Seven Laws of Teaching Your Own

posted in: homeschooling, podcast 2


John Milton Gregory 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. An important part of the latter is “furnishing the child with the heritage of the race.”

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.

Toward this end, Gregory offers seven statements about the learning process so that by understanding what and how learning happens, we can more successfully guide our students into such full-grown manhood.

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.”

7 Laws of Teaching your Own.

The Seven Laws & Their Rules

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.

Preface: What is a teacher? What is teaching?

  1. Law of the Teacher — The teacher must know that which he would teach. Therefore, teach from a full mind and a clear understanding.
  2. Law of the Learner — A learner is one who attends with interest to the lesson. Therefore, gain and keep the attention and interest of your students; do not teach without attention.
  3. Law of the Language — The language used as a medium between teacher and learner must be common to both. Therefore, use words understood in the same way by the pupils and yourself and use clear and vivid language.
  4. Law of the Lesson — The unknown must be explained by means of the known. Therefore, begin with what is already well known and familiar to the student and proceed by easy, natural steps into the unknown.
  5. Law of the Teaching Process — Teaching is arousing the pupil to use his own mind to master the thought or art. Therefore, stimulate the student’s own mind to attend, placing him in the attitude of discoverer and anticipator.
  6. Law of the Learning Process — Learning is reproducing in one’s own mind the truth to be grasped. Therefore, require the pupil to reproduce in thought the lesson he is learning, expressing it in his own language.
  7. Law of Review — The test and proof of teaching is reviewing, rethinking, reproducing, and applying the material that has been taught. Therefore, review, review, review, reproducing the old, deepening its impression with new thought, linking it with added meanings, finding new applications, correcting false views, and completing true views.


What is a teacher? What is teaching?

According to Gregory, the art of education — that is, teaching — is two-fold:

  1. Teaching is the art of training. Teaching is leading the students into paths of physical, mental, and moral fitness.
  2. Teaching is the art of instructing. Teaching stimulates a love of learning and forms habits of independent study.

Thus, a successful teacher is working himself out of his position. He is moving his pupils not into but out of dependence on his guidance.

We can only train by teaching and we teach best when we train best.

Teaching and training can be thought of individually, but in practice can hardly be separated. Every act of teaching — purposefully or not, done rightly or not — inculcates good or bad habits of work and thinking. Likewise, every act of training teaches, even if the lecture is missing. The work of teaching, says Gregory, is the work of assigning, explaining, and hearing lessons. “Hearing lessons” is hardly comprehensible today, but is akin to hearing narrations after independent reading and study, I believe. So, “lecture” is only a third of the work of teaching.

Teaching is the communication of experience.

Experience includes facts, truths, doctrines, ideas, ideals, skills, art. Communication includes words, signs, objects, actions, and examples. I think this definition makes it clear, then, that the mother in a homeschool setting is not the students’ sole teacher. It is the books used more than the mother that teach. This relieves a lot of the pressure, I believe, especially in light of the laws that govern teaching. One essential element of teaching, however, is easy to forget yet indispensable even within the mother’s realm:

Questioning is not, therefore, merely one of the devices of teaching, it is really the whole of teaching. […] An explanation may be so given as to raise new questions while it answers old ones.

This is how the teacher leads while instructing.

Words for Teachers

Verbs that characterize the teacher: kindle, give success, glow with truth, guide, Adjectives that characterize the teacher: warmhearted, enthusiastic, skillful, sympathizing, A teacher will

  • stand at the spiritual gateways of his pupil’s mind.
  • summon the minds to their work.
  • guide them into the right paths to be followed.
  • excite the minds of the pupils.
  • guide, direct, and test the process of learning.
  • lead the march; their reconnaissance becomes a conquest.
  • maintain the order necessary to produce learning.

His Most Notable Admonition

There is an enthusiasm born of skill — a joy in doing what one can do well — that is far more effective, where art is involved, than the enthusiasm born in vivid feeling. The steady advance of veterans is more powerful than the mad rush of raw recruits. The world’s best work, in the schools as in the shops, is done by the calm, steady, and persistent efforts of skilled workmen who know how to keep their tools sharp, and to make every effort reach its mark.

