November 8, 2010

The Law of the Teaching Process

"Carnation lily lily Rose" by John Singer Sargent
“Excite and direct the self-activities of the learner, and tell him nothing that he can learn himself.”

This is the fifth law of teaching from John Milton Gregory’s book, The Seven Laws of Teaching. It is the law of the teacher and the language and the law of the lesson all rolled into one law which looks at each part in flow. It is what teaching in action would look like when it is most successful. It is a two part law with one thing to do and one thing to avoid doing. As teachers we must excite the minds of our students and get them thinking, but we must be aware of the pitfall of teaching what the student can learn on his own. Mr. Gregory says this about the latter:
“Leave the pupils to discover truth for himself-make him a truth finder.” Pg 101

“We can learn without a teacher.” Pg 101

“In the greater part of our acquisitions we are self-taught, and it is generally conceded that the knowledge is most permanent and best in use which is dug out by unaided research.” Pg 102

“The difference between the self acting pupil and the pupil who only acts when he is acted on is too obvious to need description. The one acts as a living and free agent; the other resembles a machine. The former is attracted by his work, and prompted by his own inborn interest, he works on till he meets some overcoming difficulty or reaches the end of his task. The latter moves only as he is moved upon. He sees what is shown him, hears what is told, advances when the teacher leads, and stops just where and when the teaching stops. The one moves by self-activities, the other by a borrowed impulse. The former is a mountain stream fed by living springs, the latter a ditch filled from a pump worked by another’s hand.” Pg 106

“Into the sealed workshop of the soul no spectator enters. What the occupant does there no one but him self can tell. Working by his light on materials furnished by his own senses and gathered by his own intelligence, it is his to mould, shape, combine, and construct as he will…..the mental faculties must do their own work, without external aid, building as they can opinions, beliefs, purposes, faiths, and all forms of intelligence and character.” Pg 112-113

If the Law of the teacher says that the teacher must know that which he teaches, then why know it all if you are not to tell it to the student? What is the benefit to teaching with a full mind in light of this new idea that we should allow the student to do the work for himself?

“Only through his (the teacher’s) own full knowledge of the subject can he understand the difficulties met by the pupil, or be able to determine if the pupil has mastered the lesson, and to follow it with thorough drills and reviews. As well insist that a general need know nothing of a battle field because he is not to do the actual fighting, as that a teacher may get on with slight knowledge because his pupils must do the studying. "Pg 114

So…why do we teach our children if they can learn what they need to know on their own?

Behind and beyond all telling, explaining, and lesson-giving, there lies as the essential aim of it all, and of all that the teacher does, the awakening and setting in action the learner’s mind, the arousing of his self-activities, as they have been called-those faculties of cognition, imagination, and reasoning whose action must always be voluntary and self-impelled.” Pg 100
“ The teacher is a sympathizing guide whose familiarity with the subjects to be learned enables him to direct the learner’s efforts, to save him from the waste of time and strength, or needless or insuperable difficulties, and to keep him from mistaking truth from error.” Pg 103

“The sooner the teacher abandons the false notion that he can make his pupils intelligent by hard work on their passive receptivity, the sooner he may attain the true teacher’s art.” Pg 103

“The true teacher does but stir the ground and sow the seed. It is the work of the soil through its own forces to develop the growth and ripen the grain.” Pg 106

“It is the teacher’s mission to stand at the impassable gateways of young souls, a wiser and stronger soul than they, serving as a herald of science, a guide through nature, to summon the faculties within to their work, to place before them the facts to be observed, and to guide them to the paths to be trodden. It is by sympathy, by example, and by every means of influence-by objects for the senses, by facts for the intelligence, by pictures for the imagination, by stories for the fancy, and the heart to excite the mind, stir the curiosity, stimulate the thoughts, and send them forth as warriors, armed and eager for the conflict. Pg 113-114

How can I best excite the mind of my students?

The true stimulant of the mind is a question, and the object or event that does not raise any question will stir no thought. Questioning is not, therefore, merely one of the modes of teaching, it is the whole of teaching; it is the excitation of the self-activities to their work of discovering truth, learning facts, knowing the unknown.” Pg 115

Now that we can see the role clearly for the teacher and that of the student, what are the aims of our education?

“The two great aims of education are to acquire knowledge (teach) and to develop power (train). The pupils must know for him self, or his knowledge will be knowledge only in form. The very effort required in the act of thus learning and knowing gives both vividness to the knowledge learned and increases the power to learn. Mental toil gives the mind both appetite and digestive power, and he who is taught without study, like him who is fed without exercise, will lose both appetite and strength.” Pg 104

This has by far been the most instructional chapter yet in the book for me. I have long been attracted to two seemingly opposite methods of education; unschooling and classical education. I have read extensively the books written by John Holt (an advocate of unschooling) and have resonated with his observations. I, myself, love the freedom to explore subjects as I am interested in and in the ways I am most accustomed to according to by my God given nature. I love the respect for the child as a person. However I also have read extensively from Doug Wilson and Harvey Bluedorn (advocates of classical education) who are opposed to such freedom for students in the primary grades especially. Though there is a definite respect for children and lots of great adaptations of difficult materials for the child at each stage of mental development. The content and high bar of expectation is great! So here in this law I can see the role I have as a teacher and how it actually weaves together these two opposites by defining where structure and high expectations are useful and protective and where freedom is a must to ensure the mind of the student is doing the work necessary to acquire knowledge and develope the mind needed to acquire more knowledge.

All quotes are taken from The Seven Laws of Teaching by John Milton Gregory.

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