Seven Laws of Teaching Your Own: Law of the Learner

John Milton Gregory, author of the Seven Laws of Teaching defines education as “embrac[ing] all the steps and processes by which an infant is gradually transformed into a full-grown and intelligent man.” There are two facets of this transformation: development of capacities and acquisition of experience, and one way we guide experience is by “furnishing the child with the heritage of the race.” History, literature, art, and science are all means of giving our children a rich inheritance of human experience.

Gregory writes:

The result to be sought is a full-grown physical, intellectual, and moral manhood, with such resources as are necessary to make life useful and happy and as will enable the individual to go on learning from all the activities of life.

The laws he lays out are how we work toward such results.

Moreover, no one who follows these laws need fail, so long as he

has qualities that enable him properly to maintain the good order necessary to give them free and undisturbed action. […] Good teaching will often bring about good order.


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The Law of the Learner


Begin with the introduction, summary, and table of contents for The Seven Laws of Teaching Your Own series.

The book is available for free online.

Summary of the Seven Laws of Teaching

7 Laws of Teaching: Law 2, the Law of the Learner.

Summary of Law 2: The learner must attend with interest to the material to be learned.

A learner - which is what our children are supposed to be - cannot be passive. To become a learner, a child must have two things: interest and attention. Unless and until the child becomes invested with interest and attention to the lesson, the teacher teaches but in vain.
One may as well talk to the deaf or to the dead as attempt to teach a child who is wholly inattentive.
So, what is attention, exactly? Gregory develops three types of attention, one progressing to the other naturally, and it is leading his students through the progression, the development, of attention, that is the teacher’s duty:
  1. Passive Attention. Passive attention is characterized by flitting, playful, docile. No effort of the will is involved; such attention allows outside forces to dictate what is attended to. This is the most typical type of attention, especially in young children.
  2. Active Attention. Active attention is characterized by control, persistence, resolution, duty, determination; such attention requires effort. It is mental toil. Active attention is a distinctly human capability to control the mind’s focus despite allurements, fancies, and temptations.
  3. Secondary-Passive Attention. Secondary-passive attention is characterized by absorbed fascination, being caught up in and carried away by what one has determined to focus one’s mind upon. The object of attention is attractive, demanding little or no effort to exert very focused and absorbed attention.
It is the third type that teachers should seek out for their pupils. Secondary-passive attention results in efficient learning, effective learning, pleasant learning. However, secondary-passive attention is the reward, the fruit, of diligent active-attention. One cannot move from passive to secondary-passive, bypassing active attention. Active attention is work, it is necessary, and it is not the end goal but rather moves us into our end goal of "flow."
It seems to be generally true that these sustained and abiding interests are to be purchased only at a price -- and the price is strenuous effort. [...] Human experience during the long ages has taught few lessons that are more dependable than that which predicates effort sacrifice and persistence as the chief ingredients of success, and this holds as generally of success in learning as it does of success in business, art, invention, and industry.
So what is the role of the teacher in this? It is, Gregory maintains, that of a counselor and guide, not a taskmaster. For attention gained through fear or force not only does not last, but it creates a distaste for that which it is forced to attend to. The teacher is to aim for secondary-passive attention through gradual advancement that makes the effort worthwhile to the student. Handily, Gregory has some proposed methods for moving the student through such gradual advancements:
  1. Problems Give the children a problem to solve to motivate them to seek the material you want them to learn. This is best for initial momentum or for an engaging break from abstract study.
  2. Sensory Hand gestures, looks, many-toned voices, illustrations are artificial stimuli to use when necessary, but will not produce lasting attention.
  3. Relation Relate the information being presented to the past or the future of the pupil to create concentration with genuine interest. Touch his personality with the material.
  4. Delight Sympathetic interest can be compelled by a delighted teacher.
  5. Age-appropriate Interests will mature from the concrete and self-centered toward abstract and ultimate as the students grow; do not expect or aim for interest beyond the abilities of your pupils. Keep their interest and their attention proportional to their age and abilities.
The primary hindrances to attention are apathy and distraction, and the primary causes of these hindrances are lack of interest, lack of taste, and weariness. The teacher’s duty is to determine the cause and work an appropriate angle to help the student out of his funk or folly. If illness or fatigue is the cause of the student’s difficulty, then the wise teacher will not force the lesson. The teacher needs insight and wisdom.

