Seven Laws of Teaching Your Own: Law of the Lesson

One statement from the book that I think summarizes his view well was this: “The work of education, contrary to the common understanding, is much more the work of the pupil than of the teacher.”

Gregory’s goal is neatly contained in this paragraph from his introduction:

The teacher with these clearly in view will observe more easily and estimate more intelligently the real progress of his pupils. He will not be content with a dry daily drill which keeps his pupils at work as in a treadmill, nor will he be satisfied with cramming their minds with useless facts and names. He will carefully note both sides of his pupils’ education and will direct his labors and adapt his lessons wisely and skillfully to secure both of the ends in view.

Let’s hear what he has to say so that we can grow in wisdom and skill.

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 4, the Law of the Lesson.

Summary of Law 4: The truth to be taught must be learned through truth already known.

Gregory begins with a defense of his position that children possess the innate ability to think, which I will simply assume and not summarize. If you aren’t sure if your children are able to think, you’ll have to read that part yourself.
The law of the lesson has its reason in the nature of the mind and in the nature of human knowledge.
  1. Nature of the Mind -- The mind connects thoughts through graded steps and linked facts; each mastered idea is equipment with which to continue on in “fresh advance.”
  2. Nature of Human Knowledge -- Knowledge is organized and connected inherently; it is not simple and independent loose facts: “Each fact leads to, and explains, the new. The old reveals the new; the new confirms and corrects the old.”
So, in teaching, our goal is to lead the student by such gradual steps that the pupil “who has mastered one lesson knows half the next.”
It is a serious error to keep the studies of pupils too long on familiar ground under the assumed necessity for thoroughness.
Only deeper understanding, new lessons, should be sought when covering old material. Yet, you must also have mastery of the old before you proceed to the new:
Imperfect understanding at any point clouds the whole process.
Of course, we must also keep in mind that “mastery” is a relative thing, for no man actually possesses true and complete mastery of any subject or skill. So, what we are seeking is wisdom in our own particular situations with our own particular charges. The best way to teach new through old is through metaphor, for all figures of speech “are but so many attempts to read the unknown through the known.” Metaphors are attempts to flash light from the old upon the new. Each person tends to use objects and language and concepts from his vocation as his metaphor-light, as his familiar key to unlock or grasp the mysteries of that which is unfamiliar. Be aware of this and try to use metaphors of the children’s world and not of worlds they do not know (this is the law of language again). The difficulty in answering children’s questions lies not in the complexity of the question or the answer, but in the children’s lack of experience and vocabulary you can draw upon to explain.
Oftentimes past acquisitions are considered goods stored away instead of instruments for further use.

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SC010: The Law of the Lesson


Applications to the Homeschool

This is a law that demands once again we pay attention to our own children and our own situation, not applying a one-size-fits-all system and not simply moving briskly through material, heedless of our children’s comprehension or ability. The child’s learning matters more than getting through a book in a certain space of time. It will take attention and thought and wisdom to determine what each child needs when -- is he ready to move on to the next math lesson? Should I continue with drill? Does he need more of a challenge or more review or a break or a new approach? There are never easy answers to these questions. This law is more about insisting we recognize these questions and deal with them than about giving easy answers to our particular circumstances. It is also a reminder of the way we can explain things -- anything -- to our children. We can’t just begin speaking about something they have no concept of and expect them to catch on. We need to begin by making a connection they already have and then leading them out from that place into the new place, the next place, on the itinerary.

Applications of the Law of the Lesson

  1. Start by finding out what they know already about the subject at hand. Here, again, we have the student speaking.
  2. Value the students’ knowledge and experience so that they will value it. We value it by asking them about it and by confirming and affirming it.
  3. A clear statement freshens knowledge. This is an essential tactic. The best sort of clear statement -- as we learned in the previous law -- is that made by the student himself. So narrating is not only the best way to end a lesson, but the best way to begin a lesson as well.
  4. Begin with the easily familiar. Begin where you are absolutely positive they are perfectly comfortable and lead out from there.
  5. Relate as much as possible to previous lessons and experience. Or, better yet, get the students to do this themselves; remember, they should be doing quite a bit of the talking.
  6. Arrange the progression of the lessons so it is easy and natural. Or choose books and materials that are already so arranged for you.
  7. Proportion steps and lengths of the lessons to the frame of your student. You have to know and teach individuals as individuals. One size never fits all.
  8. Use illustrations from common objects. Again, the mother has the teaching advantage here, because she knows what is common to her children.
  9. Lead students to create illustrations of their own. This can be narrating again, making connections verbally, or we could even take this quite literally and have them even illustrate a lesson!
  10. Entrench each idea or principle so firmly that it is useful in further progression. Each step of knowledge truly gained will become a tool useful in the gaining of further knowledge.
  11. Have students use knowledge they possess to solve problems (unknowns). This seems tricky to think up on the spot, or generate myself. A little planning might be helpful for this step, or choosing material that has such things already done for you.
  12. Make every advance clear and familiar. And it is by the narrations that you know things are clear and familiar to them.
  13. Choose problems from students’ own lives if at all possible. Again, an advantage of homeschooling if we will but seize it: Don’t confine the learning and its use to school hours. Draw from it and encourage them to see it whenever possible throughout the entire day. And again, this necessitates paying attention. I’m sorry.
  14. The process you use to teach and communicate is training your students how to think themselves. They must learn to be reflective, so make them reflect and give them the time and space to reflect.

Violations of the Law of the Lesson

It is not unusual for teachers to set their pupils to studying new lessons, or even new subjects, for which they are inadequately prepared or not prepared at all.
  1. Neglect entirely to ascertain the pupil’s equipment with which he will work upon the subject at hand.
  2. Fail to connect new lessons with the old in such a way that students see the connection and can use the connection to understand the new.
  3. Elementary facts and definitions are often not made thoroughly familiar.
  4. Assign exercises too long or too difficult, or not allowing adequate time, so that mastery is impossible.
  5. Fail to place the students in the position of discoverers.
As Gregory writes:
As a consequence of these and other violations of the law, much teaching is poor, and its benefits, if any, are fleeting. [...] Instead of a related whole, a concept with one purpose, the Bible [or any area of knowledge] is viewed as scattering parts; [...] it is never seen as a connected whole, as it should be.
Let us help our children see the relationships and interconnectedness of all God has created, all areas of knowledge, rather than simply help them get right answers.
Seven Laws of Teaching your Own Series