Focus vs. Blur: Multi-Sensory Learning, Motivated Focus, & The Mass: Pt. II


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

How Does the Complete Mass Build Motivated Focus?
How Does the Minimal Mass Induce Blur?

Motivated vs. Coerced Focus

In order to clarify the reasons why the “complete Mass”[1] is highly beneficial to the people, but the “minimal Mass”[2] is much less so, it will be helpful to take a look at the differences between motivated and coerced learning—again, starting with examples from the educational realm.

Motivated focus is a habit built by effective instructional methods.  The right kind of practice helps it to become strong and sustainable for long periods of time.  Eventually the student acquires the virtue of self-motivation.  The growth process starts when the student freely chooses to develop his motivated focus, one tiny increment at a time, under his instructor’s guidance.  The quality and precision of the student’s memory storage and retrieval gradually improve, along with his grasp of the Big Picture.

In contrast, focus can be coerced for brief periods by either authoritarian or progressive methods:  strict discipline plus punishments, or fun n’ games.  Both are equally ineffective, lead to bad habits, leave the student dependent on the instructor, and contribute to weakness of the intellect and will.  Inevitably, coerced focus deteriorates into blur.

The Authoritarian Version of Coerced Focus

Authoritarian methods make students feel anxious and resentful; eventually, they may rebel.  Negative emotions interfere with memory storage so while the students learn something, they also learn to hate what they learn.  Authoritarian methods include over-reliance on deduction:  arid reasoning from first principles to logical consequences, with inadequate examples, practical applications, questions, discussion, or opportunities for the right kinds of personal practice.  Spaced repetition is misunderstood as drill, and the more drill, the better.   Curiously, the excessively deductive structure of the presentation, combined with rote memorization of details, interferes with students achieving a holistic grasp of the Big Picture.  The details and the Big Picture remain disjointed, resulting in disorganized storage in memory.  The Big Picture and the details can be recited on command, but not for long.  Almost everything except the memory of negative emotions is forgotten right after the exam.  Strangely, authoritarian methods are often characterized as the royal road to academic excellence, even though the actual results tend to be poor.

Example:  Professor Z’s economics class

Prof. Z taught Economics 101 at 8:00 AM on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, in a large lecture hall with tiered stadium seating.  He found it quite annoying that many freshmen did not appreciate the nuances of economic theory as they ought, especially those students who had indulged in a late evening prior to his class and who looked a bit green around the gills.  A varsity baseball pitcher in his youth, Prof. Z still had a keen eye and a strong arm, although his hair was white.  Prof. Z’s classroom had never been updated and he still used chalk on his blackboard, plus felt erasers, and made it a point to keep at least ten erasers handy at all times.  If he spotted a student who’d nodded off, Prof. Z let fly with an eraser and hit his mark without fail.  The sleepy student jerked awake as the eraser clouted him upside the head and sneezed as the cloud of chalk dust billowed around him.  Everyone tittered.  Then Prof. Z turned his back on the class and drew a complicated graph on the blackboard, all the while mumbling about the “kinked demand curve under conditions of oligopoly administered pricing”.  Every student remembered Prof Z’s unerring aim, but only the few with the most interest in economics and the most aptitude for analytical thinking remembered anything about the graph or Prof. Z’s explanation.  Every semester, about half the class flunked economics.

The Progressive Version of Coerced Focus

Progressive methods can be a lot of fun, at least at first, but before long, social chaos and intellectual confusion overwhelm the fun.  The progressive teacher pushes students from one activity to another.  The coercion lies in the arbitrary nature of the activities that don’t seem to add up to anything comprehensible.  By its nature, memory demands intellectual structure. Students learn very little, and may like their teachers without respecting them. Progressive methods include over-reliance on inductive methods:  random experiences and emotional associations are supposed to build upwards into abstract concepts, although this seldom happens in reality.  The curriculum is a mile wide and an inch deep.  Spaced repetition is misunderstood as drill, and therefore avoided as authoritarian.  Progressive methods tend to disregard the entire question of academic excellence, since the emphasis is on each student’s individuality and autonomy.  Excellence means that some results are better than others, which feels authoritarian.

Example:  Prof. A’s class on instructional methods for elementary school mathematics

Meanwhile, over at the School of Education, things are entirely different.  Prof. A’s mission is to prepare college students seeking an elementary school teacher’s credential for their upcoming student teaching assignments.  In contrast to the austere Prof. Z, Prof. A is charming, warm, and friendly.  He appreciates that authoritarian instructional methods don’t work very well but has gone to the opposite extreme.  He is renowned in education circles as an expert on the theory and practice of constructivist mathematics education.  He’s written many learned papers on the subject and served on his state education commission’s advisory board.  Constructivist math education is based on the precept that each child needs to construct his or her own understanding of each mathematical concept.  (No, I’m not making this up.  Constructivist math education bears considerable responsibility for the decline in national numeracy.)  Accordingly, math teachers should not explain or demonstrate anything, but instead should create situations and experiences where groups of children work together to create their own math concepts and calculation methods.  To avoid the authoritarianism inherent in actually teaching math, every child should be given the tools to make himself or herself into a little Euclid.  When state academic achievement tests revealed that children taught math through constructivist methods scored “below basic”, Prof. A blamed the results on “problems in our society”.

Prof. Z and Prof. A may seem like opposites, but actually they have much in common.  Neither is an effective educator.  Both have ideological blinders firmly in place, so neither observes his actual students or thinks about what he could do to help more students achieve better outcomes.  Neither asks, “What do my students actually need from me, and how can I provide it?”  Even though both professors have good intentions, neither helps his students achieve motivated focus. Both professors take a lopsided approach:  they’re both half right, but unbalanced.  Prof. Z places excessive reliance of deduction and omits opportunities for inductive reasoning from various forms of sensory experience.  Prof. A places excessive reliance on sensory and social experiences in the hope that his students will construct the necessary concepts through inductive reasoning, so he deliberately avoids explaining the Big Picture.

