteresting drudgery is a good part of life’s work; why seek to eliminate it from the schoolroom, or minimize the sterner law ?

A word or two will obviate what might perhaps become a serious misunderstanding here.

It is certain that most schoolroom work, till it has become habitual and automatic, is repulsive, and cannot be done without voluntarily jerking back the attention to it every now and then. This is inevitable, let the teacher do what he will. It flows from the inherent nature of the subjects and of the learning mind. The repulsive processes of verbal memorizing, of discovering steps of mathematical identity, and the like, must borrow their interest at first from purely external sources, mainly from the personal interests with which success in mastering them is associated ; such as gaining of rank, avoiding punishment, not being beaten by a difficulty, and the like. Without such borrowed interest the child could not attend to them at all. But in these processes what becomes interesting enough to be attended to is not thereby attended to without effort. Effort always has to go on, — derived interest for the most part not awakening attention that is easy, however spontaneous it may now have to be called. The interest which the teacher, by his utmost skill, can lend to the subject proves over and over again to be only an interest sufficient to let loose the effort. The teacher, therefore, need never concern himself about inventing occasions where effort must be called into play. Let him still awaken whatever sources of interest in the subject he can by stirring up connections between it and the pupil’s nature, whether in the line of theoretic curiosity, of personal interest, or of pugnacious impulse. The laws of mind will then bring enough pulses of effort into play to keep the pupil exercised in the subject’s direction. There is, in fact, no greater school of effort than the steady struggle to attend to immediately repulsive or difficult objects of thought which have grown interesting through their association, as means, with some remote ideal end.

The Herbartian doctrine of interest ought not, therefore, in principle, to be reproached with making pedagogy soft. If it do so, it is because it is unintelligently carried on. Do not, then, for the mere sake of discipline, command attention from your pupils in thundering tones ; do not too often beg it from them as a favor, nor claim it as a right, nor try habitually to excite it by preaching the importance of the subject. Sometimes, indeed, you must do these things ; but the more you have to do them, the less skillful teacher you will show yourself to be. Elicit interest from within, by the warmth with which you care for the topic yourself and by following the laws I have laid down. If the topic be highly abstract, show its nature by concrete examples ; if it be unfamiliar, trace some point of analogy in it with the known ; if it be inhuman, make it figure as part of a story ; if it he difficult, couple its acquisition with some prospect of personal gain. Above all things, make sure that it shall run through certain inner changes, since no unvarying object can possibly hold the mental field for long. Let your pupil wander from one aspect to another of your subject, if you do not wish him to wander from it altogether to something else ; variety in unity being the secret of all interesting talk and thought. The relation of all these things to the native genius of the instructor is too obvious to need comment again.

One more point, and I am done with the subject of attention. There is undoubtedly a great native variety among individuals in the type of their attention. Some of us are naturally scatter-brained, and others follow easily a train of connected thoughts without temptation to swerve aside to other subjects. This seems to depend on a difference between individuals in the type of their field of consciousness. In some persons this is highly focalized and concentrated, and the focal ideas predominate in determining association. In others we must suppose the margin to be brighter, and to be filled with something like meteoric showers of images, which strike into it at random, displacing the focal ideas, and carrying association in their own direction. Persons of the latter type find their attention wandering every minute, and must bring it back by a voluntary pull. The others sink into a subject of meditation deeply, and when interrupted are “lost” for a moment before they come back to the outer world. The possession of such a steady faculty of attention is unquestionably a great boon. Those who have it can work more rapidly, and with less nervous wear and tear. I am inclined to think that no one who is without it naturally can by any amount of drill or discipline attain it in a very high degree. Its amount is probably a fixed characteristic of the individual. But I wish to make a remark here which I shall have occasion to make again in other connections. It is that no one need deplore unduly the inferiority in himself of any one elementary faculty. This concentrated type of attention is an elementary faculty ; it is one of the things that might be ascertained and measured by exercises in the laboratory. But having ascertained it in a number of persons, we could never rank them in a scale of actual and practical mental efficiency based on its degrees. The total mental efficiency of a man is the resultant of the working together of all his faculties; he is too complex a being for any one of them to have the casting vote. If any one of them do have the casting vote, it is more likely to be the strength of desire and passion, the strength of the interest he takes in what is proposed. Concentration, memory, reasoning power, inventiveness, excellence of the senses, — all are subsidiary to this. No matter how scatter-brained the type of a man’s successive fields of consciousness may he, if he really care for a subject, he will return to it incessantly from his incessant wanderings, and, first and last, do more with it and get more results from it than one whose attention may be more continuous during a given interval, but whose passion for the subject is of a more languid and less permanent sort. Some of the most efficient workers I know are of the ultra-scatter-brained type. One friend, who does a prodigious quantity of work, has in fact confessed to me that if he wants to get ideas on any subject he sits down to work at something else, his best results coming through his mind wanderings. This is perhaps an epigrammatic exaggeration on his part; but I seriously think that no one of us need be too much distressed at his own shortcomings in this regard. Our mind may enjoy but little comfort, may be restless and feel confused, but it may be extremely efficient, all the same.

William James.