I began to explore the phenomenon of attention in an earlier post. Here, I want to begin to unpack the significance of attention in learning, and fold in a few related ideas.

(A nod to Dr. Maria Montessori, the patron saint of children’s attention, is in order, as most of the terms preceding the improvised graphics have been collected through a Montessori-informed filter.)


I like Merriam-Webster’s definition of attention: “a selective focusing of receptivity.”

I want to add to that and say that engagement is a special form of attention, defined as “conscious interaction with the object of one’s attention.”

Engagement occurs along a continuum of volition (what Montessori referred to as will) – that is, an axis reflecting greater or lesser exertion of the will on the direction of attention.

We could say the Volition Continuum ranges from: the Stimulus-driven attention (e.g.: shiny object head turn) on one end, to volition-driven or Disciplined attention (say: brain surgery) on the other end.

Volition Continuum.01

Dr. Montessori proposed that the role of the adult in the education of the child is to assist the child in achieving independence and autonomous efficacy in the world.

If we embraced this objective, the primary goal of education (far more than imparting content) would be to help children develop their sense of purpose and will – to help them build the capacity to self-organize by directing their attention with increasing deliberation and intention.

The Volition Continuum, then, needs to be constructed with two sources of purpose at the poles: autonomous purpose, which arises in the self (self-discipline), and heteronomous purpose, which originates with the will of an other (coercion). It’s not just a question of how much will is exerted, but of whose will is exerted.

Auto.hetero.Volition Continuum.01

This is big. It’s at the very heart of the paradigm shift that Dr. Montessori defined for educators. To frame it differently:

The development of the human juvenile toward independent adult functioning occurs through the advancement and refinement of the capacity to intend, to direct, and to discipline attention to, and engagement with, the environment. 

Seen from this perspective, attention or engagement that is externally imposed, or coerced stymies the development of the individual’s self-directing and self-organizing capacity.

To the extent that schools reward students for being responsive to external forms of control, they can not simultaneously help young people develop strength and facility in self management.

Imposing a standardized curriculum can only delay – rather than hasten – young people’s liberation from dependence.