Prof. Z’s approach is similar to the way the “old Church” taught catechism prior to Vatican II.  Whether or not we believe it to be accurate, the characterization of the old Church as authoritarian and clergy-centered remains quite widespread.  The catechetical methods favored by the old Church were one thing; the beauty and power of the traditional Latin Mass was another.  Many people may well have come to resent the way they were taught catechism while still finding spiritual inspiration in the beauty of the traditional Mass.

In contrast, Prof. A’s approach has much in common with the Church of the 1970s and 1980s. Reforms done in the name of Vatican II caused confusion and distress—the after-effects of which are still very much with us.  The well-intentioned blunders of the 1970s and 1980s live on in minimalist parishes.  The retreat from authoritarian catechetical methods spilled over into the way Mass was celebrated. Contrary to the norms established by the Vatican II Fathers, liturgical features that functioned as vitally-important opportunities for multi-sensory learning were discarded in favor of the minimalist approach which at the time seemed more democratic and contemporary.  Unfortunately, minimalism causes blur, and the obvious passivity of the people makes parish leaders uncomfortable.  Coerced focus in the progressive mode becomes the default setting in a minimalist parish, with bright lights, loud amplification, pop music, jokes and ad libs—anything to get the people to wake up and pay attention.

Motivated Focus:  Gateway to Active Participation

With this foundation in place, we can see why the “complete Mass,” which builds up motivated focus, is so much more effective at reaching people than the “minimal” Mass, with its invariable tendency to resort to authoritarian or progressive modes of coerced focus.

During a complete Mass, multi-sensory learning and spaced repetition help lay people achieve motivated focus, which is the gateway to “full, active, and conscious participation”. The will is committed to attentiveness; attentiveness builds strong long-term memory, and the intellect organizes memory according to the Big Picture.  The more that motivated focus becomes a habit, the stronger the memory and the more available memories become for retrieval. Organized memory contributes to intellectual, emotional, and spiritual understanding and belief, resulting in high levels of commitment to the Faith.

As the Mass unfolds, each learning style becomes primary for a short time, but the others will not be neglected for long.  If anyone’s motivated focus begins to drift toward blur, something happens to bring him back, even if it’s as small as a simple bow at the Name of Jesus.  The ongoing  “trialog” among the priest, the choir, and the people is especially beneficial in keeping everyone focused and together.   The more united the congregation becomes in adhering to these practices, the better most people will succeed in maintaining motivated focus.  Conversely, the more these practices are neglected, the more likely that many people will lapse into blur.

A complete Holy Mass depends on the fullness of the art of celebration, not only on the part of the priest, but also on the parts of the choir, the altar servers and other liturgical assistants, and the people.  The fullness of the art of celebration is the same thing, in practical terms, as providing the people with a steady stream of multi-sensory learning opportunities.  This concept applies with equal force to the OF and the EF.  As Benedict XVI taught us, the fullness of celebration reveals the continuity between the two forms.  In a complete OF Mass, the total worship experience adheres closely to the vision of the Vatican II Fathers.  Examples are available as YouTube videos provided by the Monks of Norcia. In an EF High Mass, the total worship experience adheres closely to the great tradition.  People who experience an EF High Mass for the first time are often electrified by its beauty and power, even if they don’t understand much of what’s happening or why:  “So this is what the Catholic Church is really all about!  Who knew?” Best of all, whether in the OF or EF, a complete Holy Mass encourages the virtue of reverence, the honor and respect given to the holy things and people of God.

Blur:  Gateway to Passive Disengagement

The minimal Mass tends to induce blur, a state of passivity, mental drift, confusion, and disengagement.  Blur is the opposite of active participation, and the fundamental reason why the minimal Mass is much less successful in building long-term memory and commitment to the Faith.  When people are stuck in a state of blur, their wills waver and cannot fully commit to attentiveness.  The topic at hand seems unimportant, not worth the effort required for focus.  Intellectual muddle results, with a vague and poorly understood Big Picture characterized by a disorganized relationship between the parts and the whole.  In short, blur is a compact way of saying that someone “just doesn’t get it.”

Blur causes understanding and belief to remain underdeveloped and reverence to diminish.   If we’re concerned about the spiritual state of millions of nominal or lapsed Catholics, it’s necessary to examine why the minimal Mass bears part of the responsibility for failure.

In the final part of this series, we will look at some concrete examples of minimalist-induced blur and the authentically Catholic alternative of maximal worship, in both OF or EF celebrations.



[1] A definition, from Part 1 of this series: “A complete Mass, whether in the OF or the EF, provides worshippers with the ultimate expression of multi-sensory learning, because it includes all the bells and smells, liturgical gestures, liturgical vesture, plus sacred music, art, and architecture.  Spaced repetition reinforces multi-sensory learning: the people repeat important sensory experiences in a variety of ways. … Holistic understanding is built from the ground up as worshippers participate in the full range of conceptual, emotional, and sensory experiences provided by the Mass itself.”

[2] A definition from Part 1: “The minimal Holy Mass discards many multi-sensory learning opportunities and limits spaced repetition.  The bells and smells, liturgical gestures, liturgical vesture, sacred music, art, and architecture are absent, minimal, or of poor aesthetic quality.  A minimal Mass presents many disjointed parts that do not seem to combine to form a comprehensible Big Picture.  A minimal Mass also over-emphasizes the verbal learning style, so the worship experience feels talky and abstract, yet bland and vague.”

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