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The Seven Laws of Teaching

John Milton Gregory wrote a book for Sunday school teachers toward the end of the 19th century that was disinterred by the folks up at Logos School. While his approach is overly scientific for my tastes and tends to be modernist in its assumptions about thinking, Gregory’s book is enormously useful when we want to analyze our instruction or that of another. In it, Gregory summarizes the seven laws of teaching as follows:

  1. A teacher must be one who KNOWS the lesson or truth to be taught.

  2. A learner is one who ATTENDS with interest to the lesson given.

  3. The language used as a MEDIUM between teacher and learner must be COMMON to both.

  4. The lesson to be learned must be explicable in the terms of truth already known by the learner—the UNKNOWN must be explained by the KNOWN.

  5. Teaching is AROUSING and USING the pupil’s mind to form in it a desired conception or thought.

  6. Learning is THINKING into one’s own UNDERSTANDING a new idea or truth.

  7. The test and proof of teaching—the finishing and fastening process—must be a RE-VIEWING, RE-THINKING, RE-KNOWING, and RE-PRODUCING of the knowledge taught.

Gregory boldly asserts that these seven are “laws,” which means, if it means anything, that there can be no exceptions to them. The books credibility, along with its claims, means we need to consider his principles very carefully for the simple reason that if he is right and if we fail to obey, all is lost.

Consequently, let us consider this first law as I express it colloquially: The teacher must know what he’s talking about!

Something in me objects immediately. “But I only read Plato’s Republic the first time because I was teaching it. I didn’t know what I was talking about, but the class learned a great deal.”

Something in me responds gently: “What did they learn?”

Thing 1: “Well, they learned how to read a hard book, they learned how to discuss heavy ideas, and they learned the basic content of Plato’s Republic.”

Thing 2: And which of those did you teach?

1: Whattaya mean?

2: OK, I’ll work with you slowly. Did you teach them how to read a hard book?

1: Well, yeah. They already knew how to read, of course, but I taught them all kinds of great strategies, like scanning, reading purposefully, asking questiongs, highlighting, talking about what you’ve read. All that.

2: So you taught them how to read a hard book? Thing 2 repeated (he can be very annoying).

1: Yes. Yes. I did. Stop accusing me of cheating.

2: I’m sorry. I didn’t intend you to think I was accusing you of cheating. I don’t even doubt you. I just want you to stop doubting yourself.

1: Whattaya mean?

2: Let me ask you one more time. Did you teach your students how to read a hard book?

1: Yes, and this is the last time I’m answering that question. (man could he be annoying)

2: May I ask you another question?

1: Yes, yes, go on, ask away. [you creep]

2: Do you know how to read a hard book?

1: Now what, are you trying to insult me? Yes, I know how to read a hard book. I could hardly have taught the others if I didn’t, could I?

2: Then I suppose you fulfilled the first law. Well done!

So after a little while of pouting at myself for straightening me out like that, I got thinking about how to apply this first law. And this came to me as one of the first applications:

Be very clear on what you are teaching.

If you are teaching a skill (reading) don’t think you have to teach an idea (Plato’s forms) or a text (Plato’s Republic). The students are becoming self-learners when you teach them how to read. They won’t be able to figure out Plato’s forms on their own, but a lecture from you won’t help either unless 1. you understand Plato’s forms and 2. you can present it to them following the seven laws of learning (at least, that is so if the rest hold up as well as this first one did).

Sometimes you will be teaching a skill. Make sure you have enough mastery to do so. Other times you will be teaching an idea. Make sure you understand it well yourself – well enough to teach it through concrete embodiments of the idea. Sometimes you will be teaching information or content. Make sure you know it.

If you aren’t a master, or don’t understand, or don’t know, then you can’t teach. That is the secret of the text book publishers.

But what you can always do as a teacher is this: you can always think about an idea with your students, you can always contemplate a text together, and you can always look up information.

So make sure you know what it is you are teaching (skill, idea, information) and make sure you know what you are teaching in the particular lesson!

Blessings on your teaching!

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