Summary of Law 1: The teacher must know that which he would teach.

Gregory begins with this admonition:

That we cannot teach without knowledge seems too simple for proof. How can something come of nothing, or how can darkness give light? […] No other qualification is so fundamental and essential.

According to Gregory, knowledge has four levels:

  1. Faint recognition
  2. Ability to describe in a general way
  3. Power to readily explain, prove, and illustrate
  4. Feeling such deep appreciation of truth’s deep significant and wide relations, that we are compelled to act differently.

It is this fourth that teachers should possess in order to communicate clearly and passionately. Of course, Gregory admits, this is an ideal which we may only strive to approach, yet knowing that a deep love and awareness of the connections of our subjects is the goal helps us to not be satisfied with shallow thinking and cursory instruction. He writes:

Truth must be clearly understood before it can be vividly felt.

A teacher who knows what he is talking about, who has internalized that which he would communicate, is free; he is not slave to a textbook or curriculum. It is from feeling and living the truth that he knows that enthusiasm spills over to his students. It is the excitement of felt interest that sparks all his powers of communication. He also gives what should be a startling warning to mothers:

Children object to being taught by those in whom they have no confidence.

Do our children have confidence in us? In our ability to teach? In our ability to keep our word and follow through with our assignments and our consequences and their work? If we lose their confidence, we lose the ability to teach. That must spur us on to integrity and right priorities if we want to be in this for the long haul.

Applications to the Homeschool

This law, stating that teachers must know – really know – what they are teaching, might discourage us and make homeschooling seem foolish and futile. However, it doesn’t have to. You delegate when homeschooling as you would if you sent your child to school. If your child went to school, you would still hold him accountable to completing his work well, right? That is your primary job in homeschooling, as well, not standing in front of the whiteboard as the fount of all knowledge. Indeed, the best application of this law for us is in our choice of books and materials. This law is the reason living books are essential. The authors your child reads are his teachers, so ensuring they are clear, passionate, knowledgable teachers is vital.

Implications of the Law of the Teacher

Gregory sets forth the following “rules” for the teacher as applications of this first law. After each rule (and these are only selections from his complete list), I have added a possible specific application or implication for our situations as homeschoolers:

  1. Prepare for each lesson with fresh study. Put on a game face for the day: review the flow and the content before beginning the day.
  2. Find out and teach with analogies, relations, and illustrations. Think through the material for yourself so you aren’t caught off guard in a script.
  3. The product of clear thought is clear speech. In other words, you have to have thought through what you’re going to say for it to be coherent. Don’t try to wing it, bluffing your children. They won’t be fooled.
  4. Never rest until real understanding is reached. Why bother making any effort at all if you won’t go to the effort of seeing it through.
  5. Complete mastery of a few things is better than an ineffective smattering of many. It is better to reach and experience that fourth level of knowledge than to believe that level 2 or 3 is complete knowledge. That’s when you produce know-it-alls. Someone who experiences level 4 even one or two times, then knows that he does not know much well.
  6. Have a plan, a timetable, for where you are going. You are steering a ship; where are you driving it?
  7. Ask and answer these questions in every lesson: What? How? Why?You need to know and your student needs to know. These make excellent narration prompts.
  8. Read, think, talk, and write. These are the ways we come to know. They are each tools to use.

Violations of the Law of the Teacher

Gregory helpfully includes not only positive statements about this law, but also enumerates several common violations of this law. He states, “The true teacher will make as few errors as possible, and will profit by those that he makes.” Let us look at these for our profit, then, willing to :

