Seven Laws of Teaching Your Own: Law of the Teaching Process

Learning operates upon fundamental principles, and unless we know them and follow them, we cannot teach.

Gregory writes:

Like all the great laws of nature, these laws of teaching seem clear and obvious; but like other fundamental truths, their simplicity is more apparent than real. Each law varies in its application with varying minds and persons, although remaining constant in itself. […] These laws and rules apply to the teaching of all subjects in all grades, since they are the fundamental conditions on which ideas may pass from one mind to another.

Above all, we must remember that learning is something the learner does and not something the teacher does. Gregory reminds us:

As already shown, knowledge cannot be passed from mind to mind like objects from one receptacle to another, but must in every case be recognized and rethought and relived by the receiving mind. All explanation and exposition are useless except as they serve to excite and direct the pupil in his own thinking.

In this, he says exactly the same thing as Charlotte Mason, who wrote:

Self-education is the only possible education; the rest is mere veneer laid on the surface of a child’s nature.

and

There is no education but self-education.

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 5, the Law of the Teaching Process.

Summary of Law 5: Excite and direct the self-activities of the pupil, and as a rule tell him nothing he can learn himself.

This, claims Gregory, is the most widely recognized rule among good teachers. Although there may be times to disregard this law -- when time is of the essence, when the child is ill or weak, or when the child is discouraged, for example -- however, for the most part, the teacher is to “make [her] pupil a discoverer of truth” -- make him find out for himself. The teacher’s role is “awakening and setting in action the mind of the pupil, arousing his self-activities.” If we can learn without a teacher -- and we can -- then the teacher is not essential. The teacher is an aid, an ally, a support, facilitating the process of learning within the student’s own mind -- lighting a fire, not filling a bucket, as the saying goes. In fact, the knowledge which is most permanent, claims Gregory, is that which is discovered unaided. Therefore, the true function of the teacher is to create the most favorable conditions for self-learning. These conditions are threefold:
  • setting an ordered path (“curriculum”)
  • providing leisure and quiet for study
  • furnishing materials
Teaching is not telling, but leading. It is not the vigorous telling nor the hard work of the teacher upon the passive student that evokes learning, but the active student’s hard work. The student taught without learning for himself is like one who is spoonfed but not given exercise -- the meager nutrition cannot work out toward its natural end and the body will not gain its full benefit, will not properly grow. In this task of teaching, then, the self-confidence of the student is essential. It is gained by self-prompted independent use, but such use is usually first motivated through external pressures (such as “Mom making him”) before maturing into internal self-promptings. Moreover, “thoughtfulness deepens and grows more intense with the increase of knowledge.” The increase of this appetite will grow by what it feeds on -- the more effort is expended toward learning, the more one is motivated to continue. The teacher’s job is to do what is necessary to begin the child on that path, but once the child is following the path with a will, pushing and shoving him along is more counterproductive than beneficial. Though the child may get to the end early, he will not have gained the experience and strength he could have derived from the journey. We, the teachers, are to keep our children on the path and keep them moving, but we should refrain from either rushing them or carrying them. Instead, let each exercise strengthen their own muscles of self-prompting, self-discipline, self-learning.
Comenius said, over two hundred years ago, “Most teachers sow plants instead of seeds; instead of proceeding from the simplest principles they introduce the pupil at once into a chaos of books and miscellaneous studies.” The figure of the seed is a good one, and is much older than Comenius. The greatest of teachers said: “The seed is the word.” The true teacher stirs the ground and sows the seed. It is the work of the soil, through its own forces, to develop the growth and ripen the grain.

