The Law of the Student

Welcome back to my blog-through of John Milton Gregory’s The Seven Laws of Teaching.

“The learner must attend with interest to the fact or truth to be learned.”

John Milton Gregory

While this second law concerns the attitude and actions of the learner, Gregory is speaking in this book to the teacher and so the chapter really addresses how the teacher is responsible for the student’s attentiveness and interest.

We cannot control our students, we can only control ourselves. The entire responsibility of learning is not on the teacher’s shoulders, but a large part of it is and since the teacher is supposed to be the mature example in all things, he must bear it well. The teacher must inspire his students to give attention to the material, not through cheap tricks but through preparation, experience, and skill.

That distinction between cheap tricks and skilled teaching is crucial and sometimes hard to discern. I can find any number of games and videos to spice up my Latin class, but they can just as easily prove a distraction as an aid in sparking interest. And, let us not forget that one of the most important parts of teaching is in helping to form the student. I want to discourage dependence on distractions and encourage their natural curiosity about interesting and beautiful things: 

“Whatever is novel and curious, beautiful, grand, or sublime in mass or motion; whatever is brilliant, strange, or charming in color or combination–the eye fastens and feeds upon these, and the mind comes at its bidding to enjoy and protract the feast.” (p. 43, Canon Press Edition)

I personally cannot compete with modern media. We live in an age of TED Talks, professional documentaries, interactive experiences. Teachers can’t and don’t have to compete with these. We have the student in front of us in our classroom (or video conference). We must only do an excellent job of providing interesting and skillful teaching. The student interacting on a personal level with a good teacher can remain engaged and interested, even if there is not a multimedia show involved.

One of the common mistakes that Gregory points out is one that I all too often make: “Little or no effort is made to discover the tastes of the pupil or to create a real interest in the subject studied.” (p. 50) Their tastes may need to be refined, but there are sure to be many things they already like that can be tied to your subject. In the Latin class, that’s going to probably look like covering topics they are already interested in, such as mythology, or getting them involved in the conversation “personally”. (Watch this video for an example for the Latin classroom.) These things are different from the cheap tricks I mentioned above. These can be used in a way that will not distract from the final goals of the class, but will be a helpful means along the way.

In the homeschool: All of this also ties into the importance of short lessons (à la Charlotte Mason). The homeschool setting is ideal for this. Give your student an interesting, engaged lesson 15 minutes every day with their full attention and they will learn. Slow and steady wins the race.

In the end, I highly recommend you go through this chapter and read Gregory’s comments on how to engage the student’s attention, especially through the use of good public speaking, gestures, and questions. They provide lots of little things for us to notice about our own teaching and to work towards improving on a very practical level.

Did you miss the first post in my blog-through of John Milton Gregory’s The Seven Laws of Teaching? You can read about the Law of the Teacher here.