  1. Assume that your own ignorance will not be detected because of the students’ ignorance. So doing will lose you your students’ trust and respect. Children can sniff fakery and hypocrisy a mile away. If you don’t have their trust and respect, you will not be able to teach them, and rightfully so.
  2. Hear lessons without knowing the lesson yourself. Your own indifference, lack of preparedness, or laziness will be caught even if your cheating is not found out. This would correspond to hearing a narration of an independent reader, of a book you haven’t read. Ouch, he hit me dead-center! I have been trying this for half a year now, and I can testify that it doesn’t work. How am I to know if the narration is complete or accurate?
  3. Fill time with filler talk or with exercises because nothing definite is expected, planned, or known. Such laziness is a waste of everyone’s time. Better to send the children outside to play or to the couch to read than assign busy work simply to fill time and feel “productive.”
  4. Talk above the students’ comprehension and talk aboutunderstanding. This is the practice of a sham who conceals his own lazy ignorance with pompous pretense. Our goal is for our students to understand, not be overawed by us (which they wouldn’t be, anyway; they would just learn to tune us out).
  5. “A more serious fault is that of those who, failing to find stimulation in the lesson, make it a mere framework upon which to hang some fancies of their own.” This is an easy trap for mothers, especially, I think. We can always turn a situation to become an illustration in a lecture on a pet peeve. Gregory tells us to knock it off.

Thus many teachers go to their work either partly prepared or wholly unprepared. They are like messengers without a message. They lack entirely the power and enthusiasm necessary to produce the fruits which we have a right to look for from their efforts.

Let us have a message and communicate it with power and enthusiasm.

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.



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.


The Seven Laws of Teaching
 by John Milton Gregory explain not only how to teach, but even more importantly, how people learn. We must be students of learning if we want to be effective homeschooling moms. Unless we understand the work we’re about day in and day out, we will be less fruitful than we could be.

The world’s best work, in the schools as in the shops, is done by the calm, steady, and persistent efforts of skilled workmen who know how to keep their tools sharp, and to make every effort reach its mark.

Let’s put in the time and energy to know our tools and use them well.

Summary of Law 3: The language used in teaching must be common to teacher and learner, understood by both, with the same meaning to both.

Gregory speaks in this chapter of language as a vehicle of instruction, an instrument of learning, and a storehouse of knowledge. Briefly, he means that through common language we communicate experience, by speaking we appropriate what we perceive, that without adequate words we cannot think through ideas clearly, and that what we know we will name. Beware, he warns, words with multiple meanings or homophones — children easily pick up confused meanings, unaware that their perception is inaccurate. It is what the student interprets in his mind, not what the teacher intends, that matters:

Not what the speaker expresses from his own mind, but what the hearer understands and reproduces in his mind, measures the communicating power of the language used.

Remember that children do not yet have nuanced and weighty vocabularies:

Men’s words are like ships laden with the riches of every shore of knowledge which their owner has visited; while the words of the child are but toy boats on which are loaded the simple notions he has picked up in his brief experience.

Thus,

It is as necessary for the teacher fully to understand the child, as for the child to understand the teacher. Oftentimes a pupil will load ordinary words with some strange, false, or distorted meanings, and the mistakes may remain uncorrected for years. Children are often compelled by their very poverty of speech to use words with other than their correct meanings. The teacher must learn the needs of the pupil from his words.


So, choose your own words carefully when you are teaching. There is a place for broadening and deepening the child’s vocabulary through exposure, but a lesson is not that place. Listen to the child’s words as well, correcting and honing his speech gently. The very process of thinking it fitting an idea into words. We master truth by expressing it, so the pupil himself should do much of the talking. Lecture should be given a small place in instruction. In doing the talking himself (through narration or discussion), the child must make the knowledge his own by putting words to thoughts and through his speech, the teacher sees what the child sees and knows where to lead him and what correction and strengthening he needs. Moreover, language gives us the very categories we use for thinking and perceiving. The language at the student’s disposal is no small matter. One cannot think about something one does not have the words for. Giving children words is a vital part of teaching.

The full and clear statement of a problem is often the best part of solving it. Ideas rise before us like the confused mass of objects in a new landscape; to put them into clear and correct words and sentences is to make the landscape familiar.

Abstract words, however, are not the only types of language possible. The teacher should not forgo communicating through nature, through concrete experience, through stories, and through pictures. All of these are tools and resources to be used for the development of ideas, concepts, thinking, and experience in the student’s own mind.