Applications to the Homeschool

As we have been experiencing frequent mumbled complaints about “hating school,” the clarification that self-prompting generally follows external prompting was a welcome relief. The fact that a seven-year-old is feeling out firm the boundaries are and exactly where they’ve been placed is no occasion to wring one’s hands. Our duty is to set those boundaries, and with wisdom, maintain them. Their pushing is part of their process of learning. Keeping the lines is the trench-work: establishing the ruts, the habits, in which our children’s future lives will run with ease and grace. Moreover, whereas law one, which requires that a teacher know that which he would teach, is a law that might threaten to crush a homeschooling mom (until we remember that the books we use are our primary teachers), this law can set our feet in a wide and spacious place: that of establishing the conditions of self-learning rather than rising to the place of lecturer-extraordinaire. However, Gregory anticipates the contrasting of this rule with the first:
There is no disagreement between this law and the first and third, which so strongly insist upon the teacher’s knowledge of the subject. Without full and accurate knowledge of the subject that the pupil is to learn though his self-active efforts, the teacher certainly cannot guide, direct, and test the process of learning. One may as well say that a general need know nothing of a battlefield because he is not to do the actual fighting, as that a teacher may get on with inadequate knowledge because the pupils must do the studying.

Listen to this post!

SC011: The Law of the Teaching Process


Applications of the Law of the Teaching Process

  • Adapt materials and assignments according to age and ability.
  • Begin lessons by asking a question that will awaken inquiry. Hm. Remember? This was said to stimulate attention as well, and in the future this admonition will be given again in context of reviewing. I almost never use this tactic, but it sounds like I need to begin.
  • Put yourself in their place and join them on a search. When they are seeking information, do not act like the font of wisdom, but a fellow seeker. Model the posture of a seeker.
  • Repress impatience. Give the child time to find words. Ouch.
  • ”The lesson that does not end with fresh questions, ends wrong.” Seeing that there is more to know and find out, rather than believing oneself to have attained, is the proper end of a lesson.
  • Observe your students, seeing to it that they pay attention. We have to pay attention, ensuring that they pay attention.
  • Give the student time to think and encourage him to ask questions if he’s puzzled. Time and space and direction to think and consider and wonder -- we must not neglect this important aspect.
  • Answer a question with a question to secure deeper thought. Too much of this can get annoying, but it is a very valuable tactic. If the questioner wants to know, he needs to be willing to think actively, not just passively accept an easy answer.
  • Restate a student’s question before answering. This ensures that you understood him correctly and it promotes the considering of a question before too quick or too simple a response. Plus, it is a way to model good questioning.
  • Teach students to ask what? (nature), why? (cause), how? (method), and where? (place), when? (time), whom? (actors), and what of it? (consequences).
Count it your chief duty to awaken the minds of your pupils, and do not rest until each child shows his mental activity by asking questions.

Violations of the Law of the Teaching Process

  • Inconsistency & lack of follow-through.
"I have told you ten times, and yet you do not know!" exclaims a teacher of this sort, who is unable to remember that knowing comes by thinking, not by being told.
  • Complaining that their memories are not keeping what they never held. You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink. If facts have gone in one ear and out another, we cannot expect them to be able to recall any of those facts.
  • Being hasty, leaving no time to ponder. This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes: “Great books, great friendships, and great thoughts all require great wastes of time.”
  • Requiring rapid recitations of the exact words of the material. The knowledge has no time to settle and germinate and become the student’s own if he has no opportunity to kick it around and play with it.
  • Hurried and unthinking teaching will result in superficial learning.
How different are the results when this great law of teaching is discovered! [...] The pupils become thinkers -- discoverers. They master great truths, and apply them to the great questions of life. They invade new fields of knowledge. The teacher merely leads the march. Their reconnaissance becomes a conquest. Skill and power grow with their exercise. Through this process, the students find out what their minds are for and become students of life.
Let us lead the march!
Seven Laws of Teaching your Own Series

3 Responses

  1. Amy
    |

    Wow. What good stuff! This is so good for me as I had a 7 year old today mumble about “hating” school and some of these very things this article addresses are PERFECT for me to be reminded of! :)

    • Mystie Winckler
      |

      I am glad it helped, Amy. I think it’s a pretty common 7-year-old thing to say. :) Sometimes we still hear it around here, but lately it actually means, “I’d rather play Legos all day.” :)

      I wanted to repost this series because *I* needed to be reminded of it all again, myself, too.

  2. Amy
    |

    Exactly. :)