Long before it became popular to title your book, “The 21 Laws of…”, “The Ten Commandments of…”, or “The Five Secrets of”, John Milton Gregory wrote the book The Seven Laws of Teaching, in 1884. It remains one of the best books on pedagogy, or the art of teaching.
We have left this book for last on our list quite deliberately. Not that it is inferior to the others, nor is it the last word on education. Rather, we have placed it seventh on the list because it is more important to understand what education is, and what education is for, before we turn to the question of how to teach. The most artful rhetorician, the most gifted public speaker, or the most winsome teacher may only be an ear-tickler if he does not communicate truth. Always we must begin with the idea of Christian education, before we consider its delivery.
With that in place, Gregory’s book is a short but richly practical discussion of the act of teaching. His laws seem obvious, and yet only a seasoned teacher can draw out what is obvious and yet routinely missed.
The seven laws are:
(1) A teacher must be one who knows the lesson or truth to be taught.
(2) A learner is one who attends with interest to the lesson given.
(3) The language used as a medium between teacher and learner must be common to both.
(4) The lesson to be learned must be explicable in the terms of truth already known by the learner—the unknown must be explained by the known.
(5) Teaching is arousing and using the pupil’s mind to form in it a desired conception or thought.
(6) Learning is thinking into one’s own understanding a new idea or truth.
(7) The test and proof of teaching done—the finishing and fastening process—must be a re-viewing, re-thinking, re-knowing, and re-producing of the knowledge taught.
Gregory then discusses each of these laws, and develops them into rules:
I. Know thoroughly and familiarly the lesson you wish to teach; or, in other words, teach from a full mind and a clear understanding.
II. Gain and keep the attention and interest of the pupils upon the lesson. Refuse to teach without attention.
III. Use words understood by both teacher and pupil in the same sense—language clear and vivid alike to both.
IV. Begin with what is already well known to the pupil in the lesson or upon the subject, and proceed to the unknown by single, easy, and natural steps, letting the known explain the unknown.
V. Use the pupil’s own mind, exciting his self-activities. Keep his thoughts as much as possible ahead of your expression, making him a discoverer of truth.
VI. Require the pupil to reproduce in thought the lesson he is learning—thinking it out in its parts, proofs, connections, and applications till he can express it in his own language.
VII. Review, review, review, reproducing correctly the old, deepening its impression with new thought, correcting false views, and completing the true.
What is amazing is to routinely observe teachers who are oblivious as to their learners’ attention, content to dwell within a vocabulary that is opaque to their learners, and seemingly hardened to the experience of actually learning. Many seem happy to discharge their responsibility as teachers by simply repeating factual information aloud.
This seems to be a very non-Christian form of communication. Christians should not only love truth, but the people to whom they speak the truth. Therefore, they are concerned to teach in a way that the truth is properly understood. Christianity eschews being boring, speaking over people’s heads, or being eloquent for its own sake. Christian education desires that if a person reject the truth, he at least will know exactly what he is rejecting, not some distortion of it.
Further, it is simply not loving to our neighbour to teach in a dull, dreary, or lazy way. As Charles Spurgeon quipped, “If some men were sentenced to hear their own sermons, it would be a righteous judgment upon them; but they would soon cry out with Cain, “’My punishment is greater than I can bear!'” Many school teachers and homeschool teachers would not be happy to sit under their own lessons.
Just like the busy preacher, not every lesson can receive the fine-tuning treatment to be a perfect example of Gregory’s laws. Life is never that easy, and never that slow. Every teacher, however, can absorb the gist of Gregory’s ideas and evaluate how much learning is going on in each lesson. Indeed, if children are in a lesson but not really listening or understanding the teacher, then they are still being educated – in all the wrong ways. They are learning to ignore, dismiss, or tune out the truth. They are learning to regard knowledge and wisdom in none of the ways Proverbs exhorts: as precious, as a gift, as an ornament of honour. It will not be long, if that continues, that they regard the preaching of the Word similarly.
Christian education insists on being heard, like Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 1. It should be impossible for it to become background noise or be easily tuned out. Teachers of Christian education must be gripped by the urgency of truth, the beauty of truth, and the necessity of truth, and carry with them a gentle but firm insistence that the truth be heard and understood.