Applications to the Homeschool

Words, words, words. We must carefully choose our words. We must gently correct our children’s words. We must purposefully expand our own and our children’s vocabularies. What struck me most was Gregory’s emphasis that the students should be doing more of the talking than the teacher. That means that our job is less presentation and more listening. This is both relieving and wearying. This, again, calls us to attention as teachers. Gregory does not use the term narration, but it so neatly fits all he requires of language as an instrument that we would do well to utilize it to its full potential. And, perhaps thinking of it merely in the terms of the student speaking about what he is learning might take away some of the mystery of the term. Get the student to talk about what he observed, or read, or thought, and you will see what he knows. Then you will know better how to proceed. This focus on language, of course, transcends school time and is as applicable in discipline, in training, and in casual conversation — at any point that you might possibly want your child to understand what you are saying. And isn’t that every time we speak?

Application of the Law of the Language

  1. Observe the language of the children to learn what they know and what they need. There’s that old attention thing, again.
  2. Require full and complete narrations after lessons. This will be developed still further in later laws.
  3. Express yourself carefully to ensure you are understood. It is also good to encourage your children to freely ask if they do not understand a word. We foster this by our patient explanations or restatements.
  4. Use simple and few words, short sentences, repeat yourself with different language, use illustrations and objects.
  5. Encourage the student to talk freely so you may come to know and correct their knowledge and vocabulary. Finding out an error is an opportunity, not a failure.

Violations of the Law of the Language

  1. Unnecessary words add to the child’s work and increase the possibility for misunderstanding.
  2. Asking the child if he understands is futile, for he is too easily deceived about his own understanding, often mistaking a glimmer of understanding for full and complete comprehension. Children might also simply desire to please the teacher by professing to understand, and they may refuse to ask for explanations out of fear or shame. Instead of asking if he understands, have him retell in his own words.
  3. There are still many honest teachers who try hard to make the lesson clear, and then think that their duty is done; that if the children do not understand, it must be either from willful inattention or hopeless stupidity. These teachers do not suspect that they may have used words which had no meaning for the class, or into which the children read a wrong meaning.
  4. Not seeking a clear statement in return from the student means you have no test of your success, nor does the student gain personal use of the words or concepts delivered to his ears until he uses them with his own mind and mouth. We must require narration of our students if we want them to learn.

We must be willing to accept the fault if our children don’t understand, and also be willing to change.

It has often been found that one of the greatest obstacles to the general enlightenment of people lies in their lack of the knowledge though which they may be addressed. […] If we would teach children successfully, we must widen and deepen this channel of communication between them and ourselves.

Let us not only use clear language ourselves, but also require it of our kids, then connection can happen.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

What is a teacher? What is teaching?

According to Gregory, the art of education — that is, teaching — is two-fold:

  1. Teaching is the art of training. Teaching is leading the students into paths of physical, mental, and moral fitness.
  2. Teaching is the art of instructing. Teaching stimulates a love of learning and forms habits of independent study.

Thus, a successful teacher is working himself out of his position. He is moving his pupils not into but out of dependence on his guidance.

We can only train by teaching and we teach best when we train best.

Every act of teaching — purposefully or not, done rightly or not — trains the student in good or bad habits of work and thinking. Likewise, every act of skills-training teaches knowledge, even if there is no lecture.

The work of teaching, says Gregory, is the work of assigning, explaining, and hearing lessons. These days we don’t generally speak of “hearing lessons,” but when we hear an oral narration after independent reading, when we give feedback on a written narration, or when we prompt a discussion, we are hearing lessons. So, “lecture” is only a third of the work of teaching.

Gregory also writes that

Teaching is the communication of experience.

Experience includes facts, truths, doctrines, ideas, ideals, skills, art.
Communication includes words, signs, objects, actions, and examples.

By this definition, then, it is clear that the homeschool mother is not the students’ sole teacher. It is the books used more than the mother that teach. This relieves a lot of the pressure. Even more pressure can be relieved if the teaching we do give and the books we provide work with the grain of nature rather than against it. That’s why it’s important we know these laws.