Applications to the Homeschool

If insight and wisdom is an essential element, then this is an area where the homeschooling mother has an advantage. Who else is going to have more insight into her own child? Who else would dedicate enough time and attention to the individual child than that child’s mother? Of course, the flip side is that sometimes we are so buried in the situation that we cannot see clearly. In such cases, seeking the advice of friends and mentors and our own mothers will often yield the fresh perspective and insight that we need. Of course, what I was struck most with was that cultivating attention on the part of the student requires attention on the part of the mother. The mother-teacher has to keep her attention on her students and maneuver and shift and adjust on the fly to keep things going at a steady, effective clip. It is a skill to be practiced and perfected.

Applications of the Law of the Learner

  1. Never begin until attention is secured; never continue when it is lost. We cannot simply barrel through our plans and yank the kids along for the ride; we have to be sympathetic and watch for the cues of attentiveness. Teaching or reading without the kids' attention is the worst waste of time.
  2. Never exhaust the students’ attention; stop at or before the first signs of fatigue. Again, wisdom (and attention!) are needed to differentiate fatigue and laziness, to know how to awaken our kids' attention, and to keep lessons short and meaningful.
  3. Adapt the length of the lesson to the age of the student. Do not pull a young child through a long lesson. Keep each lesson short and sweet and frequent.
  4. Kindle and maintain the highest possible interest (in yourself) in the subject at hand; true enthusiasm is contagious. This is, perhaps, the most difficult for the mother at home. The enthusiastic, contagious homeschool moms are those who are excited about making up for their own education while home educating. If we want to learn to love what is good and true and beautiful, and are on the lookout for the good and true and beautiful, we can have contagious attention and interest.
  5. Appeal whenever possible to the interests (self-interest, hobby interests, etc.) of the students. Seek out ways to connect the knowledge or skill to be gained to the personality of the student. Here is another area where the mother has the advantage of personal knowledge and one-on-one time; here is where she will be tempted to shove a book off onto her child and wash her hands of the matter.
  6. Reduce distractions. Another simple and sometimes impossible task. One child might be distracted by noise, another by clutter, and another could very well be distracted by being forced to sit still. Wisdom, again, is required. Again, we as mothers must be paying attention while requiring attention of our children.
  7. Prepare thought-provoking questions beforehand that are tailored to the student’s age and ability. What? Prepare beforehand? Drat. It is handy to have a formula for a discussion question, such as Kern's suggestion of "Should x have y?" Another option would be to ask if the reading reminded the child of anything else they have read or seen.
  8. Study the best use of your eyes and hands; your students will respond to your nonverbal (both intentional and unintentional, clear and masked) signals. In other words, if I am bored, I won’t be able to hide it.

Violations of the Law of the Learner

  1. One might as well teach an empty room than teach a class with divided attention. We do not want to be Charlie Brown teachers: Waawawahwah.
  2. Urging the students to continue past their fatigue will only grow increase weariness and frustration. Walking in the ways of my mother before me, I send the boys out to run laps when they start glazing over.
  3. Teaching without interest in the subject or the pupil models apathy most effectively. Ouch.
  4. Droning speech and routine monotony kill attention. Just getting through the material is not what we are after. We must be purposeful and intentional in making attention our top priority during school.
  Gregory concludes:
[The teacher] should master the art of gaining and keeping attention, and of exciting genuine interest, and he will rejoice at the fruitfulness of his work.
Clearly he is in agreement with Charlotte Mason, who wrote:
It is impossible to overstate the importance of this habit of attention. It is..."within the reach of everyone and should be made the primary object of all mental discipline"; for whatever the natural gifts of the child, it is only so far as the habit of attention is cultivated in him that he is able to make use of them.
So let us secure and expand our children's attention, that they may become true learners.
Seven Laws of Teaching your Own Series