Summary of Law 6: The pupil must reproduce in his own mind the truth to be learned.

Gregory wishes us to remember that in all our planning and teaching, “there is a clear and distinct act or process which we wish [the student] to accomplish”: learning. It is primarily the learner’s task, not the teacher’s. He must drink freely and it cannot be forced. Learning is more directly the work of the student than the teacher. The work of education is much more the work of the pupil than the teacher. Learning comes by processes of interpretation. Until the knowledge coming forth from the teacher (the mother or the books), is churned and assimilated within the learner, that knowledge does not become the possession of the learner. We want to aim that our students gain clear and distinct conceptions of new facts and principles. How can we facilitate such acts? By giving them opportunities to digest their material and derive its benefits. Basically, narrate, narrate, narrate.

It is indispensable that the student should become an investigator.


That is, his knowledge should not come to him too directly or too easily. He will not grow strong and curious by getting quick and easy answers from Mom and Dad. He should lead expeditions, wander in forests, brave new worlds — he should seek. In this process of learning, of digesting and assimilating knowledge, goes through a regular progression, from the weak starting point to the goal:

  1. Committing a lesson verbatim to memory is not learning. It might be necessary or useful groundwork, but it is not learning.
  2. Understanding the thought behind the lesson is not learning. This is the superficial level.
  3. The ability to paraphrase an idea without loss of meaning shows the beginnings of learning.
  4. Knowledge of proofs and evidences (whys and wherefores) for or against ideas or facts shows a growing capacity.
  5. Application of the knowledge personally is the end goal of learning: not merely possessing but using one’s knowledge. Learning is not complete until it has been applied.

The boy who finds a use for what he has learned in his lesson becomes doubly interested and successful in his school work.

However, Gregory warns us again to remember the age of our pupils and do not expect of them what is beyond them. Children begin by learning with their senses, then they progress to understanding the practical, and only later do they achieve the reasoning capacity they need to delve deep into the world of ideas.

Applications to the Homeschool

Here is a great relief and a great challenge. Education is not so much our work as our children’s work — our duty is to oversee, to guide, to motivate, to ensure it happens. Now, that means more pushing and hassling and prodding won’t work. But it also means we have to trust God with our children — we can’t make them learn.

Now, I have always been skeptical and dubious of any who claim that children naturally love knowledge and learning. After all, they are fallen and sinful. Can we say that something good is natural to them? However, I now understand that it is “natural” to humans as image-bearers and dominion-takers to desire and love knowledge and understanding. So, the more sinful tendencies of all sorts exist in us and in our children, the more that right love is squelched. The first and most essential step in education, then, is the early training in obedience and good temper and self-control. Without those, the relationship between parent and child will too often center around dominance and obstinacy and battle. Of course, obedience and the corresponding fruit of the Spirit are always an ongoing refinement, but if the parents are not the recognized authorities, generally submitted to with love and joy, well, then schooling really isn’t going happen. It will be a constant struggle. Once that battle is won in the main (ideally long before lessons begin), then the child’s spirit is free to focus as it ought. And, with us all, I think, the more our hearts are directed toward God, right living, and thankfulness, the greater will be our thirst for knowledge about Him Who is the source of all knowledge and to Whom all knowledge points. For true learning, for true joy of learning and desire for learning, rebelliousness must be banished.

Applications of the Law of the Learning Process

  • Give students a clear outline of their work to be done. Children function best when the expectations are clear and laid out ahead of time.
  • Require both exact recitations and paraphrased narrations. There is a place for both, but remember that paraphrased narrations demonstrate thought, whereas exact recitations do not necessarily mean they understand.
  • Ask him perpetually ‘Why?’ so he knows that a reason for one’s statements is always required. The child has no authority to make statements; don’t trust him. Ask him why, make him defend himself, and by so doing teach him to question himself and others.
  • Make him a student of nature and a seeker of truth, a researcher.The daily metaphor should be one of a quest, not a grind.
  • Seek a profound regard for truth and a hatred for shams and sophistries. “It sounds good” isn’t a defense, much as I like to think it is.

Violations of the Law of the Learning Process

Gregory claims that violations of this law are the ones that prove most fatal. Certainly, the whole point of teaching is moot if there is no learning process happening.

  • Haste to move on precludes time for thinking things into clearness.Your focus should always be more on the student than on covering a certain amount of material in a certain time (lest that material be covered).
  • Failure to insist on original thinking. We don’t want regurgitation, spewed out. We want internalization, assimilation, digestion.
  • Teaching implicit belief in the books, rather than expecting reasons and proofs. We want thinking children, not brainwashed children.

In the end, Gregory insists,

Questioning is not, therefore, merely one of the devices of teaching, it is really the whole of teaching.

Let us make time for asking “Why?” and for following through with their reasoning.

Throughout my reading of The Seven Laws of Teaching by John Milton Gregory, I noted verbs he used as synonymous with teaching – kindle, give success, glow with truth, guide – as well as adjectives that he uses to describe good teachers – warmhearted, enthusiastic, skillful, sympathizing.

In Gregory’s ideal, a teacher will

  • stand at the spiritual gateways of his pupil’s mind.
  • summon the minds to their work.
  • guide them into the right paths to be followed.
  • excite the minds of the pupils.
  • guide, direct, and test the process of learning.
  • lead the march; their reconnaissance becomes a conquest.
  • maintain the order necessary to produce learning.

Today, we learn his final law.

Summary of Law 7: The completion, test, and confirmation of the work of teaching must be made by review and application.

Gregory posits not only that review and application are the “essential conditions of all true teaching,” but also that “not to review is to leave the job half done.” The aim of reviewing material is threefold:

  1. To perfect knowledge.
  2. To confirm knowledge.
  3. To render knowledge ready & useful.

Reviewing can include a number of different aspects, as well:

  1. Review is more than repetition.
  2. Review involves making fresh conceptions and new associations.
  3. Review revisits knowledge so understanding becomes vivid
  4. Review is best spread over days and weeks.
  5. Review breeds the habit of thinking things over.
  6. Review creates a fresh vision.
  7. Review is rethinking and relearning.

Thus, Gregory notes that it is difficult to overstate the importance, the necessity, of review. In fact, he goes so far as to say, “No time in teaching is spent more profitably than that spent in reviewing.” Our reviewing should not be mere repetition, but should involve fresh conceptions and new associations. There is a spectrum of types of review, from the simple repetition to the complete restudy; each point upon that spectrum holds value and has a place in our efforts. Reviews should be frequent, thorough, and interesting. In fact, going over information after a lapse of time allows the opportunity for a fresh perspective and new connections. Not only that, but it also allows for “mental incubation.” Our brains work without our conscious effort (Gregory says this, but this statement is in fact the thesis of the interesting popular economics book, Blink), so when we come back to a thought after time has passed, we are more prepared to receive it and incorporate it or respond to it properly.

Gregory especially elaborates upon the necessity of a final year-end review. The final review, he says, should never be omitted, should be searching, should be comprehensive, and should demonstrate masterful competency (by teacher and student alike). Often, Gregory says, our teaching is pouring water into broken cisterns. Review will not affect the quality of the water, but it affects the cisterns, patching them up, repairing and preventing leaks.

Even in the best-studied book we are often surprised to find fresh truths and new meanings in passages which we had read perhaps again and again. It is the ripest student of Shakespeare who finds the most freshness in the works of the great dramatist. The familiar eye discovers in any great masterpiece of art or literature touches of power and beauty which the casual observer cannot see. So a true review always adds something to the knowledge of the student who makes it.

Applications to the Homeschool

Personally, I think review is particularly difficult in a homeschool setting. When I taught a class I had several methods of review (often in game form) up my sleeve that I pulled out on Fridays, or when students seemed bored and dull, or when — cough — I wasn’t prepared well enough for a lesson. At home we tend to just keep doing the next thing. Review can be anything from a preparatory question asked before a lesson, to narration after, to an exam at the end of a term. Having the children show Daddy their work in the evening is another sneaky way to work review into our habits. Having a timeline, maps, or art on the wall; binders on the bookshelf; and books strewn is another way to facilitate review initiated by the student. Another way children review material that we tend to overlook is in their play. When they play Little House in the backyard (my 5-year-old prefers to be the panther), when they build WWII bombers with their Legos, when they play war shouting “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes!” it shows that the ideas are penetrating and assimilating in their minds. This is another reason we need to allow leisure for free play. It is often during these times that things “connect up” in their brains, even if it looks like they are simply daydreaming. I spent loads of time daydreaming as a child, and I think it is like “practice thinking,” not at all a waste of time. So, when we think “review” we do not need to strictly think only of our academic times reserved for review, although we certainly should have such time.

Ways to Review

  • Recite your lessons. That is, speak your narrations.
  • List people, things, places. That is, collect a list of nouns related to the subject being reviewed.
  • Write “recitations.” That is, write your narrations.
  • Draw maps, plans, or pictures of the material.
  • Create a short, written Q&A.
  • Find applications and apply.
  • Have students both ask and answer questions.

Principles & Applications of the Law of Review

  • Know that review is always in order. When in doubt, review.
  • Have set times for review, especially at every beginning and every end. Every beginning and end of lessons, days, weeks, terms, and years. Good thing there are a multitude of avenues to review.
  • One third of your teaching time should be spent in review. Whew, there’s something to shoot for!
  • Through review, make haste slowly but progress surely. It is better to go deep than to stay in wide shallows.
  • Seize any opportunity to reference old lessons. Help you students form the habit of making connections.
  • Incorporate old lessons into the new. This is the teacher’s duty of review and connecting and associating.
  • Be ready and able to conduct impromptu review at any time. This means your material should be accessible and thought through.

Violations of the Law of Review

  • Concern with getting through a semester’s work rather than with making the work the students’ possession.
  • Delaying of review until the end of a semester or year.
  • Making review a lifeless, colorless repetition.

Again, Gregory wants us to know:

 No time in teaching is spent more profitably than that spent in reviewing.

Let us take the time to review and form new connections with old material.

I think this book provides an excellent framework for thinking about our role as teachers. In seven sentences, he outlines the principles necessary to learning. Can you think of any aspect not encompassed in one of these laws? So, as I read and then as I typed up my notes, I thought about how I would apply the laws in real life. What applications jump out at me in particular? Here is what I came up with:

  1. I need to read what Hans (and soon Jaeger) will be narrating. I can’t prompt narrations when I don’t know what was in the chapter. I don’t know if he’s giving a complete or accurate narration, and so how is it truly accountability? I am making it to easy for him to be sloppy and deceive (even himself). Sigh. I have so many books of my own that I want to read, I really have no desire to read Jean Fritz. But, I have heard the call of duty and I need to respond.
  2. With each change of subject during school, I need to open with a question. This one practice encompasses multiple laws: securing attention, focusing thoughts, prompting reflection, reviewing & connecting old knowledge to new, and requiring the learners to do much of the talking. This one shouldn’t be too hard; it is more of a habit that needs to be cultivated.
  3. Likewise, I need to end each book or subject with requiring a summary or illustration by a student. I need to broaden my requirement for narrations.
  4. I am going to use whatwhyhowwherewhen, *whom, and what of itquestions to guide narrations and discussions.
  5. I need to be more consistent with my sneaky means of review: the “tell Dad about your day” prompt at the dinner table.
  6. I need to begin the practice of an end-of-term exam. I am going to start simple by arranging a mid-morning or afternoon (or both) teatime where I prompt with “Tell me what you know about x” and then guide with the questions delineated in #4.

How about you? Do you have any ideas for practical, real-life application to your specific situation?

2 Responses

  1. kyle suzanne
    | Reply

    What does he mean by this statement: “furnishing the child with the heritage of the race.” is he talking about races like: black, white, asian etc… is he talking about the verse in the Bible where Paul is talking about finishing the race? This book looks really interesting and I may have to add it to my homeschool reading list. Thanks

    • Mystie
      | Reply

      I read it as meaning the heritage of the human race throughout history from the beginning. :)

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